25 January 2015

Époisses, a cheese village

The village of Époisses « doit sa célébrité à deux monuments : son château et son fameux fromage à pâte molle. » That's what the Guide Michelin has to say. It's another village whose name I knew very well, but I'd never been there. Semur-en-Auxois was a name I knew because I'd often heard people recommend it as a beautiful and interesting place. Époisses (pop. 770 or so) was a name I knew because of the cheese of the same name.


I know you are tired of hearing me say this, but the weather was still gray and drizzly when we got to Époisses (pronounced [ay-PWAHSS]). We had decided to have lunch there, but not in a restaurant. We'd bought some sandwiches and we thought we might have a picnic and give Callie a chance to run around for a few minutes.


No dice. We ended up sitting in the car in front of the main gate of the château and eating our sandwiches in the car. That took a lot less time than a restaurant would have taken, and we had two more villages we wanted to go see in the afternoon. Anyway, we didn't go to Burgundy to eat in restaurants — not with the dog in tow.


We have friends in California who especially love Époisses cheese. In fact, one of them is having a birthday today (Bon Anniversaire, C. !) I wish they could be here so that we could dig into a ripe Époisses — as you can see, you pretty much serve it with a spoon. We can buy Époisses here in the Saint-Aignan area on the markets and even in the supermarkets. The Fromagerie Berthaut's web site is here.


Reading about Époisses cheese, I just learned a couple of things I didn't know. Part of the cheese-making process involves using rennet that is flavored with black pepper, cloves, and fennel. All are optional but are often used. Époisses cheese is eaten fresh in summertime, and in its aged form in wintertime. The famous gourmet Brillat-Savarin called it « le roi des fromages », and if you've tried it you might understand why.

24 January 2015

Moving on up

The U.S. dollar is worth nearly 90 centimes d'euro this morning. That's 90 eurocents or nine-tenths of a euro. Just a few years ago, the USD was worth as little as little as 65 eurocents for a while. Today's exchange rate represents an increase of 25 eurocents per dollar compared to the dollar's low point. In American terms, it's as if every time you change a dollar ($) into a euro (€) now, the bank throws in an extra quarter.


As a result, for every $1,000 a retired American living in France gets in retirement income from U.S. sources, she or he gets approximately 900 € instead of 650 €. That's 250 euros more. Say, hypothetically, that you have $3,000 a month in retirement income from U.S. sources. Now you have 750 € per month more than you had just a few years ago. You can afford to travel more, have more meals in restaurants, or buy a needed new refrigerator or washing machine.

When the euro replaced the French franc (FF) in early 2002, one dollar was worth not 90 eurocents, but about 1.14 €. The U.S. was still prospering as it did under Bill Clinton's administration, and the dollar hadn't yet suffered the George W. Bush downturn. By the time we bought our house in France in the spring of 2003, the dollar was down to 92 eurocents. The dollar declined steadily for years, and after going as low as 65 eurocents finally stabilized at between 70 and 75 eurocents in recent years.


If you have dollars, this would be a good time to pay for a vacation in the Eurozone countries (France, Italy, Spain, Belgium, Holland, or Ireland, for example). For us who live in France, the lower euro means that our airline tickets for travel to the U.S. are less expensive too. My annual trip is coming up, and I need to get a plane ticket soon. The airlines, including the American ones, require me to pay for the ticket in euros, because my principal residence in in France. If the ticket costs about 750 euros as it did last year, that will be more like $900 rather than $1000 or more.

The smart thing for Walt and me to do would be to put some of the dollar/euro windfall away, of course, and save it for a rainy day. Who knows how long the U.S. dollar will continue to fly so high? The reality, though, is that we need to buy a car, and we may soon need replacements for our old refrigerator and the washing machine. I've been waiting for the dollar to strengthen before buying a car, hoping the old Peugeot wouldn't give up the ghost in the meantime. Maybe the moment has come.

P.S. If you are used to thinking of the value of the euro in terms of the U.S. dollar — as most of us do, I guess — let me say that the euro's high point against the U.S. dollar was very close to $1.60. Over the past two or three years, it has stayed between $1.30 to $1.35. Now it's down to $1.12.

23 January 2015

Semur-en-Auxois

One of the things I love about traveling around in France is having the chance to "install" in my brain a real-life image of places that I have before only known by name. And, of course, to take a few photos too. One such place is the fortified town of Semur-en-Auxois, just 12 miles south of the Abbaye de Fontenay, in Burgundy. Semur rates one star in the Michelin Guide Vert. Something about the place seemed vaguely southern — méridional, I mean, as in South of France — when we were there, just as the area around the Loire Valley town of Chinon feels méridional too.

I got to take exactly two photos in Semur-en-Auxois. It was raining, and we drove through without getting out of the car, so I took the photos through the windshield. You can see the raindrops on it. Once we were in the center of town, the narrow streets were dark, and even if we had wanted to get out of the car and walk around, I think we would have had a hard time finding a parking space. There seemed to be a lot of construction and road improvement projects under way, so traffic was backed up all over the place. If you want to see more photos of what is evidently a very pretty town (pop. 4,500) in sunny weather, look here — which is what I've had to do.


Semur, which some might think is a name very similar to the name of the Loire Valley town of Saumur, but in French the latter is always two syllables [soh-MUR] where the former is pronounced by some as a single syllable. That would follow the rules of standard French, where an unaccented E between just two consonants is called a "mute" E, meaning it does not have to be prononced. The pronunciation dictionory I have in my book collection confirms that: Semur can be pronounced as [suh-MUR], or just [SMUR] in rapid speech.


And Auxois — how do you think that's pronounced? Well, if you are familiar with the town of Auxerre, an hour so north, you might know that its name is pronounced [oh-SEHR]. In other words, the X has the value of an S. In Auxois, it's the same. The pronunciation dictionary says it's [oh-SWAH], and that saying [ohk-SWAH] is an error. (You'll hear some people say [ohk-SEHR] for Auxerre, but that's an error too.) Those are some of the joys of French pronunciation and spelling.

By the way, you'll notice that I took pretty much the same picture twice. We were stopped because of one-lane traffic around a construction zone. Since I only have two photos, I decided to post them both.