My second ‘cows are coming home’ event in the past month was a Transhumance, and with that, I was of course in France. Check that: I was in Alsace, and you can read in a previous post what that means. If you don’t want to read that previous post: be that way, fine. Suffice to say that Alsace is just not all that French. One of the great discoveries here in the tri-country area is just how little the people that live there seem to care about such trivial matters as international borders. In St. Louis, right on the border to Switzerland, you can hear people on the market ask for something in Swiss German; they don’t bat an eyelash if the answer comes back in Alsatian, and a third person may feel the need to chime in and do so in French.
And so the cows’ homecoming in this part of France is celebrated with folkloric dancing, music, and (wait for it) Alphorns. And if you’re shy about your abilities in French here, just try your best German and especially the older people will respond in Alsatian – a dialect that’s very close to the German they speak across the border, or to the dialect of Basel, for that matter.
What is unique about the Transhumance in the town of Munster (nothing to do with Munster, Germany, or the Peace of Westphalia, for those of you who remember that from history books) are the cows themselves. The first time I was in Munster, it was in winter so I could not find any in the snow-dusted pastures, and a few weeks ago I was in a cheese museum that is supposed to have them, but I was told that they had not come down from the mountains yet….
The elusive cows I am speaking of are tough ladies. They weather wind and rain and cold up in the high meadows of the Vosges Mountains, and so they’re called Vosgesiennes. With their characteristic black and white coloring, they’re some very good-looking bovines, and if you are a purist, you want your stinky Munster cheese to come from Vosgesienne milk. While they are the undisputed stars of the Fête de la Transhumance et de la Tourte, there is an awful lot more to see and do in Munster. The other part of the celebration is the tourte, a pie of well-seasoned ground pork and onions, but there are a lot of other delicacies to try.
Among them is Siaskass, a mixture of fresh cheese, crème fraiche (sour cream, but better), sugar and kirsch. There is smoked saucisson, spectacular farmer’s bread and candies from the mountains made with pine sap or a liquor made of mirabelles. For kids, there are random farm animals to pet, adding to a joyful, chaotic party that brings traffic through town to a screeching halt. And way over everyone’s head, dwelling in comfortable, I daresay luxurious nests perched like gargoyles on the church roof are the flying fortresses that are the official bird of Alsace. To make sure no one can ever miss it: there is a Pharmacie de la Cigogne, next to the Hotel de la Cigogne, which has an enormous Cigogne on its façade. There are Cigognes in the fields on the way to Munster and they hover over the church before landing onto their comfortable pads. The people from the Munster Valley love their cows, but they revere their storks.
A few months ago I had occasion to visit France (any excuse will do, really, so I will not get into the wherefore and the why). Our destination was a small chateau in the Loire Valley which now serves as a pleasant bed & breakfast with a very friendly and thoroughly philosophical host. We spent three days there and used our time to explore from the castle of Chambord in the east to Nantes in the west.
The Loire is the country’s longest river, and its valley is known as the garden of France. The rolling hills with deep soils are perfect for agriculture and the small towns and the many, many chateaux add enough charm to the region to drown out the annoyance of having to share the very best of these chateaux with hordes of tourists and innumerable French school classes who are forced to learn about Francois I, the king who was in no small measure responsible for the way the valley looks today. He went on an ill-advised conquest to Italy and came back inspired by the Italian Renaissance – the rest, as they say, is history, but there is more to it, of course.
Before architects and artisans, largely imported from Italy, turned the Loire Valley in this incomparable chateau-a-rama, the landscape was dotted with medieval fortifications, because at one point, this was the frontier. Depending on how far back you want to go, the enemy at the gate may have been the dastardly English or the Saracens, the invaders from the Middle East and North Africa. They were routed so thoroughly, as history is told, that they left many of their worldly belongings behind – among them, their goats. This may very well be a mere legend, but in the absence of a better story, we’ll go with this: so many goats were left behind in the Loire Valley that the re-conquering French were left pulling out their hair: what to do with all the goats and all that goatmilk? Obviously, as the French do in most crisis situations, they considered cheese as a solution, and voilà, the region’s reputation as a prodigious producer of goat cheese was born. Even though the Loire Valley provides ample grazing opportunities for cows, there just isn’t anything in the way of cow’s cheese that can compete with Sainte-Maure de Touraine, Selles-sur-Cher, Pouligny-Saint-Pierre, Crottin de Chavignol and Valençay, the quintet of Loire Valley goat cheeses the area is famous for.
On one particularly pleasant evening (we had already gone for a walk along the Cher, a tributary of the Loire; ordered some very tasty savory crepes from a food truck – yes, a food truck in rural France – and chatted with some very friendly Limousin cows), a roadside sign caught Christine’s eye. She suggested we follow it, and where I understood ‘distributeur 24 h/24 h” to be a cheese distributor where trucks bound for all of France were carrying cheese to the six corners of the Hexagone around the clock, she knew exactly what this was.
Of course, someone had to come up with the perfect solution for that all-too-often occurring disaster: there is a sudden great need for goat cheese, but none can be found anywhere in the pantry – the cave, as the French would call it – quel horreur! Enter the distributeur 24 h/ 24 h: the cheese vending machine!
After following the signs around several tight turns and lazy bends in the road, we arrived at the farm owned and run by a couple whose picture adorned a board near the open gate to their property, Sandra and Rémi Mabilleau. They were shown holding some friendly furry goats below a statement of great poetic and philosophical force: “One can’t buy happiness – but one can buy cheese, which is virtually the same thing.”
And then, not far from that sign, there it was: the vending machine. A log of fresh goat cheese coated in ash from door number 5 set us back a mere 4 euros. Once we arrived in our modest room in the small chateau we immediately tucked into a snow-white piece of goat dairy candy, which tasted as fresh as the cheese was white. As my taste buds were getting overwhelmed with the crisp, tangy, creamy revelation that unfolded itself in my mouth, I had visions of domestic tranquility being restored in the middle of the night after a derailed family gathering, a depression narrowly averted, a relationship salvaged in this small corner of the universe – because not far away, with round-the-clock reliability, a log of happiness-inducing, peace-making, splendid goat cheese could be had for only 4 euros, and some deft pushing of vending machine buttons.
Can there be such a thing as too much cheese? Until recently, I would have responded to that question with the superior yet generous smile of one who can accurately fathom the stupidity of the person asking the question. “Forgive them, for they know not what they ask” I would think, and busy myself with something far more important, such as the next chapter in Italian Cheese: A Guide To Its Discovery and Appreciation, 293 Traditional Types. Yes, that is a splendid book, and no, I am not providing a link to it on Amazon, because there are better ways to get it – support your local bookstore or library before they are all gone – but that’s for another time and another soapbox.
So, can there be such a thing as too much cheese? I will let you be the judge of it, but in our house, we certainly lived through a bit of a crisis brought on by events I’d like to collectively refer to as cheesemageddon. It all started with a visit in Riquewihr, a cute-as-a-button town in Alsace, that has a cheese cellar in the main street, les Caves d’Affinage de Riquewihr. Despite the fact that the place has a bit of a touristy flavor to it, I found some cheeses I liked: a Tomme D’Alsace (probably really just a Tomme de Savoie made in Alsace), a piece of semi-hard goat cheese and a Munster fermier.
A few days later I found myself in Savoy, and boy, do they take their cheese seriously up there. The region sits smack dab to the south of Lake Geneva and is as mountainous as next-door Switzerland. It is home to the Mont Blanc, the tallest peak in the Alps at 4,808 meters (that’s 15,774 feet for you non-metric folks) and lots of alpine meadows and cows to cavort in those meadows. Because of all the cavorting, those cows are exceedingly happy and as everyone from California knows, happy cows produce great milk. And do they ever know how to turn great milk in to spectacular cheese in Savoy.
Just how spectacular, I learned at the Coopérative fruitière du Val d’Arly in the small town of Flumet, just after I had spent some time marveling at all three cow races that the cheesemakers of Savoy love so dearly: the Montbéliarde, the Tarentaise and the Abondance. At the coop, they sell mountains of cheese, and they even have a little cheese exhibit along with a stand with free leaflets – pretty much one for each of the great Savoy cheeses. With the cows, the leaflets and the enormous cases full of enormous cases, I found myself with my back against the wall, silently cried uncle and bought enough cheese for a small orphanage: a whole Tommette brébis fermière (good but not sensational), a hefty slice of Abondance (sensational – fruity, full of complexity, as if you yourself are munching on all those alpine herbs and flowers), a chunk of Beaufort Été (of course it matters that it is a summer cheese rather than a winter one – in winter the cows get hay, in summer those French alpine herbs and flowers) and of course a Reblochon fermier. The Abondance comes from a valley with the same name, and can be made only with the milk of the three aforementioned cows. It is easily recognized by the clearly concave shape of the cheese’s side (same as with the Beaufort, by the way) which comes from the mold used during the cheese making process. The Beaufort comes from the region centered on the town with the same name, which is home to a very large facility where one can learn about the cheese, taste it and buy it – it’s the busiest business in Beaufort, which makes an otherwise sleepy impression. These two, along with the Reblochon make up the holy trinity of Savoy cheeses – at least in my book. The latter takes its name from a cheeky practice of Savoy farmers from the 13th century: these men hardly if ever owned the landed they had their cows graze on, so they owed the local count or abbey a usage fee, which was determined by the amount of milk obtained from the cows. On the day the usage fee was determined, the cunning farmer would ostensibly squeeze his cows dry, only to go back into the barn after the official had left for a little re-squeeze, which yielded a much smaller, but milkfat-richer amount of milk, of which a washed rind soft cheese was produced. Linguists among you have already figured out that this scofflaw procedure, the re-squeeze, was locally known as reblocher and that is how the cheese got its name. Today no such devious behavior is involved in making the cheese, which comes in two varieties: Reblochon with a red label is produced in large facilities that collect milk from several farms while a green label (it is stuck on the cheese before the final layer of white mold forms, so it is not easy to see) indicates a Reblochon made on the farm, from one herd of cows, and while the milk is as fresh as it can be. Purist of course swear by the latter. In both cases the milk used is unpasteurized which means it can sadly not be sold in the US – for your own protection, of course.
With my small mountain of cheese I eventually descended from the mountains, but not before I stopped in Annecy, where I visited the gorgeous Fromagerie of Pierre Gay, who has a cellar where he ripens his cheeses right under the store – and a large glass panel in the floor to prove it. It’s very cool to be browsing the store and to look down on the wheels of Abondance and Beaufort and the other innumerable cheesy highlights he is looking after. While it was late when I got there, and I was a bit more restrained, I still picked up a chunk of Vacherin des Bauges (the Savoy cousin of the Vacherin Mont d’Or), a piece of Persillé de Tignes (a delightful blue goat cheese without any visible traces of mold, but a flavor that leaves no doubt) and a Trèfle fermier, an ash-covered goat cheese in the shape of a clover.
Two days on, and I found myself in a cheese shop in Dijon and I met three cheeses I had to take how, and now our mid-size Swiss fridge started to creak at the seams, and all yogurt, pickles, bell peppers, leftovers and milk strangely started to taste like Reblochon. We enlisted the help of a friend and organized an evening of cheese tasting. He obliged and battled valiantly and with his effort, we made a very decent dent. He later confessed he had been overserved a bit but he felt it was for a noble cause, namely to help us not drown in fromage.
My epic cheese journey to Savoy and Burgundy took place in the second half of the week after our visit to Alsace, and the battle of the cheese bulge followed during the weekend. Somewhat relieved, I went to work on Monday, where an Italian friend from Genoa paid me a surprise visit. With a small but well-executed flourish, he swung one of those large silvery bags you get at the supermarket for cold stuff onto my desk, where it landed with a foreboding thud. He knows of my fatal attraction to cheese, and his voice had just the right amount of operatic flair, when he proclaimed: I brought you… cheese.
Details of the five generous chunks of cheese from Piedmont, collectively weighing in at a little under three kilos or about six pounds are for another post.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 know if it is for this week-end, or for later.
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?
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.
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).
And finally, there was the Comté from José les Rousses, the little cheese shop that gave me three weeks worth of cheeses of the week. That nice, slightly sweet, solid-stick-to-your-teeth-just-a-bit-Comté. The Swiss may think this is the French version of Gruyere, but don’t tell the French that. They may not sell any to you, and then where will you be? Comté is produced in vast quantities and ripening takes place in enormous storage facilities, or, as is the case in Les Rousses, in an abandoned fort. Consider the brilliance of the Frenchman who looked at the old brick and stone fort with its massive walls and thought to himself:”Mais, fromage bien-sûr, fromage!”
So the cheese comes from the same cows and the same kind of pastures that give you Morbier. But the milk for Comté is collected in local fruitières, places that crank out the fromage in great big wheels and see to it that it goes into the caves and ripens, and ripens. And here is where the French obsession with gôut reaches full tilt: depending on what those happy cows in the pastures eat – so depending on the time of year – the cheese, in the eyes of the connoisseur, will have a slightly different taste. And so it was that I could get my hands on a piece of Comté in the fall of 2016 that had been made in April of 2015. “Ah”, a connoisseur may think, “that April the Marigold leaves were so succulent and there was such an abundance of Gentian early in the month!” before they sink their teeth in.
As for us, it was just a gift that kept giving, because in my enthusiasm I had bought what looked like a narrow slice from the wheel – but of course the wheels are large, and the narrow slice ended up providing enough fromage for an orphanage. We didn’t taste the Gentian or the Marigold, just the cheese. the wonderful, wonderful cheese. And we gave thanks to the wonderful French cows we had seen in the mountain pastures and wished them a happy, warm winter.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.