Friday, May 27, 2011

Eating Le Brie (cheese) while in La Brie (region) on May 1st

La Brie is a historic region of France close to Paris. It is a region just like Brittany, Normandy or Provence. My cousin has been living there all her life. We stayed with her and her husband when we arrived in France at the end of last April. She lives in a little town close to Melun, the larger town in the region. The region of Brie is about 50 kms (31 miles) from Paris between the rivers Seine and the Marne and covers about 5,000 square kilometers. The people are called “Briards” (masc) and “Briardes” (fem.)

Map showing the Brie region (from Wikipedia)

There is a feeling of being in the country there as the landscape still is an area of large fields, forests and small villages. There are beautiful castles close by too like Vaux-le-Vicomte.

Postcard of a watercolor by P. Riviere

I wrote a post in December 2009 about Vaux-le-Vicomte castle and took many pictures – you can see them here. I loved to go to visit my cousins when I was growing up as I felt we were going far away from Paris as we drove down little roads. Now there are freeways and the RER metro line and it is almost a suburb area for Paris. But the old farms are still there close to the fields.

Click on collage to enlarge, then click on each picture

The name “Brie” is well known, not because of the area “La région de la Brie” but for its cheese, “le fromage le Brie.” It has a long history there – Emperor Charlemagne (742-814 AD) tasted the cheese in a small Brie village in 774 and this was duly noted. Later, Louis XVI’s (1754-1793) last wish before going to the guillotine was to get a final taste of Brie cheese. In 1814 the Prince of Talleyrand brought the cheese to the Congress of Vienna. This Brie de Meaux was awarded first prize and was declared “Le Roi des Fromages” (The King of Cheeses.) There are several Brie cheeses made in the Brie region – they take their names from the names of the cities where they are made. See below.

Now, all over the world different Brie cheeses are sold: light Brie, herbed varieties, double cream or made with other types of milk. The French government officially certified only two types of cheese to be sold under that name : Brie de Meaux and Brie de Melun. This certification is called “Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC)” which means “controlled designation of origin.” This is not a brand or a registered trademark – it is a certification that the product has been produced under a rigorous set of defined standards – in a traditional manner with ingredients from specifically classified producers in a designated area. Under French law you cannot call a cheese “Brie” if it was not produced in that region. It is the same for wine – Champagnes are produced in the Champagne region, Bordeaux wines in the Bordeaux region and so on. Certainly you would not call a wine a “California” wine if it had been produced in Michigan. Brie cheeses produced in California or Canada are not genuine and don’t taste the same as the real thing (I know – I have tasted them all.) There are many other cheeses in France with this AOC certification, like Roquefort, Camembert, Port Salut, etc.

Postcard showing some of France's cheeses

Because of all these cheeses, a quote from General De Gaulle is well known: “How can anyone govern a nation that has two hundred and forty-six varieties of cheese? “ (Charles de Gaulle.) That was then but now France produces more types of cheeses, between 350 and 400 or so. About 40 of them have the AOC certification. My cousin always has a great selection when we visit her.

The Sunday after watching The Wedding (see last post) it was May 1st. My cousin’s husband went to the florist early and surprised us with some lily of the valley to bring us happiness for the rest of the year – according to the French custom. (I wrote a post on this, see it here.) We went to the balcony so I could take a picture of it.

My cousin placed her lily of the valley in a little vase.

Then we went to the market to buy some fresh vegetables, fruits and cheeses bien sûr ! (of course.) Below is my cousin buying some cheese.

My cousin is a gourmet cook. The largest meal of the day at her home is lunch. The evening meal is very light. That Sunday we had some delicious scallops with fresh herbs on tender spaghetti for lunch, accompanied by a beautifully balanced rosé wine.

We ended the meal with the “plat de fromages“ an assortment of cheeses – she had at least 3 types of Brie – de Meaux, de Melun and de Provins – all this accompanied by a great Champagne (they usually go to the producer and buy a quantity of bottles.)

In the family it is well known that I like cheese. I have been brought up on cheese, really. I read in my mother’s memoirs where she said that while living in Provence with her parents soon after I was born (my father was in the war) she would sew dresses or make alterations to clothes for many farmers in the area. She was not paid but received each week a couple of eggs and some cheese to feed me. When she went away to another town to work my grandparents fed me mostly goat cheese that they obtained from the local shepherds.

My grandmother and me around 1942 in Vaison-la-Romaine

When I was about 3 or 4 I went back to Paris with my mother - food was scarce. The French were given ration books to obtain food, clothes and other necessities. Often even with the ration tickets food, like meat, was not available, and from 1940 to 1944 many ration tickets were left unused. I ate mostly cheese because everyone in the family gave my mother their cheese ration tickets to feed me. Below is a ration book and ration tickets.

The tickets above are for bread – 100 grams per day or approx 3.75 ounces – bread made from a mixture of corn, beans, rice and other grains and not tasty. For cheese the ration was 6 grams per day or 0.211 ounces. I rarely ate meat and when offered some could not eat it well. I read that France had ration books until 1948 (bread 1949.) So my eating cheese goes way back. After coming to the US in the 60s, I went back to France many times, about every other year at first, then every year and starting in 1984 when my mother became ill I flew to Paris about two or 3 times a year until 2002 – a total of perhaps 46 to 52 times till 2002 (Unfortunately I went back home not as a tourist so I rarely took pictures of Paris.) My mother, paralyzed, had the meals on wheels service so there was no cooking at home. I bought different cheeses, a baguette and a good bottle of wine - that was my dinner when I visited her.

For the evening meal of this 1st of May, we just had some “charcuterie” (paté and local sausages) and some cheese, too.

During the day the florist rang twice bringing flowers sent to my cousins from their daughters who live in other parts of France. The first bouquet was an assortment of lily of the valley with pink flowers – I don’t know their names.

The second bouquet was an assortment of pale roses and lily of the valley.

My cousin was pleased to display them in the dining room.

It certainly had been a happy 1st of May.

Postcard of a watercolor by Thierry Gaudry called Cidre Briard et Brie de Coulommiers

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Arriving in France – with a detour

Many hours were spent planning our trip to France. We were flying United Airlines from Atlanta to Chicago then connecting with another flight to Paris. The savings on the special fare made up for the studio downtown Paris I had rented for the last week of our stay. We were leaving Atlanta on Tuesday 26 April to return home on May 19th. On Sunday April 24th I sent an email to the studio’s owner to fix a meeting time. On Monday they replied that the studio was no longer available. So a day prior to our leaving, Easter Monday which is a holiday in France, I had to spend hours trying to find another studio instead of packing our suitcases! But I found one and by 3 am Tuesday morning our suitcases were packed. We arrived at the Atlanta airport in plenty of time but unfortunately, because of bad storms and tornadoes up north, we deplaned in Chicago at 5:40 pm. We rushed to the other terminal hoping to reach our connecting flight in time which was to depart at 6:00 PM.

Click on collage to enlarge, then click on each picture

We arrived at the gate at 5:55 PM, the aircraft was still there but the door was closed – I am sure our seats had been given away. We watched as the plane backed off the ramp and slowly rolled away – without us. It was a terrible feeling.

(Internet picture - no author known)

There was a flight going to London at 9:00 PM we were told, then once in London we could connect to another flight to Paris. This is what we did. The plane had many groups of happy tourists on board flying to London to watch The Wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton on Friday 29th, but this was not a detour we had anticipated. The 8 ½ hour flight went smoothly and as we approached Heathrow Airport the weather looked fine from my aircraft window.

We had time to catch our Air France flight to Paris so I tried to find some wedding souvenir at the airport shop. The choice was very limited as they were sold out of many items. I did buy some tea though.

When we arrived at the Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris, around 1:00 PM on Wednesday 27th, our luggage did not show up. We made a report then took the train to the little town – about 1 hour from Paris – where my cousins live. The next day we had to go back to Paris to make arrangements for the studio with the owners. We brushed our traveling clothes and went back to Paris – we had no report on our luggage. The new studio was in the Marais area of Paris which I know well since my mother had a flat there for several years. The studio looked OK but had no computer access. The owners invited us to their flat so I could send a quick email to our daughters. I enjoyed taking pictures of the view from their 5th floor apartment. We could even see the top of Notre Dame de Paris from their window.

By Friday 29th we were quite tired and happy to stay home with our cousins and watch TV. My cousin had prepared a special meal to celebrate – I thought it was for our arrival… no, it was to accompany the viewing of The Wedding on TV. We started with my cousin’s special cocktail.

Watching The Wedding had not been in my prepared plans, but then the detour to London had not been planned either. I decided to take many pictures since the television format in France is quite fine and pictures usually look pretty good. In 1942 the US decided to use the NTSC format (National Television Standards Committee) which has 525 lines of resolution. At that time this was good enough for black and white transmission. Europe, Australia and part of Asia selected the competing format called PAL, or Phase Alternating Line. This system was created after the advent of color broadcasting. It has 625 lines of resolution which give better picture quality and color signals truer to the original image. This is the reason that European videos cannot be seen on US televisions.

The pictures were very clear. We saw the ceremony better than if we had been sitting in Westminster Abbey really.

Actually while sipping my cocktail I now realize that I took over 250 pictures – way too many.

Below is a small selection.

Click on collage then click on each picture for better viewing

My cousin told me that Prince Albert of Monaco (the son of the former Grace Kelly) is to wed his South African swimmer girl-friend, Charlene Wittstock, this summer. Here they are below arriving at the Abbey.

I took another sip to wish them both good luck.

Then it was back to the pictures…

I caught “the kiss”

and English high fashion

“the end.”

Now it was time to call Air France to see if they had located our luggage – it had been 3 days already. They had located them… but in Los Angeles.

They finally arrived the following day, Saturday. This was not the end of our adventures though. Now I have to look at all my pictures and will talk about the rest of this trip in the coming weeks.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Blog Intermission No. 12 (entr’acte) Lunch by the river

In my last post “A bridge in Vinings, Georgia” we had parked the car close to Hermi’s bridge. There is a gourmet restaurant called Canoe right there by the banks of the Chattahoochee. I remembered seeing this restaurant almost under water two years ago during the September flood (see my posts here.)

But now the restaurant and its garden looked very attractive.

We decided to have lunch there but first we took a walk in the pretty garden.

It was cool (70 F/21 C) and after the heavy rain of the previous night every little flower had brilliant colors and the Canada Geese were happily munching the shiny grass.

Click on collage to enlarge then click on each picture to biggify

Hermi’s bridge looked very good from the garden and it was hard not to take many pictures. I must have taken about two dozen of the bridge alone.

The views of the Chattahoochee River were lovely too, so I took many pictures from different angles.

I could have stayed a long time taking many pictures but it was already 2:00 PM and time for lunch - just a few more pictures before being seated.

We shared the appetizer which was called Canoe’s House Smoked Salmon with Crispy Potato Cake and Vermont Goat’s Cheese. Very tasty. This was followed with Panko crusted George’s Bank Cod with whipped potatoes and baby spinach on caper brown butter for me. As we ate, it was lovely to look out to the colorful garden.

My husband was often distracted by the antics of the Canada Geese and a variety of birds flying to the feeders.

My husband had the charred steak salad with romaine hearts and shiitake mushrooms on toasted sour dough bread and Caesar dressing. We finished with the Valhrona Chocolate & Salted Caramel Grotto with Pretzel Hazelnut Dust. What can I say – delicious contemporary fare in a comfortable yet classy atmosphere while overlooking a perfect setting with garden and river views…..

Spring in Atlanta with all the majestic trees, the dogwoods in bloom, the azaleas and other brilliant flowers soothes the soul – and a good lunch in a local restaurant soothes the palate.


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