Saint-Louis is the first city in Alsace after crossing the French-Swiss border on the northern edge of Basel. It’s not a particularly pretty place – there are some scattered half-timbered houses with a bit of charm, and the main crossing in town is overlooked by a turreted hotel from the Belle-Époque that barely deserves the grandiose name “de l’Europe” but altogether, it is rather unremarkable. But it is in France, in wonderful, food-obsessed France, and you don’t have to look too far to experience that. More than 800 kilometers from the Normand fishing port of Courseulles-sur-Mer where I fell on my backside next to the fishmarket right where the fishing ships come and go (another story for another post), the local LeClerc has an impressive, outsized poisson & fruits de mer section, and around this time of year the patrons of the cheese section in that same LeClerc are positively giddy with the news that the Mont d’Or is here again, announcing the beginning of fall. And some weeks ago, on the weekly market which is brimming with good stuff, I was confronted with that food-lovin’ essence of France, distilled in a simple question when Christine asked for a melon (‘t was the season of the charentais jaune, and nous l’adorons). The response came from a man who in no way resembled a snooty French food connoisseur – he looked more like someone you’d want to steer clear from if you saw him in that alley next to the train station – but he never missed a beat and retorted: “Un melon pour le weekend, madame?”
So let that sink in for a moment. When was the last time someone at your local supermarket had the audacity to inquire exactly when you planned to feast on the foodstuffs you were about to purchase? And how likely would it have been that you would retort: “Xuse me, but I do not believe that is any of your business!” Exactly, that’s my point.
But years of going to the market with her aunt Colette had prepared Christine for this moment and where lesser American women would have faltered, she simply answered “Oui, pour le week-end”. Our rustic fruit vendor then sorted, looked, sniffed, gently squeezed through his merchandise and then it dawned on me that his impertinence had only one goal: to make sure that the particular melon he was going to present to Christine would do the very last bit of ripening to the absolute, unequivocal, impeccable pinnacle of ripeness in the few hours it would take us to complete our market visit, drive home, unload groceries, drop off the Swiss Mobility car, return home by tram, walk in the door and carve up that superfragrantilicious globe of orange goodness in the privacy of our own kitchen. In other words, our new best friend had asked Christine: “Are you looking for a random piece of fruit that will faintly taste like a melon whenever you decide to eat it, or do you want to do as the French do, and experience melon perfection?”
So there you have it. The difference between eating for sustenance and experiencing exquisite food pleasure is all in timing. Which leads me to cheese. Or rather, it led me to cheese because after our close encounter of the fruit kind, it was time for cheese. Around the corner from the fruit stand is the cheese truck of Aux Saveurs des Lys, St. Louis’ very own purveyor and affineur of fine cheeses. And because I knew that only hours after the charentais would be gone, I was going to conquer a Neufchâtel with my name on it in his display case, I spoke unto the fine cheese monger with the authority of a true connoisseur de fromage: “un Neufchâtel pour le week-end, s’il vout plait!”
That evening, only hours after we had wiped the melon juice off our chins, I was awarded for my perfect instruction to that sublime purveyor of cheeses as I savored the ripened-to-perfection Neufchâtel. No, we’re not talking about American Neufchâtel, a cheese mongrel that you should feel free to use in any recipe that calls for cream cheese if you care that Neufchâtel has less fat than cream cheese. The French Neufchâtel is a heart-shaped cheese from Normandy, and in the home of the Camembert, the Livarot and the Pont-l’Évêque, it is safe to assume that no one gives a damn about the fat content of the cheese, at least not for the reasons that would prompt someone to make said substitution when baking a cheesecake.
For no good reason whatsoever, the Neufchâtel had been the only one of the great Normand cheeses I had not yet savored. When I did, I exclaimed (in my head, the family doesn’t enjoy exclamations): “Neufchâtel, where have you been all my life?” It is somewhat embarrassing to pretend to know a bit about cheese and to stumble across a well-known cheese that harbors such a revelation, but there it was.
Neufchâtel is a soft cheese with a bloomy rind and at first sight, you may be forgiven for thinking that some smarmy French marketer dreamed up a heart-shaped Camembert to be in stores just in time for Valentine’s Day. But thankfully, this is not the case. Cheese lore says Neufchâtel has been around since the 6th century, only 300 years after St. Valentine was martyred (His story is so short on details that he received a demotion of sorts in the late sixties, and he’s been a benchwarmer for the Catholic calendar ever since), and centuries before Valentine became associated with heart-shaped boxes of chocolate, poorly written poetry and teenage heart palpitations and angst. More than its shape, it’s Neufchâtel’s flavor that sets it apart from Camembert. The former is saltier and sharper than the latter – think of “Camembert meets old Dutch cheese”- you get a mushroomy bouquet, a whiff of barn, a mouth full of cream….but wait, there is more! There’s that strong spine of saltiness, a hint of sharpness….. And with my taste buds having had their education in the Low Countries, the Neufchâtel is pretty much the best of both worlds for me. The particular specimen I enjoyed was relatively young – the cheese is aged a minimum of 10 days, but it is also sold in a more ripened version, when it is more dark ivory in color and a bit more wrinkly.
Neufchâtel received its AOC in 1969, that year of the Demotion of Saint Valentine (oh, the irony), and there is a story that young French maidens, on the occasion of New Year’s day, gave their English sweethearts the heart shaped cheeses to remember them by. This was during the Hundred Years’ War between France and England, and it is pretty symptomatic for that conflict that many people had a hard time figuring out whose side they were on. Apparently no one considered the gifting of the cheese as treasonous. Neufchâtel is best enjoyed between April and August, so perhaps it was just a way to get rid of some over-ripe cheese no French lad in his right mind would still accept as a token of true love. Who knows?
Towards the end of the 19th century, when the cheese was becoming a best-seller, there appeared a more verifiable connection to England, when Harrods in London re-introduced the descendants of those soldiers of yore to the heart-shaped version of the cheese. Because believe it or not, there are also less romantic versions – bricks, squares, rolls, but who cares? In fact, what is wrong, I dare ask, with any French cheese maker that decides to not use the shape the damn cheese is so known for? Alas, while the process of making the cheese and the diet of the cows that produce the milk is regulated in the AOC designation, the shape is not. So any Grinch, Scrooge or other curmudgeon that likes to have a taste of that heavenly Neuchâtel without any of the saccharine overtones of romance: yes, there is one with your name on it too, at your local supplier of fine French cheeses. Just let them now if it is for this week-end, or for later.