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Visiting Food Shrines in France (and one in Italy)

Martha S. Taccarino (to_italy)

It started innocently enough, an article in Food & Wine magazine describing five of the tastiest museums in Europe. I cut the article out and filed it away. A year or two later, out it came as we planned a trip to Europe. As I reread the article I realized that we were not going to be anywhere near these museums. However, the article opened my eyes to search out other food related attractions; places where artisans take pride in making a traditional product or where the town promotes a particular food.

Both my husband and I share a strong interest in food. During our trips, we have always gone to local farmers' and outdoor markets. For longer stays, we try to rent houses or have the use of a kitchen so that we can purchase local food, prepare it (or at least try to) and enjoy it in a home like setting. It was a short leap to add "food shrines" to our itineraries.

Societe in Roquefort Sur-Soulzon, Langduoc Rousillion

Our first food shrine visit was to one of the two makers of Roquefort cheese, Le Papillon and Societe, in Roquefort Sur-Soulzon, France. This visit came at the end of a weeklong Canal du Midi barge trip with another couple. We sadly surrendered our barge for a rental car and made our way through the hills to Roquefort Sur-Soulzon.

Roquefort Sur-Soulzon sits on a hill that rises up from rye fields and the grazing pastures of the sheep. We arrived late at Societe and became part of the last tour group of the day. The tour was conducted in French. My understanding of French is better than my speaking ability and better than anyone else that I was traveling with, so I became our translator.

The tour starts with a quick video explaining the role of rye bread in producing the bacteria that develops the mold in the cheese. After the video, the guide provided lovely bouffant hair caps and clear plastic lab coats to protect the cheese during our tour of the caves. Erosion and ancient movements of the limestone in the hill formed the caves. The "fleurines" rising up from deep within the hill act as ducts through the caves, refreshing the air but keeping it at a constant temperature, 48 degrees, and humidity 95%. For ripening, the cheeses are arranged on slatted wooden racks in multi levels of the cave, each level being a different stage of the aging process. We climbed down wooden stairs to several levels and then back up to the lobby and gift shop. Of course cheese is available for purchase.

Musee de l'Art Culinaire in Villeneuve-Loubet, Provence

Next year our trip with the same couple had us flying into Nice for a few days, taking a train and then a rental car to a house in Italy for a week, and then the train to Rome for our final days before flying home. I had hopes of making it to two of the museums written about in my now tattered article, Auguste Escoffier's boyhood home and The Pasta Museum in Rome.

Auguste Escoffier's boyhood home, in the small town of Villeneuve-Loubet, is in the hills to the west and north of Nice. It really is not that far from Nice but we lacked a rental car. With some combination of trains and buses, a trip there could be arranged. After exploring those possibilities and timetables, I decided that spending the whole day to get there and back was probably not worth it.

Determined to see the museum, on a later trip I planned an overnight stay at Villeneuve-Loubet. The overnight stay was probably not necessary but a rental car to get there was. The house (known as Musee de l'Art Culinaire) has been turned into a museum of awards that Escoffier received and menus that he planned and served, some period pictures and a few pieces of equipment. An English handout is provided and the tour ends in the museum gift shop. I did buy a wonderful poster of a plump Escoffier, looking like a true chef who enjoys food.

The location and lack of convenient public transportation, makes this a place for a serious food enthusiast rather than a casual tourist. I'm saying, go if you are in the neighborhood but don't go out of your way, or to a lot of expense, to see this museum.

The Pasta Museum in Rome

It did not take two trips to see The Pasta Museum. On the final days of our trip while we were in Rome I was able to get there. Surprisingly though none of my traveling companions wanted to accompany me. Could it have been that they feared another trip into cold caves with bouffant hairnets and plastic lab coats?

The museum, properly named Museo Nazionale Delle Paste Alimentari, is located about four short blocks from Trevi Fountain. It is an easy stroll to this unknown gem. (My Italian teacher, who was born and raised in Rome, had never heard of it.) Such a wonderful and diverse collection of items relating to pasta; from the semolina that is used and why it is best, to large powerful machines for manufacturing different shapes. There are advertisements, photos of celebrities eating pasta and artwork glorifying pasta. Audio guides in Italian, English, Spanish, German, French and Japanese are available. The tour ends in the gift shop. Since it was near the end of our trip, suitcase space was at a premium. I bought only postcards. Besides making me hungry, the museum visit made me realize that now I need to tour one of the large commercial pasta manufacturers. That will have to wait for another trip.

Camembert Museum in Vimoutiers, Normandy

France seems to have its share of food shrines and most recently in Normandy my husband and I visited two of them, The Camembert Museum in Vimoutiers and La Ferme Marine (the Oyster Museum in Cancale). There are more museums in the region devoted to cheese, cider, copper pots, and boxes for packing cheese. So many museums, so little time.

The Camembert Museum occupies part of the Office of Tourism in Vimoutiers. To me it smelled wonderful; it just reeked of cheese. I know people who would have refused to go in and would have waited in the car with the windows rolled up. The best words to describe the museum are quaint and cute. It reminded me of an exhibition at a county fair. There is a video and a collection of rooms with milking equipment, cheese making tools and a display of the cheese making process. The one-piece combination milking stool and milk jug caught my attention. The notes pointed out the convenience for the farmer's wife to only have to carry one thing into the fields. One wall has box labels from all over the world for Camembert. However, the museum stresses that the true Camembert is made only in that region.

We were there in late May, before "the season" started so we did not have a tasting. When there are more than two people touring the museum in a day it is probably feasible to offer a tasting. I was not upset about the lack of a tasting; by later on in the trip I was refusing cheese. I never thought it was possible to eat enough good French cheese, but I reached my limit. As you exit the museum, assorted packets of the color full labels are for sale.

La Ferme Marine in Cancale, Normandy

The well-worn Food and Wine article had only a few paragraphs about what was then called The Museum of Oysters and Shellfish. But those paragraphs had been enough to pique my interest. What is now known as La Ferme Marine is in Cancale on the coast near Mont-Saint Michel.

Tours are offered several times a day in French but only one time each day in English or German. The local tourist office arranged for my husband and I to be included with a group from an English middle school. Just being with the school group was entertainment enough but the tour was also very interesting.

It starts with a video and then follows with a walk through the workshop. The tour guide continually used the words farmer, farming, harvesting. The whole cycle from seeding oysters to serving them at the table is described using terms normally associated with a land crop rather than a water based enterprise. We saw the tractors used to go out into the bay when the tide is out to seed, tend or harvest the oysters. Upon harvesting the oysters are brought back to the workshop where they are washed and sorted. The sorting baskets are then place in one of two large but not very deep pools. Over the course of several days, seawater is pumped in and out of the pools. By slowly decreasing the amount of time the oysters spend in water they "learn" to adjust and stay closed. They told us that a closed oyster is a healthy oyster and can be shipped long distances.

Because the students were a prearranged group, an oyster tasting finished their tour. We were invited to join them. The comments, the ohhs and yucks and gagging noises that come from a group of 13 and 14 year olds reminded me of how I felt about oysters at that age. They all were brave enough to try one, so some learning must have occurred. La Ferme Marine also has a collection of well-displayed shells and a gift shop.

Conclusions

Food is universal. Whether you tour a museum, go to a farm or a farmers' market, it is a good way to meet people. I have found that "food shrines" are a great way to learn the history and production methods involved with a food. I will not stop seeking them out, but in my mind they will never replace actual contact with a farmer, baker or producer.

In my kitchen hangs a picture from the farmers' market held every Saturday in Carcassone, France. The baker at the stall stopped waiting on a paying customer to appear in the picture I was taking of his bread. His pride and joy in his product shines through in that picture. And that's one of the reasons that I travel, to share with others the joy of accomplishments in everyday life.

Contact Information

www.roquefort-societe.com: Societe Caves in Roquefort Sur-Soulzon, France. Admission charged. Hours: Daily 9:30am - 6:30pm in summer, 10:00am - 12:00pm and 1:30pm to 5:00pm at other times of the year.

www.fondation-escoffier.org: Musee de l'Art Culinaire in Villeneuve-Loubet, France. Admission charged. Hours: Daily 2:00pm - 6:00pm (7:00pm in summer). Closed Mondays, holidays and the month of November.

www.museodellapasta.it: Museo Nazionale Delle Paste Alimentari in Rome, Italy. Admission charged. Hours: Daily 9:30am - 5:30pm.

www.mairie-vimoutiers.fr: (website not working) Musee du Camembert at Office de Tourisme, Vimoutiers, France. Admission charged. Hours: November-March, Monday-Friday 10:00am - 12:00pm and 2:00pm - 5:30pm, Saturday 10:00am - 12:00pm, closed Sunday. April to October, Monday 2:00pm - 6:00pm, Tuesday to Saturday 9:00am - 12:00pm and 2:00pm - 6:00pm, Sundays and holidays 10:00am - 12:00pm and 2:30pm - 6:00pm. Tourism office.

www.ville-cancale.fr: La Ferme Marine in Cancale, France. Admission charged. Hours for tours in English from mid-June to mid-September at 2:00pm. Email ferme-marine@huitres-francaises.com,Tourism office.


Martha is of Italian descent and wants to live in Italy. moving2italy2.blogspot.com

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