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A brief guide to French Cheese

I love cheese, and in France there's a lot to love.  There are literally hundreds of different cheeses and variations. 

As with French wines, there is a system of Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée Laitière (AOC Dairy) which are 42 legally controlled names which can only be used if the maker conforms the requirements of the name. There are even four official kinds of butter and two types of Creme Fraiche. These requirements cover the type of milk used, the texture and the location where the milk is sourced, and the cheese produced.  The intention of the AOC name is to protect consumers and producers alike, preventing a cheesemaker in another region (or country) to make a similar cheese sold with that name that may not be of the same quality or flavor.  Here you can explore the list of AOC cheeses.

For example, one of my favorites this time of year is Vacherin Mont D'Or.  This is defined as a soft washed-rind cows-milk cheese that is produced in selected villages in the Jura Mountains.  It is aged in a round box made of Spruce wood that imparts a woody flavor and aroma.  Since most cheeses have their seasons, this one is best in the fall. At this point the woody flavor is pronounced, but its still quite creamy. It's especially good with a round Pouligny-Montrachet or an older MersaultThe longer it ages in the Spruce box, the heavier the woody character becomes.  Try it at different times of the season to see how you like it best.

My friend L's favorite cheese is Saint-Nectaire.  He's from Auvergne and that's the region where this cheese has been made since the 17th century.  One of his fondest childhood memories was getting a free morceau of Saint-Nectaire every time he accompagnied his mother to the local fromagèrie. Huh? 

When he first told me this story, I had to laugh; finding it hard to imagine a child getting excited about a stinky cheese treat.  I don't know about you, but when when I was a kid I remember fondly a getting free cookie at the bakery. 

Like much of French food culture, knowing what kind of milk is used and when the season peaks is just the start of understanding cheese.  In some cases it helps to know when the milk was produced.

During the brief period L and I lived in London, his parents came from his hometown of Le Puy in Auvergne to visit.  They arrived proudly bearing an enormous Saint-Nectaire cheese.  "Summer milk" his Mother leaned forward and said to me.  She used that same hushed tone some Mothers reserve for words like "Cancer" or "Prison," letting me in on the secret that this was indeed a special cheese.  Not only was it L's favorite type of cheese, it was made from Summer milk that imparts a grassier flavor - also his favorite.

It makes sense given that cows are eating grass at that time of the year.  It turns out that since Saint-Nectaire is produced throughout the year, there isn't a specific season.  The flavor varies along with the taste of the milk used in production.  Evidently, a true lover of cheese also knows what time of year each of his favorites is best. The Saint-Necataire made with Summer milk contrasts to one made of Winter milk when the cows are eating silage.  If you are like me and have never heard of silage, as best as I can tell silage is a sort of fermented feed that is stored for later use and imparts a stronger flavor. 

Try the Saint-nectaire at different times of year to see what you prefer.

Or you can take an armchair trip to Auvergne to learn about Saint-Nectaire first hand.

Your turn to share; What's your favorite childhood food memory?

A brief guide to French Cheese


Cour Napoleon at the Louvre Museum

I've always been a pretty intrepid traveller; in my corporate days I once flew to New York and back from LA the same day just to fire someone.  Yuck.  I sure don't miss any of that.

Just the same, sometimes sitting back in a comfy chair and clicking my way around the world is a fun way to explore.  Especially when it's raining here in Paris.

I found this site today which offers great panoramic photos of the cities around the world.  I thought you'd enjoy a virtual visit to the Cour Napoleon of the Louvre. 



Simple Guide to the Louvre Museum

The Louvre can be an overwhelming place, but once you understand how it's organized it's not that hard to find your way around.  From a simple perspective, there are three major wings organized into what is essentially a U-shaped structure.  If you lose track of where you are, looking out the window for the pyramid is a good way to figure out where you are.

The three major wings are called the Richelieu, Sully and Denon and each reflects a bit of the history of the museum and its collection. 

When Henri IV took the throne in 1589, the country was nearly bankrupt.  There had been a succession of wars that left the royal coffers empty.  As Minister of Finance, the Duc de Sully was responsible for the dramatic improvements to the country's financial condition which allowed later Kings to create the stunning collections of art and palaces that are the basis of the sumptious patrimony of France.

Richelieu was a Catholic Cardinal who ran the country while Louis XIII was too young to govern and then worked with the king to rule France after Louis XIII ascended to the throne.  Once King, Louis XIII was more interested in hunting than art so one of the contributions made by Richelieu was to collect art for the King.  During this time, the Royal art collection grew from 200 works to 2,000.

Jean-Dominique Denon was the first director of the Louvre, then called Musée Napoleon.  Following the French revolution, the palaces and art belonging to the Royal family became property of the French government.  The musuem opened its doors in 1793.  In its infancy, there were only two rooms open to the public:  the Salon Carré and the Grand Galerie.  Today, with the exception of the Salle d'Etats which houses the Mona Lisa, these are two of the most visited rooms in the museum.

Practical tips for visiting the Louvre Museum

1. If possible, avoid the main entrance.  The little-known "Porte de Lions" entrance is rarely crowded.  At this entrance you can buy your ticket and enter immediately.  Note - this entrance is not always open so check the hours before going.  Once inside, you can make your way towards the Pyramid by following the Pyramid symbols posted at gallery doors.

2. Plan ahead and spend some time thinking about what you'd like to see.  If you plan your route before arriving, you can avoid wasting time lost or looking for things.

3. The Louvre maps provided free of charge have indications to the most visited works.  If you want to find something in particular, the multi-lingual staff at the information desk can access their database to tell you the room number of a specific work.  Its helpful to have the name of the work and artist for them.

4. Wheelchairs are available free of charge at the Information desk.  You will need to leave some form of identification as security.  While they may ask for your passport, you can also leave a US drivers license or another form of government issued photo-id. 

5. Wheelchair maps are available on request.  These are helpful even if you're not in a wheelchair but someone in your group would prefer to avoid the stairs when possible.

Louvre Museum - Practical Information

The museum is open every day except Tuesdays and the following French holidays: December 25, January 1, May 1, and August 15.

Entrance fee: 9.50€ for full-day admission to the permanent collection. Wednesday and Friday evenings the museum is open til 10:00 pm and a 6.5€ admission ticket is available from 6:00 to 9:45 pm.

Opening hours
- Monday, Thursday, Saturday, Sunday: from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.
- Wednesday, Friday: from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m.

- December 24 and 31: from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Note: Rooms begin closing 30 minutes before museum closing time.

Entrances to the museum (open every day except Tuesday)
- Pyramid and Galerie du Carrousel entrances: from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m.
- Passage Richelieu entrance: from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.
- Porte des Lions entrance: from 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., except Friday.

Admission to the permanent collection is free on the first Sunday of every month and on July 14.


Chicken or Beef?

It's an age old question, but perhaps you never thought it was an important link to French culture.  It was one of the first lessons I learned about the cultural differences between Americans and the French.

This happened back in 2001 when I first moved to France.  After just a few months I had already done what many foreigners find challenging, I had met some Parisians. Well, I had actually met quite a few and in particular I started hanging out with six Parisian guys that I met mostly on my swim team.  To strengthen my ties to this group, I decided to give a small dinner in my apartment; something I had done frequently in California and I considered myself to be an accomplished cook and host. 

 Not being one to leave things to chance, I planned a menu of really good food that I was very confident preparing.  I started with a salade composée, a simple green salad with a slice of Herby Italian Ham and a small round of runny Rocamadour cheese.  The main course was to be pan-seared Chicken Breasts with Herbes de Provence and white wine with a buttery reduction sauce and several vegetables.  This is one of my secret recipes that is no-fail, and can work with a variety of meats.  I bought very expensive free-range Poulet de Bresse chicken breasts.  This is the most prized chicken in France and they are recognizable by their black-skinned legs and feet.  Not understanding this, I had the puzzled butcher trim them into tidy breast portions.  To finish, I planned a cheese course and individual molten chocolate cakes.

Well, everyone arrived late as I later learned is customary.  If you are invited to someone's home in France, you are expected to arrive at least 15 minutes late.  Arriving on time is bad form and you will often catch your host or hostess in a state of half-dressed panic. 

Things started well with a little aperitif cocktail and then we headed to the table.  First course was warmly received with people enjoying the combination of flavors.  However, the chicken, which was tender, juicy and delicious, received nearly no comments.  I was surprised, to say the least.  After all, this was a time-tested winning recipe that was always a big hit "back home." 

The cheeses and chocolate cakes were happily received.  This is another signature dish, individual molten chocolate cakes served like soufflés in ramekins. They look complicated but are prepared ahead and baked off at the start of the cheese course.  This dish conforms to my second rule for a great dinner party; "presentation is more important than complication."

Overall the evening was a success, but no one made any compliments about the meal or even thanked me for my efforts.  Given the miniscule size of my Paris kitchen I thought it was an amazing feat that I prepared a dinner for six in a space about the size of an average telephone booth.  Well, it turns out that most kitchens are this small so this was no feat to them.

I was quite puzzled by the outcome of my dinner and admittedly it was vanity that led me to investigate.  After all, that was really good chicken.  I spoke with my French tutor to see if she could shed any light on my experience.  What I learned was the first of many unspoken cultural rules relating to food that exist in France. 

She said that chicken, like pasta, was more of a family meal than something for a special dinner for new friends.  When I pressed further for details she responded that there was a time, just after World War II when she was a child, when it was very hard to get chicken and therefore it was something of a delicacy.  But today, that isn't the case.  So I realized that serving chicken to my friends was nearly the equivalent of serving hot-dogs to adults at a dinner party.  Oops...

In an effort to make up for this mistake and also see if a different menu would elicit a different response from the same group, I planned another dinner for the same six people.  I had not mentioned to any of them about what I had learned about chicken.  The occasion was my birthday and the main course was a classic Boeuf aux Carrottes, with cumin seeds and orange to make it a bit more interesting.  They were delighted and fell all over themselves to compliment me on the dinner.

But here I learned another cultural lesson.  Their compliment was, "This is excellent, you really found a good butcher," and no mention of my efforts in the kitchen.  Well, apparently this is the highest praise. It's expected that anyone can cook well and the real trick is being savvy enough to find an excellent butcher when there are three or four choices in every neighborhood.

Well, at this point I took the compliment and ran with it.  In the ensuing years I have had countless dinner parties in Paris and have never served chicken again.   

Note: I have since learned that the only way to serve roast chicken in this setting is to buy small half "Poulet de Bresse" chickens and serve them with the legs and black skin attached (which is a sign of their quality) and serve one per person.  Personally, I think it's more fun to make something more interesting. 


Picture of the Week

This post should probably be called "Wallpaper of the week," but I think that sounds a bit strange.  I'm a very visual person and like finding new images that inspire me. 

So I've decided to share one of my guilty pleasures.  I change the wallpaper on my computer every few days, usually inspired by something I'm reading or just the occasional hunt on the net for new images from artists or photographers I admire.

So since I can't share all of the images I like, I have decided to share the best one I find each week with you.  Perhaps you'll want to make it your wallpaper too, or at least enjoy the chance to see or learn something new about an image and it's creator.

This first week, I have an image I quite like but don't know anything about.  It's summer so there's no need for everything to be educational.  :-)  If you know anything about this picture, please let me know.