January 28, 2008

Savoie Fare II: The Return of Reblochon?

About a year ago, I was running a cheese counter in a store near Chicago.  I love talking about cheese as much as writing about it, so it was a treat to get to know customers and help them get to know our cheeses.  Usually, this was gratifying: watching someone leave their comfort zone and fall in love with something unexpected; identifying a flavor from their past and sending them home with a wedge to savor; figuring out a fun, unique combination of cheeses for a special occasion.

Inevitably, there were disappointments: someone would request a specific cheese that we didn't have or couldn't get.  When a cheesemonger "can't get" something, it usually means one of two things: a) the cheese took "Best in Show" at the American Cheese Society conference; b) the cheese is made with raw milk and aged for less than 60 days.  Thanks to a great distributor,  we were blessed with an enviable supply of Cabot Clothbound Cheddar (ACS Best in Show, 2006); however, not even they could deliver the sublime, delicious (and illegal) Reblochon.

Reblochon, from the same region as Tomme de Savoie, has a luxurious, melting texture that makes people fall in love with French cheese.  Its flavor is mellow and creamy, with undertones of bacon and walnuts, and it has the mouthfeel of fudge.  There is an appealing, funky scent to the cheese, but it is not overwhelming like some washed-rind cheeses.  I love it at room temperature, smeared onto some rustic bread.  It is also popularly enjoyed in the regional dish, tartiflette, in which it serves as the gooey topping over potatoes, onions, and bacon.

If you were to smuggle some of this precious, unpasteurized cheese past customs officials, you'd only be respecting tradition.  The original makers of this cheese, taxed on their milk production, devised a scheme to fool the tax man.  They'd short-milk the herd, wave au revoir to the inspector, and go back for reblochon, "a second pinching of the udders."  The resulting milk had higher fat content than the reported milk, and went into the family's private cheese creation.

Alas, Reblochon comes of age around 45 days, and is overripe at 60... or so I thought.  A non-AOC* version of the cheese, Fromage de Savoie, has spotty availability in the US.  Recently, I found a wheel at Whole Foods-- not in a secret back room, but in full display of the open cheese case.  The label proclaimed "au lait cru," and it tasted full-flavored and perfectly ripe.   I can't explain how it's available, but I'm thrilled.  If you have any insight, please post a comment!

If you can't find Fromage de Savoie, Edel de Cleron and Fromager des Clarines are excellent, pasteurized cheeses in that style.

*AOC (appellation d'origine controlee) status indicates that the product is produced in the traditional manner in a specified, geographical area.  Similar systems exist for Italian and Spanish products.  Some examples include Roquefort, Parmigiana-Reggiano, and Rioja.

January 19, 2008

That's Just Not Natural

Handi-Snacks on a Plane

On the six-hour flight to Las Vegas, our Southwest flight attendant made her way up the aisle, distributing mystery snack boxes.  I knew this couldn’t be very promising (seeing as the boxes gave off no scent-- dead giveaway of real food), but I can’t deny a little feeling of anticipation-- maybe there was a granola bar in there.

No.  The box contained a 100-calorie bag of cardboard wafers with “chocolatey” chips, an extruded meat stick, and Handi-Snaks.  That’s right, Handi-Snacks, processed cheese product conveniently packaged with oddly-sweet “breadsticks.”

My initial reaction to this unnatural food was repulsion, but then I realized how hypocritical that was.  Considering that our destination was, despite all appearances, in the middle of the desert, aren’t foods like Handi-Snaks more ecologically sound than the fresh foods that I wanted to eat?  After all, processed foods require no post-production inputs to maintain their (and I use this word generously) edibility.  The greens in the salad I ate that night were grown in on monocultural factory farm, sustained by water that likely didn’t fall from the sky, and refrigerated from the time it was picked until it ended up on my plate in Nevada.

Maybe you don’t want to think about food in such complicated terms.  I don’t blame you, because I certainly don’t want to make the choices to never travel, to give up fresh vegetables in the winter, to never again taste the delicacies of France, Spain, or Italy, not to mention their wines.  But I can’t deny that my food choices are important: at this point, they’re important to the small dairies, egg producers, and cheesemakers in my community, whose products I seek out consistently.  

Small changes, on the large scale of consumer behavior, are already transforming the food economy, from the recovering number of small producers to the success of regional farmers' markets, and the big players are noticing.  I think that our nation's path toward sustainable agriculture will strengthen our economy, our collective health, and our culture.

January 13, 2008

Don’t Count Your Food Miles*

Enjoying my main course and my company at Bouchon.

If you have missed me for the past few days, it’s because I was in Las Vegas with my wonderful husband, Charles.  While neither of us would think, “Vegas!” as our destination of choice, I was thrilled to join him for his business trip.

Of course, I had done some research into the restaurants we should check out there.  We took an Olympic approach to selecting our dining options, ruling out those at the very top and bottom of the spectrum.  Thus, no casino buffets, but no Guy Savoy, either.  No worries, I was perfectly content to settle for Thomas Keller.

We dined at Thomas Keller’s Bouchon on the second evening of our trip. An impromptu dinner at Wolfgang Puck’s Postrio, also in the Venetian, had disappointed us with tough ravioli and poor service the night before.  I hoped that Mr. Keller’s bistro would survive the journey from Napa Valley artisanship to Las Vegas volume. 

The meal was excellent.  Our server was efficient and knowledgeable, with the added charm of a faux French accent.  I didn’t believe Charles’s suspicion until the server  mumbled, “Sorry, I don’t speak French,” when the diners next to us requested a carafe d’eau!  It’s all part of the show, folks.

I enjoyed a small carafe of Vouvray, while my sweetheart was in the mood for beer (not a bad call when there’s Chimay on tap!).  We started with cod brandade, perfectly fried with a delicate, fluffy interior enlivened by bits of sweet-tart dried tomato and fried sage on the plate.  Our salads were fresh and flavorful, though both of us preferred the baby arugula, pear, and hazelnut brittle combination to the too-bitter mixture of watercress, endive, apple, and Roquefort.  

For his main course, Charles chose the classic trout almandine, accompanied by a generous serving of firm, sweet green beans.  I had mussels in white wine sauce-- not the best sauce I’ve ever had, but I award extra points for presentation.  The mussels bathed in an egg-shaped, cast-iron vessel, in which a small gate created a pool of broth for dipping the perfectly-crisp baguette.  There were also two shell bowls stacked together, solving the problem of a large shell bowl dominating our two-top: when the top bowl was full, it was promptly removed.  

The service details like this, the artful presentation of each dish, the graciousness of the place: these are the elements that set a great restaurant apart from the trappings of such.  I was entertained by the make-believe elements Vegas offered: window-shopping along a replica canal, strolling along lush gardens and man-made lakes in the middle of the desert.  But hospitality must be genuine, no matter how many times you have to look someone in the eye, listen, and smile in a given day.  Bravo to Thomas Keller and the staff of Bouchon for delivering a superior dining experience to their guests.

*A simple definition of food miles is the distance that food travels from its production to the consumer.  Food miles are one component that can be used in assessing the sustainability of food production and distribution.

January 1, 2008

Savoie Fare

At one o'clock, Tomme de Savoie; nine o'clock, Fromage de Savoie

I would like to introduce to you one of my oldest cheese friends, Tomme de Savoie.  I came across Tomme during my college semester at University de Savoie in Chambery, France.  Another exchange student directed me to take the bus to the Carrefour store outside of town, which she described as the French version of Target.  My expedition yielded such treasures as an all-purpose pot for the kitchenette and scented, pink toilet paper (with the texture of  finest-grit sandpaper) for the bathroom I shared with my three suitemates.  But I was blown away by the dairy section of the megastore: two mosaic aisles of yogurt and dairy confections (including yogurt flavors such as coconut and watermelon, and dark chocolate mousse in six-packs), an aisle devoted to butter, and a cheese counter populated by three fromagiers and a crowd of unknown cheeses.  A patient fromagiere listened to enough of my stumbling French to determine that I was as ignorant of the cheeses of France as I was of her language; wisely, she steered me toward the family of Tomme, whose members were squat, unassuming, and unquestionably local.  I tasted slivers of several, including one covered with grape must and another made from goat's milk, but chose to take home the simple Tomme de Savoie au lait vache cru (raw cow's milk).

A couple of months later, I got to know Tomme more personally on a journey to her homeland.   One of my new French friends had a brother who was getting married in her hometown of Boege in Haute-Savoie.  He was a chef in Geneva, and a lavish wedding dinner was planned; would I like to serve at the feast?  Oui! 

In addition to her chef-brother, ma copine also has a cheesemaker-father who crafted the regional specialties: Abondance, Reblochon, and my buddy, Tomme de Savoie.  He showed me the small, tidy room where he heated fresh cow's milk in a large vat, and the compact cellar where immature wheels slowly ripened into luscious Savoyard classics.  Outside, he pointed to the hilltops across the valley, where his herd of cows spent the warm days in high-altitude pasture.  The beauty and serenity of that scene revisits me every time I taste Tomme de Savoie.  

Of course, such an experience is not a prerequisite for enjoying the cheese.  Under its inedible, natural rind, Tomme de Savoie offers a smooth, yellow paste with a mild, nutty flavor and a hint of sharpness.  I recommend cutting one slice at a time and devouring each with a hunk of peasant bread (something with a little rye and molasses).  As for a beverage, nothing too fancy: choose a mellow, brown ale or a soft, red wine to complement the simplicity of this charming cheese.

Note: Despite its tough-looking exterior, I find Tomme de Savoie to be a delicate cheese that suffers quickly when wrapped completely.  To prevent your wedge from deteriorating, cover only its cut faces with plastic wrap and leave the rind exposed to breathe.