Fromage Part III: Satisfaction

“Oh, I’ve had fondue.  I don’t really like it that much…all that melted cheese, phew, sort of makes me sick.”

MB and our Savoyard neighbor (http://www.thefreedictionary.com/Savoyard) look at me strangely.  They are not shocked or saddened by this statement…just thoroughly confused.   MB doesn’t comprehend anyone who doesn’t like to eat cheese…basically all the time, and for a Savoyard, fondue is essential to existence.  I can see their minds turning, “surely, she just doesn’t know what it is that she is saying!”  After a few awkward moments, our (rather shy) neighbor pipes up.

“You have not had it right.”

“I made it for her once,” says MB.

“Yes, but you are from Paris.”  Our neighbor says this matter-of-factly and with no quantifying statement; the facts speak for themselves.*

MB gives a laugh.  “This is true.  I think she just does not care for it though.”

“I don’t know,” I say.   “I mean, lots of melted cheese just isn’t my favorite thing.”  I shrug, innocently.  “What are ya gonna do?”  Obviously, my folksy charm will smooth all discomfort from the room.

“Next week, I will come over and make you a right one,” our neighbor says.

With this statement he gets up from his chair and says good night.  The sentence has been handed-down.

I look at MB, “it’s just melted cheese, how much different can it be?”

MB just smiles.

The following week, with frightening punctuality, our neighbor shows up at our door, equipment in hand.  He has brought three different cheeses, bread from the bakery, and his own fondue pot (apparently ours was not “right”).  I watch him setting up and think, “ah well, I’m sure it will be interesting”.  The next 45 minutes are spent sitting on the balcony with a glass of wine, cutting all the cheese into tiny little pieces.

“You want it to melt evenly and you can control better the amount of each cheese this way,” our neighbor explains to me.

Afterwards, he takes half a clove of garlic and rubs it along the inside of the fondue pot, before throwing it and another whole clove into the bottom.  Next he pours a moderate amount of wine into the bottom of the pan.

“Oh, so you do this differently.  When MB made it he used a lot more wine.”

The neighbor just smiles and gives himself a knowing nod.  I can sense him rolling his eyes and thinking “ah, silly Parisians!”

Finally, the cheese is added to the pot.  Creamy, oily, pungent…the slow mélange of tart, dry wine with rich, bold cheeses is awesome; it finds its way into my olfactory senses whispering the rumor of things to come.

As we sit at the table and I spear my first chunk of bread, a hush falls on our little group.  The neighbor watches nervously, not for the integrity of the dish but nervous as to whether he properly honored his regions most famous plate.  I roll my bread in the white velvet heat, slowly bringing it to my mouth.

It is a life changing moment.  The taste is indescribable in its beauty.  The serotonin rushes to my brain and I have the bizarre inclination to start laughing.

“I love it!”  I proclaim.  “It’s so…so…I don’t know.  I love it.  Wow.”  A fondue has made me speechless.

MB digs in and I go to spear my next piece of bread.  I look up and see the neighbor watching me, deep satisfaction on his face.

Once the fondue is almost completely gone we throw in a few pieces of bread and crack an egg which then forms the most delicious omelet I have ever had.  At the very end there are brown, crunchy, cooked lattices of cheese on the bottom of the pot which we scrape off and eat like spun sugar.  There is almost no clean up because we have consumed every single part of the dish.  It has been an evolution of cheese.

A love affair with food can be tempestuous.  Just as a good meal can make me elated and excited, a bad meal can bring feelings of depression and irritation.  When I cook for others, these feelings are compounded further; it is horrible to make something that you love and you know can be wonderful and not have it turn out the way you know it can.  I have spent nights awake in bed, analyzing small things that I did wrong or should have done differently when preparing a meal for others; just as I have had long peaceful nights of rest knowing that I had nourished body and soul.

As my neighbor leaves that evening he looks satisfied and happy; he has made a believer and I suspect that he will sleep very well.

 

* As a born and bred Southerner, from a particularly intense BBQ city, I fully comprehend this attitude.

The Romance of a Sale

I love sales.  Love them.  I will buy things that I don’t really find attractive or things that I absolutely do not need based solely on the fact that they are on sale.  As a dear friend of mine puts it “really, by not buying it you are losing money because it is such a good deal!”  (RIGHT?!)   This statement pretty much sums up my feelings when I see something marked down.  “Why look!  It’s a goose leash!  We don’t have a goose, I know, but one day we might and come on, honey, it’s 70% off!” 

This is why the time just after Christmas is particularly dangerous for me.  In fact, if Santa really had my best interest at heart, he would drop off the gifts and steal my credit card on his way up the chimney.  But alas, year after year, I buy ill-fitting sweaters and boots that I’ll only wear once because of ridiculous post-holiday prices.  I am used to it by now; I know it is coming and I prepare as best I can.  For instance, this year, I bought things that I genuinely think that I will wear…mostly.

I was in no way, however, prepared for returning to France and what their post-holiday sales had in store.

“Woah!  What is happening?”  I am looking around the Carrefour (France’s superstore, complete with grocery and everything else you could ever want).

Quoi?”  MB seems nonplussed as he pushes the cart, fascinated, instead by reading the previous owner’s grocery list.  “Look, I think they were going to make a punch of some sort, it sounds good, no?”

He shows me the list but I am too distracted.

“Honey, look, all the groceries, everything…it’s like the whole store is on sale!”  I wave my hand across the entire front section of the Carrefour which is covered with yellow signs that have 25%, 35%, 50% printed on them.

“Ah ouais!  The after Christmas sales, I forgot this!!”  MB seems excited too.  “Look, a vacuum on sale, we need a vacuum!”

“Only twenty-five euros?  Heck yeah, we need a vacuum!  Oooh honey, they have a hand-mixer for ten euros too.  I need a hand-mixer sometimes you know!”

MB looks at me with skeptical amusement.  “When?  When do you need a hand-mixer?”

“Um…hullo!  Don’t you remember the time we tried to beat egg whites…that was a disaster!”  This happened exactly one time and we have never needed a hand-mixer for anything else.

MB puts the hand-mixer in the cart.

I grab MB’s arm and jump up and down.  “This is so great, I love a sale!  You know I love a sale!  Woah – is that buy one, get one free?!?

I run to the smoked salmon display.

“What do you reckon?  You think we can eat two kilos of salmon?”  I am now playing a little game, pretending that I might not want to buy it.  I look at MB, waiting for the reasonable response, preparing my angle.

“I think we can,” he says resolutely.   “We can always freeze it, yes?  It is fourteen euros a kilo; we aren’t going to beat that.”

I stare at MB and realize, he is not going to be my steady voice of reason but instead my accomplice, my kindred spirit in sale-induced-insanity.   We lock eyes and share a look of mutual understanding and admiration that says “yes, we can eat two kilos of salmon in ten days for that price!”

Suddenly, my eyes are drawn towards the back of the section.

“Could that be…no, surely not…”

MB follows my gaze.  “Ouais…” he says slowly, with cautious optimism.

We advance towards the sign, clutching onto each other’s arms.

50% Reduction Foie Gras

There is front of us are two huge bins filled with all shapes and sizes of foie gras, reduced 50% in price.  I jump up and down, clapping my hands and MB and I embrace, in front of the foie gras bin, under fluorescent lights in Carrefour.  It is trés romantique!

A vacuum, a hand-mixer, two kilos of smoked salmon, two cans of gesiers, one side of beef, a whole chicken, a rabbit, and four packages of foie gras later we begin to make our way out of the grocery store, satisfied and triumphant in the knowledge of all the excellent bargains we got.

Once we arrive home, I start desperately trying to make room in the freezer and ponder the necessity of purchasing an entire rabbit seeing as how I have never cooked one before.  Squeezing the three foot long package of smoked salmon into a corner, I wonder if maybe the salmon and the rabbit are the equivalent of an ill-fitting sweater or an ugly pair of designer boots.  Has buyer’s remorse set in already?  Will we ever actually use this stuff?  Has this all been just a big waste?  Nah…

“Honey, I think we have to have a dinner party!”

MB looks up from where he is arranging cans of foie gras and gesiers in the cupboard, “I was just thinking the same thing.”

 

The France Fifteen

Apologies for being a bit late with this one…

Fall has arrived in the Rhône- Alpes.  There is a chill in the air; the mountains are changing from lush green to oranges and yellows.  Coats and scarves are being brought out of closets; and heaters are being turned on for the first time.  Now is the time when dinner tables begin to be adorned with tartiflette, raclette, and fondue (MB did manage to eat fondue twice in July).  It is the time to revel in the rich, heavy, delicious cuisine of the Savoyard region.  It is the time for…

What the F?

That can’t possibly be right.

I look down at the scale again, willing the numbers to change.  Quickly I do the math from kilos to pounds…sweet jesus.

Now is the time to go on a ridiculous Hollywood-style cleanse?

This first year in France reminds me of the first year in college when girls are destined to gain the dreaded “freshman fifteen”.  Everyone tells you it is going to happen and you nod along; but secretly you think, “not to me.”  Then the next thing you know you are zipping your jeans up with pliers and scared to squat because they might rip open.  Just like this, the “French fifteen” is a very real thing.  And now, just when things are getting cold and all I want to do is munch on fat-laden food, I find a scale.

For months now I have been skating by…knowing that I have gained weight but pretending that it is not as bad as I think it is in my head.  At first it was funny; I would stare down in the shower and think, “wow, that belly was not there before; it’s kind of cute!”  But the days of laughing at cheese babies have long gone and I have realized that it is time to get serious.

But how does one engage in un régime (diet) in the Rhône-Alpes in winter ?

I can see it now.  MB will come home to find me licking the wallpaper.

“What are you doing?” He will say.

“It’s delicious; you should have some!”   I will say this with a slur, as my tongue will not leave the wallpaper completely.

“Baby?”

I will turn back to look at him wild-eyed.  “The fondue!  It’s melting down the walls; don’t waste it!”

And then I would have to spend the rest of my life in an insane asylum (although I’m guessing that, in France, even in insane asylums they have good food).

In the meantime (pre-cheese hallucinations), I’m going to have to buckle down.  The tartiflette will have to wait; and raclette will be something I enjoy in the new year while I desperately attempt to shed some of my “France fifteen”.  So if you happen to be wandering through our region in the next couple of months and see a girl crying outside a fromagerie, you can safely assume that it is me.

BAM! Frenchman Impressed!

By many, it is considered impossible to impress the French; I have, however, found a loophole.

During my most recent trip to le boucherie with MB, the butcher started chatting to me about being American.  Apparently, he had been a butcher in San Francisco for a stint (I’d love to know what that visa was).  After discussing the prerequisite things: where are you from, what are you doing here, etc.; he moved on to every Frenchman’s favorite topic…

“In America, you eat this?”  He said as he held up the groin of a pig.

As if he didn’t know.

“Not so much,” I responded.  “We are a bit precious about what we are willing to eat.”

He looked at me sadly.  “Oui.”

I think there is nothing that depresses a French person so much as someone who doesn’t enjoy good food.

Quickly, MB stepped in, “She eats everything though; she is very good.”

I looked at him with an amused expression.  Apparently, this was a point of honor for him.

“Ah, mais c’est bon!”  The butcher says, smiling at me.  “Pour vous, mademoiselle…”  He says as he cuts a healthy slice of a gelatinous, multi-colored terrine.  “I want to present this to you.”

“Merci beaucoup,”   I say without flinching.

“You know what this is?”  There is a devilish smile on his face.

“Oui,” I return, pleased that I could get this one right.  “ Fromage de tete!  I have already tried it before and I like it.” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Head_cheese)

The butcher grins from ear to ear; a look of happy approval spread across his face.

BAM!  Frenchman impressed!

Upon my arrival in Paris, I ordered not one but two steak tartares on the first day.  At the restaurant of the second steak tartare, the waiter tried to get me to order something different.

“Does she know what it is?”  He asked MB.

“Of course, it is her favorite!”  He told the waiter.  “She already had one for lunch!”

I smiled up at the smug waiter sweetly…waiting for it.  Slowly his smug look was replaced with one of surprised appreciation.

BAM!  Frenchman impressed!

Everyone knows that the French love their food but not everyone knows quite how excited they get about it.  MB still tells people about the first time we met and how I told him that cassoulet was one of my favorite dishes; this is what piqued his interest in me…an American girl who loved food (BAM! Frenchman impressed).  I remember him looking at me dreamily from across the table as I described how good a hot bowl of cassoulet is on a cold, wintery evening.  To this day, I don’t know whether it was me or the thought of cassoulet that put stars in his eyes.

On my first weekend to meet and visit his parents I know they must have been worried; what would this American girl be like?  Would she turn her nose up at stinky cheese?  What if she is a vegetarian?! * At the first dinner, I could feel the tremor of apprehension in the air as food was set on the table…will she eat it?  Foie gras, homemade pate, pickles from the garden…

I almost passed out from excitement.

I pleased them immensely by devouring, fully, everything that was set before me and having no problem accepting the ‘seconds’ that were offered.  They were ecstatic.  (BAM!  Frenchmen impressed!)

The French connection with food is spiritual, in the truest sense of the word.  It is an integral part of every man, woman, and child; it is an integral part of being French.  Now, you might be thinking that all over the world people get excited about, and love to share, their food.  And to that, I say, the French are just like the rest of the world, only more so.**

Therefore, it is possible to impress the French; not just possible but utterly satisfying…on a variety of levels.    So, go for it!  Don’t order the hamburger or the steak frites; try the fromage de tete, order the tartare.  You might discover something that you love that you never knew existed and hey, even if you can’t stand it at least you have the satisfaction of surprising a society that has perfected the art of being blasé.

BAM!

*I’m not sure that the French government would allow foreign vegetarians into the country, as for the natural born vegetarians…they are tolerated.

**subtle Casablanca reference for those of you in the know

 

 

 

 

 

Fromage Part II: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

The French attitude towards cheese is sort of like the porn industry’s attitude towards sex…no matter how bizarre your tastes are; someone out there is making something for you.

“Oh dear god, this is ridiculous.  MB – please, seriously!”  I have just opened our refrigerator and the smell of cheese has become completely over-whelming.  I am assaulted, almost knocked backwards by the pungent odour.    

“Quoi?”  He replies, as he wanders into the kitchen, unbothered.

“Are you really going to tell me you can’t smell this?”  I say, one hand on the refrigerator door and the other on my hip. 

“Ouais!!!  It smells amazing!”  I can practically see his tongue start to salivate. 

“Okay, I know, honey, but there is cheese from four months ago in there.”

“Ah oui?  Which ones?  They are probably perfect now!”

I can see my point is not getting across. 

“Okay, sweetie”, I say in my nicest voice, the same voice I would use if I were trying to coax a rabid dog away from a bone.  “The cheese is taking up about two-thirds of the fridge.”

“Ouais…”  He replies, nervously.

“We don’t have room for other groceries.”

He remains unphased, apparently a diet consisting entirely of cheese would be completely acceptable for him.

“I really need you to go through all this stuff and figure out which ones we are going to keep and which ones we are going to get rid of…please!” 

He looks like he’s been shot, and suddenly I feel no better than the Nazi officer in Sophie’s Choice.       

He gives me a sullen look, and then slowly begins to pull the cheese out of the refrigerator (it ends up covering the entire counter).  Gingerly, he opens each paper to see what treasure lies within.  There is brie from the market, the over-powering goat cheese that we bought from the farm in the mountains, the St. Felician that is almost completely liquid, the hard, soft, sweet, and bitter blues. The variety of mold is stunning.  I remember a cheese he once gave me that apparently had tiny little maggots in the surface which made it appear as though it were moving, ever so slightly.  Silently, I pray that we haven’t let that remain in the fridge for two months. 

He pulls out one huge round of what was once cheese and is now primarily a science experiment.

“Ah, okay, maybe this one we can get rid of,” he says, looking up at me. 

I stand stock-still and say nothing, not wanting to frighten away this inclination.

“No, what?  Am I crezee (crazy)?”  He looks relieved, as though he has just missed an incredibly close call with death.  “We can use this to make something great!  Maybe tartiflette!”  (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tartiflette)

I think about this for a minute.  I mean, I really do like tartiflette.  Maybe we should go on and keep this cheese but others definitely have to go.

He continues on to the next one.  The mold is so thick I can’t even see the cheese underneath. 

“Oh MB, seriously, this ones gotta go!”

He cuts off one thick side to reveal the clean part of the cheese, and holds it up to my nose.  I almost pass out from the intensity of the smell…at the same time; my mouth starts to water a bit.  Damn you, tastebuds, you traitors!

“Perhaps in a fondue?”  MB looks at me and smiles.  He can sense my weakening resolve.

As we move through the cheese on the counter, a scraping of mold here, and a little trimming there creates the appropriate excuses to keep all the cheese.  One by one, they all end up returning to the refrigerator, only better organized. 

Finally, we come to the last ones.   He finds two little rounds of hard goat cheese (MB’s favorite), they are stuck together, one on top of the other, glued by a layer of dense, black, gooey-looking fungus.     He pulls them apart, and removes the offending fungus, then attempts to plunge a knife into the middle of one of them.  The knife nearly breaks in the process.  He pulls out a sharper knife and through great struggles, finally penetrates the cheese.  He pops a piece into his mouth and I hear a ‘crack’.

“Woah!”  He sticks a finger in his mouth. 

“What?  Is everything okay?  Oh my god, did you chip your tooth?”

“No, ca va.  I thought for a minute, I had though!” 

“Okay, so this one we can get rid of then?”

“Mais no…it is perfect, you want a piece?”

I look at him like he is crazy.  This man wants me to eat something that he almost cracked a tooth on. 

“Well, maybe just a little one.”

They eat horses, don’t they?

Watch this clip from The Neverending Storyhttp://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y688upqmRXo.

This is what went through my mind shortly after my first experience eating horse meat.  We had just bought if from the chevaline (horse butcher), and we came home and ate it as a tartare…and god forgive me, it was delicious.  Every bite was riddled with the flavor of forbidden fruit; I could hear the angels weeping as I gobbled it down, yet still, I couldn’t stop myself.  What would Atreyu have thought of me?  He never would have fished Artax out of the swamp of sadness only to eat him.  But then, The Neverending Story wasn’t a French film. 

I remember when I first found out that they eat horse meat in France.

“What, are you serious?”  I looked at MB incredulously.  We were still living in Australia…a country where this idea would be absurd (why would you eat a horse when there are kangaroos?).

“Ouais…c’est normal,” he responded nonchalantly, as we strolled through the grocery store. 

“No,” I said.  “No, it is not normal!  How is that even legal?  They are horses!”

He didn’t react.

Horses,” I repeated, as though perhaps this emphasis would make The Yearling all of a sudden flash into his mind. 

“Quoi?” 

This was the end of the conversation.

In France, Seabiscuit wouldn’t have been Horse of the Year; he would have been dinner.

Coming to terms with this was, at first, shocking to me.  In the United States, it is illegal to sell horse meat in most states; in the U.K. it is legal but basically no one sells it.  Eating horse had just never previously occurred to me.  Sure, I knew that in ancient times the Mongolians would throw horse meat under their saddle to tenderize it before eating it tartare style (which must have had an interesting raw-hide, sweaty essence to it); but that was in the olden days right?  Not so much.  Horses are eaten in lots of countries, all over the world; and really, how could one expect the French not to eat something that is edible?  They have practically made a national pastime of frightening Anglos with their various “delicacies”.  Why would horse be any different?  Why should horse be any different?  I mean, what is it that makes this animal less appetizing than a friendly cow or a cute little lamb? 

And so it began…the rationalization that allowed me, the girl who cried when Boxer was sent to the glue factory in Animal Farm, to commit my horsey betrayal.

I have now eaten horse on two occasions. 

I mean, it does make for the best tartare on earth, being both rich in flavor and essentially devoid of fat.  Anyway, I have nothing to be ashamed of; lots of people do it.  Stop judging me!  Whatever, I don’t care; I know its okay.  I’m fine with it; I don’t feel guilty…at all.  So what if I haven’t been able to look a horse in the eye since?  That doesn’t mean anything!

Sometimes they eat Vegetables in France

“Mais oui, there are vegetables in the dish; it is a fondue with mushrooms.”

Over the past weekend, MB, my parents and I journeyed through Provence.  A region full of stereotypes about how beautiful it is and how great the food is and what a relaxing atmosphere it has…they are all true.  Through the great efforts of MB, we were able to avoid the inevitable throng of English tourists that take over the south of France in July and August and find smaller, quieter areas.  We had a wine tasting in Chateauneuf du Pape (the only varietal that uses up to 13 different grapes), we drove through Orange and saw one of the best preserved Roman Theaters in the world, we swam in the Mediterranean, we played Petanque (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/P%C3%A9tanque) and drank rosé, we relaxed and enjoyed the unbelievable scenery.  But most importantly, we ate.

Now, most of my time in France has been spent in the Rhone-Alps in winter.  This is a region known for things like cheese fondue, raclette, and tartiflette.  When I order a salad, it is not unusual for it to come dressed with things like poached eggs, foie gras, gesiers (gizzards), magret de canard, and a variety of other fattening and delightful items.  Once, I had a salad in which the salad dressing was literally liquid cheese (it was fabulous).  So, while vegetables always make an appearance, my experience, in France, has been that they perform the back-up vocals for the stars: meat and cheese.  Not so in Provence; in Provence, it is just the opposite. 

On our first afternoon, we were startled to see plates coming out of a kitchen with plain fish, carrot, turnip, snails, and green beans…there was no cheese, there was no meat.  I began to think I had wandered into an alternate universe when, luckily, the huge bowl of aioli arrived at the table and I felt reassured that I was still in France.  But even with this, it was a revelation, the vegetables and the fish were the headliners and the aioli was the subtle accoutrement (okay, not so subtle – it was a spicy, intense, awesome, garlic endorphin rush).  Where was the butter and cream laden sauce?  Where was my meat, wrapped in meat, cooked in meat fat? 

Later that evening we went to a restaurant in Castellet* (http://www.provenceweb.fr/e/var/castellt/castellt.htm) for a 10:30 dinner…only in France can my parents stay up this late.  The waiter comes to the table as we are pouring over the menu and kindly offers some advice:

“You are in Provence; you get the vegetables.  Foie gras ?  No, this is for winter.”

I’m sorry, did I hear that correctly?  Did a Frenchman just tell me not to order the foie gras?  We adhered to his consul and enjoyed a variety of vegetable heavy dishes: vegetables stuffed with sausage, vegetable carpaccio, pesto soup with vegetables, etc.  Granted, afterwards, my parents and MB shared a huge entrecote (big hunk o’ beef), but again, it arrived unencumbered by rich sauces or salty cheeses and instead was presented by itself, beautifully cooked (my Mother salted it and I’m not sure my Father has forgiven her).

So, Provence has broadened my food horizons in France to include more than just meat and cheese.  Now, I will feel less guilty about serving vegetables as a main course at dinner; I will just tell people it is ‘Provencale’.  It is summer, afterall.  Perhaps, I will change my whole cooking style and for the rest of the year MB and I will focus on vegetable heavy meals with low-fat proteins like fish…I mean, except for tonight of course, our neighbor offered to make us a fondue, its not like you can say no, that would just be rude, right?  Anyway, I’m sure they’ll be mushrooms in it.    

*If anyone wants any further information about where we stayed or ate on this trip just let me know and I’ll be happy to provide details.