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

 

No Pain, No Gain

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There’s been a lot of talk about cheese here at the Cheese Diaries, which is fair enough, given the name of the blog. But the truth is that it hasn’t just been the cheese that’s been capturing my imagination this last month.

My tastes have been satiated by something a lot more simple: bread.

I’ve always been a bread gal. Back in New Zealand, I hated starting the day without a couple of bits of Vogel’s toast slathered with peanut butter (related: if anyone wants to send me some smooth Pics, they should feel free). I have historically preferred bread over crackers when it comes to cheeseboards, and the thought of a gluten-free or low carb diet fills me with horror.

But bread is such an unassuming thing that when you’re asked to say what your favourite food is, it’s incredibly unlikely that you’d offer up bread as a response. Which is why when I decided I was going to go to France and eat all of the cheese, I didn’t think much into the bread I was going to have to eat as a conduit for that.

The truth is, the bread I’ve eaten in the last month has rivalled the cheese in terms of deliciousness.

Every day, a new baguette or croissant or some such thing has wheedled its way into my shopping basket accidentally, and been delivered home precariously in the basket of my bicycle or nearly stabbed someone breadily on the bus. Once home (sometimes sans its irresistible nubbin end), it is sawed into bits and slathered in just the right amount of butter and eaten, often standing over the sink because it was too delicious to waste time sitting down.

There hasn’t even been a huge amount of variation in the bread I’ve eaten. The baguette has been my go-to pain for the last month, and my average amount of baguette-per-day is far higher than I am willing to admit here. The baguette may have its downsides (awkward to transport on a bicycle), but in my humble opinion, its ratio of crispy, chewy crust to fluffy inside is perfect – particularly when sliced on the bias. It has proved an excellent vehicle for much of the cheese I’ve eaten.

The baguettes I’ve eaten have ranged from fancy bakery loaves wrapped in a rustic twist of paper to sticks I grabbed from the tiny Carrefour on the way home from class. The baguettes are delicious either way – even the low salt version I accidentally brought home one time was very edible.

However, this last Sunday, I left it until a bit late in the day to buy bread and could not find a humble baguette for love nor money. After some very audible grumbling and cursing Lyon’s name (it was hot and I was hungry), I found a bread stall in the market that was out of baguette, but had a range of other breads.

I came home with a loaf that was labeled pain campagne, which just means ‘country bread’. It was rounder and thicker than a baguette, with a slightly browner colour. It still had a pleasing crust-to-inner ratio, with the same baked-in ridgelines as baguette that can tear the roof of your mouth to shreds if you aren’t careful. The crust had a slightly caramelised flavour that was out of this world, especially when paired with salted butter.

Hopefully I can tear myself away from the hallowed baguette more often so that I can discover new kinds of bread like my old friend pain campagne here.