The King of Cheeses, the Cheese of Kings

Children and Brie
Future cheese connoisseurs

The story goes that Charlemagne, that most magnificent of kings, liked Brie so much that he told the bishop who introduced him to the cheese to send two cartloads of  the fromage to Aix-la-Chapelle (now Aachen, Germany) so that the king of kings would always have some to nibble on. And, so the story goes, many other people in exalted positions with crowns on their head were of the same opinion in the centuries to come – a great marketing story if nothing else.

The Sanctum Sanctorum of Brie is in a basement of a small farm in the middle of Jouarre, a town in the département Seine-et-Marne (the modern incarnation of the ancient Brie region), a little under an hour east of Paris. It looks nothing like you would expect it to look. Stéphane Ganot and his sister Isabelle who run the 120-year-old family business are the high priest and priestess in the temple and again, they look like mere humans, not too tall, not too short, not too thick, not too thin. Sounds underwhelming, doesn’t it? And yet I felt, at the end of a long day on which it rained off and on, after visiting a champagne cellar, an old Picardie mill, a Viollet-le-Duc castle and a terrible roadside café, that we had arrived at the epicenter of cheese in France. The Fromagerie Ganot is where local farmers bring their ordinary brie tourtes (Brie de Meaux, Brie de Melun, Brie de Nangis, Brie de Provins) and Stéphane and Isabelle elevate them, with a lot of care, know-how, patience and modern technology to little mold-covered pieces of heaven.

In the Brie Museum
Old form for Brie de Meaux

Stéphane and Isabelle aren’t making any Brie. They collect Brie from neighboring farmers and make that Brie better. They are affineurs. They keep the cheese at the exact right temperature, the exact right moisture, turn it exactly when it needs to be turned and in that way, they tease the very most out of the potential that the farmer puts in. Compared to the actual cheese making, affinage takes time and, if you believe brother and sister Ganot, is half science and half art. And they share their art in small doses and only at certain times. Getting a spot on their tour feels a bit like winning the cheese lottery. Because as enthusiastic as they present their trade and their cheese, they don’t have all the time in the world, because they have tourtes to turn.

Stephane Ganot
Stephane leading through the small museum

in the attic of one of the buildings on the farm, they carefully explain, with a slide show and in a small museum, some of the finer details of their trade. The land in the Seine-et-Marne region is getting more expensive every year, they say, and as a result there is less and less land for the cows to graze on. So they’re not exactly in a booming business, also because Brie is probably the most ripped-off cheese in the world: it did not get an AOC (now AOP) protection until 1980, by which time this cheese had already been copied around the world from Brazil to Wisconsin and from Japan to California.

The Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée designations stipulate things like the geographical region in which the product must be produced, the methods of production, the ingredients etc., etc. Since the EU took over the regulation of foodstuffs, they’re called AOPs, Appellation d’Origine Protégée. In Kathe Lison’s book The Whole Fromage, she explains with great insight how sometimes, these rules end up leaving out cheese makers who just have a slightly different way of making their cheese – long traditions and generations of know-how notwithstanding. In the case of brie, there are two kinds that have an AOC protection – Brie de Melun and Brie de Meaux, and there are others that go without – not that this perturbs the Ganots: the other Bries are handled with just as much love and expertise.

Isabelle Ganot
Love and expertise: in the Ganot cave
In the cave
The Brie vault

So is the Brie Noir, also without an AOC, and a bit of an oddball in the Brie palette: the name normally evokes visions of ivory colored, creamy, flavorful goodness, and Brie Noir is a decided departure from that: it is grey-brown, chewy and has a very strong flavor. It is best enjoyed as an ingredient in other dishes, and during the tasting we enjoyed it was served in the form of thin shavings. Lo and behold, the shavings are a much better way to eat this cheese (basically a Brie that has been allowed to ripen, ripen and ripen some more – up to 10 months, where 4 weeks is normal for regular Brie) that in bite-size chunks: the latter just become a chewy chore with a flavor too intense to enjoy.

With the farm land in the old Brie region becoming ever more expensive, Korean, Japanese and Brazilian counterfeits being produced in ever larger quantities, is there hope? Yes, darn it, yes! Because the French give a damn. They want Brie from Brie. They want to be sure that the milk is raw, that the process to get to the perfect cheese involves people, not machines. And, most importantly: they pass on the passion. the majority of the participants of the Brie-tour were kids. Kids who asked questions, who touched the things they were allowed to touch, and who expertly sampled the cheeses. And kids who will grow up to be the kind of adults Brie needs: the staunch defenders of the real deal. After our tour we were able to spend a small fortune on an enormous chunk of Brie de Meaux (the cheeses are larger than the Brie de Melun and the flavor is somewhat milder) a jar of local honey, some Brie de Melun and a few Petits Cœurs, small hearts, made of a combination of crème fraîche and cream (yes indeed, think OMG) which lasted us the remainder of the week in Brittany which, for all of its other tremendous qualities, is not a particularly cheesy part of France.

Brie de Melun
Brie de Melun
Brie de Meaux
Brie de Meaux, still under wraps
Advertisements

Un Melon pour le week-end

market in St. Louis
Fruit in St. Louis: Local Mirabelles & Quetsches

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.

market in St. Louis II
St. Louis market: bread by the pound

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?”

wild blackberries
Fruit in St. Louis: wild blackberries

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!”

Neufchatel
Not just for Valentine’s Day: Neufchatel

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.

Fromage
Clockwise from top left: a blue goat cheese from the Ile de France; pieces of Gaperon, a cheese from the Auvergne region with pepper and garlic mixed in; half a heart of Neufchatel, crusty bread, and a piece of Reblochon, along with some Mirabelles

Lil’ Blue Brain (Week 40)

Little Blue Brain
A little creepy: Blaues Hirni, the Little Blue Brain

52cheeses is finally back with a vengeance, after a hiatus that turned out to be much longer than I anticipated. Week 40 concludes with tall tales of brain cheese, Wilhelm Tell the Great Dane, Blue Fenugreek, 12 Mutschlis and a Swiss army knife, in no particular order. But I am getting ahead of myself, and I need to go back to the Milchmanufaktur in Einsiedeln, Switzerland, a place known for it’s splendid baroque abbey.

Baroque II
Einsiedeln’s abbey church

That’s where our day started around a copper cauldron of coagulating milk from the alpine meadows of Schwyz, the most prominent of the three Urkantone, the founding cantons of the Swiss Confederacy (Confoederatio Helvetica in Latin, hence the CH on the cars and the CHF as the abbreviation for the Swiss Franc). That milk largely comes from the Swiss Braunvieh, a pretty brown-grayish cow that looks great in pastures and does well in all sorts of commercials as well.

Cutting the curds
Cutting the curds

As would-be cheesemakers, we rapidly set about cutting the thickening mass with a cheese harp, to let whey escape and create nice, regular hazelnut-size granules of curds under the watchful eye of a friendly cheesemaker named Thomas, the only one around the cauldron who knew what he was doing. The cauldron hung from a massive hook attached to a moveable beam in what can be best described as a movie set resembling a Swiss cheese-making hut. We toured the modern facility of Manufaktur, where a great variety of cheeses is made from the perfect milk these happy cows with healthy lifestyles produce. These cows never eat silage, they graze on alpine meadows with a wide variety of tasty herbs mixed in with the grass in summer and delicious hay in winter. Of course they oblige by providing milk of a superior quality, and today, we turned some of that milk into 12 Mutschlis – a small round cheese, the Swiss answer to the Tomme. Your read that right: twelve of them. We will be eating Mutschlis for a long time…

We learned an awful lot about making cheese, how each of the steps in the process involves decisions that determine the final result – the milk that goes into the cheese, the size of the curds, the composition of the brine bath, the strains of bacteria being used etc. and we got to taste whey, cheese curds, and all kinds of yoghurt, heavenly yoghurt, another product the Milchmanufaktur (‘what on earth are we to do with all this milk???”)

Cheesy store
The Cheese Paradise of the Milchmanufaktur in Einsiedeln

Upstairs, in the store and restaurant area I got – among others – a cheese that expresses the quirky humor of Peter Glauser, an affineur who launched the wildly successful Belper Knolle (he works in the city of Belp, near Bern). The cheese is called Blaues Hirnli, that’s Little Blue Brain in English. The cheese indeed looks like a little blue brain with a creased grey mold cover over the ivory white creamy body of the cheese – a fresh-cheese ball, seasoned with Himalaya-salt. Combine the creaminess of the fresh cheese and the nuance the salt draws out from it with the strong flavors of the green-gray, fuzzy rind and a star among cheeses is born. We left a token bit of the Blue Brain for tomorrow only so we would not have to confront our gluttony the moment we woke up the morning after (“really? We ate an entire brain?”) The other two cheeses I tried were Willi Schmid’s Hölzig Schaf, a washed-rind sheep’s milk cheese that’s kept together with a strip of mountain spruce bark (combines red-rind stinkiness and the strong sharp flavor of sheep cheese: this cheese talks back!) and Käserei Stofel’s Tannenkäse, a rich, creamy cow’s milk cheese coated in a very thin crust of pine bark (yup, you can eat it…). With that, the all-Swiss cheese plate for the evening was an almost mischievous feast. A shame I didn’t decide to also add a piece of Fette Berta, fat Berta, for good measure.

Swiss Cheese
Swiss Cheese – but different

After the Milchmanufaktur, young master Charles tried his hand at making his own Swiss Army Knife in Brunnen and then we stopped in the canton of Uri, at the Wilhelm Tell statue. You will recall that he was the Swiss freedom fighter who slip an apple on his son’s head with a crossbow, forced into conducting such a harebrained experiment by the hated representative of the Austrian crown, Albrecht Gessler. We know his aim was true, the apple split, Gessler killed and Switzerland freed from the Austrian yoke. And because of all this, the small town of Altdorf, where Wilhelm performed his awesome feat, has an enormous statue of Tell and his son at the base of a tower adorned with murals that tell the tale.

Tell
Tell Monument in Uri

Alas, Christine and Charlie climbed the tower and found out from a strategically located sign that Tell was in fact Palnatoki, a Danish crossbow man, who supposedly did all the Tell-things before Tell did them. In fact, Tell never really existed and the mere fact that the same applies to Palnatoki is small comfort to us at this point. Wilhelm Tell was Danish – I bet you Rossini did not see that one coming.

If Tell never existed, why oh why did we not return home despondently, you may ask? Because our final destination for the day was beyond the Tell statue, over the great mountains of the canton of Glarus, to the alpine heights of Graubünden, where we were to attend the Kuhspektakel, of which I will write in the second installment of this extended post…

Another gift – and more cheese sleuthing (Week 47)

adobera
Cheese Enigma: we’ll call it Adobera for now!

The same friend who got me a piece of her family’s cheese from La Capilla de Guadalupe in Mexico gave me a riddle in the form of a cheese from Teocaltiche in the state of Jalisco – about an hour and a half to the northeast of La Capilla. It has a pale ivory color, a fine grainy texture – you can see it looks a bit like dough where I cut it – and a fresh, sour taste. It smells exactly like European yoghurt, and these were my clues. Her family is divided on the cheese, as much as they are united in the Queso Fresco from La Capilla. it grew on me after a few bites but it is probably better as an ingredient in a dish that requires queso than as a ‘stand-alone’. I did some web research and found the Cheese Underground description of a cheese called Adobera, so named because it comes in a shape that looks like an adobe brick. It fits what I am eating very neatly, so I think this is what we’re dealing with. It is made from pasteurized cow’s milk and another website lumps it in with the quesos frescos. The problem with that is that it doesn’t tell you a lot, because there is a wide variety of these and one queso fresco is not like another. so for the time being, I’ll settle on Adobera.

cheese-mongers
Awesome cheese paper: Cheesemongers of Sherman Oaks

I also visited the Cheesemongers of Sherman Oaks this week, and picked up 3 American cheeses. From the Indiana farm of Jacobs and Brichford Cheese I had a piece of Everton – think Gruyère, but sharper. Nice big mouthful but not for the fainthearted – it really packs a punch. I had the Adair from the same creamery a few weeks ago, so now I will want to try more of their cheeses – that one was also very good.

everton
Sharp, Bold – Everton

The Everton is definitely my cheese of the week, although the other two, the Kinsman Ridge from the Landaff creamery – a bloomy rind cheese with big mushroomy and grassy flavors – and the Twig Farm – a stinker with a washed rind with a really interesting taste made from a combo of goat and cow milk – were also very, very good.

kinsman-ridge
Kinsman Ridge, Vermont’s answer to Brie
twig-farm
Goat-Cow stinker from Twig Farm

One of the best things about shopping at the Cheesemongers is the love of cheese that permeates everything that they do. “What the heck does that mean?”, I hear you think. For starters, the cheese-monger-in-chief’s face lights up when she speaks about cheese. Then, they enjoy advising you and letting you taste and finally: look at how carefully and lovingly they wrap their cheeses in the best-designed cheese paper I have ever seen, and tagged with little tags so that I remember what I am eating as I am munching away, trying to figure out which of this week’s four new flavors will be cheese of the week – a labor of love itself.

 

 

46 down, 6 more to go – some of the runners-up.

brown-cow
Future Remeker-maker

Today, I am getting cheese number 47 of 2016. I think it will be my final American cheese for the year, as I am heading back to Switzerland this weekend. High time for another snapshot of the last 46 weeks in cheese. The current tally by country is a good starting point: 12 American Cheeses were ‘cheese of the week’, along with 12 French, but the latter group is likely to grow, because we’ll be in France in a few weeks. There were 7 Swiss cheeses so far, and only 3 Dutch ones. Three times an Italian cheese got the coveted title; Mexican and Spanish cheeses each took the honor twice, as did the Greek cheeses which, for whatever reason, were both a mix of goat and sheep milk. Finally, there was one top billing for each of the following countries: Croatia, Portugal, Austria and England. By milk, the cows clearly had it: 30 of my 47 cheeses were made with cow’s milk, there were seven goat cheeses, 4 sheep cheeses along with the two Greek mixed ones. Two were made of the milk of water buffalo and one had milk of all four animals in it.

But of course there have been many more than just these 47. Remeker cheese is sold at 3 months, 8-9 months, 16 months and 18+months and all four of them have very distinct characters. Considering that the youngest of these cheeses, which the cheesemakers are calling pril (an old Dutch word for young, basically) packed enough flavor to become one of my five favorites some weeks back, imagine what a really aged Remeker tastes like! There is a tradition among the frugal Dutch to use a cheese slicer and putting a thin layer of cheese on a slice of bread, but we never bothered much with the bread and ate the cheese in chunks – life is too short for moderation when it comes to this cheese.

In Croatia, I tried three of the cheeses the local cheese monger sold, and in many other places, I picked up more than what was decent. There was one of the five cheeses I found at la Cloche à Fromage in Strasbourg with a somewhat indecent name – a term of endearment in the far north of France is Biloute – um – dick. It’s what friends call each other and what a cheesemaker in that part of France calls his cheese: T’Chiot Biloute. The first word is a reference to the area and its dialect – it’s the French version of the sticks. But there it was, a beautiful rond cheese with a beer-washed rind, a slightly yeasty flavor – all great and good, but just a tad bit less great and good than the Sable de Wissant, which basically is the same thing without the strange name. So the Biloute came in second, and who ever remembers who won silver?

tchiot-biloute
Little Willy from the North: T’chiot Biloute

Another runner up was the exotically named Piacentinu ennese alla zafferano, a cheese with a DOP designation, made in Sicliy in the Enne region with an unusual color – saffron yellow.

piacentinu-ennese
Black peppercorns contrast with saffron-yellow cheese: Piacentinu ennese

In Basel, I once picked up a nice slice of a raw milk Époisses – always a crowdpleaser – that king of cheeses from Burgundy that makes you want to lick your plate (and lick you must because it is sticky).

epoisses
Oozing goodness: Epoisses de Bourgogne

The Mont d’Or is here! The Mont d’Or is here! (Week 46)

cheese-volcano-mont-dor-ii
It’s a…. cheese volcano!

I started this year with a description of the Rush Creek Reserve, a cheese that is more or less the American version of the Vacherin Mont-d’Or, a mountain cheese that is produced in fall and winter, when the cows are in their stables and eat hay instead of gras.

Between the French and the Swiss there is a bit of acrimony about the AOP of this cheese, which is understandable – the landscape doesn’t care about international borders and it stands to reason that the farmers in the mountains that separate the two countries over hundreds of years would have, through trial and error and exchange of idea, have reached similar conclusions about the things they can do with their cow’s milk. So a soft runny cheese with a strip of bark around it to keep the gooey torte from collapsing existed on both sides of the border for a long time and for the sneaky Swiss (or clever Swiss, depending on your point of view) to claim the Vacherin Mont-d’Or as theirs (and by extension not French), is a bit, well, sneaky. So off went the pouting French when all of this happened and decided to name their cheese the Vacherin du Haut Doubs, or simply Mont d’Or (sans trait d’union – without the dash). This cheese has made quite a career, because it had lowly beginnings: the farmers in winter often had a harder time getting their milk to the fruitières (and milk from hay-fed cows was considered inferior to begin with) so they often just made this soft, bloomy rind cheese for themselves and spent their dark winter evenings spooning warm cheese from their bark-reinforced wheels.

mont-dor-rind
The Shar Pei of cheeses: Mont d’Or’s bloomy, loose-fitting rind

Today, as soon as the first hay-milk is being turned into fromage, the cheese fills the cheese counters in fromageries and in the better supermarkets, and often they come with pretty packages and in this case, with a small bottle of Arbois Béthanie 2010 a Chardonnay-Savagnin blend, a very robust white wine that comes from the Jura.

mont-dor-with-wine
Cheese & wine in one nifty package

The idea here is to punch a few holes in the top of the cheese, pour the liquid all over it to let it soak and put it in the oven at 200 degrees centigrade and spoon it out when it is warm. And yes, indeed, it is exactly what you think it is: a creamy, ecstatic cheese climax. Think of a cheese fondue right out of the cheese. You can eat it with potatoes, use nice country bread or even carrots and broccoli if that’s your fancy – anything goes. Drink white wine with it if but something with big flavors, because the cheese does have a lot of it already. A dainty lil’ white wine will do well here. The cheese texture is smooth, and white the wine, there is a delicious balance between creaminess and acidity – it’s cheese fondue without the Emmentaler, in essence. It also is lighter than cheese fondue – you can probably overdose on it easier, because you do not fill up quickly.

cheese-volcano-mont-dor
Cheese Volcano erupted

Since it is a seasonal cheese, there is the hype about the first Mont d”Or of the season, as in: ‘they’re baaack!’. Of course, this happens in October and spring in these parts does not arrive until April, at least not in the mountains, so there will be Mont d’Or aplenty for months to come.

Best Morbier ever – really (Week 44)

morbier-fermier
Morbier Fermier – proof that there is a God

Yes, this one is out of order again, because the Morbier was a cheese I got in Les Rousses, in what is shaping up to be one of my very favorite cheese places in the whole world. I wrote about it before, but it is worth gushing over some more. There is just something very poetic about a store that exudes: “we do not sell you a lifestyle, we do not want you to buy books, napkins, cute kitchen utensils or coasters or olive picks; we sell cheese, and you eat it. Period, end of the story.” The Morbier is one of those staples in the Mountains of the Jura and the Doubs. It was first made in the late 1700s by farmers who didn’t feel like bringing their milk to town to have it turned into Comté so much anymore. They would take the milk from the cows in the evening, make, if you will, the bottom of the cheese, and sprinkle some ashes on the paste to keep bugs and critters away and then the next day, they would put cheese from the morning milking on top. Today, there is no longer a real need for the line of ash, but it is a tradition and it makes the cheese stand out. No, it doesn’t do anything for the taste.

morbier-fermier-ii
Oh my cheesy goodness

Morbier has an AOP, so the rules for making it are rather strict: only milk from Montbéliard and French Simmental cows may be used, the animals cannot be fed any silage, them have to be in pastures that are in a specified geographical region and even the amount of room the cows have to roam, munch and ruminate in is regulated – per cow the farmer needs to have at least 2.5 acres. It may all seem a little much, but it is soooo worth it. The semi-soft paste is supple but not rubbery, it has a gorgeous color and the taste – the taste is a symphony. It has saltiness, nuttiness, a bit of barn. It is just a glorious, glorious cheese. Of course, you can get something that vaguely resembles Morbier in your local cheese shop and if you have, you’ll wonder why I am so hysterical about the Morbier – and that’s because you have had the nasty imitation, my friends. Travel to the Jura mountains, get the real deal and you will understand my hysteria.

Croix Catal (Week 31)

Croix Catal
The Occitan Cross

Cheese: Croix Catal

Producer: Le Mas de Catal

Where: Rudelle, Lot, France

I am cheating again for this week, because this goat cheese is one that I had a while ago after my visit to La Cloche à Fromage in Strasbourg. I think it is a perfect choice for cheating a bit because this is one very fine goat cheese. It comes from southern France, and the cross on the cheese makes that clear: it is the Occitan Cross used by local rulers in Provence and Languedoc back in the days when France wasn’t as large as it is today, and the people in the south spoke Occitan (the langue d’Oc), a language still alive in a large part of the country and south of the border in Catalonia. The cross is white on a background of ash, which is used on many goat cheeses in France. The alkaline ash lowers the surface acidity of the cheese, and that in turn allows the molds that form a rind to develop better.

Croix Catal II
White Goodness

Inside, the Croix Catal is a beautiful white, and mine was ripe enough for the paste to ooze a bit, with flavor fully developed. As goat cheeses go, this was one of the best I have ever had. It had everything that makes a goat cheese a goat cheese, but is was unusually creamy, very fresh and clean – just délicieux. It is made on a farm with a little over 200 goats in Rudelle, a tiny little town of less than 200 souls with a remarkable fortified church with crenelated walls. Rudelle is in the French département Lot, named after the river that flows through it.

Tomme de Jura (Week 40)

tomme-de-jura-iv
Magnificent local cheese: Tomme de Jura

Cheese: Tomme de Jura (Tomme Massif du Jura)

Cheese Monger: José les Rousses

Where: Les Rousses, Franche-Comté, France

Ha! A cheese I had never heard of and bam! it makes my top five of the year. Yes, it was really that good. What a joy to behold, what a surprise to bite into! The Tomme de Jura is a semi-hard cheese that is produced and mostly eaten locally. It has a grey-white mottled rind, a perfect yellow color and small, irregular holes. It’s a bit sticky, tastes fresh but with a lot of character for a relatively young cheese (ripened 2-4 months), and it’s almost sweet as milk. It is apparently largely a local cheese – most of it is eaten here. I guess just like some of the white Jura wines they do not produce a whole lot, and the local yokels are happy to keep most of it to themselves.

les-rousses
Best-looking cheese shop ever: Jose les Rousses

The Tomme de Jura came from the excellent little cheese shop in Les Rousses where I purchased cheese for weeks to come – there will be more praise for the place in the weeks to come. And strangely, here too it is not so easy to find much information about the cheese or the purveyor. José les Rousses, père et fils, have been in the business of cheese mongering since 1976, and in Les Rousses, they compete with the gargantuan Fortress that has been transformed in one of the world’s largest cheese ripening facilities and a fromagerie that caters largely to tourists attracted to the town because of the fort, and they do so quietly. There is nothing flashy about the fromagerie of José les Rousses. I stood in line waiting for my turn with locals, who all seemed to know exactly what they wanted. There was a cheese I have never heard of before (and that doesn’t exist on the World Wide Web) named Dajo, and a host of other local cheeses, one better looking than the other. And cow bells, of course, and assorted sausages.

jesu-de-morteau
Yup, that’s what it says: Jesus sausage…

I brought a local smoked sausage with the startling name Jésus de Morteau that was a big hit a week after our visit to the mountains along with the mountain of cheese: every single one of them deserved to come down the mountain with us, but after a good 2 kilos I came to my senses and realized that not everyone in the family was going to applaud the idea of having cheese for breakfast, lunch and dinner for the next few weeks. There was no information about the actual farms the cheeses that were sold came from. Elsewhere, that may not have been a good sign, but in the way the cheeses were labeled, packaged and displayed, it was clear that père et fils did not mess around. When he handed me my shopping bag o’ cheese, I looked in the eyes of a man who knows life is too short for crappy cheese.

tomme-de-jura-iii
Ready for its close-up: Tomme de Jura’s many holes

 

Fat Bottom Girl (Week 30)

Fat Bottom Girl
Surely a nice bottom

Cheese: Fat Bottom Girl

Producer: Bleating Heart Creamery

Where: Tomales, California

So the people at Bleating heart have good distribution in the Southland. I found a piece of their Foursquare at the Wheelhouse in Culver City; a chunk of Buffalo Blue in Claremont at the Cheese Cave and at a Whole Foods in Sherman Oaks they sold this Fat Bottom Girl. It is a sheep’s milk cheese with a dark ivory paste and a very nice textured rind, that is created by hand-rubbing with salt water during the aging process. Apparently the cheese accidentally ended up with a rotund shape which inspired the link to the Queen song Fat Bottomed Girls from their 1978 Jazz album. There were some cheeses taken out of their forms and then left unattended, which caused them to sag a bit under their own weight, creating the shape that linked it to the female anatomy. After some careful testing the cheese maker was able to develop just the right process to recreate the initial accidental fat bottom in the cheeses with standardized precision.The piece I got, alas, was too small to allow me to recognize it as such. Shame on Whole Foods for depriving its customers of the experience by chopping up the cheese in small little bits! The sleeve liner of that infamous Queen album had a picture of dozens of naked women on bicycles, among them one with her bottom (which wasn’t fat at all) turned towards the camera. I was at an age where boys have no sense of humor about naked women on bicycles yet – it took that image very seriously and it occupied a prime spot in my feverish imagination for quite a while.

The cheese on the other hand is pleasant and, as the Bleating Heart people put it, approachable. It lacks the edge a lot of sheep cheeses have. In fact, if you’re a die-hard sheep cheese kind of a person, you may find the Fat Bottom Girl wanting a bit. But chances are, you’ll still find enough to your liking in this one, the flagship cheese of the Bleating Heart enterprise. It is available on a limited basis, because sheep produce milk for only 6-7 months or so, and the cheese ripens for 3 to 4. So the cheese making season runs from March to September and if the cheese sells well, none may be had between December and about late May or so. You can listen to Queen twelve months of the year, if that is any consolation – but I would not recommend that.