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

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

 

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