From Computers to Cheeses

the three stages of goat cheese

As the end of my time in Aix-en-Provence, France drew to a close almost exactly a year ago, the time came for one of our planned activities. One I had been looking forward to for weeks. Why? Cheese tasting. I have no idea where my love of cheese began, but for a cheese connosieur, France is definitely the place to be. We actually had two cheese tastings in the span of a few days—one at a snazzy cheese-boutique, if you will, and one at a goat farm. That’s right. I saw the goats that made the cheese I was eating. I even got the chance to try the cheese in its three stages of development. I always considered goat cheese a milder-tasting cheese compared to Bleu or Gorgonzola, but you could really taste the differences in taste as well as the more obvious difference in textures. We crammed an illegal amount of girls into a ridiculously tiny car after taking a bus to what we thought was the middle of nowhere. The goat farm was family run and I’m pretty certain they ran the shop off of their house. Interspersed with our tasting we petted the goats, chased the roosters, and terrorized the adorable, mostly feral kittens. While the place had a very quaint feel when you approached, the owner was quite business-like and I felt like we were a school tour. This particular farm had its share of visitors.

Our second tasting was far different. The shop was closed to everyone except us—the owner actually lowered the metal gate over the doors after we were all inside. We crowded inside the long narrow store, which I can only describe as a boutique. Beautiful cheeses lined the walls in glass cases, artfully displayed like rare gems in their rinds and wax coatings. The store owner looked just like Mads Mikkelsen to me (he played le Chiffre in the Daniel Craig/James Bond film Casino Royale which must be why I connected them so quickly) and spoke entirely in French. I always enjoyed it more when our hosts spoke French to us, even if we wouldn’t catch everything they said. The owner, we discovered, was formerly employed by Dell and, from what I understood, did extremely well for himself. One day, he decided that he was done with computers and circuit boards and decided to quit his job and devote his life to his true passion: cheese.

What is more French than that? I cannot recall another time when I have actually met someone who gave up a high paying job in which they excelled to pursue what other people would call their “hobby.” It’s the Cinderella story we always hear, the example we are encouraged to follow—until we land in the real world. I could tell from the hour that we spent with him that he never regretted his choice for one moment. As he filled our paper cups with wine and made us all eat until the different samples of cheese had disappeared off of the wooden cutting board, he taught us about more than just the flavors we were tasting. He taught us how to properly slice a cheese, in order to save us from embarrassment in French society. We discussed the different rules France has on the creation and distribution of different products. The visit was less about simply pleasing our tastebuds and more about what it is to be truly French. This man shut down his shop for an afternoon to essentially hang around with a group of American college students and to talk about his life and his passion. He was genial and engaging and absolutely determined that we all enjoy ourselves—as though we could have done otherwise.

The way he spoke was so vivid as well and I honestly don’t remember if the descriptions that stuck with me were in French or English, and it doesn’t really matter. He was talking about—of all things—the different kinds of cheese rinds. Some cheeses you can, and should, eat the rind. On other cheeses, especially the large ones, you should not eat the rind because these cheeses are so large they have to be rolled on the bare ground to be moved. The rind is part of the curing process. He held one cheese with a particularly interesting looking rind and explained that the rind is basically the “mold” that grows (the cheese in France is mainly unpasteurized). As it builds up, it is scraped and rubbed and eventually forms the rind. He ran his hands over the rind of the cheese, explaining that you know it is ready when the rind feels like the outside of a worn leather book.

In one fell swoop he combined two of my most beloved things on earth: cheese and leather-bound books. The man was amazing. Every time I eat cheese in America I can’t help but compare it in my mind to the products in France. Maybe it’s a combination of the atmosphere, the ambiance…there are no stores dedicated just to cheese where I live. If there were, I can’t help but think they would still be impersonal and commercial. The store owner would never show you into the back where the cheeses aged in the fridge or demand that you eat the rest of the cheese on the platter and try it with fig preserves or finish off the bottle of wine he opened. There is nothing like being allowed to see a glimpse of someone else’s passion, it makes you more interested, more engaged in what they are saying and doing. For me, who already love all things cheesy, it was no very big stretch. But, of all the things I saw and did in France, it definitely says something that the little cheese store and its eccentric owner have stuck with me for a year, even down to the way he looked and the way he ran his hands over the beautiful, leathery rind of that lovely cheese.

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Chicken and Carousels – Remembering Arles

2/7/11

“Sitting in Arles listening to a guy with a trumpet play ‘La Vie en Rose’ next to a backpack with a whole chicken from the market. It’s like a movie. It’s about 60 degrees and breezy. The sun is shining and the sky is this pure, crystal blue; it’s surreal. The market is colorful and loud with the smells of chicken cooking and the spices on the spice table fill the air. The carousel spins in a wheel of lights a pastel colors; a pig is chased by a bull, a pink airplane, and Cinderella’s pumpkin coach.”

We took a day trip to Arles and when we tumbled out of the bus into the cool morning the smells of the market hit us immediately. When we first arrived it was well attended, but not crowded. A table covered in large baskets full of spices drew me in. There were mounds of golden curry and speckled pepper and a million other things that I could only regard in amazement. Everything was as vibrant as you can imagine, the reds and blues and golds jumping out at me in the crisp summer sunshine. The streets were quiet except for us with our cameras and backpacks and awestruck faces. We wandered around the arena of Arles, which is much smaller than Rome’s monstrosity, but equally impressive. The stone glinted gray and white against the cerulean blue of the sky and even the birds seemed quiet and still. Leaving the arena after exploring to our hearts’ content, the city seemed to awaken at last. The market was filled with the chatter of shoppers and the golden notes from the saxophone hung in the air like the sweet sound of a wind chime in the breeze.

A whole, rotisserie chicken straight off the grill made its way into my backpack along with a wedge of hard white cheese and fresh crusty bread. All of the fruits and vegetables gleamed in a riot of colors, almost too beautiful to eat, too beautiful to touch. A few yards away, two of the guys on our trip sat on the cold stone, leaning against a low wall and sharing a baguette. They watched the carousel next to the Tourist Center cavort in circles and did not look up as I snapped a quick picture. Just steps away from the market it grew quieter and the laughter of children and music from the carousel flitted along the air, bright butterflies of sound.

Watching Over me

June 27, 2011
“Over our first few days, I noticed on many of the street corner buildings contained, high above our heads, little alcoves with statues. These statues usually represented the Virgin and Child or some other saint. I’ve never seen anything like them and they piqued my curiosity until Vainess explained their significance. When the black plague struck Aix, all of the churches were closed to prevent the spread of contagion. But, after a time, the people needed to pray. The tradition of faith tended toward catholicism for most, so the statues were put up all over the city to give the citizens somewhere to pray. I think it is very unique although I believe you can pray anywhere–one of the many differences between the modern protestant and traditional catholic beliefs”

These statues were literally everywhere, all over the city.I have been to other European cities and never seen their like; I was fascinated by them from the beginning. They sit ensconced cozily in their stone alcoves, surveying the passersby as they have for years upon years. A few of them have been spruced up with fresh coats of bright, modern paint, but most of the others are weathered and softened by the centuries. Two of them I passed every day stick in my mind: one was a simple stone fisherman, no saint, but a provencal man with a simple pole and a big straw hat. The other I assume was Mary, her clothes painted vibrant red, blue, and white–the colors of the french flag, unless it is simple coincidence. While they do not hold the same significance today as they did to the people suffering during the ravages of the plague, there is something comforting about their presence.. I can imagine wandering around the city, lost, and looking up suddenly to see some saint smiling down at me.

I think we often forget how young the United States are, with our glass and chrome buildings, the peak of modern ingenuity. Even in Washington, New York, Philadelphia, there is no real sense of age. Europe is the complete opposite. These alcove guardians have seen carriages replaced by cars, have seen cafés become filled with visitors speaking hundreds of different languages, the influx and invasion of technology. They hunker in the weathered stones of the buildings, resisting change and surviving all attempts at modernization.

We have few monuments, no castles–everything is shiny and clean and new. There is beauty in the curve of a steel bridge, in the glittering glass of a skyscraper, but I find it difficult to see.

The cobblestone streets are washed clean every morning and dry in the light of the sun, but, walking along those uneven pavers, you get a sense of the years that have passed. Only in the Old Country can you tread the paths where kings, knights, and crusaders have walked. The smells of tobacco, baking bread, and the sweet warmth of the french sunlight cannot be so different now as they were then. The buildings are alive, warmed by the sun, etched by the rain, and fed by the blood, sweat, tears, and prayers of their inhabitants. These buildings have eyes, have souls, have stories all their own.You may keep your chrome, your glass, and your steel. Give me the rough stone, the uneven cobbles, and the memories.

Memories from Aix

When I was in France this summer, I planned on blogging as often as possible so that I could record all of my impressions and experiences. Unfortunately, life in France tended to be a little bit distracting. However, I did journal a bit and managed to record some memories and impressions. Those notes, along with the copious amounts of photos that I took, have kept the experience very fresh in my mind. I will be receiving my Bachelor of Arts degree in English and French by December of 2012 and so my schedule this semester is loaded with french courses. The one downside to this is that all of the photos we look at are making the longing to return to France close to unbearable. However, I simply have to look back on some of my journal entries to take me back to Aix-en-Provence

“It’s interesting how the same city can be so loud at times and so quiet at others. In French, the word for noise is bruit. It may not be an onomatopoeia, but it almost could be. At the school they are holding a music festival so you get to hear opera while sitting in the courtyard. I’m enjoying my first croque monsieur et il est parfait! Even the Coke tastes better here. The “honey” thing followed me to france. (People are always calling me honey, sweetie, and darling probably due to my short stature, but at the age of 21, it starts to get slightly absurd). I’m fairly certain that the man from whom I bought my delicious sandwich called me “petite” when I ordered, basically calling me “little one.””

As I wrote this, I was sitting in the sunshine on a bench in the courtyard of my school — L’Université Paul Cézanne — in Aix. School had not begun yet and I’m not sure where my keepers were at the moment for I was alone. The air had a hint of chill but the sunlight was pleasant and shone down out of the clearest blue sky. The school is located in an old building next to the Hôtel de Ville, which is loosely the city hall. It was so amazingly peaceful sitting there with the cold iron of the bench pressing against my legs and the sweet smelling sun caressing my face. A croque monsieur is somewhat similar to a grilled ham and cheese but, being french, it is so much better. I could write an entire post simply about the sandwiches in France. They’re so simple and yet the ingredients are so fresh it’s unlike anything you could ever buy from a sidewalk vendor in the United States. The heat of the sandwich washed down with the cold, fizzing Coke was just the thing I needed to sate my hunger. As I said, the performers from the Music Festival shared use of the building and the silence would be broken by burst of opera floating out of an open window or the melodies of a violin that wafted along the summer air.

No classroom will ever compare after that.