Friday, September 19, 2014

Flagrantly Fragrant French Fromage

One thing sure seemed relatively certain to all four of we traveling foreign foodies, the French folk sure seemed to be serious about their food.  From our first encounter in the grocery market to all the restaurants we visited thereafter, we did not encounter anything that even remotely tasted eh.  Apparently we could not find any bad food in Paris.  And we also discovered right away they were very flagrant about their fragrant fromage, or cheese.

I am lactose intolerant, have been for over a decade now.  Yeah, I can take them lactose enzyme things, but for me, they only work so much.  And cheese, for me, is the absolute worst as far as milk products go.  I have gone without or adapted to many milk products over the years, and actually have found a way to make many cream desserts without the cream.  I'll have to save that for another post actually, but a definite game changer for lactose intolerant folks who love desserts.  Stay tuned.

Ah, where was I?  Oh yes, lactose intolerance and the tons of gourmet cheeses in France.  When I first became aware of my intolerance and started changing my diet, it was initially difficult to stop eating cheese.  But I adapted over time and I haven't really missed it in years.  My other three traveling companions, however, are not so afflicted.  When they first encountered the cheese section at the market I could have sworn I heard chirps of ecstasy.  And then some yodeling.

There was some serious French fromage in that there market cheese section.  There's actually entire French Fromage shops, selling nothing but kaboodles of the pungent stuff.  Hell, back in Amsterdam the market we went to there had a cheese wheel the size of a semi tire.  In France the big wheels of cheese were the size of a semi truck.   You know, like, if there were big rectangular wheels for instance.

So at that first foray into the market, a couple different cheeses made it into the basket.  Not my basket, but
somebody's.  There was other stuff in my basket, like meat and chocolates.  And the good Doctor always made sure we had a baguette of true French bread.  Every day.  Wine and French Bread.  Did not go home without it.

The second afternoon of our stay somebody noticed that the fridge was starting to smell a little frommagy.  Like all of us.  It wasn't hard.  It seems the blue cheese my lovely wife bought, the stuff that was growing new mold on the already blue mold, was affecting everything else in the fridge with it's odorous vintage.  The only thing saving us all from a full on bio assault was the three inch thick metal casing surrounding the cold air inside the fridge.  But once that door was opened, you had to duck.

Everything inside the fridge smelled of fromage.  Peaches, chocolate, wine.  Now, cheese and wine typically go pretty good together, but not out of the same bottle.  Ah yes, here we have a nice bottle of vintage Bordeaux.  A classic varietal, with subtle notes of cheddar and jack.

Cheesy chocolate?  No thanks.  Something had to be done.  We could toss in on a neighbor's porch...

That does remind me of a high school senior prank an old school chum and I pulled one day.  On our own.  We took a first period cooking class together, and one morning the class was about different kinds of cheese.  One of them happened to be Limburger, a cheese with a particularity heightened brand of odor.  My chum and I took a bit of that cheese along with us to our next class, which we took together, creative writing.  There we wrote a funny little sonnet by sticking small amounts of Limburger cheese underneath about ten desks.  By mid afternoon the doors and windows of that room were all open and about ten desks were out in the plaza, having been recently cleaned.  Class was being held in the library.  We never got caught.

On our way out that day, as always, we took down the garbage.  That day we also dropped off the cheese.  It was actually growing.  The blue was begetting more blue and it was getting cheesier all the time.  I don't know what's going to happen to it now that it's been sent to a landfill somewhere around Paris.  Hopefully a nice French rat, like Ratatouille, or a nice French skunk, like PePe Le Pew, will find it and eat it before it frommages up the entire country.

The day after my lovely wife's birthday had to be a mellow one.  Are you kidding?  Was once a time we never slept through entire weekends, now and then.  Staying up past nine is a big event anymore, 1:00 AM?  Way big doings, that's for sure.  And for sure, everyone needed to sleep in.

So, rather than do the Louvre, which would be an all day affair and was on the ESS for that particular day, we all opted to go to the Musee d'Orsay, which would only be a half a day at best.  We decided to lateral the Louvre a couple days out.

The d' Orsay houses French art from 1848-1914, which covered the most important part of art history for us, Impressionism.  As a matter of fact, the d' Orsay houses one of the largest collections of Impressionist art in the world.   Universe even.

As always, we strolled down to the museum.  Our apartment was in a wonderful location, with no large historical venue more than a couple miles away. We would typically start our daily adventures with a stroll, or city hike, and then see what fortunes the day might bring along before deciding how to return.

On the way to the d' Orsay, which is across the Seine from the Louvre, we accidentally happened upon the Pont des Arts, or bridge between the museums. This bridge is moderately famous because of all the locks that have been placed on the chain link fence.  And I quote from somewhere,

"Some years ago, a new fad started when love-struck sweethearts began locking padlocks onto the chain link fence of the Pont des Arts, which crosses from the left bank to the Louvre museum. The love padlocks, called cadenas d’amour, multiplied until there were thousands of love tokens on the bridge, each engraved with a message of love. After locking the love padlock onto the fence, lovers toss the keys into the Seine river – a sign of their eternal devotion."
Both us traveling couples became high school sweethearts once again, forty some years of ups and downs erased in a couple youthful heartbeats.  Fortunately a couple young enterprising vendors made it easy for we star struck lovers to join in the fun.  One young man sold locks, quite reasonable as a matter of fact (a couple euros) and a young lady would engrave the lock for a fee.  If you didn't want to pay (or wait) for engraving, the lock seller also had a Sharpee with which to inscribe the lock.

Both we couples bought a lock, one couple had their lock engraved.  The other couple wrote their initials on their lock with a Sharpee.  For our part, my lovely wife and I placed our lock on the chain link fence together and then kissed, our left legs rising in unison at the knee.  Then we tossed the key in the river and Cha Cha Cha'd across the bridge.  We all felt like high school kids again, which is actually where both couples first met and began dating, so many wonderful years ago.  Jeez, dare I say decades?

There was a French accordion master playing a few wonderful versions of old French standards, which  added a nice, romantic touch to the ambiance.   Then there was an old gypsy hag in a bundle of haphazardly thrown together shawls, bandanas and pup tents who was limping along like she was dragging a two hundred pound wooden canary beneath her shroud.  Her head was usually down and she muttered about for change as she dragged her cannon leg along.

"Eggs for the poor," she muttered.  Only it sounded different in French.

What struck me though about Hag-zilla was that every now and then she would lift her head up and her clear, sharp eyes would dart about, deftly surveying her surroundings.  And then in an instant her head was down and she was back to muttering form.  I tossed the accordion master some change.  I stayed as far away from Hag-zilla as possible, she scared the hell out of me.

Once we were through with our high school sweetheart regression, hand in hand we strolled over the bridge and into the Musee d'Orsay.

The d' Orsay is not quite as well known as the Louvre, so there was not nearly as much of a crowd. There was still, however, a good fifty person line waiting to get in.  Happily our little traveling party with our Paris Museum Pass's walked right in through another entrance, NO waiting at all.

Since we had worked up quite an appetite rekindling our high school romance(s) along the way, and since we figured we'd need a little sustenance before engaging the Impressionists, we decided to engage the dining room.  And boy howdy were we happy we did!

Everything in that room was a work of art.  From the ceiling and fifteen layers of guilded crown molding to

what they put on the plates, it was all a work of art.

Here's some fabulous Pate de Foie Gras, served on a plate with several different types of peas and some sort of art nouveau cracker.

I mean, how can you not like ground up fowl organ meat when it looks like that?  Yum.

After our sumptuous dining excursion we delved right on in for a few hours of incredible culture.

If you really wanted to see everything in the museum, you should probably allow all day.  The place might not be the football stadium(s) that are the Louvre, but it's still pretty darn big.  We all focused on our favorite period, which was good, because after a few hours we got to hear the final cattle call of the day, "The museum is closing in fifteen minutes.  Get the hell out."  Or something like that.  What do I know?  I don't speak French.

On the way out, my lovely wife entered the absolutely PACKED gift shop.  It was closing time and it was sardine time.  I motioned that I would mosey outside and catch her there.  Where there was air.  I'm not much of a sardine guy.  Anchovies either.

I stepped outside, the entrance square was alive with the hustle and bustle of happy tourists at play.  A dozen different languages  in the background chitter chatter.  People watching in Europe, it does not get better.  As I scanned the late afternoon arty exit ambiance, I noticed a small crowd gathering and sitting on the long steps of the square, which rose up from a pedestrian thoroughfare.  I wandered over and discovered a solo male violinist in his thirties holding court, playing real good.  For change.  He sounded like a symphony player, or at least first chair in a high school band.  His audience grew as he quite melodically sashayed through some Paganini, Puccini and Pet Shop Boys.

Then there was this tall, almost homeless looking man who had set up camp within close proximity of the violinist.  Mr. Mimic, who looked like a cross between Gerard Depardieu and Marty Feldman, would spy an unsuspecting approaching human and then mimic their walk and demeanor in a rather humorous and sardonic fashion.  In some instances he was not very kind.  Funny, but not very kind to many of the the innocent passersby.  Some of the victims played back, some ignored him, several fled.  The audience all laughed.  Although he was quite vigorous in his comical assaults, he was also quite gracious, sincerely adopting a "Wai" gratitude pose when gifted with change.

The rest of the party soon joined me, and before long there were about eighty people enjoying both shows.  We watched another ten minutes or so and then walked over to the metro since we had become seasoned metro commuters.  When we exited at the Bourse, we accidentally discovered an even closer market, like only three blocks from the apartment.  Instead of ten.  Viola!  We picked up the usual stuff, including baguette, returned to the apartment, ate, drank and sang more sailing songs into the heart of the night.  

Sunday morning we actually returned to the ESS, or Excel Spread Sheet.  Sunday had always been the 2nd most important day of the trip, flea market day.  My lovely wife loves flea markets, and Paris hosts the MOTHER of all flea markets, the Puces St. Ouen (pronounced "Huh?"), which hosts over 2,000 vendors.

From Rick Steves: "Paris' sprawling flea markets are over-sized garage sales.  They started in the Middle Ages, when middlemen sold old, flea-infested clothes and discarded possessions of the wealthy at bargain prices to eager peasants.  Buyers were allowed to rummage through piles of aristocratic garbage."

The Puces St. Ouen lies on the outskirts of Paris, definitely not within strolling distance.  So we took the metro out, making a couple underground changes along the way.  Once we arrived top side we followed the crowd and eventually entered acres and acres and blocks and miles and oodles of vendors.  This really wasn't a parking lot where pick-ups drove up and folks plopped their wares on the asphalt.  Most of the vendors had their own stalls, some were pop-up tents, some were within huge warehouses.  Certain areas specialized in certain items, so if you were looking for something specific you could narrow down your search area.  You know, like down to a square mile.

We soon discovered there was the typical every day flea market cheap stuff and then there were fourteen thousand Louis the Whatever chairs that were all for sale in excess of thousands of dollars.  A lot of stuff was BIG, and none of it seemed to be whispering a sweet take me home sonnet.

We wandered and strolled and got lost, finding ourselves once again on a nondescript corner somewhere in and around the madcap mayhem that is the Puces St Ouen.  There was but another charming sidewalk brasserie and we plopped ourselves right on down.

This brasserie was owned and operated by a very gracious and entertaining gentleman who also happened to be our waiter.  He spoke decent enough English, substantially better than any of our French.  We found out his parents first opened the place after WWII and it had pretty much been his life for sixty years.

There was an eight by ten black and white of him as a kid waiting tables.  It was on the wall, along with many other old photos of life back when on the block.  An entire life spent in one building, really.  I found him a fascinating story and individual.

By the way, did I mention you pretty much get French Fries with everything?  Burger?  Fries.  Steak?  Fries.  Ice cream?  Fries.  I ate a lot of fries while I was in France.  Basic, thick cut fries.  Everywhere.  I think they standardized them just like they did the baguette of bread.  They seemed to be French institutions.

Sometimes they served mayo as a condiment with the fries, sometimes not.  They definitely don't serve ketchup with them, and don't ask.  My lovely sister-in-law was politely accosted by our waiter when she asked for some.  He then proceeded to ask her, quite humorously, if she wanted ketchup with her salad.  And then with her ice cream.

After we had been sitting for a few minutes, outside of course, some classic French accordion music began inside.  Soon it was joined by a most lovely, alluring female voice.  I could see the gentleman playing the accordion through the open door, but I could not see the singer.

The simple background music set a most delightful ambiance.  We were sitting outside in a brasserie on a lovely afternoon in Paris, listening to a wonderful version of "C'est Magnifique".

When the music stopped, an utterly charming seventies something Chanteuse in a leopard print mini-skirt came by our table with a hat.  I gave her a ten for the table, for which she responded with an enchanting smile.  For being seventies something, that girl looked great and sounded like Lady Gaga on steroids.

After lunch we once again embarked, searching for the prefect antique to bring home.  But alas, the antique angels were not apparently with my lovely wife that day.  She really didn't find anything that sang to her.  Not like the candle Abra she found our last day in Amsterdam.  And boy howdy did that ever NOT fire my rockets when faced with the challenge of getting it home.  In a suitcase.


Actually, that little puppy can break down and just about fit in a shoe box.  Really.

And now a news bulletin:  The night before in Paris, unbeknownst to most of the real world, there was some Muslim rioting in the streets over the Israel-Gaza affair.  My lovely sister in law discovered this factoid online on the Huffington Post that morning and we took note.

Then, as we were wandering along in the amazing maze of vendors and antiques, we noticed there was a large group of young men starting to coagulate under an overpass, by a corner, not very far away.  Like, right over there not far away!  You know, like fifty feet.  When I say large group, I'm not talking ten to fifteen.  No, there were at least a hundred young men and they were being joined by more and more young men every minute.  With the riots in mind from the night before and the intersection not looking like a likely scenario for a soccer match, and not quite wanting to get involved in a potentially heightened foreign affair, we decided it was time to go.  Like, anywhere but there.  The thing was, like, we were lost again and had to figure out where the train station was.

I found the route, (not covered by the Moon Map Guide-there's a separate map for the flea market) which unfortunately took us kitty corner across from the impending insurgency.  And as we walked, I noticed a couple cop cars blazing into the scene, four coppers to each small sedan.  It didn't look like they were armed.  Maybe they were going to just going to flail and kick.  Or they carried some magic sauce somewhere.

Our pace quickened, and now we were in the thick of the less expensive side of things, the cheap stuff you see at all the flea markets over here.  Made in China.  The Dollar Store.  And the walkway was thick with young, foreign speaking potential agitators.  It was a long, hard football field and more of zigging and zagging, but we wound our way through the crowd and got to the metro and eventually home.

The next day, a Monday, was going to be our assault on the Louvre.  We had to, we were running out of time.  Our companions were departing in two days, we in three.  And we still had Versailles to see.

After another festive night of wine, fromage and sailing songs, we left the next morning with our standard stroll from the apartment.  Actually at a decent hour this time.  The Louvre was still packed, but we entered via the pass line and this time had to wait behind four or five other people.  Sheesh.

Once inside, the place looked even bigger than it did from the outside.  One of the main reasons to hit the Louvre is to see the Mona Lisa, which seems to be a mass favorite amongst all speaking peoples.  And according to Rick Steves, the room in which she is housed can get quite crowded at times, with lines and everything.  We decided to immediately make a beeline to the Mona Lisa and get that smirking, docile little wench out of the way.

We looked at the museum map, Mona appeared to be about a mile from where we entered.  Not in a straight line either. We just had to go down a couple corridors, make a right, then pass through a couple interconnected rooms  Then walk down a wide hallway and make a left.  Now that we were at the stairs we went up to the 2nd floor, made a right and walked down a corridor.  From there it was another right, or left, another hall, another room, hell, who cares at this point?  We finally found her, somehow.

Mona is actually a tiny little painting setting by herself on a HUGE wall.  Meh.  But she was a must see, kinda like the Eiffel Tower.  Even though we made a wounded bee line to the masterpiece, there was still quite a crowd.  I couldn't imagine what the room would have been like in an other hour.

With Mona out of the way, what next?   Our companions had a couple things they really wanted to see, and my lovely wife really wanted to see some Etruscan things.  Not crusty things like I first thought.  Really really old things.  Like the oldest things ever.  Older than most crusty things even.

To get to the Etruscan scene, I think we had to cross the river Rhine and then come back via Spain.  Over the Alps.  Something like that.  It took us about an hour to find the exhibit, getting lost a couple dozen times along the way.  Fortunately there's priceless art all along the way, so it wasn't like we were missing out on too much.  Just 7/8 of the rest of the stuff in the place.  The Louvre is huge, massive.  You can take a guided tour, but that would still only hit the high points.  If you really want to explore the whole museum, allow at least three days.  And bring some extra food and water just in case.  And a flash light.  You never know.

I think we randomly stumbled upon a couple Reuban's along the way, saw a couple French Dips too.  Tuna Salad anyone? 


After a few hours we were through.  Even though we hadn't really been on a wildly urgent art museum kick, we were still getting a little culture burn.  Besides, it was brasserie time.  We hooked up with our companions and off we went in search of that afternoons repast.

Amazingly we didn't have to travel very far.  There's just about one on every corner.  Our waiter there didn't speak a lot of English and at first seemed annoyed we Americans had arrived within his sphere.  But then he broke the ice by playfully tossing cloth napkins on everybody's lap.  It was another enjoyable French meal, and again we had fries.

From there we wandered over to a neighborhood recommended by Rick Steve's and, even though we never really found it, we had a nice afternoon stroll nonetheless.  That night we did the usual, actually earning the disdain from one of our neighbors for the second time.

"Louder please," I believe was the sardonic response to our apparently ever elevating decibel level.  She had an almost vulgar French accent.  Gutteral baby.  Probably enhanced by French wine.  Probably a lot of it.  We sang the last few tunes quietly and retired early.  We had to be ready for the next day, our March on Versailles.