Saint-Nectaire

IMG_4164I love a good dairy sandwich. When I lived in England, I was an enthusiastic purveyor of the Tesco meal deal, and in New Zealand, I tried the sandwiches at pretty much every bakery, home cookery and food bar in all of New Lynn.

The dairy sandwich most emphatically exists in France, although the ones made with regular bread are far more soggy than any other sandwich I’ve encountered. However, there exists a variant here made with pita bread, which, when paired with smoked salmon and creme fraiche, is straight delicious.

When I began my French classes, it became apparent that it was not going to be ok for me to keep buying sandwiches willy nilly every day – not necessarily because of monetary concerns but more because these sandwiches were objectively gross and I was in France, and in France’s capital of gastronomy, at that.

My day is slightly awkward when it comes to eating. I get up in the morning and have breakfast – no problems there – and then head to class. My first class, my intensive French class, goes from 9am until 12pm, and then from 12:30 until 1:45pm, I have my terrifying conversation class. There’s nothing quite like having 15 people stare expectantly as you attempt to inelegantly answer a question in broken French that you only half understood.

Anyway, the short half-hour between my first class and the second isn’t really enough time to buy lunch if you don’t want to only ever just eat dairy sandwiches from the Carrefour. So I decided it was time to start making my own lunch.

To that end, I grabbed a wedge of unassuming-looking cheese at the supermarket with the intent of making sandwiches. It was labeled Saint-Nectaire and it appeared to be somewhat gummy, with a pale yellow colour and an orange rind.

Saint-Nectaire is a cows’ milk cheese that is made in an area smack in the centre of France (and a few hundred km west of Lyon). It is an AOP cheese, but interestingly comes in two classes – one that has been made on farms that milk their own cows, and one made in an industrial setting. These two kinds of Saint-Nectaire are identified by a label on the cheese – oval for the farm cheese, and rectangular for the factory cheese.

After the cheese is made, it is matured for at least 28 days, although the stinkier examples of Saint-Nectaire can mature for much longer. During this process, it is regularly washed with brine and flipped, a process that helps develop its mottled rind.

I grabbed what I can only assume was the industrial version of the cheese. My intention was to slap it on a good, old fashioned ham’n’cheese sammie with a couple of cornichons and a bit of dijon (which is considerably more spicy here than the dijon we get in New Zealand).

It worked great. It made a delicious sambo, but to my delight, was also a grand eatin’ cheese as well. It delivered a buttery, gummy experience with a very distinct salty cheese tang. It was of particular deliciousness when it had spent the morning in my bag (i.e. out of the fridge), really making the cheese tang pop.

However, in researching this blog post, I began to feel like I hadn’t fully experienced Saint-Nectaire, and I had done it a disservice by only trying the industrial version. So I went back to the supermarket and after another successful interaction with a French person, came away with a much more solid-looking wedge of farm-raised cheese with a mottled black-and-grey rind.

This Saint-Nectaire was almost unrecognisable from its industrial sibling. It was drier and more firm, with a chalky texture and flavours of mushroom and nuts. The farmhouse Saint-Nectaire reminded me of visiting gardening centres with my parents when I was little – it had a strong vibe of fresh soil.

Cheese, I guess, is a lot like wine, especially in France. There are many different cheeses, made in different ways with different kinds of milk, that all taste quite different from each other. But there is also a lot of variance in cheese that is made the same way from the same kind of cheese. So much depends on the terroir – how happy the animals were, what kind of grass were they eating, what kind of salt was used to brine the cheese, how long did the cheese age for. The possibilities are endless.

Type of Cheese: Saint-Nectaire
Eaten with: Côtes-du-Rhône, saucisson, baguette
Score: 8 out of 10 laughing cows, both kinds

Roquefort

18405306_10155294492777938_2027704323_o

A week and a bit ago, I left what was possibly the bleakest hotel room I’ve ever stayed in to move into my adorable AirBnB.

It is perched on a road that looks over the Saône river – on the other side of the road from my building is a sheer drop to the quai below. Walking down the stairs to the river – while undeniably handy – causes my knees to make the bad noises, and walking up causes my mouth to make the wheezing noises.

I have a small studio on the top floor of the block, where the roof has a charmingly jaunty pitch that has only caused me to hit my head three or four times so far, and the windows look out over the garden below. There is a table beneath the skylight, a bed and an armchair that has proved very useful for catching up with the goings on in Riverdale, and getting frustrated at Jude’s refusal to open up about his horrible past.

My feelings of affection toward the apartment are not entirely based on its personality, although it has that in spades. Rather, before I managed to lay my hat, I spent three weeks traversing the globe, where I stayed with three different sets of people and in two different hotels, and slept in two heinously uncomfortable airplane seats.

In that three weeks I only managed to cook once, at Sarah’s house, where she bade me make a recipe from her English version of My Food Bag while she finished doing some work. I really missed having a kitchen, and cooking, and so arriving at my new house, where I had a space to work some culinary magic, was very exciting.

Unfortunately, it is not a very big space, with a couple of hobs and a sink, and not a whole lot of prep space in between. It makes up for its lack of oven and can opener and decent knife, however, with that most versatile and compact piece of kitchen equipment, the salad spinner.

My first night there I made a recipe from Serious Eats – a farro salad with tomato, cucumber and blue cheese (although I couldn’t even find pearl barley on its own at the supermarket, let alone farro, and ended up with a mixture of brown rice and barley). For the blue cheese portion of the recipe, I decided that this was the perfect opportunity to give old mate Roquefort a whirl.

Outside of Stilton (which is an English cheese) and Gorgonzola (Italian), Roquefort is probably the most famous kind of blue cheese. It is an AOP cheese (like Saint Marcellin and probably all of the cheeses I’ll be trying from now on), and is made in southern France, near Toulouse.

Roquefort has an origin story worthy of Marvel. The mould that makes the cheese blue comes from a particular cave where, according to legend, a young man abandoned his lunch to go and bother a beautiful girl he saw in the distance. When he returned a few weeks later, the cheese he’d left behind had grown mouldy, so naturally, he decided to give it a try.

Cheesemakers would leave loaves of bread in these magical caves to grow mouldy, and then grind the bread into powder to use in ageing the cheeses. Roquefort is made from unpasteurised sheeps’ milk (sheep’s milk? Sheeps milk? I unno), making it le fromage dangereux – it was illegal in NZ before 2007.

Roquefort is a strongly flavored cheese, and the one I bought was no exception at all. It was pungent and tangy, with a salty, mushroomy vibe that gave way to something a little sweet. It was quite moist and creamy, although it had a slightly gritty texture that wasn’t unpleasant – think ‘eating a pear’ rather than ‘I dropped my sandwich on the beach’.

I found out the hard way that a little Roquefort would go a long way in the salad I was making. There was quite a bit of the cheese left over, however, and subsequent nibblings proved far more satisfying than the first salad. It was particularly delicious on a slice of baguette topped with halved red grapes.

Type of cheese: Roquefort
Eaten with: Farro salad, Beaujolais Cru
Score: 4 out of 10 laughing cows in the salad, 7 out of 10 laughing cows by itself.

 

Saint-Marcellin

IMG_4118Springtime in Lyon is not so different from that in Auckland. Days of rain have been randomly punctuated with brilliantly bright, sunny days, usually occurring partway through the week when they are of no use to anybody.

I don’t usually mind rain, but it is not particularly conducive to sightseeing, especially the kind of sightseeing I am most fond of, which consists of me wandering aimlessly around a city for hours. I’ve had to be reasonably inventive here in Lyon – for example, instead of going to La Cathédrale de la Saint-Jean, I’ve visited Muji instead.

While the markets along the banks of the Saône are unparalleled, there is one market which can be found under a roof – Les Halles de Lyon Paul Bocuse. Old mate Bocuse is one of Lyon’s most famous sons (along with the Lumière brothers, who invented cinema). He has three Michelin stars, and I am not ashamed to say that I had never heard of him until I heard about Les Halles.

The market is in a bleak building in the bleak 7th arrondissement, near a giant, bleak shopping centre that has a Primark in it that people queue to get into. I went on a rainy Saturday morning, and it was nothing short of bustling. Les Halles has a wide range of food vendors selling mostly meat (raw or cured), cheese, seafood or incredible-looking pastries. It also has several tiny, squished-in bistros that look like they were designed for train carriages.

I wandered around for a bit looking at the various offerings and peering anxiously into restaurants trying to decipher the menus, before turning toward my day’s main task – to come away with a wheel of Saint-Marcellin cheese, Lyon’s fromage célèbre.

Saint-Marcellin is in the brie family of cheeses, although it is not as strongly flavoured as its more famous forebear. It is made from unpasteurised cows’ milk and is mould-ripened, although the rind tends to be very thin and powdery.

Like many other cheeses in France, Saint-Marcellin has an AOP classification, which means that only cheese made in a particular geographical location (in this case from the area around the town of Saint-Marcellin a little way southwest of Lyon) and made according to a strict set of rules can be given the name Saint-Marcellin.

This is the same system that famously protects the name Champagne, and is widely used around the European Union. Parmesan has the Italian version of an AOP (NZ-made “parmesan” would be illegal in the EU), and even the humble Cornish pasty is protected under EU law (for now, anyway). The French love their protected designations of origin – this morning I was reading about the AOPs of various breeds of French chickens.

Saint-Marcellin is everywhere in Lyon, and every vendor selling cheese at Les Halles had a tiny pyramid of powdery, wrinkled wheels. After a truly terrifying encounter with a French person in which I was forced to reveal the fact that I didn’t speak French very well, I fulfilled my goal, and came away with a cheese to eat with baguette (and a cheeky tarte aux praline for dessert).

The cheese was not as runny as the internet had led me to believe it would be, although it was plump and soft and gooey, for sure. It was, however, rustic af, with a earthy, tangy vibe that reminded me quite a lot of fino sherry, of all things. I paired it with a glass of light, herby Vin de Savoie from the Apremont cru, mostly because that’s what was open in the fridge. It was a fortuitous pairing, however – the two were very complementary, the wine’s crisp fruitiness cutting through the rich cheese.

Overall, I liked the Saint-Marcellin. It wasn’t the most delicious thing I have ever eaten in my life – but I think it is not the kind of cheese that is given to extravagance. It’s the Côte du Rhône of cheeses – nothing fancy, the kind of thing you crack open on a Thursday night cos you’re hungry and the goddang curry you’re making is taking an age to cook.

Type of cheese: Saint-Marcellin
Eaten with: Vin de Savoie Apremont
Score: 6 out of 10 laughing cows

 

The Bleakest Beginnings

I arrived in France on a Sunday, the 30th of April, white and sweaty and hungover as all hell.

After a night that involved every beer in east London, a whole bottle of organic Grüner Veltliner, and a rousing rendition of “Bring Me to Life” by Evanescence on Singstar, I’d met Sarah for brunch in Exmouth Market. Sarah’s food looked great, but brunch for me consisted of a single piece of unbuttered toast and a poached egg, of which I ate about half, and even that was a struggle.

On the way to get on my train, I’d hurriedly bought a sandwich from the newsagent in St Pancras, quite a stressful proposition given that I was wielding two enormous bags and my train was in the process of boarding. As it turned out, I needn’t have bothered – I choked down the sandwich because I thought I should, not because I had felt anything that even remotely resembled hunger.

After four hours of trains and at least half of the most morally questionable episode of S-Town (the one where they inexplicably go into a large amount of detail about McLemore’s sex life), I arrived at my hotel at around 7:30pm. As a result of my day’s sad nibbling and the hangover, I was ready to eat a live octopus out of Boris Johnson’s armpit. But as I heaved my suitcase into the corner of my exceptionally bleak hotel room, I realised: this is Europe. And it’s a Sunday evening.

Nothing was open. I had to walk for about 20 minutes before I found a landscape that wasn’t just desolate pavement, apartment buildings and parked cars, and then there were metal shutters as far as the eye could see.

After I walked back and forth past a kebab shop about four times twisting with anxiety (what if they speak to me in French etc etc), I decided that surely there was some kind of superette or tiny supermarket or dairy open somewhere. I would find it and acquire food with a minimum of human contact, if it was the last thing I would do.

Victory came in the form of a small stand of vegetables that I’d spotted from a good 100m down the road, which turned out to be a small superette. The shopkeeper threw me off guard initially by greeting me with a cheery “bonsoir!” – I’d been mentally practicing my very best “bonjour” for those 100m and although I knew what he meant, I panicked and stammered “hey” back at him.

I came away with a packet of cornichon- and moutarde-flavoured chips (the shop had no bread), a packet of sliced ham, and a wheel of camembert in that kind of thin, balsa wood packaging that seems to be de rigueur for this kind of cheese. The chips were delicious, and the ham tasted like supermarket ham, which wasn’t an unwelcome flavour.

The camembert was solid to the touch, and was entirely too cold. Having spent the last four years eating “camembert” that was made in New Zealand, I wasn’t going to let the cheese’s temperature put me off. I’d been dreaming of this day since I’d left Europe the first time, and I was going to eat the bloody cheese regardless of whether it was too cold, or I was on fire or something.

The cheese’s rind was thick and flaky, and cutting off a wedge revealed a kind of solidified centre that looked a bit like chèvre, which, while not offputting in any way, didn’t really look right. It didn’t smell particularly strongly in any way (although subsequent openings of the fridge in my small hotel room revealed that the cheese did in fact have a rather forthright aroma). I put the wedge in my mouth.

To my hungover, hungry and camembert-starved brain, this was quite possibly the most delicious cheese I had ever eaten. It was creamy and soft, but pungent at the same time, and it made my tongue itchy – always the sign of a good cheese. It wasn’t an expensive cheese – it was about 2€, and by French standards this was probably a fairly lowly cheese. I think it probably would have cost me about $20 to buy something similar in New Zealand.

It took me a few days to get through the cheese, and the majority of the wheel was eaten with me standing above the open fridge cutting off a surreptitious wedge or two at a time.

I’m sure there will be other camemberts and other hangovers, but this was my first in France and I will treasure the precious memory of this cheese.

Type of Cheese: Camembert
Eaten with: Schweppes Virgin Mojito, chips
Score: 9 out of 10 laughing cows