Who wants some smelly French cheese?

Photo: Ah, Camembert! © 2006 NJGJ

Well everyone, this is my first post from the American side of the Pond since arriving on Sunday afternoon, and have I got news for you! In fact, as far as I’m concerned, this is a “CNN Breaking News” kind of moment, so I can only apologize for not publishing it as soon as I got to a computer Sunday evening. But I had jetlag, you know, and it took me a couple of days to get back into the right rhythm … plus I had to find the right images online for the blogpost that wouldn’t end up infringing someone’s copyright and, then, WordPress started having formatting issues. Anyway, enough about the jetlag and the bloggers’ headaches, right? You just want to know what this juicy tidbit of information is. Well … <drumroll> …

Despite everything you may have heard or believed up to now,
you CAN bring smelly French cheese into the US! *

© 2010 Myrabella

* Make sure to read the disclaimer at the end of this article.

Okay, so you know how I joke all the time about how U.S. Customs thinks unpasteurized cheese is a chemical weapon? The last time I did that, in fact, was just 9 days ago. I was saying that if I ever wanted my parents to taste a real Camembert, I’d have to smuggle it into the country under the noses of those luggage-sniffing dogs they have. Well, as it turns out, I was wrong … completely and utterly wrong … and I owe my current status of “harbinger of good news for American expats in France and their friends and family back home” to an unexpected encounter with a Customs agent at Charlotte Douglas International Airport Sunday afternoon.

Continue reading Who wants some smelly French cheese?

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As American as Apple Pie

Captain America © 2011 Samuel Michael Bell

Yesterday was my second Fourth of July here in France. Expatriates around the world know the feeling: you’re in a place that’s become your home, but on a day like the Fourth, the separation from your homeland feels wider and the differences seem more pronounced. You seek out a way to feel as “American” as you can, no matter how far from America you are. And we all have our ways of doing that …

For example →

Last year, I decided to seek out an historic American bar here in Paris and toast America’s birthday with the drink special of the day: The General Washington. Unfortunately, it didn’t go exactly as I’d planned, and it almost ruined my day. This year, Michel and I decided instead to celebrate by having a picnic on the banks of the Seine with a group of our friends. We asked everyone to bring something quintessentially American or, in the alternative, to come dressed as an “American.” Knowing this particular group of friends and their penchant for dramatic flare, I was sure to have material for my next blogpost. Continue reading As American as Apple Pie

Chipotle: The Final Analysis

© 2012 Samuel Michael Bell, all rights reserved

Thursday, I wrote how ecstatic I was about the opening of a Chipotle Mexican Grill here in Paris because I could finally get my Mexican fast food fix. Obviously, like any great international city, Paris has an array of good Mexican restaurants, but every now and then, you just crave that mass-produced, no-surprise flavor you get from fast food. Before coming to live in Paris, I had become a big fan of Chipotle, so when I first heard that they’d opened a location here, I made plans to go there for the lunch the very next day.

Now, before I get to my review of Chipotle Paris, I should note for those of you who are not aware that American fast food often undergoes a slight transformation when it crosses borders and oceans. It makes sense, I guess, that fast food restaurateurs want to ensure, while staying true to the brand, that what they serve overseas will also appeal to the local palate. I’ll never forget the first time I encountered this as a high school student traveling to London in 1989. After just a few days of subsisting on the rather bland English fare served up at our hotel, a few of us set out on a foraging mission to find something quintessentially American. (After all, you can only eat roast beef and garden peas for so long.) We descended on the first Pizza Hut we could find, already salivating over the Super Supreme pan pizzas we were going to order. We weren’t at all prepared to find on the menu such “foreign” creations as prawn pizza or chicken and sweet corn pizza. The same is true in France, of course, where even KFC and McDonald’s offer several menu items that were clearly dreamed up by a kitchen team with absolutely no American members. Take for instance, the most recent addition to the French “McDo” (pronounced “mac-doe”) menu:

Continue reading Chipotle: The Final Analysis

Oh Happy Day … Guacamole in Paris!

As an American living in France, I’ve come to appreciate the culinary delights of this culture (the vegetarian-friendly ones, at least):

Even so, my expatriate palate still longs for the familiar, even mundane flavors of home:

  • cheap and readily accessible peanut butter
  • Krispy Kreme donuts (because, I’m sorry y’all, but a French beignet can’t even touch a Krispy Kreme donut)
  • pimento cheese on white bread (because I’m from the South, if you didn’t pick up on that from the “y’all” I just dropped)
  • a veggie “burger” that doesn’t consist of a potato pancake stuffed with peas and carrots, and—of course—
  • Mexican fast food.

Well, I am pleased to report that I can now cross Mexican fast food off the list! Today, thanks to a fellow blogger’s post in the Americans in Paris Facebook group, I made the joyous discovery that Chipotle Mexican Grill has opened a location right here in Paris! (Click here to read her review and see pictures from Chipotle Paris.) I may not be able to find pimento cheese or good donuts here, but I can now gorge on quality, mass-produced guacamole to my heart’s content!

Vive la Révolution, indeed!

Continue reading Oh Happy Day … Guacamole in Paris!

Weekend Bourguignon

© 2012 Samuel Michael Bell, all rights reserved

Monday was Memorial Day in the United States and, thanks to the timing of Easter this year, it was also le Lundi de Pentecôte (Whit Monday) here in France. While Pentecost Monday was removed from the list of French state holidays in 2005, traditions die hard here and it made a quick comeback just a few years later. No one wants to be deprived of a three-day weekend, of course, and the French have rebelled for less. So, while my American friends were hitting the road to go to the beach or were gearing up for a weekend of barbecues and pool parties, I was doing the same.

My destination: the Burgundian countryside.

A friend of ours has a country home in Burgundy — an old farmhouse renovated into a magical little oasis far from the bustle of Paris — and we were invited along with three other friends to spend the long weekend there. How could you say no to that? So, Saturday morning, we headed off down the A6 and the A77 to western Burgundy, towards a little hamlet called Picarnon. And when I say “hamlet,” I mean it. Our friend’s country home is nestled among ten or so other houses located just off the main road, surrounded by rolling fields and woods. It was postcard picturesque and absolutely peaceful … even with the self-described “charming” neighbor, who seemed just a little too intrigued by the presence of six obviously gay guys splashing around in the inflatable pool next door. But she was nice all the same.

Continue reading Weekend Bourguignon

Truffles: mushrooms, chocolate, and … dogs?

For the last post before my CELTA English teaching course begins Monday, I thought I’d write about a few relevant “French English” words : student, study, review, professor. Then a friend shared an interesting article with me, and I decided to go with truffle instead—probably more engaging and certainly more enticing than a discussion about homework!

Truffle has two very distinct meanings in English, of course. It can refer to the very tasty and very expensive mushroom that grows in forests between the leaf litter and the soil and gets sniffed out by special truffle-hunting pigs and dogs. If you have a sweet tooth like me, though, the word probably initially conjures up images of those decadent little chocolate confections.

The word truffle (or “truffe” in Modern French) comes from the Old French “trufe” by way of the Old Provençal “trufa,” which itself comes from the Vulgar Latin “tufera“—a dialectal variant of the Latin “tuber,” meaning “lump.”

black Périgord truffles © 2012 Reuters
Italian white truffles

When you look at a truffle of the fungal variety, you can certainly see why it takes its name from the Latin word for lump. It’s definitely not a pretty thing, but the taste … well, it’s simply amazing. There is a reason, after all, why the black Périgord sells for as much as $800 a pound and the white variety sells for as much as $2,000 a pound! Continue reading Truffles: mushrooms, chocolate, and … dogs?

Laissez les bons temps rouler!

About a week ago, I stumbled upon Tremé, an HBO series set in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. It’s the story of several New Orleanians struggling to rebuild their lives after the catastrophe. On a grander scale, it paints a poignant picture of a unique culture determined to preserve itself against the odds. In a few days’ time, I had already watched the entire first season; I hadn’t felt such an immediate attraction to a television series in a very long time, and I simply couldn’t stop watching it. The music and the scenery brought back memories of my first and only visit to New Orleans a few years after the hurricane, and I decided that I needed to see it again one day and show its magic to Michel.

© Home Box Office, Inc.
© Home Box Office, Inc.

And, of course, all this happened in the days leading right up to Mardi Gras.

Mardi Gras, meaning “Fat Tuesday,” is a Christian holiday marking the end of the season of Epiphany and the beginning of the season of self-sacrifice called Lent (or Carême, in French). It’s the culmination of Carnival season, when you’re expected to indulge (notably in fatty foods—hence the name) in advance of the solemn season that follows. If you’ve ever been to New Orleans—whether at Carnival season or even in November—you know that no one does decadence quite like the Crescent City : think shrimp po’ boys and spicy gumbo, warm beignets dusted with powdered sugar at Café du Monde, and Hurricanes in go-cups.

But why does New Orleans indulge so well? Perhaps it’s because the city can trace its very origins—however tenuously—back to Mardi Gras :

Continue reading Laissez les bons temps rouler!

I’ll have a Martini, s’il vous plaît.

This isn’t a blog post about the arguments over what constitutes a martini: gin versus vodka, shaken versus stirred … if something with Pucker in it can even lay claim to the name. Instead, this post is about a crucial difference between martinis in America and martinis in France. If you’re ever thinking about ordering one in this country, pay close attention. This is very important!

To illustrate this lesson, I’ll share an anecdote recounted by a friend over dinner Friday night:

A group of Americans walk into a restaurant in Paris and are seated for dinner. (I know this sounds like the start of a joke, but it’s not.) The waiter arrives and asks if anyone would like to start with a cocktail or an apéritif. One of the Americans orders a martini.

“Blanc ou rouge?” the waiter asks.

“Uh … rouge,” the American responds tentatively. “There must be a splash of cranberry or Chambord in there,” she thinks to herself, remembering that “rouge” means “red” in French.

“And for Monsieur?”

“I’ll have a blanc,” Monsieur replies. “That must be a ‘normal’ martini,” he thinks to himself, before starting to wonder why the waiter didn’t ask if they preferred gin or vodka.

Continue reading I’ll have a Martini, s’il vous plaît.

Groundhogs? Pancakes!

Presentation of Christ at the Temple, Hans Holbein the Elder

February 2 might be Groundhog Day in the United States, but it’s also Candlemas on the Christian calendar. It’s the day when the Church celebrates Joseph and Mary’s presentation of the baby Jesus at the Temple in Jerusalem forty days after his birth, in keeping with the Jewish tradition of ritual purification and redemption of the firstborn. Despite the Catholic church’s official rejection of such theories, some believe that Candlemas was created to Christianize a pre-existing Roman holiday, Lupercalia, or perhaps a pre-existing Celtic holiday, Imbolc. Lupercalia was the feast of Lupercus, the god of fertility and herds. Imbolc was the feast of the goddess Brigit, and was marked by torchlit processions through the fields to invite purification and fertility for the coming spring. Whether he was motivated to co-opt these pagan holidays or not, it was Pope Gelasius I who instituted Candlemas in AD 492 and fixed its date on February 2. The blessing of candles and candlelit processions supplanted earlier pagan rites and gave rise to the name of the holiday.

These days in France, though, Candlemas (or Chandeleur, from chandelle, meaning “candle”) is known less for its candles and more for its …

CRÊPES

Continue reading Groundhogs? Pancakes!

Fried Green Christmas

Palmetto tree lit up for Christmas in Marion Square, Charleston, SC © 2011 Samuel Michael Bell, all rights reserved

It’s been far too long since my last post, and I apologize for that, dear readers. On December 17, we left Paris for the United States to spend Christmas in South Carolina, a trip I’ve nicknamed a “Fried Green Christmas” in homage to my mother‘s Southern cuisine. Since arriving last Saturday, we’ve decorated the Christmas tree and put up Christmas lights, we’ve visited family and friends in Columbia (spending an hour driving through a Christmas-light installation in a 400-acre park), we’ve spent a jam-packed 24 hours with my parents sightseeing in almost-tropical Charleston, surrounded by Christmas lights in palmetto trees, and we’ve finally finished up our Christmas shopping and gift wrapping.

Today, we’ll be joined by my aunt and uncle for Christmas dinner. There will be 6 of us at the table, but only 4 carnivores. Nevertheless, my mother has cooked a 7-lb. Christmas ham (you know, the one decorated with pineapple rings, maraschino cherries, and cloves), and 3 … yes, count ’em … 3 small chickens! That, along with the best carrot cake I’ve ever tasted, means we’re well on our way to packing on a few pounds before those New Year’s resolutions next weekend! Continue reading Fried Green Christmas