Cow Seduction

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When people hear that we are leaving our home in France after eight years, one question that invariably follows is, “What will you miss most?” My answer is not what they expect to hear.

What I will miss most are Norman cows.

Specifically, those geographically situated cows that graze on the sweet green grass of Normandy and produce the most delicious and most flavorful butter in the world.

IMG_8469“Oh, don’t worry,” people will say, “you will find other good butter wherever you live.” I don’t think so.  All butters are not the same. Neither are cows.

We have traveled to both upper and lower Normandy innumerable times during the past thirteen years while living in Germany and France. My first trip to the Normandy beaches and WWII sites was when we were living in Germany. During that excursion I had a personal epiphany to learn French–to use the local language every time we traveled to this region of northern France where we fervently loved the history, the solid stone architecture, and the people. [Story of D-Day 70th anniversary here: The Unexpected in Normandy]

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WWII history commemorated all over Normandy

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American Cemetery Colleville-sur-Mer

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stony norman architecture

Eventually we moved to Paris and I did learn passable French. Soon after came the discovery of how butter from Normandy transforms nondescript food, like breakfast toast or potatoes or steamed vegetables into something noticeably scrumptious. I fell hard for the crunch of sea salt crystals in butter-with-a-real-buttery-taste on otherwise dry or bland food. Now there is no turning back. I have been known to carry salted French butter home to Colorado, frozen, in an insulated container tucked deep inside my suitcase.

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two favorites: but the very best is with sea salt crystals that crunch in your mouth

One weekend trip to lower Normandy, we stayed in an historic, privately owned château. It is also a bed and breakfast, with a fine dining room, which helps pay the taxes and upkeep on an ancient estate.

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chateau in basse normandy

There were wineries to visit and sites to see each day, but we constantly veered off onto pot-holed, muddy dirt roads to pay homage to cows. Just cows–grazing and standing around in fields. I wanted to study the source of my butter obsession, close up, in their natural environment.

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During the Germany years, we belonged to a weekend hiking club. Every Sunday morning we traipsed off, en masse, through forests, hills and vineyards in the countryside. I laughed at a friend who stopped to take photos every time a cow was in the landscape. When I asked why, he said, “I don’t know. I just like them.”

Well, now I like them, too, but for a reason. They give something special back because of being these cows. Norman cows are raised only for dairy. They roam. They eat nutrient flora and grassy greens in the hills and marshlands of the rolling countryside. They produce milk that is heavy and smooth. The fatty milk cream is buttercup yellow and makes butter that is sweet and memorable.

Why is French butter so irresistibly different? Two things. One, it often has a higher fat content [87%] compared to American butter [80%]. And secondly, the real secret behind the fineness of French butter is the way it is cultured.

Cream, separated from the milk, is allowed to ferment before it is churned. Thus, bacteria forms, sugar converts to lactic acid, and the result is a distinguishably creamier, velvet-ier, butter-ier taste.

American produced butter uses only pasteurized [uncultured] milk cream. The French, dedicated to quality, refuse to bypass the fermentation step.

Before industrialization all butter was produced the French way, in small batches, using natural fermentation. As the heavier cream rose to the top of the milk, it was skimmed off and stored until there was enough to churn. That was how bacteria got in and “cultured” the cream. It resulted in a taste that was “ripe” and very delicious.

When I was a child, my paternal grandmother kept one milk cow on her farm. I saw how the yellow cream rose thickly to the top of a container of fresh milk after it sat awhile. I don’t remember any butter churning, but she used that cream to pour into coffee or to make desserts like strawberry shortcake with garden picked berries and a dollop of fresh whipped cream.

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Today, with mass production, there is no skimming by hand and waiting around for natural processes. Cream is spun out of milk via machines. However, in France, a lactic acid producing culture is added to the separated cream and fermentation still takes place. The resulting butter taste is fuller and, to some, even a “nuttier” flavor.

It is well known that the French are extraordinarily fond of butter. Culturally they take it very seriously, and it is not lightly squandered. One vivid example occurred during my slightly quirky two-month tenure assisting a female chef with cooking classes in her Parisian apartment. I functioned as the prep and clean up person during a gap before a new student intern arrived to do the sludge work.

One day, as she was demonstrating her no-bake-tart-pastry recipe, an entire brick of opened butter fell off the counter. She stepped in it with the heel of her kitchen shoes, almost skidding to the floor, but grabbed the counter edge just in time. Without missing a beat, she told me to pick it up and “clean it”.

She carried on with class while I “cleaned” the butter with “beaucoup de paper towels” as that was the only method I could think of. [No suggestion was offered.] Only a sliver of butter remained when I thought it was “clean enough”. After sculpting it into a small ball, I set it out of sight.

During 2017 there was a lot of published hype about a calamitous butter shortage coming to France. It was and wasn’t true. Because of a shortage in raw materials, for a time, there was a supply problem in grocery stores. Concurrently, exported sales increased as the Chinese decided they loved pastries made with French butter. In America, sugar had shifted to being the dietary enemy so butter demand increased across the Atlantic. Fears of mass shortage did not transpire but my restaurant friend, Laurel Sanderson, did stockpile for several months because she is so dependent on mounds of butter for her baked fresh daily southern biscuits, cakes, and savory tarts. [Story of Laurel and her resto: Treize–A Baker’s Dozen, Paris]

Norman cows also produce milk for Camembert–the most famous cheese of the region. The village of Camembert resides in basse [lower] Normandy. The story is that in 1791 a Norman farmer, Marie Harel, while following the recipe from a priest who hailed from Brie, made some slight changes and improved it. Camembert was born.

Camembert de Normandie is a protected designation of origin. With this stamp, it can only be made from raw, unpasteurized milk from les vaches Normandies [cows from Normandy].  It is soft, with a fine rind covered in a “white duvet”. It is at least 45% fat, with a pungent aroma and stronger taste than Brie. When warmed it becomes even creamier and can be used as a dip for raw vegetables, potatoes, or bread. I serve it this way as an appetizer or light supper. It is typically sold whole, in rounds, inside thin wooden containers made of poplar. [How to make and serve baked camembert: “Not a Station, but a Place”–Paris to Avignon]

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thin rind with a white duvet covering

There are many things I remember after more than a decade living, learning and experiencing European life. There are adventures, travel, and friends to reminisce about, food, wine, and restaurants to recall, even exasperations or faux pas to laugh [or write] about.

Still, at the top of my list is “mes vaches Normandies”–those fabulous “buttah-making” cows that touched my senses and tastes in a forever kind of way. Always in anticipation of the next petit dèjeuner of good, wholegrain toasted baguette smeared with a melting pool of butter and sea salt crystals.

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Ogden Nash, the American poet of light verse wrote, “Cows are of the bovine ilk: one end is moo and the other milk.”  Factually and humorously true. But all cows are not the same.

I happen to have been seduced by the Norman ones.

 

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there’s no place like home–in normandy

 

The Unexpected in Normandy

This article touches only on the FRANCO-AMERICAN aspects of D-Day, 70 years ago.  Other members of the Allied Expeditionary Forces landed in Normandy at the same time, assuring the success of the invasion. 

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General Dwight D. Eisenhower and members of the 101st Airborne, pre-invasion, June 1944

Throughout military history, the most well constructed plans sometimes result in unexpected outcomes. It happened on D-Day, June 6, 1944. In the pre-dawn hours, American paratroopers of the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions were scattered all over the Normandy countryside. Most of them had completely missed their drop zones. As they reached the coast of France, heavy incoming anti-aircraft fire caused C-47 pilots to turn on jump lights too quickly. Soldiers landed far from designated assembly areas, sometimes losing weapons and equipment in the hasty exit. In the Band of Brothers episode, “Day of Days”, Captain Richard Winters and a nervous private were walking through the darkness looking for orienting landmarks. The private asked, “Do you have any idea where we are, sir?” “Some,” came the answer. The soldier mused, “I wonder if the rest of them are as lost as we are.” To which Captain Winters replied, “We’re not lost, private. We’re in Normandy.” 

And so were we. Unexpectedly. Seventy years later, June 6, 2014.

Only three days earlier, the U.S. Embassy had issued an invitation for a small group from the American School Paris to attend the Franco-American D-Day Ceremony in Colleville-sur-Mer. Presidents François Hollande and Barack Obama would speak to guests and returning veterans at the American Cemetery overlooking Omaha Beach. For many soldiers it would be their last trip to the site where the tide of World War II turned. And, perhaps, their last time to honor fallen comrades.

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American Cemetery Omaha Beach

The embassy established a strict timetable. Our bus had to pass inspection in Caen at 6:30AM. The engine number was even registered in advance for security purposes. It was another hour’s drive to the memorial site and a second security checkpoint. We were to be seated by 9:30AM. Traffic between Paris and the Norman coast would be heavy, so an early start was scheduled. But, unexpected things happen.

We left school at 3:00AM. Students retreated to the back of the bus and immediately fell asleep. The three adults chatted quietly for the first two hours. I dozed off briefly, but was awakened by loud engine noises and a bad smell. The bus was not moving. Clearly the mechanical problem was serious and unfixable. It was 5:30AM. A replacement bus would arrive from Paris, in two or three hours. There was no chance of making the security inspection on time, nor would engine numbers match the original paperwork. Students woke up, but remained quiet. The possibility of missing the ceremony was unspoken and on everyone’s mind.

Around 6:15AM, a Secret Service convoy pulled up next to us. We explained our situation to the lead driver who told us that he was chauffeuring Mary Eisenhower, Dwight’s granddaughter from his son, John. Everyone perked up at the “celebrity” citing. Unfortunately, agents nixed the idea of our group hitching a ride with the VIPs. They pulled out and drove on.

One student mentioned that his father was leading President Obama’s embassy detail in Paris. We called to tell him about the broken down bus and the ruptured schedule. Awhile later, two French “Gendarmerie” [state police troopers] arrived on motorcycles.

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The boy’s father had arranged for a personal police escort to speed us through the inspection checkpoint and on to the Cemetery! By 8:15AM, we were back on the road with “Our Gendarmes” leading the way. Moods shifted to a higher gear.

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leading the way to inspection point

At the first traffic jam, our escort turned on flashing lights and sirens and led us down the wrong side of the road. We skirted a long lineup of vehicles waiting to enter the inspection area. By 9:00AM, dogs had sniffed the bus, forms were stamped, and window stickers applied. Landing at Omaha Beach was next. Closely following the motorcycle brigade, we swerved around roadblocks and through roundabouts, literally holding onto our seats. Local residents lined the streets to watch the parade into the Memorial area.

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merci beaucoup les gendarmes!

Arrival…10:00AM! After thanking the Gendarmes, we inched forward with the crowd waiting to pass through security scanners. Overhead, President Obama arrived on Marine One with four accompanying Osprey helicopters.

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the background view

At the Memorial area, chairs overflowed with 15,000 people stretching down the grassy field between the white marble markers. More than 200 American veterans from D-Day 1944 were seated on the stage. Small French and American flags decorated each of the 9,387 grave sites. The sky and the sea, both deep lapis blue, created a stunning backdrop.

The Ceremony opened officially with the posting of the colors, French and American. The two national anthems were played, followed by a prayer. French President Hollande spoke first. He commemorated the day, 70 years before, using beautiful, descriptive language. He spoke of France’s gratefulness to the American Allies. He thanked the United States for both her help and the ultimate sacrifice made by young men. On the first day of the invasion, 4,000 American soldiers died. The Battle of Normandy lasted three months, until Paris was liberated at the end of August. The total cost was 20,838 American lives.

During President Obama’s speech there were two standing ovations for the veterans seated behind him. He said, “We are here on this Earth for only a moment in time. And fewer of us have parents and grandparents to tell us what the veterans of D-Day did here 70 years ago. So we have to tell their stories for them. We have to do our best to uphold in our own lives the values that they were prepared to die for. We have to honor those who carry forward that legacy today.” The President reminded us: “Whenever the world makes you cynical…stop. And think of these men. Whenever you lose hope…stop. And think of these men.”

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F-15 jets in missing man formation

Together, the two presidents laid a wreath for fallen soldiers, followed by a moment of silence. Three cannons poised on top of the cliff above Omaha Beach boomed a 21-gun salute. A trumpet played “Taps”. Finally, three F-15 jets flew over the cemetery in “Missing Man” formation, remembering those who didn’t return home.

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 veteran interview

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ASP students and teacher with veteran

Of all the unexpected events that had happened so far, the most meaningful one took place when the ceremony was over. After the dignitaries departed, we approached the stage where some of the sturdier veterans lingered. We were able to listen to stories from the men themselves. I overheard an interview with a soldier, 93 years old. His hand stayed cupped by his ear to hear the questions, but he answered each one clearly and humbly.

another old soldier

We shook hands with veterans in wheel chairs and on walkers, thanking them. The students listened intently to stories of the heroism of comrades who did not survive. Respects were paid to the men now resting in the serenity of the cemetery. Row upon row of white marble crosses stretch across the grass, each etched with a name, rank, company, hometown, and the day of death. They stand in perfect formation, like the soldiers themselves once did.

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in perfect formation

On June 6, 1944, the unexpected happened. That same day in 2014, none of us expected to feel such intense emotion and awe as we mingled with surviving veterans. But we did. Every one of these men had been there on those bloody beaches or scattered across the countryside 70 years ago. What they accomplished changed the course of history for all of us. It is an impossible debt to repay. Sharing this special anniversary with American veterans from D-Day 1944 was an honor and a lifetime memory for everyone in our group. As the older voices continue to fade, it is up to us to keep telling the stories for them, so that the next generation and the next…will never forget the legacy they left.

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