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     France is on the western edge of Europe; bordered by the Atlantic Ocean to the west; the English Channel and facing the United Kingdom to the northwest; Belgium and Luxembourg to the north, Germany, Switzerland and Italy to the east and the Mediterranean Sea and Spain across the Pyrenees Mountain to the south.  France brings to mind the pleasures of sophisticated travel - Champagne, Bordeaux, Burgundy and other fine wines; Pâté, Bouillabaisse and culinary arts; and fashion.

 

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Roquefort

To be true Roquefort cheese, the cheese has to be made from milk from Lacaune ewes and aged in specific caves in Roquefort-sur-Soulzon, France.  Each limestone cave is separately owned, and each cave  produces its own cheese. (Two which are available in the US are Société Bee and Papillon) The creamy white cheese has veins of blue, produced by the mold Penicillium roqueforti, running through it.  Legend has it that a young shepherd was about to eat his meal of bread and ewe’s milk curds when he spied a beautiful young woman.  Hastily placing his meal in the nearby cave, he chased after her (what about his sheep?) Unable to find the young woman, he returned several weeks later and found his uneaten lunch, moldy by now, but he took a bite anyway, and found the cheese was delicious.

Bouillabaisse

Bouillabaisse is a hearty fish soup that originated in Marseilles or in one of the small port towns nearby.  It is made from a fish stock, to which herbs, especially fennel, saffron and orange peal, have been added.  Fresh fish are then cooked in the boiling stock, along with shellfish if desired.  Traditionally Bouillabaisse is supposed to contain at least six different fishes, plus the shellfish.

Dijon Mustard

Dijon, in the province of Burgundy, is famous for its mustard.  Specialty mustards include mustard with black current and mustard with raspberry.  The sharp fruit flavors combine wonderfully with the mustard.  Traditionally used with dishes such as lamb terrine, they can also do interesting things with ahi tuna, etc.

Violet Mustard

Violet mustard is made from red grape must ground with mustard seeds (some say brown mustard seeds, some say black).  It is a very pretty dark violet color, with its own distinctive flavor. It is not intended to be a cooking ingredient, but is meant to be served as a condiment with the finished dish.

Cassoulet

Cassoulet is a hearty dish of beans and meat, cooked slowly over many hours.  Haricot beans (white beans, also called navy beans, just to be confusing) are simmered  with vegetables and herbs and some mixture of pork, pork sausage, duck or goose confit or sometimes lamb or roast duck. Different areas and different grandmothers vary in their recipes.  Cassoulet is traditionally cooked in an oval earthenware pot, a cassole.

Black Truffles

The black Perigord truffle rivals gold in price per pound.  Of course, there is a lot more truffle in a pound.  Just a few slivers can lend flavor and aroma to an entire dish.  A truffle will even flavor eggs in the shell if it is stored next to them. Serious foodies consider black truffles the ultimate ingredient.  
Truffles like to grow in limestone soil, with good drainage.  But the most important requirement is that they be near the right kind of tree, generally an oak. The black truffle is mycorrhizal, that is, it forms a symbiotic relationship with the roots of an oak tree.  Because the truffles grow underground, dogs or female pigs are used to locate them.  Dogs have to be trained to find truffles, while female pigs will automatically try to sniff out truffles—however, the dogs won’t eat the truffles themselves, while pigs will gulp down the truffle if they can.

Mont-Saint-Michel

Rising as if out of the sea is the medieval abbey and village of Mont-St-Michel, a Gothic and Romanesque abbey built on a rocky outcropping that is an island at high tide, but connected to the mainland at low tide.  The tidal range here is almost 50 feet, and the tide is said to come in with the speed of a galloping horse. People have drowned trying to cross the sandy seabed to Mont-St-Michel from the mainland by foot, misjudging the time and tide.

Lascaux Caves

In 1940, while France was occupied by the Germans, four boys discovered the entrance to a cave (or, rather, a series of caves).  The cave walls were covered with incredibly beautiful prehistoric paintings, mostly of animals-horses, aurochs, stags, bison, ibex.  The pigments used were those close at hand—soot, iron oxide, manganese oxide and white clay (kaolin).  There is evidence that some sort of wooden ladder or scaffold was used in order to reach places for some of the painting.  Pigments were mixed and possibly heated to get the colors desired.  There is exquisite movement in the way the  animals are shown, with sophisticated use of line, indicating both skill and detailed observation of the animals portrayed.  These caves were not used for human habitation, so it seems the cave drawings were made for sacred or ritual purposes, and the cooperation of a number of people was necessary to make the paintings.  The animals were mostly animals the humans would have been hunting.  While the caves themselves are now closed, because human presence was causing the deterioration of the painting, detailed models of the main galleries are open.

Strausbourg

Strausbourg has streets filled with medieval buildings and  a cathedral of reddish sandstone, the tallest medieval building in Christendom. It contains  a 16th century astronomical clock with figures that move, illustrating the passage of time and man’s fleeting existence.  The gods of antiquity pass by, denoting the seven days of the week; two putti, one holding a gong and one an hourglass, which it turns; figures representing the four ages of man, filing past a figure of death; and finally, the apostles pass by a figure of Christ.

Paris

Paris is first of all itself, constantly changing, ready to be the home of the next new thing in fashion, politics, art as its citizens discuss ideas over espresso in coffee shops, walking along the Seine, or enjoying meals and fine wine in restaurants.

Eiffel Tower

The Eiffel Tower, one of the most visited monuments in the world, was designed by Gustave Eiffel to be a temporary structure for the Paris World’s Fair. Built of wrought iron, it was put together with rivets—one of the requirements of approval of the design was that it could be easily demolished afterwards. Originally an object of scorn by many Parisians, the tower later became an icon of Paris. The Eiffel Tower was described by the poet Cocteau as “a lovely lace giraffe”.

Giverney - Monet Gardens

The painter Monet designed this garden around his home in the village of Giverney.  Initially Monet rented the house, and planted flowers and vegetables  around it.  As he grew richer, he bought the house, and hired gardeners to work to his specifications.  Monet was inspired by Japanese art, and bought many Japanese plants for his garden, especially the later water garden.
 

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