Friday, October 31, 2014

Learning the Culture: A Cheese Tour of France

"I like the French very much, because even when they insult you they do it so nicely.
- Josephine Baker

This Saturday through October 19th I embark on a fromage-making voyage d'affaires from Bordeaux to Strasbourg to that oldie-but-moldy, Roquefort.

These high-cholesterol hijinks will take us behind the scenes at some of the world's great artisan cheese manufacturers, with up-close-and-personal interviews of handsome men in berets whose "r's" are gloriously guttural and smell faintly of a fine aged Gruyère. (Ok, this is my fervent hope.) The tour wraps at the International Food Show, SIAL, in Paris. It's dubbed a "global gastronomic marketplace," and with 5,500 exhibitors - 5,500! - from 101 countries, and 150,000 visitors consuming billions and billions of calories, one can understand why.

If you'd like to stay abreast of the best of Brest, follow along. And of course feel free to send this link to lactose-tolerant friends and family.

À bientôt,

Thursday, October 30, 2014

From Paris, with Luggage

To pack is annoying; to pack well is an art form.  Even though I’ve traveled for business my entire adult life, I’m still hopelessly mired in the clause before the semicolon.  I also tend to procrastinate, which makes good choices at the last minute a lousy bet if you’re the gambling sort. Since I hadn’t even ventured into the suitcase closet (actually, that weird hurricane shelter-cum-storage area underneath the stairs) to look over likely candidates, I thought I might do a little gumshoe work to inform my packing picks.  First up, a visit to to check out professionally forecasted temp, precip, cloud cover and pollen count FOR AN ENTIRE COUNTRY.  This is akin to selecting just the right combination of apparel and accessories for a two week vacation in Miami, Boise and Reykjavik.  Not to mention all the numbers were in Celsius, which I realized later.  After some consideration, I decided rather than figuring out what I needed to bring, it might be easier to figure out what I didn’t need to bring with me.  Here are a few items I came up with:
  • A razor (better to blend in with the European women)
  • Freshly-baked croissants
  • Rosetta Stone for French (my window for learning a new language slammed shut sometime in the early 1970s)
  • Free weights
That was pretty much it.  Everything else seemed either extremely necessary or necessary-ish.  Hair care products alone could command their own bag if I let them.  And let’s not even start on footwear.  I arrive at the airport looking more like a sherpa (from which the word “shlep” was clearly derived) than a seasoned traveler and business person.  Since it was an international flight, no curbside check-in allowed.  Everything had to be hand carried across the parking garage, dragged in line and up to the gate agent:
Total weight: 315 pounds (perceived)
1 – 52.8 pound suitcase (no upcharge from gate agent – love ya sistah) with an insane number of tops, pants, belts, shoes, sweaters, outerwear and undergarments
1 – Bowling-bag shaped carry-on with an extra set of clothes, toiletries, meds, video camera, giant book on French cheeses and big box of assorted band-aids (don’t ask) should the 52 pound bag get lost
1 – Oversized zippered flannel carry-on with mags, Kindle, knitting, foreign voltage adapter, DC adapter for the plane, eye mask, ear plugs, inflatable neck pillow, snacks (movie theatre box of Good ‘n’ Plenty, white cheddar popcorn, gum, Mentos), sewing kit, quart Ziploc bag with liquids and gooeys, jewelry, personal computer and all manner of USB plug in stuff to super-power the aforementioned.
1 – Purse with wallet, cell phone, cosmetics, two travel packs of Kleenex, Tums, ibuprofen, hand sanitizer, 5 ballpoint pens (I either have a pallet-full or none), reading glasses, sunglasses and a travel pouch with passport and boarding passes 

After checking the 52-pound bad boy, I still had one carry-on more than the airline limit.  While stuffing my purse into the bowling ball bag, a green-blazered self-appointed suitcase-size enforcement officer sidles up next to me.  “That item is too large to go onboard,” he says, pointing toward the ridiculous baggage measurement apparatus about 15 feet away.  At first I pretend he’s talking to someone else, but when he leans down into my face with that stern look of a man who’s ruined a lot of innocent people’s vacations, I know I’m in trouble.  “I’ve traveled all over the world with this bag, sir, and size has never been an issue,” I say with cool confidence, only slightly economical with the truth.  After all, I’ve got half-a-trip’s stuff to protect in this thing, and it’s going into cargo over my dead carcass.  I deftly remove my chubby purse from the top and drag the bag over to the measurement thingy.  I stick it in wheels first.  No dice.  It’s about 3” too wide.  Green-blazer man’s hands are now on his hips, sneering a righteous sneer.  Then, thanks to what could have only been divine IQ intervention, since I don’t have a spatially-adept bone in my body, I take the bag and flip it on its side.  A shove here, a squish there, but it fits.  Like a really, really tight glove.  So tight, Blazer man has to help me pry it out.  Minutes later, bowling bag is riding the security belt and my extra set of undies, band-aids and giant cheese book are safely at my side once again.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Homage to Fromage

A melange of French cheeses, Lyon
It occurred to me, when I was telling people I was going to France to taste-test cheese, how universally positive - nay, downright excited - the reaction was. Seemed the opportunity to fly to a foreign country and eat wedges, wheels, slabs, slices and shavings of this particular food was, to most, a dream assignment. I got to wondering, what is this love affair with cheese anyway? Coagulated milk, a soupçon of bacteria, a shot of penicillium. What other food do we lust for that purposely (and preferably) is covered with MOLD? Don't quote me on this, but U.S. consumption is hovering around 40 pounds of cheese per person per annum. That's a lot of fromage, friends. Of course, since I'm half a bubble off, I also got to wondering what the reaction would have been if I said I was going globe-trotting to sample, say, beets or Vienna sausages...

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Pardon My French

I will be the first to admit I have more than my fair share of beauty challenges. Bed head - check. Developing neck waddle - check. Thin lips, dry cuticles, knee fat - check, check, check. But one thing I refuse to be, pillow lines on face notwithstanding, is an ugly American. Now the process of avoiding this label may indeed be ugly; this is becoming rapidly apparent as I try in earnest to speak the Lingua Franca. That handy French phrase book from Barnes and Noble? More useful as a shim under a wobbly table. CDs, podcasts, iPhone apps? Helpful for saying things like, "Do you accept a Traveler's check?" (Puis-je payer avec un chèque de voyage? Does anyone even use these anymore?) or, "Can you fix this puncture?" (Est-ce que vous pouvez réparer cette crevaison? Seriously.). When you're looking for a 110 volt 2-pin electrical converter because you just fried your blowdryer with an international plug adapter from The Shack, J'aime vos cheveux! ("I like your hair!") is about the best you're going to do frantically searching your baby Berlitz in the middle of a busy intersection with a street map in your armpit and a Métro ticket in your teeth. Undeterred, I continue to humiliate myself and my homeland by butchering the natural beauty of the language practicing on complete strangers.
French femme with tres chic jacket, slacks and shoes
This poor lady got a dose of Diane the Obvious Foreigner when I tried to compliment her totally cool jacket. Je veux ta veste! I tell her, thinking I am saying, "I would like a jacket like yours!" Celui-ci? she questions with a concerned look, pointing at herself. Oui! Oui! I exclaim with extra enthusiasm to fortify my admiration. Je suis désolé il n'est pas à vendre! "It's not for sale!" she answers, backing away. Turns out I told her I wanted her exact jacket, the one she was wearing on her body, not one like hers. Mon Dieu!

Location:La Méridienne,Saint-Félix-de-l'Héras,France

Monday, October 27, 2014

House of Bleus

When a person is accused of "living in a cave," one generally assumes said person probably did not attend cotillion and might be a wee bit, well, introverted.  Obviously the accuser has never been to the Languedoc region of France, home of the Caves de Roquefort.  
The cool, and I do mean COOL, Roquefort caves
Here, high in the midi-Pyrénées mountains is born Roquefort bleu cheese, considered by those in the know as the most famous of all fromages.  
Roquefort, the King of French Cheeses

It comes from the milk of Lacauna sheep, and obtains its signature blue-green veins, creamy texture and tangy/pungent flavor from ripening in underground caves, where the perfect (and perfectly natural) fusion of humidity, temperature and mold turn milk into gold for this tiny hamlet of the south.  
High on a hilltop in the Languedoc region of France
Grueling though it was, I soldiered through another day of sampling fine French food and wine, stopping only to daub my very full mouth with a linen napkin and answer urgent text requests for money from my college-aged mooch hustler grifter son.  

Whistle-whetting information available at the Roquefort Société.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

And Now a Break from Our Regularly-Scheduled Programming

Jean-Pierre Oohlala
OK, before we start talking cheese, I just need to say one thing: The French are GORGEOUS.  Even the ugly people are pretty.  All the women are beautiful and the all the men are beautifuler.  And as if that weren't enough, French men love women.  Up to, and including, middle-aged women.  There is no such thing as a "cougar" in France, ladies.  40 and 50-somethings are doing serious smackdown with 20 and 30-somethings for a city-full of Ashton Kutchers.  Men walk by you on the street (I'm not talking about the hard-hat-and-metal-lunchbox variety here, either), give you a sideways glance with tilted and ever so slightly stubbled chin...purse their voluptuous Parisian lips...and (lord, please don't let me trip on a cobblestone!) send an air kiss while flirtatiously raising a single eyebrow.  Yes - simultaneously.  Yes - at YOU.  Be still, mon coeur.   

Now what were we talking about?

Saturday, October 25, 2014

3 Squares a Day

Now that I'm technically five days into my Gallic cheese-a-thon, I got to wondering: Why does this country produce so many varieties of cheese, and how do everyday people seem to know them in astounding detail?  Literally every purveyor of anything edible here sells cheese.  And not just a few paltry picks; we're talking a massive selection in ordinary supermarkets to corner convenience stores.  That's right: several hundred cheeses, always available, at a reasonable facsimile of a plain old Kroger or 7-11.
One small section of a cheese case in a French supermarket
The only thing I can think of that inspires remotely close to this level of national food involvement in the U.S. is snack chips. Just a passing glance at the snack-chip aisle in a grocery store near you would communicate to even an alien from Mars that these are products of great importance to Americans.  Take Doritos, as an example. Are we satisfied with Original Corn and Nacho Cheese?  No, we need lots of options to satisfy our obsession and frequency of consumption.  We need flavors like, "1st Degree Burn Blazin' Jalapeno," "2nd Degree Burn Fiery Buffalo," "3rd Degree Burn Scorchin' Habanero":

and let's not forget my personal favorite, "Tailgater BBQ Inspired by EA Sports Madden 11":
One-stop convenience for video game playing enjoyment, weight gain and bad breath.

So back to the French (cheese) Connection.  I asked this consumption question of a native, who also happens to be an expert on the subject.  In his mellifluous accent, he explained: "Di-ahhhn, but of course zee Frahnch know all about cheese. We eet it at every meal!  Our mozzers fed eet to us at breakfast, lunch and deener.  We serve it for family, for guests, we even serve it for dessert! A glass of Sauternes, a leetle fresh feeg, a soft Gourmandise.  A parfait ending to a parfait meal."  You can say that again.  In fact, you can say my name like that again too.

Turns out, in fact, that the French eat 60 percent more cheese (and four times more butter) than we do.  Oh, and get this: only eight percent of French citizens are overweight.  Compared to 50 percent of Americans.  Maybe we ought to consider eating a leetle more Camembert and a leetle less Cool Ranch.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Forgive Me Father For I Have Sinned

It's been several decades since I last gorged on this much bread, chocolate, butter, cream, straight-up caffeine, liver of various fowl, fried potatoes, wine, crêpes (filled with butter and chocolate), and cheese.  I confess to you, and my foodie brothers and sisters, that I have sinned through my own fault: In my thoughts obsessing about my next meal and in my words garbled by a mouthful of warm croissant, in what I have drooled over and what I have failed to pass up; and I ask all the angels and saints (especially St. Lawrence - look it up), and you my sybaritic brothers and sisters, to pray for me for self-control over my gluttonous ways in this gastronomic Garden of Eden. 

Hot chocolat at the Hôtel Le Bristol.  
Basically, a very expensive melted chocolate bar with a side of heavy cream.  
Served with more chocolate, what else?
Pastry shop next door
A shop exclusively for Fromage de Tête. Only in Paris!
The best frittes ever (they don't call 'em French fries for nothin')
French onion soup, the genuine article. 
A perfectly healthy plate of fresh vegetables, deliciously ruined by a 
super-creamy, calorie-laden dressing
Dessert crêpes filled with Chantilly cream, drizzled with chocolate 
Strong French coffee, so you can be completely awake
while you moan in agony during digestion

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Adapting to the Culture

C'mon, laissez-nous jouer Red Light Green Light!

When we were young, my sister and I made up games to pass the time. In one favorite, we would don linty, pilled scarves, hand-knitted hats and white patent leather purses from the bowels of the coat closet, and pretend we were exotic young women from France. We'd speak to each other en Français spéciale (read: made-up babble with a thick accent of undetermined origin) complete with animated gesticulations, heated arguments ("No, no, no stupide!") and a fair amount of spittle. This faux repartee was particularly enjoyable when exchanged in public places, like the lunch counter at Woolworth's or the airport, where we imagined the people staring at us were doing so out of fascination and envy. It also helped fill the long hours of extreme boredom that seemed to mark much of our childhood growing up in Upstate, New York, where it snowed nine months out of the year and was rainy and overcast the remaining three. Being confined to enclosed spaces for most of your life, you soon discover there isn't much in the way of things to pass the time unless you play jacks or rubber bridge.
So you do a lot of waiting. Waiting for the school bus at dark-thirty; waiting for the thermometer nailed to the outside of the kitchen window to go above zero so you could play outside without the fear of frostbite and having to move like a robot in 14 layers of outerwear. Waiting in the car (unlocked - ahhh, the good old days) for mom to "run" into the grocery store for a "few" things. (God help us if she ran into a friend at checkout; errand becomes eternity.) Waiting in the bowling alley nursery...cue pin-crashing soundtrack!...with a dozen other miserable, snotty-nosed kids on couples' league night. (This irks my mother to no end that I remember this. Sorry, ma.) All this waiting and commensurate ennui was not for naught, however, as it begot dreams for faraway places where people spoke eloquently in foreign tongues and looked cool in scarves and Paschal-perfect patent leather purses.
You can imagine, then, when I actually found myself in such a faraway place as an adult, surrounded by people I only dreamed about as a kid. Of all the desires I have while I'm here, my strongest is to fit in. Everywhere I go, I secretly hope the natives will think I'm one of them. (For some reason, it's easy to ID someone from across the pond in the U.S. - I think jeans and footwear are the giveaway.) I hope the teen boys who smoosh me on the métro will say, "Pardon, Madame!" instead of "Excuse me, lady!" and waiters will instinctively give me the menu Français instead of the English version. Although I work hard to encourage this (concealing my city map at all times and pretending I'm looking around for a friend while standing in the middle of an intersection trying to figure out where the h&%#ll I am) I realize this dream is not to be. Even after eight full days in the country, I get nailed as an American before I ever even open my mouth. Ok, one person did ask if I was Brazilian, which was pretty neat. But everyone - EVERYONE - else instantly tags me from ten paces. I think the most crushing blow was from the maid at my hotel. Each day, I would make my very best effort to play the authentic Parisian. I bid her good morning with a sing-songy, "Bonjour!" going from high-pitched to low, just like le locals. I bid her farewell saying, "Au revoir" with two syllables instead of my original three of a week ago. Just starting to feel a sense of genuine Euro-smug, and after a particularly smooth Comment ça va, Marie-Julie! this morning, MJ says to me in English, "Someday my dream is to come to ze Yoo-nited States..." I almost say, "Funny, me too!" in French, but I could not tell a lie. Comment savez-vous que je suis Américaine? "How do you know I'm from the United States?" I ask her. Did my accent give me away? "A leetle," she answers, but mostly eet was THAT, she says, pointing to the home-haircut adapter contraption I made to power my last remaining electrical appliance that didn't smoke when I turned it on.
In the end, not so well adapted after all
Alors, looks like it's back to public displays of city maps and Français spéciale for me.