Week 2: Fromage et La Plage

French cuisine is great and everybody knows it. So great in fact, that walking an hour and a half to Blanc Foussy, one of several wine caves in the Loire Valley, is not at all bizarre. My walk there went particularly well, as I learned about German architectural failures from a kind and talkative German student. However, anyone can research the wine-making process and learn what I did at Blanc Foussy.

Un étalage aux Grandes Caves Saint-Roch (Blanc Foussy)

Instead, I’ll talk about cheese. Specifically chèvre. Specifically chèvre that is shaped like the bottom portion of the pyramid on a dollar bill (without the Eye of Providence that is). Tours and its surroundings specialize in chèvre, goat cheese, which is often sold in the aforementioned shape. It had already made a few inconspicuous appearances on the cheese platter that my host family offers after every meal when my host father recounted to me and the other student living here its history.

Pyramidal chèvre already existed in Napoleon’s time, and seeing it at a dinner with his counselor Talleyrand reminded him of his conquests in Egypt. He cut off the top as a metaphorical show of power, and thence vendors reinforced the notion by selling the cheese sans point.

La forme que j’ai décrit. La photo grâce à Google.

Wine and cheese emblematize l’art de vivre, which I associate primarily with France. I often forget the warm weather required to cultivate them so finely. France’s proximity to the Mediterranean has entwined its history with that of Northern Africa with mostly adverse effects. I didn’t think to expect one as positive as the exchange of food. Besides the legendary origin of not-quite-pyramidal chèvre, dishes like merguez (North African sausage) and couscous are common. I’ve now eaten that meal in my host family’s home and on L’Île de Rê, where I spent this past weekend.

Six students from the University of Alabama, a fellow ND student, and I rented two rooms at a homestay near La Rochelle, a historic town on the Atlantic coast.

We arrived in La Rochelle Friday evening ready to eat, then found out that we needed to check in at the homestay before nine. After checking in, we set out seeking a marvel–an establishment open past ten in France. What we found instead was a fast food joint already closing, whose employees offered to imagine we were cars so they could serve us at the drive-through. These kind gentlemen gave us extra fries and chicken strips, and set the tone for a lovely weekend.

On Saturday, we resisted the urge to laze on the beach just long enough to downtown La Rochelle. After mussels and white wine, we strolled to the towers overlooking the old port: La Tour Saint-Nicolas and La Tour de la Chaîne. The name of the latter comes from its original function as one anchor of a chain which prevented entry into the port when drawn. Standing on La Tour Saint-Nicolas, where sentinels watched over this center of French maritime trade through the Hundred Years’ War, during La Fronde, and onwards, inspired me.

Je n’ai pas pu résister
Ma tête entre La Tour Saint-Nicolas (à gauche) et La Tour de la Chaîne (à droite)

The next day, I parted from the group at Sablanceaux–the first of the many beaches along L’Île de Ré. The buses barely run on Sundays, and especially not on an island where a limit on building height exists to prevent hotels and resorts from disrupting the local charm. I hiked about fourteen kilometers and saw some pretty towns, but only one of the many things I’d wanted to see was in reach.

Among the tips offered to us by the owner of the homestay was a gas station that sells local beers, including “the Blonde de Ré.” Motivated by this amber mystery, I followed the arrows and circles on the minimal map the owner had given me. Thirsty and tired, I found the station. Closed.

Maison de Blonde de Ré

L’Île de Ré is beautiful and peaceful, and I want to spend more time there. Planning my unfinished adventure occupied me on the long walk back to Sablanceaux, where I had merguez and couscous on the beach, seated among friends. Perhaps the greatest pairing I achieved this week was the pairing of my desire to explore and my use of French.

We ordered our food, asked for directions, called a cab, held a late-night conversation with neighbors to the homestay, all in French. I’m finding that I can communicate fairly well even when grammar slips away from me, and I’m alright with looking silly if it helps me learn. I downloaded a conjugations app which, along with the French Fullmetal Alchemist manga I’ve been reading, will compliment my coursework well. Speaking of, I moved up levels this week. Already, I have a lot to be grateful for.