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Paul Ben-Itzak
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Paris, OT (France)

Say Fromage! - A tour de France in cheese

by Paul Ben-Itzak
May 27, 2009
Paris, OT (France)
PARIS — My munificent editor has graciously consented to my padding ExploreDance.com's coverage of the Spring 2009 Paris dance season with a review of French cheese. As I'm not a reviewer of French cheese — sometimes I feel like I'm barely a dance reviewer — I thought that rather than just go into my James Beard act, I'd tell some personal stories particularly (and sometimes pungently) related to my relationship with French cheese since I moved here eight years ago, and which also constitute a sort of travelogue; like just about anything one eats here, cheese comes with strong regional associations.

It would be hard to be a vegan and live in France, if only because you'd be missing out on a major part of French culture. I tend to go in and out of cheese phases. Sometimes I've had enough and need to dry out; but most of the time I appreciate customs like dessert being preceded by a platter with at least three cheeses, even if I've needed to learn to control myself on such occasions. (The worse — less frequent now than in the 'bon vieux temps' [good old times] is when the waiter brings a large platter with huge chunks around at a restaurant and deposits it at my table, and I forget you're not actually supposed to take all the cheese but should leave some for your neighbors.)

If I had to pick a favorite (excluding all the blue cheeses; we'll get to them later) — and one that's a good starter cheese for a debutant — it would be Banon, a medium pellet of a raw milk goat cheese from Mt. Ventoux (you might eat with a cheap Ventoux red) in Provence (the link has a picture) that's wrapped neatly in dead chestnut tree leaves. (The French don't even call goat cheese 'fromage,' that designation is for cow cheese. The goat variety is simply 'chevre' and sheep's cheese 'brebis' — Roquefort is a brebis. Sometimes, when offering a cow version of a cheese that's usually associated with goats, fromageries, or cheese boutiques, or cheese-sellers in the outdoor markets will specify, 'vache,' one of the words for cow.) The most memorable experience I had with Banon was with one that had been out of the frigo (French argot for refigerator) all day, and off which I peeled the leaves at the end of an excursion to Vernon and Giverny, where Monet has his home and water lillies. (By 'has' I mean the home is still there, as are the water-lillies and Japanese bridge that inspired so many of his late paintings, and some farm animals like geese and duck. The ostriches are down the road a ways. Maybe we'll talk about ostrich stew another day.) It was certainly gooey, but because of the secure leaves, it hadn't bled all over my backpack, at least. The Banon's bouquet was augmented by the time away from the frigo; I ate it with a beer I'd brought back from Belgium decorated with an elephant and called (really) Delirium Tremens, probably because it's 11 percent alcohol. The setting also probably augmented the experience: I was in a park in Giverny (where Monet's home is) looking out at the ivy-covered tower-tops of an old Chateau, the rest of which had been bombed into the Seine by the Germans during the War. The bad news is that Banon's price seems to have been inflated, from the 2.99 (Euros) it was when I left Paris two years ago to over five Euros today.

In addition to bringing beer and chocolate from there to Paris, I also occasionally brought French specialties *to* Belgium, and therein lie at least two more cheese stories. French cheese anecdotes, that is, because except for, perhaps, the occasional trappist cheese (those monks have to have something to soak up all that powerful beer), Belgian cheese is pretty tasteless. So rather than just bringing empty suitcases (to haul the beer and Belgian chocolate back to Paris), I'd load it with French cheese, at the insistence of my American dancer-choreographer host in Antwerp and her Belgian roommate, Vincent. The roommate had a specific request, goat cheese, which he used in a tartine we came to call the Vincent Special: Get a nice flat bread, coat it with (in order) honey (preferably wild forest honey, which is slightly bitter), paté (even a cheap one will do), pineapples (preferably fresh), and finally the goat cheese — a log ('buche') or pyramid (pyramide) coated in cinders is the best. It should not be too dry, but neither should it be fresh. (By fresh I don't mean 'still good,' I mean very young.) Then of course you stick it an oven and bake or broil. (Before we leave Antwerp, I should also note that it was there that I realized I'd crossed a major cheese threshold as far as turning French-anese; when my American host insisted on sealing the various cheeses I'd brought in a tupper-ware container so that their smell wouldn't take over her frigo, I responded indignantly, "What smell?")

If the Vincent Special is too involved for you, there's a simpler recipe with a different cheese where the honey also comes in: You spread it on a slice of French bread, then top that with Cabicou, another pellet cheese, from a cow, and a specialty of the Perigord in Southwest France, where I live when I'm not in Paris covering cheese and dance. Then you throw it in the oven and melt.

But Cabicou is really the basic level cheese of the Perigord — a cheap, more or less unremarkable cheese. (Better aged.) My favorite from the Perigord (also known as the Dordogne, and the capital of pre-history), is probably a trappist cow cheese that the monks soak in old nut liquor (sounds better in French: liquor de vieux noix), walnuts being another regional specialty. It's good with, of course, a tiny glass of old nut liquor. Not quite from my area, but the same Aquitaine region, is the Basque mountain brebis, which usually comes in a nice round, and tastes a little like a young Parmesan. The best and cheapest I ever had I bought at the farmer's market in Pau, about two hours from the Spanish border in the Pyrenees, from a woman who proudly explained to me how she rolled and turned the cheese herself, daily, not an easy task.

Lest you think I'm just promoting my region, cheese-wise my favorite area is probably the Savoie and the Haut-Savoie, more or less on the French side of the alps and an hour or two from Lyon. This is where fondue comes from — the French kind, anyway. It's also the home of something called Reblochon, which tastes deceptively mild eaten plain but that's not what it's for. Rather, it's the cheese heart of tartiflette, a dish which also includes lots of potatoes, lardons (or fresh bacon bits), onions and — though not every French person agrees with this — a dollop or two of creme fraiche (sour cream to you, bub). Cheese-wise, if you want your tartiflette to have a real 'gout' or distinct flavor, you should get a 'farmer's Reblochon,' ideally the day before or even the day it's about to go bad. The best I ever had was soupy. I also like to add a few splashes of the wine I'll be drinking with it, which should be a piquant white from the Savoie; Apremont is the most famous but I've had good luck with others, and most are under seven Euros. They all have more of a bite and body than typical white wines, which is why they work with the tartiflette…. Not every French wine or cheese specialist would agree with this, but I also like a Savoie white with Raclette, which you can find in the Savoie but also in other mountain regions, such as the Auvergne in central France (the one region De Gaulle said the French could probably afford to give up to the Americans, or something like that; it's kind of the Oakland of France.)

Okay, so Raclette: This is worth spending some time on because it's more than a cheese, it's a fun family or dinner party meal experience, kind of like fondue — but better. The thing about fondue is that it can get lumpy and congealed after sitting in that pot all night. The beauty of Raclette is that everyone has his or her own little pan; when he's ready for more he just places a slice of the Raclette cheese on it, perhaps over a slice of salami, Canadian bacon, or thin country ham, and slides his tray under the grill. A Raclette set usually has slots for two to eight of these little pans; the heating coil is above that and above the heating coil is a grill, great for keeping the bowl of already steamed small yellow potatoes warm. Once your Raclette is melted, you pour it over a few potatoes you've just placed on your plate and eat. In theory there should also be a little onion and maybe a little cornichon on the side, as well as a tomato.

So — if you're following me — the Raclette is both the cooking mechanism and the cheese itself. It's called Raclette because back in the day, the Swiss would take a big ol' chunk of a round, stick it over the fire until it got melty, and then slice hot wedges off with a 'raclette' knife. You don't need to do this today for it to be good, but you really should get the cheese from a fromagerie or cheese shop, as the super-market variety is terrible, even when it comes in different flavors (smoked, wine, cumin); looks like Raclette but has no taste. At least with the supermarket Reblochon, if you buy it with the authentic Savoie seal — on the package but also a red stamp on the cheese rind itself — it works, even if it's not as distinct as a soupy about to go over to the bad side farmer's variety. Not so with supermarket Raclette cheese. And while we're talking rinds, with a good cheese shop Raclette, you want to eat the rind too (although one wag of a cheese shop proprietor did warn me to be prepared to make many trips to the toilet if I ate the rind) — it's the rind, in fact, that gives it the taste.

While we're in the mountains, there's yet another cheese — still from cows or a 'vache' cheese — that the Savoie is famous for, and that's the 'tome.' Tome cheeses usually come from the mountains. Other regions have them — the Auvergne, the Pyrenees — but the best is the Tome de Savoie. The nearest American equivalent I can think of is Monterey jack, but the Savoie Tome is more solid and natural, and a bit more robust and pungent. (The special quality of a tome has to do with it's being made from mountain milk, that is from cows who graze on the mountain.) What's great about the tome is that its taste is distinct without going over into stinky cheese territory. That's not counting the rind, which on some tomes I've bought has that ring around the bathtub rancid potato odor. (This can happen to other cheeses too, by the way; a cinder-coated buche de chevre I got a couple of weeks ago as part of an end of market five for ten Euros special also came with this unwelcome surprise.) But the good news about the Tome de Savoie rind, as one waitress pointed out to me, is that it's made with penicillin. So if the cheese makes you sick you've got the cure right there.

In case you haven't noticed, after starting with mild goat cheese (not counting the Banon, which is in between) I've gently been leading you, step by step, into the land of, yes, STINKY FRENCH CHEESE. But before we get to the stinkiest, let's pause at the next level down, which is of course blue cheeses.

I know, the king of the blues is supposedly the Roquefort (also from the southwest), but it's also the most expensive. On the lowest end of the spectrum is the Blue d'Auvergne, which runs from nine to 15 Euros/kilo, but there you're gambling. It can be creamy and unctuous, like the one I'm washing down right now with a St. Pourcain red (also cheap and from the Auvergne, and a good medium wine — neither too light nor heavy, even works slightly chilled), or it can taste synthetic. Avoid the Fourme d'Ambert, which always tastes rubbery (and which may be one of the reasons De Gaulle, or the General as he's known around here, was ready to cede the Auvergne to the Americans). I prefer the Blue des Causses, a cow cheese from the Pyrenees, which can run as low as half the price of Roquefort but is just as creamy and in my opinion, more balanced and consistent. I've never had a bad one, even from the super-market.

Okay Stinky, if you're still here it means you think you're strong enough to brave a French stinky cheese. Up until Wednesday, I would have said the champion was the Camembert soaked in Calvados, both Calva and Camembert hailing from Normandy, of the landings. (I would not even be surprised to learn that while the Allies were taking the beach, the French Resistance was hurtling Camembert Calva at the Germans as part of its rear-guard action.) The Calva looks like bread crumbs coating the cheese; it usually runs about 4.99 Euros; they had some on sale for 2.99 Euros the other day at my regular fromagerie on the rue Montorgueil (immortalized by Monet in his painting, The Rue Montorgueil on Bastille Day, a view which has now been ruined by the insertion of a Starbuck's at the street's entrance). I correctly guessed that the low price was because it was not just the eat-before date but after the eat-before date.

I said up until Wednesday because that's when I tasted the interior of a Mont d'Or. Interior because, as my French hosts — my former neighbors — explained, this is not actually the season for Mont d'Or. (Many cheeses have their seasons, which, if I understood my French neighbor correctly, have to do with when the grass that feeds the cows that provide the milk that makes the cheese in that particular region grows.) Because it was off-season, his fromager had thrown the Mont d'Or or Mountain of Gold in as a freeby when my friend bought a whole round of Basque mountain brebis. So here, it was so not its season — after the season eat by date if you will — we were advised NOT to eat the crust, and just the center of this cheese (which typically comes in a deep round box), which was sufficiently stinky for me. (That's a compliment.)

But let's go back to Camembert for a moment, as, if you're reading this in the States, that's the cheese that might be most accessible to you in terms of availability and price, although I guess it's hard to find the raw milk variety due to Customs law. There's an easy trick for finding a good Camembert, apart from the eat by date one (always eat as close to the date as possible; if the eat by date is a long way's to come, the cheese will be too green). Simply lift the top of the cheese box — I've done it and no grocer has ever complained — and push your finger into the center of the still-covered cheese. If the cheese bounces back, it's no good (by which I mean it will be industrial and tasteless). If it stays indented, it's just right. As far as Brie, where there's even more disparity, try to find the Brie de Meaux and again, the closer to the eat by date, the better.

If there's one uber-fault with eating cheese in France it's that it's harder than in, say, New York or San Francisco to find NON-FRENCH cheeses. This is important because the French ones tend to be creamier and fatter than, say, Italian cheeses, which are in short supply here. You'd think the European Union would have taken care of this, but instead of knocking down trade barriers and thus prices for cross-border cheese and, well, Belgian beer, it seems to be more interested in restrictions.

A note on wines: I tend to defer to reds for cheese, but there's an exception worth noting, which happens to be from my region in the southwest: It's a sweet white called Monbazillac, and while it's mainly recommended to accompany (sorry) foie gras (another regional specialty; remind me sometime to tell you about the new ergonomic duck factory in my area, and no it's not the, er, clients who will be more comfortable), it's also supposed to go well with Roquefort. The only other white I'd call in would be Tariquet, a wine from Gascony that is, in fact, made from the grape of the Armagnac that southwest France area is known for, at an earlier stage, and whose bite makes it a good substitute for Savoie whites to go with tartiflette or particularly raclette. I've seen it use the name "Columbard," good to know because this is also a cheap California wine.

In addition to editing the Dance Insider and contributing to ExploreDance.com, Paul Ben-Itzak also writes about French culture, cuisine, politics, and life in Paris and southwest France for France Insider.
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