Le frometon

There is nothing like a bit of cheese to get you through January — or any day, any time of year. To me, le frometon, as it’s affectionately called, is the perfect comfort food. Along with eggs it is the reason I could live fairly happily as a vegetarian but not as a vegan. Let me give you a tour of a few personal favourites.

Leading a sheltered life outre-Atlantique until my mid-twenties, I was only aware of maybe three types of cheese: cheddar, Swiss and Gouda. I won’t count Philadelphia. Somewhere in the early 1980s our culinary horizons expanded in Canada and I discovered such delicacies as Brie and goat’s cheese.

None of it prepared me for France. The first time I opened the fridge door and was hit by that smell — What or who died? — I knew things were going to be different. Raw-milk cheeses, especially the softer ones like camembert, are like living creatures whose enzymes keep maturing until they reach a level bordering on the putrid. This is when many French cheese lovers consider them ripe.

These days, while cheese is a staple of my diet, I rarely venture into the ‘fromages qui puent’ like camembert. I have nothing against them but it just so happens that my preferred varieties are less inclined to stink up the house.

Comté (the ‘m’ is pronounced like ‘n’) is my go-to hard cheese. Made from unpasteurized cow’s milk in the Franche-Comté province of eastern France, it is ubiquitous in France. I love it for its somewhat rich texture and easygoing flavour — not too strong or too bland. My favourite way to eat it is as a snack, on its own or with an apple. It’s also lovely grated and melted in an omelette.

Saint Agur is my favourite of the blues. Unlike the famous Roquefort, which is a sheep’s milk cheese from the south, it is softer and creamier with a bit of a tang but not the raw force. It is not a traditional cheese but was developed commercially in the Auvergne region to woo the French back to the fading glory of the blues. The move was apparently successful as it is the most-consumed blue cheese in France today.

Le Gruyère Suisse d’Alpage

There are no holes in my favourite Swiss cheese. What we generally think of as Swiss cheese in North America is actually Emmenthal — it’s the one with the holes — and while it originated in Switzerland, it is also made in France. Gruyère Suisse (preferably d’Alpage, meaning from Alpine pastures) is by far the tastier Swiss cheese. Dense and flavourful, my preferred aged variety has little hard crystals that tell you it has reached its nirvana of maturity. Can you see them?

I love goat’s cheese in just about every form. Its tangy taste, its velvety texture. ‘Rocamadour’ is one that I often buy as it’s just the right amount for one serving. A tiny, perfect raw-milk delight.

Okay, I’m going to get some people’s goats now by naming another Swiss cheese. Apologies to my French friends but I live very close to the border and it must be said that the Swiss also know a few things about cheese as well as chocolate.

La tomme Vaudoise is another tiny, perfect wonder of a cheese. It is one of the few whose edible mould of a skin I eat without qualm. It comes from our area, just across the lake on the Swiss side in the Canton of Vaud, and is often flavoured with ‘ail des ours’ (wild garlic leaves), truffles or grilled pine nuts. I enjoy it plain.

So there you have it, the cheeses that most frequently populate my frigo.

Although I do have a confession to make. I could be shot for treason saying this but if I could only have one kind of cheese, it would probably be a good old, sharp cheddar.

Comfort food, right?

What’s your favourite cheese?

Le yaourt

If you think cheese is the biggest staple of the French diet, think again. Here in France, le yaourt (yah-OOrt) is consumed morning, noon and night. Either for breakfast, as a dessert at lunch or dinner, and even as a snack, although probably not more than once or twice a day at most.

The variety of yoghurts on offer was one of the biggest differences I noticed when we moved to France. The category takes up an entire aisle in the grocery store – both sides. Strictly speaking, however, this part of the dairy section offers not just yoghurt but other ‘produits laitiers’ (dairy products) and alternative desserts from soy and lactose-free vegetal sources.

Another difference is that yoghurt in France is almost exclusively sold in individual servings — pots de yaourt — rather than the family-size containers in North America.

yaourt

French yoghurt is traditionally made from cow’s milk. You will also find variations made with goat’s milk (chèvre) and sheep’s milk (brebis). Sheep’s milk yoghurts are most often referred to as Greek-style or ‘à la grecque’ (although not all so-called ‘Greek’ yoghurts are made of sheep’s milk). The best ones are thicker and more sour-tasting (my favourite — yum!). Most varieties of yoghurts also come in non-fat or ‘0%’ versions, accounting for its own section on the dairy aisle.

The French also enjoy ‘fromage blanc’: literally ‘white cheese’ or quark, which is similar to ricotta or cottage cheese but without any visible curd. It belongs to a family of fresh cheeses that are similar to yoghurt such as faisselle and the thicker, richer petit suisse. Fromage blanc is often served for dessert with fruit compote or a simple spoonful of sugar. In restaurants, it sometimes comes in a little puddle of crème fraîche.

In France, yoghurt must adhere to strict regulatory guidelines in order to be labelled as such. It is made of milk that is fermented by two types of bacteria: lactobacillus bulgaricus and streptococcus thermophilus. While they sound less than appealing, those are the little guys that do all the work for our gut by pre-digesting the milk proteins and making them more easily assimilated in the body. (More details in French here: https://www.europe1.fr/societe/le-yaourt-est-il-vraiment-si-bon-pour-la-sante-3625073)

Yoghurt is undeniably a key part of the diet here. French kids don’t drink milk, or at least not much. They get their calcium from yoghurt and cheese. My kids grew up and thrived on a steady diet of yoghurt and petits suisses.

Now my daughter is vegan, and I have recently discovered some tasty dairy alternatives made with almonds (not great for the planet, but alas…). I am not a fan of soy, but I do support dairy alternatives for dietary and moral reasons that each of us must decide for ourselves. Clearly, it is a trendy new category taking up more space in French dairy cases.

As for me, I am a die-hard yoghurt fan. Each morning, I have a plain, probiotic yoghurt for breakfast with fruit and nuts. My evening indulgences often include a Greek-style low-fat yogurt with a bit of fruit or honey. Unless, of course, I go for ice cream. But that’s another story!

How do you like your yoghurt – or not?

Pet à porter

Pet à porter

Pet à porterI snapped this shot of a petite pooch at the market on Sunday. It is for me a typical scene of French life.

Little dogs go just about everywhere with their owners in France, and well-behaved pets are welcome in most restaurants and many shops. This miniature Pinscher breed is a popular choice, along with the poodle, the Yorkshire and the Jack Russell. French bulldogs are slowly gaining ground in France now that they’ve become so popular in the U.S.

I suppose this very French version of the ‘doggy bag’ makes a lot of sense in crowded public places. Little dogs like this can easily get stepped on, and crowds must be terrifying for them.

‘Aller au marché’, to go shopping at the open-air market, is a regular Sunday morning pilgrimage for many French people, who often go together as families, taking their time and strolling along the crowded stalls. This is frustrating for type-A people like myself. I just want to zip-in and zip-out with as much fresh produce as I can carry and in as short a time as possible. My husband only goes on pain of starvation and we are both way too impatient in crowds.

I can think of nothing more stressful than bringing our two French bulldogs to the market. Unfortunately they are too big for a shopping bag – although I’m sure they’d be delighted to take away a doggy bag with some of this cheese.

thumb_IMG_5096_1024How about you? Do you like open-air markets, with or without pet or partner?

Paris est une fête

Paris Ferris WheelA moveable feast, as Hemingway wrote in his memoir of Paris in the 1920’s. That title, ‘Paris est une fête’ in French, has topped the best-seller lists here since the November attacks.

I returned to Paris for a few days following a long absence and found it to be just as I’d remembered, despite a great many changes. Let me share a few impressions.

Paris is a feast for all the senses. Perhaps the most alive city in the world, its every patch of sidewalk is taken up by people and pigeons, scooters and cars, street cleaners and sidewalk cafés. It is a city in perpetual motion, yet in which time somehow seems to stand still.

There is always something happening on a Paris street. Banal things, extraordinary things. Scenes that play out before your eyes as you sit and sip your drink. A backdrop of light and noise that never rests, only lulls for a moment.

Amid the relentless flow of traffic, it is a surprising oasis of peace and tranquility in the intense green of a city square. It’s that pâtisserie shop window with its perfect array of bijoux sweets, just next to the fromagerie that wafts raw-milk cheese to your nostrils. And the urinal smell that pervades every dark corner.

Paris is the fresh mound of dog shit that you are about to step in. It is the homeless man sitting by the curb who smiles when you give him a coin. It is a couple in a passionate embrace by the steps down to the Métro.

It is, encore et toujours, a city of tourists. Where the French seem to be making more of an effort to speak their language.

Paris is protests. The ‘Nuit Debout’ events going on at Place de la République right now are the latest in the series of demonstrations that sprout in the spring. Or perhaps the start of a new world order. In Paris, anything is possible.

Paris is sirens. The ‘pin-pon’ of police cars, CRS and emergency vehicles has always been part of its soundscape. Perhaps with a slightly more worrisome edge of late.

It is a city of strong smells and postcard moments, beauty and the beast. Anger and love. What you experience of Paris may not always be pleasant but it will be memorable.

Paris is a moment in time that stays with you forever.

Quel est ton souvenir de Paris?

La Saint Sylvestre

Le champagneThere will be few fireworks in France this New Year’s Eve. In light of recent events, festivities are curtailed and firecrackers forbidden. Terror is still vivid in the hearts and minds of people here, not just in Paris but in remote corners of province. Restaurant takings are down; shoppers have been staying home. Traditionally the most fêted of the French holiday calendar, le réveillon du 31 décembre this year will be ‘en demi-teinte’ – a subdued affair.

But it will be celebrated. Ringing in le nouvel an in style is dear to French hearts. A party of some kind is called for – preferably fancy dress or at least ‘tenue de soirée’. Champagne corks will fly. In Paris people will flock to the Champs Elysées, along with more than the usual number of police.

Over the years in France we have celebrated le réveillon de la Saint Sylvestre in many different ways and places, with family and friends, at quiet dinner parties and more boisterous celebrations.

We recently watched an old VHS videotape – digitized through the wonders of modern technology – of a New Year’s soirée hosted by my in-laws in their suburban Paris home shortly after we were married. It was the late eighties, so the hair was big and the shoulders were wide. There were a dozen convives (guests) in sequinned evening wear – neighbours, colleagues, long-standing friends.

Things were rather formal at first, as we all sat in a circle and made polite conversation. They began to loosen up as the first flutes of champagne were served. We took our places at the table and the meal began with oysters, followed by foie gras. Various white wines were served, then things got serious with the Bordeaux. I believe we ate game of some kind. Then came cheese, an impressive selection of raw-milk fromages from Normandy to Roquefort. By the time we got to dessert, we were back on champagne. Then the real party began with a lot of frantic bobbing around on the dance floor. Thankfully the video was there to prove we were all still standing – things became a little blurry that point.

One memory stands out in my mind from that night, though. When the clock struck midnight we all embraced and exchanged our ‘voeux’ for the year ahead. The French make quite an art of this and I remember feeling rather limited in my repertoire of well wishes. But my Beau-père’s wish was simple, and sincere. He embraced me with a double-cheeked kiss and whispered in my ear: “Un petit garçon pour cette année!”

Our son was born the following September.

This year we are celebrating la Saint Sylvestre as a family in the Alps. There is not much snow, and we’ve had a few hiccups in terms of our health, but our spirits are high and we will see the new year in with joy.

What shall I wish you for 2016?