Wednesday, April 10, 2013

À l'École

From the top floor of the university library, you get a good view of one of the older parts of Tours, including the building that the L'Institut européen d'histoire et des cultures de l'alimentation (IEHCA) is lodged in and where there is a food-centric smaller library, and narrow winding staircases and huge fireplaces and low-linteled wooden doors that open with clanking metal latches. I've been trying to track down the history of cheese made in French monasteries, a subject that I am finding alternately fascinating and frustrating, due to the lack of significant documentation, or at least documentation that's all in one place. The librarians were pulling books off shelves for me, but returning them with rueful head-shaking, and one finally admitted that he's never heard of a work devoted to this topic. Maybe this will be my contribution to the world of cheese.

We have been learning about different types of cheese, of course, including goat cheeses of the Touraine region, which used to be made in these metal molds rather than the plastic ones more generally used today. Plastic is much easier to clean.

There have been classes on Spanish cheeses, and those from the Île-de-France area around Paris.

We've also been getting information on butter and other dairy products, and historical perspectives on food in general and cheese in particular, and this morning it was a very interesting discussion on geography, and the notion of land and landscape and terroir.

We've met a man who used to own and run cheese shops in Paris and here in Tours. 

Communication was the topic of another session, and the vocabulary of cheese, concentrating more on the vendor side of the equation. How do you talk to your clients? How can you use marketing techniques to sell cheese? I still think it would be useful to have more focus on production, because to me it's easier to sell cheese if you're familiar with what goes into the making of it, just like it's good for the producer to know what the vendor is looking for, and what the customers want.

We're in class usually from around 9am to 5pm, though sometimes it starts earlier and ends later. There's an hour or an hour and a half for lunch, except when the morning class goes overtime. Because it's cheap and close by and quick, most of us have been going to the university cafeteria, where for three euros you get your pick of appetizer (salad, sliced salami, various dressed vegetable combinations), dessert or cheese or yogurt, a roll, and a main dish. I got lucky one day and was able to eat a carrot salad, a not-too-buttery piece of salmon, and steamed broccoli. However, the other three or four times I have not been so lucky, and the last attempt landed me with a plate of plain bland cauliflower that I tried to jazz up with balsamic vinegar (didn't help), a celery root salad that poisoned me with cream, and a weird salad of sausage and not quite thawed prefrozen sliced bell peppers that I believe poisoned me with both lactose and gluten. I should have known better than to eat mass-produced knack.

The day that I learned about the extra paper in addition to the big one I was low on sleep and energy and stressed and depressed and just could not face another bland poisonous meal, so I went to the bistro where I did my foie gras comparison during the IEHCA conference last November, and had a very nice lunch of smoked salmon and poached egg on spicy cabbage salad, and young cod "Provençal style" with a light tomato sauce redolent of oregano, and roasted eggplant and peppers and tomatoes. Four times more expensive, but a million times better - it was worth it, and I felt much better after the meal.

I joined my fellow students after class last week on one of the few clear evenings for a glass of wine in the central square, Place Plumerau, where all the students (and tourists, in season) hang out. And we all met at Laure's place tonight for dinner; my contribution was an onion-bacon-spinach tart using a soy version of crème fraîche and no crust. It turned out rather well, I think. There was salami and rillons, a specialty of this area, as well as the rillettes de Tours, and I had some gluten-free bread on hand to eat with the six different cheeses (just a bite, just a taste of each ...). Two local goat cheeses I don't remember the names of that were quite good, a Bleu de Gex that I thought was way too bitter, a nicely aged Comté, an oozing Tomme de Savoie that was completely different from the super-firm variety I remember from near Lake Annecy, and - what was the other one? I can't remember, which is too bad, because I liked it as well. Oh, and Emmanuelle baked a pound or so of Maroilles in a tart shell and the, um, hearty aroma from that probably made it in through the windows of all the apartments within at least a three-block radius. The spinach in my tart and the green salad Laure made were the only non-meat and non-dairy parts of the meal. Except for the wine. They were opening up the fourth bottle as midnight approached, and I sat covering my yawns in the corner. Marie-Morgane took pity on me and brought me home a few minutes ago, but I'm sure the wine and conversation will continue to flow for several hours more. Good thing our first class doesn't start until 10am tomorrow. Today.

All this is to say that if you don't hear from me for a while, it's because I'm ferreting out obscure references to dairy manufacturing in French abbeys, or in class, or on one of the field trips we're taking next week. But I'll be back, with more photos of delicious meals and dairy products, architecture and random street scenes, and signage using unfortunate acronyms.


  1. May be the most ridiculous question in the world, but how is the wine? Were you a Pinot Noir drinker here in the US? Please compare for us.

  2. Sarah - I don't really feel like I'm qualified to judge wine, other than at the "well, that's tasty" level. The wine I've had here has been good, but I wouldn't say it's all that different from Oregon wines - but again, I'm not a connoisseur. You'll have to come over here and educate me! Oh, and I've been drinking more whites than reds. The local Vouvrays are really nice.

  3. Have you tried to track the goat and cow breeds? In other words, instead of starting with the cheese, start with the animals. Animal breeders often keep extensive records that span many generations. It might be a long shot, but perhaps you might find something interesting. Monastery goat breeds? Just a thought . . .

    Bev Cook

  4. Bev - that is an idea, and many cheeses used to be tied to specific breeds as well as specific locations; some still are. Thanks!