How to Compose the Perfect Cheese Platter

When French friends invite me to parties, I instinctively ask "What should I bring?" and brace myself. Baguette? No problem. Wine? I defer to the good people at En Vrac (with great success, I might add). Cheese, on the other hand, poses an arrestingly terrifying conundrum. French people live and die for les fromages- literally, a percentage of elderly persons and pregnant women die each year from cheese-related illness- and this time last summer, the only brie I'd ever had was on a hamburger. Eventually, I stopped thinking my friends were out to get me- although I can't dwell on this subject too long, because really, who throws a party for French people and asks the only American to bring cheese? I asked- nay, begged- four fromagers (from La Grande Epicerie, La Fromagerie, Eric Lefèbvre, and Laurent Dubois) to teach me the fine art of composing a perfect cheeseboard.

Composing the Perfect Cheese Plate


001. The amount

Plan on 20-30g per person for dessert; 125g per person if serving as a meal. For Americans, 1-2 ounces up to 4-6 ounces is sufficient. Pictured above is a cheeseboard for four persons.

002. The categories

Chèvres: Goat's cheeses. I always ask for une chèvre très, très frais.
Pâtes molles à croûte fleurie: Soft, ripened cheeses
Pâtes pressées cuites et non cuites: Hard and semi-soft cheeses
Pâtes molles à croûte lavée: Soft, ripened, washed-rind cheeses
Pâtes persillées: Blue cheeses (omit this category for gluten-free). Impress your fromager by asking for something très salée.

003. The presentation

If serving as a meal, arrange consecutive plates consisting of 3-5 cheeses from each category, according to the order outlined above. For dessert, arrange cheeses in an organized fashion on a board or platter with accompaniments.

The height of chic, I'm told, is a cheese board from Griffon, but I find the logo tacky and flip ours over when entertaining guests. I've found St. Felicien double creme makes people crazy with its' indescribable richness; the simpler your cheese board, the better, and most hostesses adorn a cheese course with nothing but fine bread. In fact, I've seen grapes on only one platter, and it was the table of a British hostess, at that! Similarly, a proper cheese knife is totally unnecessary, despite any charm it adds to after-dinner niceties.

This helpful infographic from Cookening (I met one of the co-founders at a party once; he's brilliant and has awesome taste in music) is the most comprehensive guide for serving French cheeses I've seen to date. Bonne dégustation!
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Homemade Almond Milk


Weck juice jar

Unlike it's fermented cousin, kombucha, almond milk is no burgeoning health trend, the kind reserved for food blogs, hipster coffee shops, and calorie counters. Recipes appear throughout early French cookery, most notably Enseignments, a culinary scroll dating back to the 13th or 14th century. An essential component in later incarnations of blancmange (which, curiously, my Parisian husband has neither heard of nor eaten), the almond's genteel taste and potent thickening properties made it a hallmark of medieval cuisine. Since animal products have a limited shelf life, nut milk was the staple base of sauces, flans, and cuminade in a pre-refrigeration era. Almonds even prevent intoxication on an empty stomach, making them the natural companion for cocktails and aperitifs. This traditional French preparation is zero-waste, a rich, pseudo-scientific cure-all that tastes a million times better than the Tetrapak kind. 

Lait d'amandes / Almond milk (From Menagier de Paris, p. 241)


1 cup sweet almonds, blanched (click here for at-home instructions)
4 tbsp ice water
2 cups hot water

In a mortar or blender, combine almonds and ice water. Grind or blend until a smooth paste results. Add hot water to paste. Leave 10 minutes before straining. Grind again and strain. Cool to store. Use the remaining almond pulp for hummus, ice cream, almond butter, or as a flour substitute. For homemade coconut milk, click here.


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L'Officine Universelle Buly 1803, Rue Bonaparte, Paris

 
 

Trés discret, with a blink-and-you'll-miss-it entrance and pretty green awning, Buly is a restoration of famed parfumeur Jean-Vincent Bully's historic maison. Readers of César Birotteau (which should be taught at every business school) are already familiar with Bully's life, the inspiration behind Balzac's titular character. Somehow the story of a peasant whose meteoric rise ends in misfortune resonates with me even more now that I face the vicissitudes of bourgeois life every day.

For plastic-free toiletries and bulk oils, look no further- all production methods and packaging are straight out of a 19th-century apothecary. Think glass amber bottles with rubber droppers, unwrapped natural sponges from Greece, olive pits, crushed walnut hulls, Azuki powder and Yunohana hot spring crystals. The selection includes pascalite, argile, and Amazonian white clay; bulk dried flowers alongside iris root, bukkake powder (from the droppings of the Japanese bush warbler), and mimi senketsu (for flawlessly clean ears).

Bespoke soaps come with a beautiful paper holder you'll reuse over and over, and receipts so gorgeous, even hard-core minimalists won't send them to a landfill- of course, you have the option not to print them at all. Prices belie the lush marble and wood interior: expect to pay 7 euro for 50 ml of avocado pulp, 12 euro for scented matches, and 20 euro for eau de la belle haleine or a silk toothbrush. Ask to try the water-based, alcohol-free perfumes- they're very special. They look pink when sprayed on skin!

I'm on my third pépin de raisin now- it smells nice, but since I've switched to the oil cleansing method, I'll get some ricin or neem oil next time. Buly is a lovely piece of Paris' heritage and less-impact resource for quality cosmetics with a nascent capitalist twist.


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DIY Activated Charcoal


Activated carbon is a porous substance derived from organic material. For centuries, Japanese artisans burned plant matter to yield activated charcoal, renowned for its purifying properties. With the right equipment, you can easily make a zero-waste version of this versatile, natural product, applying its restorative properties to everything from soap to makeup and deodorizers.

DIY Activated Charcoal


001.

Select a dry, fibrous substance with plentiful pores. I chose peach pits because they're in season.
Fruit peels, nut shells, and husks are also good options.
Traditional charcoal is derived from oak branches and other hardwoods.

002.

Pack material tightly in a small metal container (an old tiffin works nicely).
Seal loosely or use a lid with a small ventilation hole in it.
Place on an outdoor fire source to ensure adequate ventilation.
Allow at least four hours for a proper char. Leave peach pits a little longer.
Remove container from heat source and cool completely before opening.


003.


Use lemon juice to increase preliminary pore size.
A good rule for measuring is two juiced lemons per peach pit.
Mix one part lemon juice to four parts water.
Add solution to container, completely submerging the charred material.
Leave 24 hours.

004. 

Drain container and rinse organic material of solution.
Return to container and bake in oven at 120 degrees Celsius, at least three hours.
Alternately, return to fire source for further refinement.
Allow to cool before using.

Try incorporating a few pinches of activated charcoal in your favorite olive oil soap, tooth powder, or facial mask.

I switched to activated charcoal cosmetics awhile ago and I like them. Ophthalmologists may roll their eyes when I say this but I've been using homemade peach pit carbon as eyeliner a long time and it seems non-irritating and safe. 

Most people mix the carbon with coconut oil, which I prefer. I can't find bulk coconut oil in Paris, so I used avocado oil for the eyeliner pictured here (I've even tried olive oil). Add 1/2 teaspoon activated charcoal to two teaspoons coconut or jojoba oil and four teaspoons aloe vera. It takes me forever to finish eyeliner, so I make very small batches, 0.10 grams or so at a time, to ensure freshness. Reduce oil to one teaspoon and add 1 1/2 teaspoons melted carnuba wax for volumizing homemade mascara.

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La Cité du Soleil, Versailles: Solar Decathlon Europe


Last week, I bundled up in winter clothes and headed to Versailles for Solar Decathlon Europe. The significance of the setting was totally lost on me- someone had to point out Louis XIV was the Sun King before I finally got it. Walking around Cité du Soleil, I imagined people in powdered wigs and coattails, fanning themselves in the summer heat, wheeling along in horse-drawn carriages. Exploring gleaming, palm tree-lined solar arrays while shivering under two coats and an umbrella was a unique experience I'll never forget.

I have the most boring things, ever, to tell you about solar power. Not that I know enough about football to use this analogy, but in my fantasy renewable-energy league, it's the quarterback, the Heisman trophy winner. The teams at Solar Decathlon Europe weren't blindly optimistic about ditching fossil fuels. 800 competitors representing 16 states realistically disclosed cost and energy inputs involved- each project took over two years to complete- not to mention hazardous waste generated by solar panel production. Forget cadmium telluride thin-film storage: teams focused on other photovoltaic cells, emphasizing passive solar collection and grid-scale power storage. Competitors adapted electrochemical methods used to manufacture aluminum, applying the techniques to molten salt and magnesium batteries that could theoretically improve renewable energy cost parity. Recycling waste and reducing water consumption were similarly highlighted, among other best practices for solar manufacturers.

All of the houses projected a calm, serene feeling; once inside, I had the impression of being at home on a bright, sunny day, water pouring from the sky notwithstanding. Each design was firmly rooted in a particular place and ecology, utilizing natural materials for structures neither too esoteric nor austere. I felt privileged to live near such a spectacular event, and stuck around until nightfall, when all the homes lit Versailles like satellites around the sun.


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Gluten-Free Paris Guide

The ultimate guide to dining gluten-free from a celiac living in Paris.
Options for gluten free brunch, lunch, and dinner including Chambelland, Thank You My Deer, and more in Oberkampf, The Marais and beyond. Eat gluten free at Preface Gallery in the Marais. Or try the gluten free arepas at Bululu in Montmartre.
Don't miss Café Ginger, a vegan and gluten free restaurant near Bastille.

Chambelland photo, my own. Bululu photo from Facebook. The rest are from Pinterest. If you know the source, please let me know so I can link back!

Americans love to believe that with the right diet, anyone can become anything. They especially love the virtuousness and entitlement that comes from eating gluten-free. Eliminate gluten, and you become part of an enlightened minority, an allergy-card-carrying member of the elite- smarter, prettier, and richer than protein-composite-gobbling plebians. "Gluten-free" reeks of Baobab oil and exclusivity; faithfully abide by the lifestyle, and you're one step closer to summers in the Exuma Islands and workouts with Tracy Andersen.

I used to think self-reported gluten-sensitivity was a quirk of life in the States, but the no-glu boom is global. Throw a stone in Oberkampf, and you're bound to hit someone professing non-celiac gluten intolerance, few of whom can put their muesli where their mouth is. I'm not immune to social contagion (I made my parents buy Tamagotchis, too), but my diet doesn't depend on what everybody from my last Tweetup is doing. If I could eat the delicious, water-insoluble agglomerated sub-microscopic network that is this starchy endosperm of grass-related grains, I would. Over two decades ago, I was tested for celiac disease. Turns out, I have a severe form of the chicest autoimmune disease around.

I've been eating gluten-free in Paris four years now, and I was vegan for a year and a half of that. Helmut Newcake was beautiful and delicious, but I've gotten food poisoning there more than once and I know other people who have, too. One time I was at our friends,' Natas Loves You, concert and I had to leave because I'd eaten baba rhum at Helmut Newcake just before. I threw up in the Metro and some Parisiennes had to hold my hair and RATP had to take me back to the shower and put me in a cab. Everybody raves about Noglu, but the food is mediocre, the service poor, and the menu overpriced. Only their chocolate tart is good. I wish they had more dairy and egg free options!

A few tips:


  • Roquefort and charcuterie contain gluten
  • Gluten-free beers include Brasserie CastelainMoulin des MoinesAltiplano and Mikkeller.
  • Gluten-free soy sauce is largely available (MySoy and Tamari) and you can buy xanthan gum at La Vie Claire or Lafayette Gourmet
  • Items safe in the US may be contaminated here (like Lea & Perrins worcestershire sauce )
  • According to Ladurée's executive pastry chef, their macarons may contain traces of gluten. Papy Bio offers gluten-free baguette, macaron, and pizza ateliers. Pierre Hermé, Un Jour à Dimanche and Carette have gluten-free macarons and pastry options
  • Gluten-free breads and pastas are available at almost every grocery store, and specialty shops like Der Tante Emma-Laden or A Boire et à Manger.
  • Most boulangeries will make gluten-free bread if you ask in advance, but cross-contamination is possible (except at Eric Kayser)
  • Cupcakeries Chloe S. and Comme un Gateau accept gluten-free orders
  • Marks & Spencer is the apogee of gluten-free deliciousness in Paris, and my biggest zero-waste fail thanks to its amazing quiches, pasta, cookies, ice cream and prepared foods. Chains like Exki and Cojean usually have gluten free and some vegan items
  • Crepes are not celiac-friendly- galette are. Look for the word "sarrasin," and beware of cross-contamination. Galette Café and Aux Ducs de Bourgogne offer gluten-free galette.
  • That being said, there's a gluten-free creperie in Montmartre- Creperie Broceliande- which my French friends insist is incredible, despite it's unabashed touristy status.


Hot chocolate at Angelina's isn't gluten-free, but many of their famous pastries are, and the manager- a Chanel-clad celiac- is friendly and helpful. Just say, "Je ne peut pas manger du gluten," first- the "ne" is silent. The header image above is from Biosphere Cafe. My husband brought me a pizza from here once, and some kids in the Métro tried stealing it. Click here for the Pinterest Gluten-Free Paris Guide Map.
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Le Grande Mosquée de Paris

        

On hot sunny days, the Grand Mosque is a nice place to cool down with a mint tea before walking through Jardin des Plantes. You can buy kohl eyeliner in grey or black from the gift shop (I'm not sure if it contains lead or not).

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