Loire Valley: Cheese 24/7

Chambord
Not too shabby: Chateau Chambord

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.

Chenonceaux
Chenonceau

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.

Limousin Cow
Friendly neighborhood cow

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!

Distributeur 24
24/7 cheese

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.”

Mabiquette
Cheese is happiness…

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.

Chevre
snow-white goat cheese

An embarrassment of cheeses

Riquewihr
Riquewihr in Alsace, where this story begins

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.

Mont Blanc
Mont Blanc

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.

Tarentaise
Tarentaise
Abondance
Abondance
Montbeliarde
Montbéliarde

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 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

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

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.

A good year for Comté – not from May of course, from April (Week 45)

comte-avril
Slow ripened…

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.

comte-big-slice
The big cheese

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.

comte-extra-fruite
The green bell means: here is the best of the best of Comte

 

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

 

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.

flower-power
Flower Power
cows-cows
More cows, more bells
dogs-too
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.

tomme-vaudoise
Tomme Vaudoise – grilled, which adds heavenly scents
tartiflette
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.

waiting-for-the-cows-ii
Waiting for the cows to come home
swiss-girl
Swiss Miss
noisemakers
Cowbell, anyone?
jodeln
Jodeln
desalpe
Thirteen years later…

Camembert de Normandie (Week 34)

camembert-i
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.

camembert-ii
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.

camembert-iii
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)

Fourme d'Ambert
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.

Rind
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