Saturday, December 15, 2012

Ocean and Vine and Medieval Cheese

Seb gave me a ticket for two free admissions to the 10th annual "Showcase of Ocean and Vine and Gastronomy" out at the Parc des Expositions. This showcase is essentially a gathering of vendors from all over France, plus Italy and Switzerland, and I think there was someone from Spain as well, bringing their artisanal food products and wines and spices and chocolates and hoping that we'd all buy things once we'd tasted them. Not so much buying was going on, but a lot of tasting, and my other roommate Élise and I were not the last in line for any of that. She and I met at the bus stop labeled "Parc des Expositions," at the edge of a large industrial flatland between IKEA to the south and the shopping mall complex Les Atlantes to the north, and with no obvious exposition hall in sight. Fortunately there was a guard at a gate in the fence surrounding the dark empty space, and he directed us around to the other side of the gigantic lot, a walk of about 10 blocks until we finally found the parking lot and trudged across to the hall. We were given plastic shopping bags and a guide to all the booths, and headed into the crowd.

Nearly every booth was offering free samples, and I threw caution to the wind and accepted them all, cheese included, though I did pass on anything with gluten when I could. The lovely rosette of cheese in the picture above is a shaving of Tête de Moine, a squat cylindrical semi-hard Swiss cheese made from raw milk of cows who graze in the mountains of the Jura region, according to a recipe dating back to the 12th century and the monks of the Abbey of Bellelay. One explanation given for the name of the cheese relates to the fact that it's not cut in wedges or slices, but rather in thin circular shavings starting at the top of the cheese on down, recalling the circular shaved monk's tonsure. It's a nutty cheese, creamy to the point of melting on the tongue. I also tasted the goat and sheep cheeses made by the people at Lou Malignol, from Viviers-lès-Montagnes in the Midi-Pyrénées region, about 40 miles west of Toulouse on the borders of the Haut-Languedoc National Park. These were all tomme-style cheeses, firm and densely flavored, and the picture below and to the left is of a sheep's-milk cheese they came up with for this round of showcases (there were others this fall, not just the one in Tours). The line in the middle is a mixture of dried cherries, chocolate, and piment d'Espelette, a dried hot chili from the southwest of France. It was quite good. I tasted fern-decorated sheep's-milk cheeses from Corsica and a traditional Ossau-Iraty from the Basque country, but I only took a picture of the Saint-Nectaire, at a booth manned by two men who said I shouldn't take a picture, because the Chinese would steal their secrets if I published it. They didn't have a name for their business, only that they sold cheeses "d'Auvergne et d'Aubrac" in Clermont-Ferrand, according to the vendor guide. Saint-Nectaire is one of the "Saint" cheeses I will be researching, so I'm keeping the contact information - and publishing the photograph.

I didn't take a picture of the cheeses from Les Fromages de Clarmontine, a two-person operation in Barinque, in the middle of the Pyrénées Atlantiques, where they make cheeses using a technique traced back to the Middle Ages, taught to the woman I met, Sophie, by a local shepherd from a hand-written recipe going back generations. Sophie is interested in both cheese and history, and researched some of the traditional cheeses from the Middle Ages, including what they were spiced with. Sophie and Réné, who raises the cows, add things like cinnamon and cloves, ginger and galangal root, pepper and nutmeg and "grains of paradise" (Guinea pepper), all of which might seem exotic but were fairly readily available to Medieval cheesemakers thanks to the ancient spice routes. It would not have occurred to me to add ginger and nutmeg to the paste of a cheese before aging it, but it works. Sophie and I talked for a bit, and I told her I was looking for places to do apprenticeships over the next year or so. She said that this would be a definite possibility, especially given my interest in cheese history (I'm still keeping an eye out for cheeses that are no longer made), and that while they have one helper there's room for more. So I think I have my first stage lined up, at least tentatively, and down in a part of France I've never visited, which will be fun. The e-mail conversations and planning will begin soon.

If Élise and I had tasted all of the wines on offer we would have been too tipsy to find our way out of the parking lot, but I did taste a nice honeyed Sauternes, and a very delicious Champagne from the Godmé vineyards in Verzenay, which is unfortunately too far north of the boating route for a bicycle visit. There was a second Champagne producer whose wine I didn't taste, Champagne Chauvet at Tours-sur-Marne, which might be within reach if we went west from Mareuil-sur-Aÿ instead of east. I have much research ahead of me for that particular week of travel with Mom and John.

We talked for a long time with Jacques Broustet of Château Lamery, and he described the biodynamic technique of burying cow manure in a cow horn - but it has to be a special cow horn, only I don't remember exactly in what way - in September and then digging it up in the spring and using the liquid mixed with water (stirred for a precise amount of time) as fertilizer. I'd read about this and other practices in Katherine Cole's "Voodoo Vintners: Oregon's Amazing Biodynamic Winegrowers" but Élise had never heard of them. M. Broustet is a charming man, very knowledgeable, and the producer of some very fine wines. The red was smooth on the palate, a little dry, with a brambley aftertaste. The white, clocking in at 15.5 degrees alcohol, was dangerously easy to drink, full of compressed sweet grape flavor from a late Botrytis cinerea-heavy harvest. Perfect dinner (red) and after-dinner (white) wines - and good for the environment, too! That would be my excuse, anyway, though I didn't buy any of the wine.

There were several booths offering dried spices and dried mushrooms, and this booth had jarred mushrooms, wild cèpes (porcini) either cooked plain or with Armagnac. Dark brown and tender and tinged with garlic (and cooked in butter, sigh) they dissolve in the mouth with the scent of fallen leaves.

A more local product was smoked Loire River eel, but the vendors weren't giving out samples, and even if I'd had sufficient cash on me the price was a bit steep. I did eye their toothy jaws (the eels, not the vendors) and decided that was yet another reason to not go swimming in the Loire.

If I had room in the pantry for two dozen different kinds of pepper, I would have spent a lot of money at Aux Goûts du Monde. They had single spices, dried herbs, blends for tagine and roasts and soups, and a hundred fragrant bins filled with fun things to play with in the kitchen. Bourges is only about two hours' drive from here - maybe I'll talk Seb into a road trip some Saturday. A little Sichuan peppercorn might go well with Champagne ...

Italy was well represented in the meats category, with many booths of salami and organic Parmesan and cured bits of various parts of the pig, or entire pigs, as in these lovely porchetta. A whiskey producer near Epernay (and therefore close enough to visit in May!) also makes marc de Champagne, a sipping-only liquor made from the skins and other grape parts left behind after making Champagne, quite strong but with a good flavor. I am putting Distillerie Jean Goyard on the list.

There were a three or four different macaron booths, most with the Parisian style of two small puffy rounds sandwiching a filling. Élise asked the older gentleman if he made the cookies himself, and he said, "No, I get them in big boxes from Lidl [the European Costco] - of course I make them! Look at the sign, it says 'artisianal,' doesn't it?" He wasn't offering tastes, only a testy attitude, so we moved on. The pink coquelicot flavoring/coloring was something I was unfamiliar with, and Élise said it was a flower that bloomed in the spring, a red bloom that often blankets the fields. Sounded like a poppy to me, but I wasn't aware of people eating poppy flowers; when I looked it up at home, that's what it is. People use poppy flowers in tisanes (herbal teas) as well, for calming and promoting sleep. As Dorothy and her friends well know. The flavor is somewhat berry-like, and I imagine you'd have to eat quite a few cookies to experience any effect at all.

I bought my cookies from a southern French company Biscuiterie Navarro and tasted all their gluten-free offerings, the ones flavored with chips of chocolate, bitter almonds, poppy (poppies!), orange flower, salted caramel, and on and on, while Élise was sharing Marseilles-area gossip with the vendor. I have seven macarons [UPDATE: they are amaretti, not macarons, but they're still amazing] (incredibly delicious but not cheap) waiting to be parceled out over this pre-Christmas week, if I can restrain myself from eating them all in one go.

A specialty of the Touraine region is nougat, made with egg whites and sugar, and filled with nuts. The duck, and many many livers from his compatriots, were from the southwest town of Dax, near the Atlantic coast.

For all that it was billed as an "Ocean and Vine" exposition there wasn't much from the ocean other than two booths with smoked fish and eel, and a place to get fresh oysters in the back of the hall. Élise and I considered buying some but it was getting close to 8:30pm which meant we had to run for the last bus, and since neither of us knows how to open an oyster, we decided to pass. The woman at the booth did give us an easy oyster-opening trick, however, one she said her grandmother taught her (presumably relatively recently, unless something less modern was used for the heat). First, she said, put the oysters in the freezer for 15 minutes, and then take them out and put them in the microwave on high for just a few seconds. That shocks the shells open just enough that you can pry them apart easily. Perhaps I'll give that a try some time.

Final notes of richness as we were walking past the last booths: figs and morels stuffed with foie gras. Beyond decadent, and well out of my price range; the tastes we were given were a few dollar's worth by themselves. And olives and tapenades being sold by another compatriot for Élise from the south. I don't usually like either product, but once I tasted the tapenade of black olives, I had to get a cup or so, spooned into a plastic bag. I'm going to toss some of it with roasted cauliflower for lunch. And it's about time for lunch now. Bon appétit, et à bientôt!

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