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FRENCH FRIED
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FEATURE ARTICLE

 
 
           
 

Excerpts On Cheese

from French Fried by Harriet Welty Rochefort,
author of French Toast

Author's note: I love cheese and am happy to share with you some excerpts from a chapter called "Le Pain, Le Vin et Le Fromage" in my book, French Fried. Although during my thirty years in France, I have eaten French cheeses — from the mildest to the strongest — with gusto, exploring the world of cheese and cheesemakers for French Fried was an eye-opening experience. I hope you'll enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed being down in those cold cheese cellars with mountains of cheeses around me. If there's paradise on earth, I was in it!

      
  Paris cheese shop
Our author graces one of
Paris' many fine fromageries.
 

Cheese Expressions

My favorite cheese expression is entre la poire et le fromage — "between the pear and the cheese", which refers to the moment in the meal when you can relax and bring up certain subjects you may not have wished to talk about before that point. For French business people, business talk usually gets serious between the poire et le fromage.

One big cultural difference that makes foreign business people think the French aren't "serious" is that since the French honor food, when they go out for a business lunch, they often talk about everything else under the sun except the deal at hand until they get to the cheese course! (I hear that's changing, though — too bad!).

I also like the expressions en faire tout un fromage — to make a big deal out of something; and il a trouvé un fromage, which means he found a really cushy job.

The French don't call someone important a grand fromage, a big cheese — as we do in the U.S. They call a VIP une grosse légume — a big vegetable — and not un gros légume, which would be grammatically correct. And when they want you to smile for a picture, they don't say "Cheese." They say ouistitit sexe. Ouistiti is a little monkey, and pronouncing it (oui-stee-tee) makes you stretch your lips into a smile. As for the sex part, that's supposed to give you happy thoughts. At least that's the idea.

"Si vous êtes pauvre, ne sortez pas avec une végétarienne, elle risque de vous quitter pour une grosse légume.
— Confucius

Cheese Meals and Cheese Cravings

I love to invite people to my home and let the cheese be the star. Nothing pleases me more than to set out eight to ten totally different cheeses and watch my friends taste each one. I also like to find cheese my non-French guests aren't familiar with, such as Gaperon and various sheep cheeses, fromages de brebis. These are cheeses we can't get in the States and so are even more appreciated by visiting Americans.

      
Mont d'Or Vacherin
Mont d'Or (Vacherin)
The spruce imparts a resinous
flavour to the pale interior
of the cheese, which becomes
almost liquid as it matures.
 
 

My favorite French cheeses? I truly like them all, but I must say that a Mont d'Or or Vacherin, which you find in winter in its characteristic wooden box (they say you should not remove it even when serving), is one of my absolute favorites. I love a good Brie and a good Camembert, when you can find one, which is becoming rare. I love vieille Mimolette because of its distinctive orange color and crumbly texture. It is wonderful to eat with an apple. I love Reblochon and Beaufort from the Savoy region. I love Gaperon and Langres and Époisses and Munster and even the strong Boulette d'Avesnes. I love all blue cheeses: the Bleu d'Auvergne, the Bleu des Causses, Bleu de Bresse, Bleu de Termignon — and those are only a few of them.

I love Cantal from the mountains of Auvergne. (On a trip to Auvergne, my husband Philippe once purchased a huge assortment of Auvergnat cheeses which he took back with him on the plane — and forget there. We often joked about the fate of those cheeses, and the crew, as they ripened and perfumed the cabin). I love... the list is too long and I haven't even tasted all of France's wonderful cheese. They say there are five hundred different varieties. It will probably take me the rest of my life to taste them all — but what fun along the way! I figure if I'm lucky enough to live another thirty years and can taste sixteen or seventeen different cheeses a year, I may someday reach what now seems an unattainable goal.

Meeting A Fromager

How, I wondered, did someone from Brittany, a region known for crêpes and cider and outstanding seafood but not for its cheese, end up as a fromager?

"My father loved good wine but was always frustrated because he could never find good cheese to go with it and was disappointed at the end of every meal. So when we moved to Paris, he decided to buy a cheese shop and specialize in the affinage of cheeses," Philippe Alléosse told me.

The tiny shop in the tenth arrondissement steadily grew with Roger's reputation for finding and cultivating the best cheeses. It was at this point that Philippe decided to join the family business... When Roger retired, Philippe took over the reins of the fromagerie, which supplies top restaurants (L'Ambroisie, Laurent, Bernard Loiseau, Pierre Gagnaire, and the Pré-Catelan, to name but a few) and top food stores like Hédiard.

The thing he is the most proud of are his cellars where the cheeses arriving from the various regions of France are carefully aged and then sent out to his store or to various restaurants. "It's a pleasure to see how we bring an ordinary product to a pièce unique."

      
  Cheesemaker of Beaufort
A fromager tends to wheels of
cheese in Beaufort (Savoie).
 

Underground

I had only a vague idea of what "bringing an ordinary product to a pièce unique" meant. To show me, Alléosse took me down to visit the caves in the seventeeth arrondissement where "we work with between a hundred eighty and two hundred fifty different kinds of cheeses yearly." (I asked him how many cheeses there are in France, citing Charles de Gaulle's apocryphal statement "How can you govern a country which has three hundred kinds of cheeses?", and he told me that there are actually many more than that, "five or six hundred.")

The shop where the cheese is sold, he explained, is "fifty percent of our work. The other fifty percent — the most important part — takes place here." Here is 2500 square feet of caves right in the middle of Paris. Before we went down, he handed me a warm vest which he said I'd probably appreciate, given the difference in temperature which varies between 39°F and 59°F — depending on which room you are in.

A powerful smell of ammonia pervaded my nostrils. Alléosse laughed. "That's normal," he explained. "It's from the fermentation. The cheese is breathing." I was as well, but just barely. However, I forgot the fumes as I became absorbed in the view — on either side of me — of thick, high Cantals, concave-shaped Beauforts, a round Comté weighing thirty five kilos...

Across from the Cantal were some Mimolettes, one of my favorite cheeses. He held one up for inspection, showing me the dusty rind — literally dusty, as small bacteria called cirons eat away at it and have to be brushed off regularly. "They determine the taste of the cheese," Alléosse told me, as he handed me a carotte of Mimolette. (Author's note: a carotte is the name cheese makers use when they refer to testing cheeses to see how they are maturing; they plunge a small sharp instrument into the cheese and take out a small piece to taste).

As we chatted, he sprayed an Époisses with some vieux marc from Burgundy and pointed out a square-shaped cheese I had never heard of — vieux Lille, also called le puant de Lille (the "stinky from Lille"), which he says "is one of the strongest cheeses in France." He picked up a white, hard Reblochon. "This is how it came to us. In another three weeks or one month — it's up to us to decide — it will be ready and will look like this," ...and he picked up another Reblochon, which had a yellow crust and no longer resisted when he pressed it with his fingers.

By the end of our tour, my understanding of what a cheese is before it gets to a cheese shop had been revolutionized. This is not a simple business! Alléosse introduced me to his brother-in-law, Olivier, who is the chief caviste, responsible for knowing absolutely everything about every one of the two hundred or so cheeses in the caves. "It took Olivier seven years to acquire the expertise he has today, to know about every cheese. Each product is different and the affinage is different. You need much time to understand cheese. This is a profession of patience."

CONTINUED ON PAGE TWO » What To Put On A Cheese Plate

 
 

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