Tomme de Jura (Week 40)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

 

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Sable de Wissant & the Question of Terroir (Week 18)

Sable de Wissant
Yeasty Delight: Sable de Wissant, washed in beer

Cheese: Sable de Wissant

Producer: Fromagerie Sainte Godeleine

Where: Wierre-Effroy, France

So let’s get to the second part of the title first. Terroir is a word sometimes used by the pretentious and the pretenders to talk about whatever expensive red or white they are swirling in their glass. Since it is foreign, it is supposed to help lend instant credibility to whatever comes before or after the use of the t-word. To the people who invented it (oui, les Français) it actually means something, and it is not only used for wine, although that is the field of food & drink appreciation where it is heard the most. Terroir, in a nutshell, ties a product to the land, to the climate, and to the traditions that impart a product its particular qualities. In cheese-speak, a Frenchman tastes the lush green pastures of Normandy, the houses that seems to grow out of the ground on which they stand, the lazy cows that chew and chew and the thick pillowy clouds full of rain when he tucks into a chunk of Pont l’évêque cheese. It is the concept that a food belongs somewhere, has a pedigree and a history that is not interchangeable. The cherished French AOCs (Appellation d’origine contrôlée), which have been replaced by the EU’s AOPs are related to the idea that you can’t uproot a product, transplant it to somewhere else and expect it to be the same. And what does all of this have to do with this week’s cheese?

Sable de Wissant is not a particularly old cheese with a long history going back to Charlemagne or Louis XIV. It goes back to Antoine Bernard and the 1990s, when this man, who raised goats for a living, decided to get into the cheese business. That did not seem an obvious choice because Antoine’s creamery is in the far northwest of France, an area many people in parts of the country more blessed with natural beauty and culture lovingly refer to as the sticks. Antoine first traveled around, learned on farms and monasteries and then set about creating cheese with a solid sense of terroir: the raw cow’s milk for the cheese comes from local farms and the beer used to wash the cheese and give it its unique yeasty flavor is brewed in Wissant, another small town in those very same sticks. And so here is a relatively newcomer to that fabled plethora of 246 French cheeses Charles de Gaulle talked about (“how can one govern a country that has 246 different cheeses), and it is all about local flavor, local products, and local labor of love – terroir, in essence. The cheese is semi-soft, smells like a nice white beer and has a creamy, soft but not runny texture and a full, rich flavor which combines yeast, barnyard and butter in just the right proportions. Well, done, les frères Bernard! And well done by the Cloche à Fromage in Strasbourg, on the opposite end of the country, for offering this delicious creaminess to the folks in Alsace.

Cheese Wonderland (Week 38)

13 years after we first visited Saint-Cergue, there were now three of us. And all three of us gazed in awe at the magnificent beasts, the colorful traditions and – of course – the cheese….

a few more images –

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Cheeky Cow
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Waiting for the Cows
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Vacherin Mont d’Or is in season again!
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Likes to toot his own horn
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How now, brown Cow?

Désalpe 2016 Saint-Cergue (Week 38)

“What on earth” you could hear those Swiss mountain farmers think “are we going to do with all that friggin’ milk?” That’s when some smarty-pants came up with the idea of making cheese. A lot of milk goes into a single cheese, you can roll the wheels down the mountain (ok, they really don’t do that, but they could, if you ask me), and you can keep the cheese for months. Fast forward a lot more cows and of course, the question becomes “what on earth” – exactly: “are we going to do with all that friggin’ cheese?”

cheese-shop
Cheese shop in Les Rousses, France

You eat it. your neighbors eat it, the people one town over eat it. And visitors eat it. A lot. and then you send it all over the world so everyone eats it. Problem solved and worldwide reputation established. We found ourselves in the epicenter of cheesiness this weekend, as we witnessed a spectacle where the-cows-that-make-the-milk-the-farmers-turn-into-the-cheese-that-gets-sold-around-the-globe are brought down from their summer pastures, where the mountain herbs on which the cows feast give the milk that je-ne-sais-quoi that makes the mountain cheese so yummy, to the winter pastures and stables where they wait until spring.

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Flower Power
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More cows, more bells
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Dogs, too

The town of Saint-Cergue has turned this chore into something people from the US, Sweden, Belgium, France, and Japan travel for thousands of miles to witness: cows with big old bells (Bruce Dickinson!) around their necks, some with flowery headdresses are poked and prodded down the mountains, do a few tours around the town, spray the pavement with poop and disappear, all this to the delight of the visitors, who feast on Tomme Vaudoise grillée and on Tartiflette, a stew of onions, bacon, potatoes and Reblochon, and thus help to take care of some cheese for which the locals now no longer need worry about transportation costs.

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Tomme Vaudoise – grilled, which adds heavenly scents
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Tartiflette is almost ready, another 10 minutes or so

Why, you say, is this area an epi-cheese-center? Because it is frontier country. We overnighted in a hotel that straddles the border between Switzerland and France. And both countries face the above-mentioned ‘what to do with’ dilemma. So they are fiercely competitive. On the Swiss side, the Tomme Vaudoise is the innocent-looking vanguard of the Gruyere and Emmentaler forces a little further inland. The Vacherin Mont d’Or has been claimed as a Swiss cheese, but the French will never recognize it as such. On the French side, there are the formidable stacks of Comté wheels, fittingly being aged in a old fortress in Les Rousses, the Morbier, and the Bleus – those of Gex and of the Haut Jura. for the cheese lovers, this pitched battle makes the border region a Cheese Wonderland. Ah, I had to restrain myself – 0vercome with emotion while looking at the cows, I could have kissed any of those dewy-eyed pretty ladies. Instead, I whispered a quiet “Thank you” in each ear.

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Waiting for the cows to come home
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Swiss Miss
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Cowbell, anyone?
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Jodeln
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Thirteen years later…

La Fourrière Chevre Fermier (Week 38)

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Last of the cheeses?

Cheese: La Fourrière Chevre Fermier

Producer: Colette Girardot

Where: Frécourt, Haut-Marne, France

I know I promised to have an Austrian-German cheese cage match, but that will have to wait until next week. In the meantime, I did find a delightful little goat cheese from La Fourrière – I assume the word means something like ‘pen’, as in an enclosure for animals, because the word translates as pound – as in dog pound or impound lot. I am sure Mme. Girardot doesn’t have anything to do with impounding cars. Her goats produce a nice little cheese that isn’t particularly goaty; it does have that typical flavor, but it is not very pronounced and since it is sold after a bit of ageing, the cheese has a bit of saltiness I really like. All in all a very pleasant cheese, so I hope Mme. Girardot will find a successor – I can’t tell how recent the posts on her page is, but she is trying to sell the farm, a bit east of the town of Langres, itself known for an eponymous cheese. She wants to retire, and it would be sad if those heart shaped cheeses would just disappear after 21 years. Anyone out there stuck in a dead-end job?

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Not too goaty: La Fourriere

Camembert de Normandie (Week 34)

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AOP – the Real McCoy

Cheese: Camembert de Normandie

Producer: E. Graindorge

Where: Livarot, Calvados, France

In a French supermarket on the very edge of the Hexagon (the French call their country L’Hexagone sometimes, because of its shape), I experienced one of the blessings of living in the heart of Europe. It is 500 miles to Livarot, but I was able to get my fresh, raw milk Camembert from that very town in Normandy. Because in the US, the FDA watches over you and makes sure you don’t do anything that could be bad for you, you are not able to have a raw milk Camembert unless you leave the country. In our case, we also left the country but we did so in a car and we were back home again for dinner. We brought home a Camembert from E. Graindorge, a rather large producer, with a history going back to 1910, to grandpa Eugène. They have a slick, well done website, and the cheese can be ordered online. They produce some 11 different cheeses, all from the milk of those Normand cows that is transformed into some of the best cheese in the world. Among these cheeses, they feature the blockbusters, Livarot, Pont-l’évêque, Neufchâtel and Camembert de Normandie. All four of them carry the AOP designation, and the other three one day each deserve their own post. The Camembert, a soft cow’s milk cheese with a white bloomy rind really needs no introduction – it is produced all over the world, which explains the long official name of the cheese we brought home: any old cheesemaker can produce a cheese that looks the part and call it Camembert, but Camembert de Normandie is autre chose: something entirely different.

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Curds are hand-ladled into the mold – the seal guarantees it!

The cheese with the AOP seal is made from milk from Normandie cows, the curds are scooped into the mold by hand (very carefully, to guarantee just the right texture, and the milk is always raw. Marie Harel, an intrepid farm woman from Vimoutiers helped a man of the cloth, a certain abbot Bonvoust, as he was hiding from the French revolutionaries and he taught her a method of cheese making from his native Brie, which she adapted to create Camembert as we know it today. All of this happened in the waning years of the 18th century, and most, if not all of it, is entirely made up. Marie Harel did exist, but the cheese bit is unlikely, even if the story is a good one, and there is even a statue celebrating her ‘invention’ in Vimoutiers, paid for by an American who claimed to have had tremendous health benefits from eating copious amounts of Camembert. Whatever the origins of the cheese are or aren’t, Marie Harel’s descendants for many years just rudely claimed to own the exclusive rights to this cheese and tried hard to box other farmers out of the lucrative business of supplying Paris with the very popular cheese. Eventually other farmers got in on the action as well, and it wasn’t before long that Camembert was discovered elsewhere. So the early marketing and subsequent success of the cheese set the stage for widespread imitation and eventually necessitated the current clarification to the name. And yes, there is a difference, and it is huge.

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Sadly, we were too greedy: should’ve poked it gently before cutting it. a ripe cheese gives a bit more than one that isn’t quite done. The lighter, drier part in the middle isn’t quite there yet. Camembert is OK, but not divine at this stage.

A ripe Camembert de Normandie tastes like the Almighty intended cheese to taste. It has a bold aroma, a creamy consistency, and it adds a bit of a kick to a mouthful of barnyardy, mushroomy flavor. But never mind the adjectives, because there are certain things in life you just recognize when you experience them, even for the first time. Every bite from a real Camembert that has ripened to that ‘just right’ stage is, well, just right – but on a cosmic scale.

Fourme d’Ambert (Week 16)

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Fourme d’ Ambert: slice of the old block

Cheese: Fourme d’Ambert

Producer: Société Fromagère du Livradois

Where: Fournols, Puy-de-Dôme, France

Think of this cheese as a blue with training wheels. That sounds a little unkind, as if the goal should be to graduate to the more challenging blues, and it’d be far from me to be the Penicillium Roqueforti Nazi. Fourme d’Ambert, as blue cheeses go, is not so sharp, very creamy and still has the musty flavor that comes with the blue mold. For some it could be an ideal gateway drug, others may decide that this is as moldy as they’d like it to get. Unlike its famous cousin Roquefort, this cheese is made with cow’s milk, which is a partial explanation for its smooth flavor; sheep’s milk often lends an edge to the cheese.

Legend has it that Julius Ceasar, on his way to Alesia where he defeated Gaul leader Vercingetorix, munched on some Fourme, which would make it a sort of a Benedict Arnold fromage. More reliable mention of the cheese dates back to the 9th century, where it was used as a currency, if you will: cheese makers, who did their work in stone huts in the summer pastures called Jasseries, paid for the use of the land with their cheese. The Fourme was mostly sold on the market of the town of Ambert, from which eventually it took its name.

The area in which, according to the regulations which bestow the AOP designation on Fourme d’Ambert, is largely in the Auvergne region, and the cows, who need a minimum of 150 outside grazing days, spent their time on land that is between 2,000 and 5,000 feet in altitude. Today the Jasseries are hardly used anymore and the milk is collected by a small number of rather large creameries, which determines the cheese’s designation as a fromage laitier, a factory-made cheese. That sounds worse than it should be because even if the cheese does not come from a single farm (fromage fermier) or is largely produced by hand (fromage artisanal), the entire set of rules still apply: the feed for the animals must come from the designated AOP area, cannot contain any GM products and, importantly, the milk has to be raw, not pasteurized.

The cheese is marketed after ripening at least 28 days, but a longer period is not uncommon. Some 20 liters of milk, a little more than 5 gallons, go into a Fourme (the word comes from the latin ‘forma’, which is the root, in French, for both forme (form), and fromage (cheese), so Fourme probably means cheese). The shape is always the same: a cylinder 19 centimeters (7.5 inches) in height and 13 centimers (5 inches) in diameter. It is sold by the slice or the half slice, and usually wrapped in foil. The rind is not really edible, but it is very thin, so there is no need to lose big parts of the creamy goodness. My Woodland Hills Whole Foods carries the l’Or des Dômes brand from the Société Fromagère du Livradois.

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Pattern on the Fourme d’Ambert rind

In Praise of French Cheese Shops (Week 18)

Cloche a Fromage
La Cloche a Fromage

Ha! Johannes Gutenberg from Mainz was probably happy when he was able to finally leave Strasbourg behind after having spent some 14 years there between about 1434 and 1448. No one knows exactly how long he lived in the Alsatian city on the Rhine, but he was there: court documents show he was sued a number of times, most spectacularly by a woman who claimed he had promised to marry her, but then reneged on the promise. Back in Mainz, about 130 miles downstream, he continued work on his invention that would earn him worldwide fame: the printing press with movable type. So as time wore on the city of Strasbourg decided to honor the man who had left behind debts and at least one broken heart with a square and a statue, very close to the gorgeous red sandstone cathedral, one of the most beautiful Gothic Cathedrals in France – make that the world. Just off Place Gutenberg in the Rue des Tonneliers is la Cloche à Fromage. In fact, there is really two of them, one cheese shop, the other a cheese restaurant – same company, different experience. I decided to have my choucroute (sauerkraut with sausage and other assorted meats) at Aux Armes de Strasbourg right next to the statue of my pal Johannes, but I did pick up some cheese before I sat down there.

Choucroute
Choucroute, Sauerkraut with all kinds of meat, Alsatian style

And that’s where the praise starts. La Cloche auf Fromage is not an enormous place: the cheese counter at a decent-sized Whole Foods may be just as big, but that’s where the comparison ends. Here are the five reasons why I just love a French cheese shop:

  1. The French are fearless and know when to ignore food safety warnings: most of the cheese is made with raw milk. My wife in fact had an aunt who used to rail against EU regulations: “one day, they will take away our lait cru, and it’s all going to be over!” It hasn’t happened yet, aunt Collette, wherever you are…
  2. The French value geography. Geography is terroir, and terroir is where the food meets the landscape. Terroir is the combination of soil, water, sun, wind, slope and so on that creates the particular environment which determines the qualities of the particular food. So neat little cards will not only tell you what kind of cheese you’re looking at, but also, where your cheese is from, and soon you can begin to build an image of the life and work of the people who produced the cheese. The better cheese shops in the US have adopted this level of care, but in France, this has always been par for the course.
  3. The French are open when it comes to food. In a land so full of culinary traditions, there is still a lot of room for experimentation and so a cheese shop worth its salt will always carry some interesting new cheeses alongside the national and regional favorites.
  4. The staff in these shops: they know what they are talking about; they respect the cheese and they know how to wrap it properly.
  5. Finally: coming from the US, the prices will ensure that you walk out with a slightly bemused grin on your face: a cheese plate that would set you back the price of 20 lattes in the US can be put together for 15 euros here.

There are of course thousands of them all over the country, and it’d be far from me to even pretend that I could pass as an authority, but here are some of my favorite cheese mongers in France: there is Hisada in Paris, close to the Palais Royal. Of course it is jarring at first to walk into a cheese shop in Paris where the staff is Japanese, but once you see that they approach fromage with the same sensibility, flair and understanding of quality, it all makes perfect sense.

Dijon
In Les Halles de Dijon

Benoit’s stand at Les Halles de Dijon specializes in the large cheeses from the Jura. They carry cheese from all over France though, and they have an very visible division of labor: the muscular guys are handling the Comtés, the Emmental and the Morbiers, while the daintier sellers wrap the Chèvres and other assorted small cheeses.

Maison du Fromage
Maison du Fromage, Avignon

In Avignon, it’s the Maison du Fromage in Les Halles, and in Lyon the Halles de Lyon – Paul Bocuse are a food temple of sorts, where I would not dare to prefer one exquisite cheese monger over another.

Lyon Bocuse
In Les Halles de Bocuse, Lyon

Oh – and of course, if you are in Strasbourg, make sure to check out the magnificent cathedral. One cannot live of cheese alone.

Strasbourg Cathedral
Strasbourg Cathedral

Sainte-Maure de Touraine (Week 32)

Sainte Maure I
Sainte-Maure de Touraine: start cutting on the right

Cheese: Sainte-Maure de Touraine

Producer: Cloche D’Or

Where: Pont-de-Ruan, Indre-et-Loire, France

Week 32 has an excellent example of why I enjoy the 52 cheeses process. The start this time was inauspicious: we are in the process of moving from one country to another and time is precious: not exactly the best of times to seek out a cheese monger and ponder myriad choices. So, at a local Géant supermarket in Alsace, I found one of the few raw milk cheeses they had (the fact that the vast majority of the cheeses on offer were made of pasteurized milk shows that the country is going to hell in a hand basket) and took it home. And that’s always when it starts to get interesting: there is the tasting, and there is the research. The tasting yields pleasure, the research yields the stories, and these, for the purpose of this blog are probably more important. Let’s face it: most people have very little idea what it means when they read: ‘the cheese is nutty, with caramel overtones and some faint floral notes’. There is certainly room for elaboration at one point and I am not against using those kinds of words – but most folks that bite into a piece of cheese go one of two ways: “I like it!” or “Meh”, (Those that go “Eww, that’s disgusting” should have stayed away from that Munster in the first place.) so I would never take any flowery cheese description’s word for it, and just make up my own mind – and encourage others to disagree with my assessment.

So here is the story on Saint-Maure de Touraine. Let’s begin with the first part. ‘Maure’ of course comes from a word for ‘black’ (think ‘Moorish’) and the saint in question may have been some ancient deity in charge of fermentation – seems very fitting for a cheese to adopt this name. There may be a relation also to the Moors that stayed in France after the Saracens (yes, that’s kind of the same as the Moors) suffered defeat at the hands of Charles Martel in 732. They may have introduced goat cheese making in southern France – more specifically their women, because cheese making was a woman’s job. Skeptics point out that there were goat herds well before the Moors’ defeat, but it makes for a good story. The other excellent story related to this cheese is the notion that you need to cut the log at its widest end first. Get it wrong and the goat from which the milk came will lose its milk-producing mojo (I think I screwed up here). But onto the second part of the name, before I forget.

Sainte Maure II
Rye Straw with the Name of the Producer

Touraine today lives on as a marketing concept: it is a somewhat well-defined tourist region encompassing much of the Loire Valley around Tours. In the olden days, it was first a county and then a duchy centered on the city of Tours, erstwhile capital of the Celtic tribe of the Turones (I am using capital in the most liberal sense of the word). Aside from tourism, Touraine also exists in the world of cheese, because since 1990, the Sainte-Maure de Touraine is protected with an AOP and can only be produced in what used to be the old duchy. And it has a very cool proof of authenticity: a rye straw is to run through the length of the log, and when you pull it out, you’ll find the producer’s name engraved on the straw. No straw, no name, no AOP.

Sainte Maure III
A straw runs through it

My log came from Cloche d’Or. Most Sainte-Maure de Touraine is produced by large companies, and this is no exception. Cloche d’Or collects raw goat’s milk from about 150 farmers and churns out some 64o tonnes of the cheese every year. Not exactly your mom and pop cheesemakers, and interesting that such large enterprises busy themselves with making raw milk cheese. Sainte-Maure is a dense, creamy goat cheese with a typical slightly acidic flavor: while not particularly surprising, it is a very solid and thoroughly tasty contribution to the world of goat cheeses. A cheese that does its job, nothing more, but certainly nothing less. A day after my purchase there was but a sad stump left of the once formidable log.