Maasdam

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It’s been far too long.

I left France in August, leaving behind my cute apartment, my travel pillow and my beloved cheese. By the time I trundled onto the bus from Paris to London, I was kind of done with cheese for the minute – eat cheese for every meal and you too will find it begins to wear a little.

At any rate, I ate a lot more very delicious dairy products before leaving Europe. Cheddar in England to cheer ourselves up after a stupid mistake meant we couldn’t go to Bath after all, clotted cream with honey ordered extremely diffidently in a dirty cafe in Istanbul that proved to be a revelation. Gelato in Dubrovnik, manchego in Santiago di Compostela. I spent a lot of money making sure I got the most out of Europe’s culinary pleasures.

And then back to New Zealand, where cheese is prohibitively expensive. A wheel of camembert that could be had for around 2 euros is usually around $20 here, which hurts a lot. Good NZ-made cheese isn’t cheap, and when you do get into the affordable cheeses, you get into the Ornelle and Galaxy camemberts and bries we grew up with, the cheeses that any European would be truly horrified by. They’re the instant coffee of cheese.

Not all is lost. The cheese counter at Farro Fresh in Grey Lynn remains one of my favourite spots in Auckland, although I do always seem to do considerable damage to my wallet whenever I go in there. Last week, the destructive force wasn’t French at all, but rather, Dutch – a wedge of Maasdam that had been aged for 18 months.

Maasdam is the kind of cheese you draw when you’re eight and drawing a picture of a mouse. It’s a cow’s milk cheese that is ubiquitous in the Netherlands, accounting for some 15 percent of cheese sales. It’s full of holes, which are formed as the bacteria does its work eating the lactic acid, which produces carbon dioxide and by extension, bubbles, or “eyes” as they are known in the trade.

The Maasdam I picked up had been aged for 18 months. We had some trouble cutting into it, as it tended to flake in the manner of a well-aged cheddar (always a good sign). It was firm to the bite, with a good amount of crunchiness. Upfront, it had all that mouthwatering flavour, with a nutty sweetness that put me in mind of caramel and sweet spice like nutmeg. There was some pineapple, as well as an overarching salty cheese tang that brought everything together. Despite being a hard, well-aged cheese, it had a reasonably soft, lingering flavour and it was very easy to eat a lot off all at once.

Type of cheese: Maasdam aged 18 months
Eaten with: Baguette, cornichons and Soave
Rating: 7 out of 10 laughing cows

Mimolette

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This past couple of weeks, the inevitable happened. I had grown sick of cheese, and sick of French food in general. I needed out.

I had kind of known that this was going to happen at some point. I had memories of having a slight tantrum in a small supermarket it rural Tuscany because I just wanted hummus and carrot sticks and all they had was salami, cheese and bread, and in Beijing I insisted on pizza at one point because after two weeks in Vietnam I needed some bread.

So it was inevitable that at some point in my adventure, I would never want to see another gooey, runny, smelly cheese ever again in my life (or at least for a week or two).

I have been careful in trying to put off this inevitability. When I first arrived, at least two or three dinners a week were composed of cheese, charcuterie and baguette, with the ubiquitous jar of cornichons open on the table beside me.

This fell by the wayside somewhat as I started to get into the groove of cooking again, looking beyond Carrefour to the Middle Eastern and Asian supermarkets that were clustered conveniently around my school. My usual faves began to pop up again – Ottolenghi’s delicious caponata, a charred beansprout and marinated tofu dish, and my go-to easy meal of pearl barley, blanched green veges, feta and tahini dressing.

So this week I decided to apply this same logic to my cheese choices. Cheese in France seems to fall into four main categories, flavour-wise: the creamy, stinky washed rind cheeses that are the very epitome of fromage francais; the pungent, intimidating blue cheeses; the solid alpine cheeses that are often characterised by their sweet nuttiness; and the chalky, tangy chèvres. But there are of course exceptions to these, and it was with this in mind this week that I chose a dry, crumbly cheese with a bright orange colour called Mimolette.

Mimolette hails from the area of Flanders, around the town of Lille in northeastern France. The internet is slightly torn over how Mimolette came to be, but the general consensus is that it was made as an alternative to Edam after cheese imports were stopped.

The cheese’s distinctive appearance is how I ended up with a wedge. Most French cheeses tend to be pale in color, while Mimolette is a striking shade of bright orange, with a crumbly, wax-like appearance. The colour comes from the use of annatto, which is a kind of food colouring derived from the seeds of a particular South American tree.

It comes in a ball shape, rather than a wheel, and has a dusty, grey rind that I have just discovered (to my dismay) is the work of something called “cheese mites”. These bugs help impart flavour to the cheese somehow but for my own sanity I have decided to not look further into this.

Despite the tiny insects in the crust, Mimolette is bloody delicious, and quite unlike any other cheese I’d had in France. It had a crunchy, dry texture that was close to English cheddar, and its flavour was deliciously round and plump with floral, honeyed notes. Like cheddar and a few other crumbly cheeses I’ve had, there was a distinct note of fresh pineapple, which sounds extremely weird until you taste it and see for yourself.

I bought the Mimolette at the market, and the cheese was so solid and waxy that the woman had to go and get someone else to help her cut off a wedge. I ate the cheese with the usual baguette, as well as a fresh black tomato (which is softer and less acidic than a red tomato) and some cornichons. It was a very good lunch and now I feel like I am ready to dive back into the world of le Fromage Français.

Type of Cheese: Mimolette
Eaten with: cornichons, Schweppes Agrumes (essentially the Sparkling Duet of France).
Rating: 8.5 out of 10 laughing cows

Saint-Felicien

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I have a terrible addiction to buying foodstuffs that come with some kind of unthrowaway-able packaging.

Anyone who has lived with me has inevitably become frustrated at the growing pile of pickle jars that making putting containers away a real challenge, and I can’t bring myself to recycle the small glass ramekins that Gu desserts come in, instead amassing myriad small dishes for coins and buttons and paperclips and the like.

So you can imagine my delight when I bought a Saint-Felicien cheese that came in a small terracotta container the other day.

Saint-Felicien is a cow’s milk cheese made in the Rhône-Alpes region of France, in the countryside just out of Lyon. It is the big brother to Saint-Marcellin, which was one of the first cheeses I tried, although it is considerably larger and creamier than its teeny-tiny counterpart.

The cheese is known for its softness – hence the terracotta ramekin to keep it from getting squashed. Unlike Saint-Marcellin, Saint-Felicien is made using cream, making it softer and more plump than its baby bro. It is aged for up to six weeks, in which time a soft, lightly coloured rind develops. The one I bought had been smoothed a little by the plastic wrap, but I’ve seen a few pictures of this cheese that have a distinctly brain-like texture to them which is weirdly appealing.

To me, Saint-Felicien felt like an easy cheese – one I wasn’t going to have think super hard about. Camembert and Brie and some of the other smelly soft cheeses are real “sit up and pay attention” type cheeses – they will permeate every sense as you munch. Instead, there was something enjoyably light and fresh about this cheese, which I ate simply with a bit of bread.

The cheese tang, as I am calling it from now on, was milky and without the usual mushroomy, earthy flavours I am becoming accustomed to in French cheese. It was like fresh milk given solid form with a good whack of saltiness. It had a lovely, plump mouthfeel and spread appealingly on the baguette.

I am told that a few minutes in the oven will give me a meal fit for a queen, but as it has been a million degrees in Lyon and I don’t have an oven, I had to make do with room-temperature Saint-Felicien. This was no bother, as I polished off a good portion of the cheese in one sitting with very few complaints.

Type of Cheese: Saint-Felicien
Eaten with: Baguette, tomatoes from Provence, Orangina
Rating: 7.5 out of 10 laughing cows

 

Petit Munster Géromé

IMGP5776A thing I have learned about myself in France is that given the chance, I can eat way more cheese than is possible to keep a blog about. A few cheeses have fallen by the wayside, potentially to be picked up again at a later date when they take my fancy again at the fromagerie.

At the same time – because variety is the spice of life – I’ve had a bit of a cheese glut for the last couple of weeks. Mid-sized hunks of Cantal, Camembert, chèvre, feta and mozzarella have been hanging out in my fridge for a time, willing me to pay them the attention they deserve.

Happily, I managed to clear the glut and began this week with a blank slate (or a blank cheeseboard, if you will). Which means that Monday’s excursion to the shop was tinged with a little more excitement than usual – it was time for a new cheese.

The cheese counter spread enticingly before me, its various-sized wheels and wedges sorted pleasingly into textures and shapes – the washed rinds, the blues, the semi-hard cheeses – with small sprays of green parsley adding a touch of colour to proceedings. After carefully examining all of the options, I decided upon a small, orange round called Petit Munster Géromé.

The cheese’s name was the first thing that struck me – the distinctly un-French “munster” rubbing uncomfortably up against petit and géromé, words so French they may as well be wearing berets. After looking at the cheese’s origin, I suddenly understood – Petit Munster Géromé is made in the northeastern French region of Alsace-Lorraine.

I know a reasonable amount about Alsace firstly because of history, and secondly because of wine. The region is on France’s border with Germany and has switched hands between the two countries a ridiculous number of times. The cuisine there is all sausages and onions, and the wines also have a distinctly German vibe – one of the key grape varieties is Riesling.

Munster Géromé, however, is all French. It is made in an area that surrounds the Vosges mountain range that separates Alsace and Lorraine. In fact, it is this position that gives the cheese its name: until the late 1970s, the cheese was called Munster in Alsace and Géromé in Lorraine. The two were given collective AOC status in 1978, and the names were combined.

Munster Géromé is made from the milk of a specific breed of cow, Vosgiennes, which apparently produces milk with a higher protein content. The distinctly French notion of terroir comes into play here – the best cheese is supposedly made in the summer, when the cows are grazed on the pastures higher in the hills.

The ageing process can last as much as 10 weeks, and the rind is periodically washed with brine, leaving a pinky-orange outer that is kind of sticky and moist to the touch. But Munster Géromé’s most obvious character is its aroma – this is one hella smelly cheese. I didn’t think it was possible for something to smell like a public toilet after a rough Saturday night in a good way, but I was wrong.

This Petit Munster Géromé was, to put it as bluntly as possible, yum. It had a texture that fell somewhere between camembert and Port Salut, but I think if it had been a little older it would have been runny as all heck. It had a round, herbaceous flavour with more than a little tang – this was a pungent, mouth-filling cheese. Its buttery tones gave way to a more mushroomy flavour, and there was even a touch of honey in there.

This Munster Géromé was the kind of cheese I’d come to France to eat. While solid cheeses are great, there is no better cheese texture than one you can smear on bread (with the exception of cheddar, a favourite that is sadly not French and is consequently missing from shelves in Lyon – the French are nothing if not extremely parochial). The Munster Géromé was spreadable in the best, most delicious, most pungent cheese-that’ll-stand-up-and-object-at-a-wedding kind of way.

As with wine, I do find getting the same cheese twice somewhat of a missed opportunity, but with Munster Géromé, I might just be willing to take that chance.

Type of cheese: Petit Munster Géromé
Eaten with: Baguette, cornichons, Picpoul de Pinet
Rating: 9 out of 10 laughing cows

 

Roquefort

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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.

 

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