Cervelle de Canut

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You may not be surprised to hear that I chose to spend my summer in Lyon not for its culture or nightlife, or for its beauty. I chose it for its food.

Lyon has a long and celebrated culinary history that ties in heavily with the city’s famed silk industry. The silk workers, or canuts, began to occupy the land at the top of the Croix Rousse hill in the 19th century, and have left an indelible stamp on the city, even though there is no silk made here in any meaningful way anymore.

Rather, the canuts came, ate, and shaped gastronomy in Lyon for the next two centuries. Tiny restaurants began popping up all over the city in the 18th and 19th century, serving local working men with tripe and andouillette sausage (made from tripe), as well as a host of other dishes made from cheaper cuts of meat.

These restaurants, usually run by women who had been let go as domestic servants, became incredibly popular and are known today as bouchons. These small, cosy restaurants are dotted around the city and still serve up the same traditional fare as they did in the last few centuries.

Many of the bouchon’s traditional dishes are a touch scary – I, for one, am not sure I’ve got it in me to eat tripe. One, however, is not scary at all, despite its name: cervelle de canut, or silkworker’s brain.

Cervelle de canut is made from a mixture of herbs and faisselles, a kind of fresh cheese that to me sits somewhere between yogurt and cottage cheese. I’m sure it is the kind of thing you could serve as an aperitif but I’ve had it twice now for dinner, sat at the table with a spoon, a baguette, a few bits of cucumber and a bowl of delicious herby cheese.

While you can buy it from the fromagerie or the local market, it’s incredibly easy to make, and it is with that in mind that I share with you the recipe I used.

Note: I used cow’s milk faisselles as I am in France and there’s literally an entire aisle of the supermarket dedicated to fromage blanc. When you inevitably can’t find faisselles in Auckland, you can just use good quality greek yogurt instead – it’s not exactly the same but it’s pretty dang close.

Cervelle de Canut

300g cow’s milk faisselles (or yogurt)
2 big tablespoons of soft goat’s cheese (it needs to be softer than feta – chèvre will be much more suitable)
1 big tablespoon of cream cheese or cottage cheese – just to make it even cheesier
Half a shallot, minced
1 tablespoon parsley
1 tablespoon chives (you can also use other soft frenchy herbs like tarragon or chervil)
2 tablespoons olive oil
splash red wine vinegar
splash white wine
Salt and pepper

This recipe needs no further explanation, really: just put everything in a bowl and stir it till it’s combined, and add more of anything you think it needs more of. You can add some minced garlic as well but I really hate raw garlic so I left it out. Chuck the bowl in the fridge and let it chill out for a couple of hours before you get stuck in – it really needs some time to meld together.

I would go with some fresh bread for an accompaniment, but it also went nicely with cucumber (and will probably be good with a bunch of other fresh vegetables). I paired it with a rosé from Provence the first time and a Picpoul de Pinet the second time – any light, fresh wine with a lot of acidity will work really well here.

 

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

 

Chèvre

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As you can probably imagine, the markets here in Lyon are quite something.

There are two within 15 minutes walk from my house. The first, the Marché St-Antoine, runs along the banks of the river Saône, while the second, the Marché Croix Rousse, sits high above the city in a well-to-do suburb called La Croix Rousse.

Both have their strengths, but the marché on top of the hill (in La Croix Rousse) edges out Saint-Antoine by virtue of its neighbourhoodiness. Come Saturday morning, the street is crowded with sophisticated locals toting, um, totes, and jostling each other to get the best aubergines, or the choicest cut of beef.

The market’s wares are diverse. There are stalls selling fruit, vegetables, olives, spices, cheese, meat (both raw and cured), bread, pastries and eggs. On Saturdays and Sundays, it stretches for a good 500m along the road, and offers up some prime people-watching opportunities.

I have partaken enthusiastically in the market’s bountiful wares. Last weekend I came away with fresh mint and coriander, broad beans, courgettes, peppers, a weirdly forked baguette, and a couple of lumps of fresh chèvre. Et voila, a post was born.

Chèvre literally means goat in French, and, if you hadn’t already surmised, it is made from goats milk. Like most other cheeses, the amount of variation between specimens is vast, and there are a range of different AOC labels for goats milk cheeses made around France, including Picodon and Saint-Maure de Touraine.

The chèvre I picked up at the market was the Vin de Table of chèvres – a simple eating cheese. They were stacked lengthways in little discs behind a perspex barrier, ranging from pure, glistening white discs to mottled, grey hockey pucks, giving clues to their respective ages. I picked the youngest cheese, hoping to inject some youthful vivre into my world-weary visage.

The cheese was not really what I expected. It was quite different to the chèvre I used to buy by accident every time I went to Farro – it wasn’t that this cheese was superior to its kiwi counterpart (unlike many of its compatriots), it was more that this cheese was lighter and closer in flavour to a cottage cheese (although the soft, creamy texture was the same as the chèvre at home). The trademark acidity was still there, however – there was no mistaking this for a cows milk cheese.

I smeared it on baguette for my lunch. It was nice, if a touch unremarkable – it had a kind of creamy, chalky texture with the distinct flavor of fresh milk and a hint of dried herbs. After a few nibbles, I had what would prove to be one of my greatest ideas ever – I would dot the fresh raspberries I had also bought at the market on the chèvre.

Sweetness is fine, sure, but for me, a berry’s strength lies in its aroma. The raspberries’ aroma permeated every mouthful of the chèvre in such a way that it elevated my lunch to something that was considerably more than the sum of its parts.

Pairing cheese and fruit is not anything new (Wensleydale with cranberries, anyone) but for some reason, finding a new pairing of the two feels like a grand accomplishment. There’s nothing like pairing a grape with your roquefort, or a slice of apple with your cheddar to make you believe you are the greatest genius who ever walked this earth.

Type of cheese: Chèvre
Eaten with: Raspberries, baguette
Score: 7 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.

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

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