Category Archives: France

The Case for Sundays

A picture is definitely not worth a thousand words.

No matter how skilled the photographer is, no image could truly capture the splendor of a beautiful Sunday in France: a day so completely reserved for time off that your body is physically forced to lower your blood pressure.

Park time.

In the city, the usual roar of traffic dulls to a rumble, leaving space in the air for the sounds of bicycle gears clicking, leaves scratching across the sidewalk, and the knives, forks and laughter of your neighbors’ rose garden luncheon. In the country, it’s the best day to go for a long, car-free run, then share a picnic by the river. You become incapable of speed beyond a leisurely stroll, you listen to jazz, cook big meals and catch up with friends and family you haven’t seen for weeks. Continue reading

Fromage Friday: Brillat Savarin

It’s BACK! Sure, there is a lot of good cheese to be eaten in the United States, but on that side of the Atlantic “fancy” cheese is more expensive and seems frivolous. In France, I feel like a criminal every time I walk past a fromagerie without buying something. That means I feel like a criminal every 15 minutes, but so be it.

The return to glory involved the 17ème arrondissement’s Alléosse fromagerie and about five kinds of cheese, but the only one I’d never had before was Brillat Savarin. The cheese comes in a square about the size of your fist, but a quarter of it is more than enough to last a few days because it’s a   “triple crème” cheese. This means that cream is added to the usual milk mixture when this cheese is being created. It also means the cheese is about 75 percent fat. One sliver of this bad boy meant I had to put some of my other cheese slices back on the plate at lunch (l’horreur!!!); I was just WAY too full. Yes, I said it. I found a cheese I can’t really eat.

According to my reader-friendly cheese book, this cheese was created by Pierre Androuët, FATHER of the master of all things French cheese, in 1930. He’s also the author of my less-than-reader-friendly “Dictionary of World Cheeses.” Good work, Team Androuët.

Brillat Savarin

Made by: Fromager/Affineur (meaning they actually mature the cheese) Alléosse, rue Poncelet. The line was 10 people long. I take the advice of travel writers and get in lines whenever I see that many people waiting.
Hails from: The northwest of France. Mostly Normandy.
Background: Not a handmade cheese, and so creamy that my aunt squeezed a piece and said it actually felt like butter. It’s a fresh cheese in that it only needs to age a few weeks, but it’s by no means light. Whoa mama. It’s also fairly strong tasting. I had been expecting something like Brie, but it’s much richer and tangy-er in flavor. Holds its own, for sure!
Can I eat the rind? You can, but it’s not necessary.
Serve it with: Veggies. Fruit. More veggies. Scant amounts of bread. Maybe I’m exaggerating, but this is not the kind of cheese I could handle eating with prosciutto or ham.

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Speculoos City

Most cafés in Northeast France serve a Belgian Speculoos biscuit with every tea or coffee you order. While you can find Speculoos throughout the country, it’s more at home in Lorraine, which shares a border with Belgium as well as the holiday of Saint Nicolas, when bakeries produce giant Speculoos cookies in the shape of the good saint. Whenever I was served a coffee in another region of France and received a chocolate chip cookie, it was a bitter disappointment.

The cookie is a basic spice cookie, which sounds plain but is completely addictive. I’ll prove it!! The flavor is so popular at the moment that you can buy gazillions of speculoos-flavored treats: cereal, pudding, toasts, spreads, and pastries. The spread is at least as deadly as Nutella. I don’t drink espresso all that often in the States, but some clever friends knew that when I did I would feel sad without that Speculoos on the side, and bought me a cookbook to make them at home, along with a ton of other dishes (speculoos pie crust, speculoos tiramisu with chevre and figs, apple/almond speculoos soufflés!) made with the flavor . Continue reading

Why Crate and Barrel sells pie weights

It’s Bastille Day! The 1789 day French civilians and others stormed the Bastille and it freaked everyone out, even though there were only seven prisoners and more rioters were killed than anyone else. Vive la revolution!

I celebrated this historic day by making a very non-French quiche and eating it with a bunch of French speakers outside of Fort McHenry. I didn’t have enough time to make the pastry dough from scratch (though apparently I am one of very few women who even attempt one), and I turned up my nose at the idea of adding beans to my pie crust while toasting it, because I’d never done it before.

On the right, first not-so-great attempt.

Pride always comes before a fall.

The pie crust turned into a mountain. I convinced myself I could still just pour the filling in, and created an oven disaster that validates Crate and Barrel’s $7 pie weight, though from now on I’ll just be sticking with reused dried peas or clean pebbles, à la français. Attempt two came out cute and clean, though to be perfectly honest both tasted delicious.

I was aiming for a decidedly non-French quiche; a ricotta, arugula and lemon recipe. A quiche typique of ham, cheese, eggs and layered pastry dough always leaves me feeling like a human log, and this was a fantasic and EASY variation.

Even if you do it properly and make the pie crust, it can’t possibly take you more than 20-30 minutes of active work to make, and then all that’s left is to receive compliments from the resident French quiche experts at the picnic.

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“What do Americans think of French people?” Considering the reputation of Americans, I was always surprised that French people are so concerned about what we think.

The short answer could be: they’re all fashionable but smell awful, they eat baguettes and drink wine while wearing a striped shirt and a beret, and they’re kind of snobby. In reality, I spent the last year discovering how welcoming French people can be (behind a slightly frosted façade), even in the bitter north.

Lonely loft.

When I arrived in Lorraine last September, the only people I knew were two Irish teaching assistants who happened to be arriving at Charles de Gaulle airport at the same time as me. I spent the first two nights sleeping on the floor of a hotel room using space bags full of clothing as a makeshift bed and my backpack for a pillow. Bienvenue!

By comparison, Tuesday morning a French teacher and friend got up at 6 a.m. (on a holiday) to drive me to the train station for my hopefully-not-final departure from Epinal. My temporary housemates, an Italian and a Spanish assistant who welcomed me for the weekend, not only helped carry my bags and made me toast, but came all the way to the station to see me off. Not one, but three separate people are housing my massive amount of sweaters, boots and sporting equipment over summer. I also know I have at least one bedroom all set up for me in September. I’m going to go ahead and be sappy: I have a lot to thank the French for.

It’s true that many French people will not hesitate to give their opinion, even if it’s on your weight gain or your baldness. Yet in Lorraine many locals were thrilled to meet an American and exchange ideas. And of course show me the rolling countryside, black-and-white cows, and general obsession with fatty pork products they grew up with. An exercise in how far genuine curiosity, modesty, honesty and a dusting of bravery will get you with almost anyone, in almost any place.

Around the Vosges mountains, it can land you laughing on your butt in the snow on the border of a frozen lake, a week before Christmas, as the flakes slash by you.

It can get you to a living room sofa covered with babies who can’t crawl, but eat Roquefort on crackers, or to a breakfast table with 10 kinds of bread.

It can get you into a 100-year-old iron forge run by three generations of smiths, and occupied during the Germans during WW2. Direct quote: “They ate a lot of potatoes.”

But most importantly, it can make a hell of change for you. Answering the questions of how Americans see French people, or how French people see Americans, is only going to get more complicated.

Thanks, for helping me pimp all over the world.



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La Maison Forestière

A nearby forest-bound sculpture garden.

The more idyllic the scenery, the harder it is for me to take pictures. That was the case this week when I visited one of my fellow teachers in Hennezel, France. It’s home to less than 450 people and completely surrounded by woods, but somehow cozy anyway. My host’s husband is a forestier; something like a woodsman or a forest ranger, who spends most of his days walking through the woods choosing the best trees to cut down while allowing the forest to prosper. Their house is a “maison forestière” heated entirely by wood with vegetable patches against the lean-to, and blossoming pear trees and lilac bushes.

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Easter in Epinal

The weather has turned cold, rainy and cloudy again, which is only fair for early April in the north. It made my arbitrary attendance of Easter Sunday service in the 12th-century stone basilica a little chilly, though.

One of the first pictures I ever saw of Epinal was of the basilica, when I was doing internet research from Pennsyvlania. The basilica between the years of 1940 and 1944, when Epinal was maimed in skirmishes with our now-friendly German neighbors, and blown up by Americans in 1944.

Sorry, Epinal.

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Learning on the Road

Céline lives in a wooden-floored one bedroom in a historic pans de bois building in Troyes, with pencil sketches on the walls and multicolored tins of tea lining the shelves. I’ve couchsurfed before, but this is the first time that I’ve gotten off the train to find someone waiting for me with a big smile and bisous, complete with a black bicycle and beret.

Troyes, in Champagne, pulls its charm from medieval houses and cobblestone streets, but I enjoyed it most because Céline took me through the side alleys and her friends’ shops. She bought raw, whole milk (creamy, but tastes like… milk), described the best local cheeses, and explained why a passing bachelor was enrobed in a burlap sack. But possibly the most interesting thing about Céline was her travel plans:

Every vacation she takes, she plans to learn something. Continue reading

Alsace’s Route du Vin, and “Grandmas Are Awesome”

This is not the first time I’ve said this, nor is it by any means the last. Despite living in a backwoods Bermuda triangle that seems to hold onto locals, I’ve met a number of amazing older women. Women who have lived in Zaïre. Women who moved to London without housing and spent two months hiding under a friend’s bed at night. Women who have bathed in a hot stream with Bjork (really!) and hiked the Camino de Santiago post-retirement.

And last weekend, women in their 80s who speak four languages and can tell you everything on earth about the history of wine, Alsace, and France.

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Fromage Friday: Pavé Carvinois

My fromager has figured me out. After months of showing up at the cheese counter, standing behind the line for 5 minutes just staring at the case, he’s started giving me little tidbits of information when I choose a cheese completely at random.

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