Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Will work for cheese

Patricia and Eric Lefebvre, Fromagerie de Paris

My last 10 days in France were to be spent in Paris visiting cheese shops and, with any luck, working in one for several days. Although an unconventional approach to continuing education, I thought it would be worth a try. I'll save you the depressing details of rejection. The conclusion: no work for Kendra. The responses varied from the very abrupt, "No one enters my cave! And no photos!" to the more gentle, "I'm sorry, but I have too many appointments already." Dommage. For those shops not allowing any photos, I took the liberty of lingering a while so as to create a memory. I'll refrain from bitterly naming the shops offering the more coarse rejections (although I will say they are among the more famous.) On a brighter note, however, there was one gem that made the entire Parisian sejour worthwhile. La Fromagerie de Paris on rue Charenton is run by the oh-so-friendly and welcoming Patricia and Eric Lefebvre. Upon my first visit (they at least considered letting me work there) they regretted not having an aging cave to show me, but directed me to the fromagerie of Alain and Marie Quatrehomme. It was here that I received the gentler of rejections, although you can't say I didn't try my hardest. While I did not get to see an aging cave or get to work in a shop, I still learned a few things to pass on:

1. Paris changes fast. The majority of recommended and published cheese shops ahd already shut down or moved. I highly recommend a long distance phone call before your trip, if you plan to visit them. This will save you many euros in metro tickets to get all over the city.

2. The verdict on Brie: According to Patricia Lefebvre, and I trust her authority on the matter, Brie is eaten at peak ripeness, creamy and soft, in Paris. Everywhere else in France, it is eaten before this creamy state, firm and, in my opinion, lacking that 'umph' in flavor. This would explain the firm Brie I had in Belfort.

3. Just as Paris's local business climate changes with the tide, so do the EU laws on food. All the "I don't know"s from previous blogs rest as so, since it is so difficult to keep up with them as they change. Why can't our American cheese laws change?! Bring in the fresh raw-milk cheese please!

All in all, the trip afforded me many surprises--disappointing and equally exhilarating. If you plan to take a trip to Frane in the future, feel free to contact me for suggestions on restaurants, sites, cities, and other things. And if you ever need an interpreter to accompany you of a French food extravaganza, my bags are packed!


Sunday, January 21, 2007

A Visit from the Veldhuizens

Yesterday was a great day at the market because we were joined by Stuart and Connie Veldhuizen, the cheesemakers who make all of those fine raw milk cheeses in Dublin, TX.

Having just stepped off a cruise ship in Galveston, they looked tan and happy, and repeatedly mentioned that they still felt the waves rocking the ground beneath their feet.
Since they arrived in the middle of a rush, all I could do was hand Stuart a hunk of Paragon and a knife. He immediately jumped into cheesemaker-mode, offering samples to the crowd along with all sorts of interesting information about cows, raw milk cheesemaking, and the importance of good grass. A number of Veldhuizen loyalists were there to show their appreciation, and first-timers stood in thrall. I wish we had pictures of the action, but we were frankly too busy to take them.

As they were leaving I told them that I hoped they felt loved, and Stuart explained how when they were just producing milk for the co-op they would only get feedback if there was something wrong. As cheesemakers, they get to hear how much their hard work is appreciated.
Thanks to all of you who came out to let them know that it is!

And thanks also to a world-class stand-in Dairymaid, Doris Scott (aka Kendra's Mom).

Friday, January 19, 2007

Old School Production

A Lesson in Slow Food:

The last day in the mountains led us to an even smaller production facility. Marion, the ever generous and knowledgable hostess, arranged for us to tag alongside and elementary school field trip of one of the only cheesemaking facilities still adhering to the age-old hand and teeth tradition. When we arrived (late of course) at La Combe Laisia, Thomas, an ex-wine-seller from Dijon was already busy cutting the curds in a large copper cauldron for gruyere. After trekking past the barn, mounds of cut grass for fodder, and piles of mud, we entered the cheesemaking room and also travelled back in time a few hundred years. In an effort to bring back the missing human link one sees nowadays with technology, La Combe Laisia has stuck with tradition quite impressively.

After about 30 minutes of hand-churning, Thomas set up the mechanical churner--the kids were getting a bit ansty, so it was time to change things up a bit. All milk here is pasteurized, for the facility does not exactly meet the EU's modern standards of production. La Combe Laisia was given the green light to continue making and selling cheese thanks to Monsieur Pasteur. For the pasteuriwation, the cheese is brought to 52°c by way of wood fire. This takes a good while, so the kiddos are sent to see the cows. I linger to talk with Thomas.

My questions about pasteurization and EU laws seemed very American to hm at first, as he, and just about every other cheese person in France, think Americans possess an unfounded and "idiot" fear of raw milk. I tried to explain that I and others in the U.S. did not agree with FDA laws in place. I guess in countries where voices are heard and votes count, it might be hard to understanc the disparity between U.S. laws and certain American thought. Understandable. Once Thomas understood my position, things eased and information flowed with less hostility.

In an effort to truly educate people of the cheesemaking process, La Combe Laisia--also organic--keeps things slow and simple so as not to miss a step. Excellent for me as I even have difficutly explaining where vegetable ash comes from to inquiring customers. When I asked Jean-Paul at the previous fruitiere, he responded with a dumbfounded, "We buy it." Yes, I know, but how is it made? It remains a mystery, as he did not have an answer for me. At La Combe Laisia, I saw everything, including the source of rennet, the enzyme added to the milk to make it separate. Thomas told me that they might buy the rennet (let me clarify: buy the baby cow's stomach to then make the rennet), but a neighbor that had recently slaughtered a calf for consumption was kind enough to give them the stomach. He pulled a plastic shopping bag off the hay-laden floor in the hallway and showed me the fresh stomach. He then showed me a dry stomach that he would cut into 30 1" x 1" pieces to add to a jar of whey, which would then ferment and become, voilà, rennet. Whew! This is slow food folks.

Thomas cutting the dried calf stomach for rennet

When the kids returned, it was time to finish the cheese. Thomas took the caldron off the fire, prepared the wooden mold and cheese cloth, and proceeded to drain the whey with a sieve and pump.
Once most of the whey had been drained, Thomas took the cheese cloth, one side held above whey and curd by his teeth, and slid it under the curd at the bottom of the pot. Teeth and fists, he lifted the curd, put it on a pully, and moved it to the mold. Through this whole process, whey drains into a bucket. After one turn of the cheese, the tour was over. After we left, there was still more turning, draining, and salting to do, as well as months of aging before it would be edible. And the taste? Delicious.

Medium Scale Production

Organic Production in the Jura:

On a much smaller scale, I found (Marion took me to) an organic cheesemaking facility--fruitière biologique. For this visit, I'm sure mostly due to having Marion with me, I was able to have a closer look at the production facility. Arriving after 5 p.m., there was no cheesemaking to see and I was too early for the 7:30 p.m. delivery of milk. For this facility in Chapelle du Bois, all milk comes from the farmers in the town, all of which meet the guidelines for earning not only the AOC distinction, but also that of being organic. Jean-Paul Blandot, one of the farmers, gave me a detailed and humble tour of the facility. It harkened memories of our small, dedicated Texan cheesemakers. Jean-Paul continually insisted that I would not be interested in seeing the facility, no production to see, no innovative technologies, nothing of interest to me. It was all I could do to express that every bit of worn-and-torn secondhand vats, chipped tile, and fluorescent-lit caves brought more excitement than ten Eiffel Towers. I think he got the point eventually. More than anything, I was happy to meet Jean-Paul and see the facility for I could sympathiwe and get behind the operation. I've got a special place in my heart for the small guy persevering from passion and integriy. I also gfelt a bit at home, pulling for our small production facilities in Texas offering a product of quality rather than convenience.

However, even the small producer is still pretty big. They had 4 caves, one of which was being phased out for it consisted of plastic walls, which do not allow for proper control of air flow or huumidty. Farmers did not want their milk-turned-cheese in there, and stores did not want it either. Hence the three new caves, which housed Comté and Morbier. Due to a lack of space for the amount of cheese they produce, not all of the cheese is aged to the point of sale here. It might stay for a few months, after which wheels are sold to stores and arffineurs throughout France where they will finish the aging process.

The new cave for Comté

After the tour, Jean-Paul invited me back to his farm to see the cows and witness the delivery of the milk. I regrettably had to decline as the dinner hour had arrived and I had about an hour drive to the bottom of the mountain to find food before the stores closed. Despite the missed opportunity, I'm still willing to sacrifice convenience for quality.

Me and Jean-Paul

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Kendra's not the only Cheese Traveler!

Anne, my friend and authority on all things relating to Switzerland and cheese, sent in these photos from La Maison du Gruyere in Gruyere. She's promised to tell me all about it over a steaming fondue.

Monday, January 15, 2007

The Fabrication

Les Moussieres: Large scale production

The fromager wakes early in the morning to start making cheese from the milk that was delivered that morning and the night before. AOC cheeses from this region are made in co-ops (fruitieres) zhere the farmers bring and sell their morning and evening milk. Upon delivery, the milk is weighed and the farmer paid accordingly.

Our first stop that morning was at the fruitiere of Les Moussieres, one of the only cheesemaking facilities permitted to make three AOC cheeses--Comté, Morbier, and Bleu de Gex. Typically the rule is one AOC cheese per fruitiere. Why? I don't know and neither does anyone else. Though I would venture to guess that fruitieres typically don't have the space and equipment necessary to make three AOC cheeses.

I arrived late to my tour with an elementary schoold field trip group, as I never made it to any destination without turning around at least once. Hey, it's a great way to see the land! I did make it in time to see the placing of curds into their molds for Bleu de Gex. This AOC, cow's milk cheese is made in two fruitieres, this one in Les Moussieres and one in Gex.

After placing the curds in the molds, which further need draining, the fromger puts a plastic stamp "Gex"in the mold, along with the date of fabrication. When the cheese is ready for distribution, you'll see the "Gex" imprinted on the wheel. The placement of the stamp is key for indicating where the cheese was made. At Les Moussieres, the stamp is on the bottom with the date on the side. Cheese from Gex has the stamp on the side and the date on the bottom. Seemingly trivial, but indicative of the importance of tradition and quality assurance in France.

But where's the Raclette?

A dinner of tradition:

After my day of fromagerie visits, my hostess Marion had offered to serve me raclette for dinner. Raclette we did do, just minus the Raclette cheese--it does not come from the Jura region so Marion does not serve it. Raclette is the process of melting cheese and then scraping it over potatoes. In Switzerland, where the cheese originates, one would do raclette with Raclette, but here we do it with the region's specialties: Mont d'Or--a bloomy rind, soft-ripened cheese--, Bleu de Gex, and a thrid that two bottles of Jura chardonnay have since erased from my memory. (oops!)

Marion had a special contraption for this meal. It was a sort of two-story hot plate. The top, a flat non-stick surface for heating the potatoes, and the bottom, a heated surface with special mini non-stick pans for heating a 2" x 1" piece of cheese. We each grabbed our heated potatoes from the top, then heated our cheese to scrape over them. Ham, cornichons, and bread accompanied our raclette.

Over dinner, Marion, my travel companion, and I discussed the Jura region, cheese, architecture, and literature. The next day promised a visit to a large, well-known cheesemaking facility and a visit to a much smaller organic cheesemaking facility. This night we started the Jura cheese tradition and continued to work backwards, from the cheese's consumption, it's sale and storage in a fromagerie, and finally its fabrication.

Fromgeries in the Haut Jura

The Fromagerie Rietmann in Montbrillant, France

First Day in the Haut Jura:

The first day in the Jura included a very long and informative tangent from the cheese mission--a lesson in pipe-making. Aside from this, the day was spent getting lost in the mountains and discovering cheese shops along the way. The fromagerie is not something one sees in the U.S. In effect; the cheesemaker and cheese store worker are not well-known professions in our land either. In France, however, the profession of fromager (cheesemaker) is one about which dissertations and books are written, to be learned in school or by apprenticeship, and above all respected.

I came to this region, and especially the town of St. Claude, to visit the Crémerie Clément, a cheese shop (fromagerie). Marion, my hostess, had another receommendation, the Fromagerie Rietmann in Montbrillant. Through getting lost in the mountains, I found the Fromagerie Rietmann, which also provided windows for viewing the cheesemaking process (cheesemaking in a fromagerie is atypical here.) Unfortunately, I missed the hour of making cheese, so my visit afforded only a slice of Tomme montagne-- a cheese made from the same recipe as Comté but lacking in many of the specifics for it to earn the name--and a bottle of Jura chardonnay, on recommendation of the cheese shop worker (what we anglophones know as a fromager.)

After the Fromagerie Rietmann and the aforementioned lesson in pipes, I visited the Crémerie Clément. Jean-Claude, the manager of the store, was more than happy to show me his cave, used only for stocking, not for aging. But even a cave for stocking needs to meet certain measures to ensure cheese is at its prime for consumption. Above all, humidity is the most important, Jean-Claude tells me. His cave of wooden shelves, housed beyond a couryard next door to the shop, holds about twenty wheels of Bleu de Gex and four wheels of Comté, all of which will be sold in a weeks time. Jean-Claude keeps all cheeses in their original packaging--paper for the comté and cardboard boxes for the Bleu de Gex. This is necessary for maintaining the cheese's water weight. For once a portion is cut from the wheel, wrapped, and sent home with a customer, the cheese loses 10% of its water weight. Oh là là!

After the cave, Jean-Claude offered me a tasting of the 5 different Comtés. He took me from the mildest to strongest as any good maître fromager would. Although there are five different Comtés, they must all meet the same basic requirements to earn the AOC name. The milk must come from Montbeliarde cows grazing only in the Haut Jura or Doubs region. The flavor will then vary according to the process of salting the wheels (saumurage) and the amount of aging time. Less salt=lighter flavor. According to Jean-Claud, stronger flavor (longer aging, more salt)=a better cheese. Is there any variation to the brine solution to alter the cheese's flavor? No! Never! This is a constant, no secret recipes for brine solutions. Only time and terroir are the artistic agents in creating great cheese...so says Jean-Claude.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Happy Accidents in the Jura Mountains

Fourth Stop: Many small villages in the Jura Mountains

This next part of the cheese mission in France was left somewhat to chance. Entering into the Jura mountains, a scape of plateaux mountains with two lane roads etched into the mountainside, speckled with tiny villages and artisan workshops, I hoped the people would be friendly and willing to help me find the cheese. After stopping on the side of the road to photopraph this statue of a cow overlooking the village in the valley below, I knew my mission would be well-received. This statue communicated a great respect for the region's agricultural life, which further promised a certain pride and passion in local artisan speicalities. I hoped I was right.

Many winding roads up and down the mountains, about a million wrong turns, and five photo ops after leaving Belfort, I finally arrived in the teensy weensy town of Cinqétral, a village of St. Claude. Not knowing the hostess of the house I would be staying in for the next three nights, I hoped she would at least be able to offer some possible tourist traps in the area. I could not have asked for a better hostess, for the next morning at breakfast she answered my inquiries with, "But you have come to the right place! This is what I do. I am an expert in the region's artisan specialties, including cheese." Quelle chance! The next several days in the Jura mountains would be filled with not only the tourist attractions, but also some not-so-well-known establishments. Not many tourists venture to these parts, for the train does not even pass by here. Even the most popular attractions maintain a certain uniqueness.

For a region so rich in culture and tradition, I can understand why my presence was so well-received. In their eyes, an American coming to their special spot in the world with an interest in learning about one of their many prized traditions--cheesemaking--brought a hopefulness for things to come. Would I begin business relations by importing cheese from the smaller cheesemaking facilities? Would my little blog diffuse the richness of the region to other parts of the world, attracting touists with a genuine interest in what the Jura has to offer? And if an American has come to these parts, then others in the world surely know the Jura exists.

I don't think I could have had a more happy accident on this trip, to plant myself in just the right home, in a region so willing to share, and with so much to offer. The next several blogs will cover all that I learned, and I hope to communicate the very special cultural exchange that occured.

Tuesday, January 9, 2007

Sunday Night Blues and Techinical Problems

We are experiencing techinical difficulties folks, preventing me from updating you in a timley manner. Fortunately, my hostess deep in the Jura mountains is allowing me to use her computer for a brief moment.

Third Stop: Belfort, France

Back in my comfort zone, but what to do on a Sunday night in France, when everything is closed save those few devoted capitalists ready to serve? Fortunately, in this quiet little town, I happened unpon a restaurant with every table in the house open to my taking. It was either this or the more swanky spot across the street. In my experience, go for the less pretentious guy. And in this case, I made a sound decision.

At the Hotel/Restaurant St. Christophe, I enjoyed my first and second course and a conversation in regional cuisine alongside a special cheese plate prepared just for me for dessert. How does one get this special plate? Why, strike up a conversation with the chef about regional cuisine, of course. In our conversation he shared so,e secret specialties of the Franche-Comte region that I will further explore over the next several days. You'll recognize several cheeses from this region: Comte, Morbier, and Bleu de Gex. One with which you might not be so familiar would be Concoillotte. According to Belfort's local chef, it's not even known by other Frenchies living outside this region. Apparently, it's similar to crème-fraîche, thick in consistency, creamy, and slightly tangy in flavor. I'll get some in the next town, as he had none to offer me at that time.

The cheese plate consisted of Comte--a raw cow's milk cheese, with a natural rind--, a no-name blue cheese, which was of similar consistency as Mozzarella Company's Deep Ellum Blue, a brie that was particularly bland, and finally, the gem of the plate, a no-name chevre.

A note on brie:

Lindsey sent me off with a sub-mission to find out when to serve this American favorite-at what stage of ripeness. This one was served before it's peak, while it was still a bit firm, not soft and creamy in the middle. However, I still need to ask a pro.

A note on the mystery chevre and names in general:

Cheeses with the AOC distinction have specific names, typically to indicate the location from which they come or a reference to a special person or quality of the cheese. Not all cheeses receive the grand AOC honor; and generally do not take on any special name. For example, when you are in the Alps and ask for chevre, you'll more than likely get a cheese that is made from goat's milk from the Alps. The particular chevre I had seemed to really excite the chef. Made from raw goat's milk with a molded rind, like brie, it was much creamier in consistency than the brie. It's flavor: slightly pungent with a long finish.

Next Stop: St. Claude

Saturday, January 6, 2007

Swiss Bar Food

For those who are not aware of my departure to Europe, let me give a brief intro to the subject of this blog. Looking for a way to expand my cheese knowledge for my contribution to the Houston Dairzmaids, maintain my fluency in French (can't let an entire university education go to waste), and fulfill my itch to travel, I bought my plane ticket to France. Three weeks in the land of fromage should be enough time for me to learn as much as I can about the French way of making, aging, and eating cheese. I'll be reporting back often with tales from the trip, but more importantly will return to Lindsey's and my little cheese project with knowledge to better the Houston cheese experience.

First Stop: Paris

My first two days spent in Paris, and in a jet-lag stupor, did not afford any blog-worthy fodder. All I have to report is that my favorite restaurant in Paris with a cheese plate worth telling about has turned into a Euro-Thai restaurant and La Ferme Sainte-Suzanne--a small but recognized cheese shop (fromagerie)--has turned into a Copy Center. Bah! Not to worry. I will return in about a week to hit the Paris streets looking for a fromagerie willing to welcome me a an unpaid worker for a week or so. Onward to the next stop.

Second Stop: Basel, Switzerland

My arrival into Basel, Switzerland is part of my travel companion's interest in architecture, not having much to do with my cheese mission. If there is cheese, though, I will find it!

What a better way to satisfy your late-night bar munchies than with a steaming pot of fondue.
Yes, I ordered this lovely pot of boiling swiss cheese in a smoky hotel bar sitting next to an elderly Swiss man doting on his little dog Cindy. (And no! Cindy cannot have any fondue.) I never would have imagined that a bar such as this would not only serve fondue, but also take such pride in serving it. As I dipped my fondue-forked cube of bread in the bubbling creaminess, I asked about the ingredients of the dish. In a sort of German-French, the bartender explained that it contained only Swiss Gruyere cheese, white wine, and kirsch. This third ingredient baffled me a bit as I do not know what kirsch is and had never heard of it being an ingredient in fondue. Unfortunately, the bartender did not have the French to explain kirsch to me, so perhaps, you, dear reader, can enlighten me. When I return to French soil tomorrow, I'll be sure to ask someone to further explain traditional fondue ingredients.

For all you Raclette lovers, here's something to try: hash browns layered with ham, heaping slices of Raclette, and finally topped with a fried egg. Tried this one in a Basel bierhalle, on receommendation from the friendliest cab driver I've ever met.

Friday, January 5, 2007

Cows in Repose on Veldhuizen Family Farm. Dublin, TX