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.

 

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

 

The Route des Grands Crus

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I am going to deviate slightly from the topic at hand today and instead focus on my other great love, wine.

Sunday night I got back from fulfilling a long-term dream of cycling down the Côte d’Or from Dijon to Beaune. It’s around about a 50km cycle all up (taking into account avoiding the terrifying highway that google was very keen to send me along), making it the perfect two-day jaunt.

For those of you unaware but interested, the Côte d’Or is a limestone ridge in eastern France that is home to some of the most famous vineyards in the world, and makes many of the world’s most expensive wines. It is split roughly into two: the northern end, called the Côte de Nuits, is planted almost entirely to Pinot Noir, and the southern end, the Côte de Beaune, is planted to Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

I arrived in Dijon on Friday night, and after checking into my hotel room that smelled like stale cigarettes (vive la France), I went a-wandering. As it turned out, I probably could have spent my whole weekend in Dijon, which was charming af, but duty called and on Saturday morning I tore myself away from the markets and the cobbled streets and the mustard shops with mustard on tap (mustard! on tap!) and began to pedal my way south.

I spent the first 5km or so making my way through the industrial outskirts of Dijon, and then things began to take a serious turn for the vinous. First I tootled through the vineyards of Fixin and Marsannay before arriving in Gevrey-Chambertin – the first really famous village along the Côte de Nuits. After spending about 30 seconds flat riding through the tiny village (as it turned out one of the largest along the way), I popped out into the middle of the grands crus, at the base of Chambertin itself.

I’ve spent a good, solid year or so writing about Burgundy – pouring over books, scouring through tasting notes, noting down soil types – and I can say now with certainty that nothing actually comes close to standing in the vineyard itself. A book is a poor substitute for experience: getting an idea of just exactly how steep these vineyards are (more so than I thought), what the soil looks like, how warm and windy they are in early summer. I pedalled on past my first grand crus with a silly grin.

The road was easy going – just a little bit hilly and for the most part devoid of cars, apart from an old man and a young woman traveling in a maroon Jaguar. I rode through an array of tiny, sleepy villages whose names I have written out hundreds of times – Morey-Saint-Denis, Chambolle-Musigny, Vougeot.

My first proper stop of the day was in Vougeot, a village that did not have any cold drinks for sale anywhere (but then again, neither had any of the others). But what it did have was the Château Clos de Vougeot, a 16th century castle in the middle of the eponymous grand cru vineyard. I had not realised that the château was open to wander around in, and spent a happy and slightly incredulous half hour or so exploring the presses and cellar before pressing on.

After Vougeot was Vosne-Romanée, which is probably the most prestigious of all the villages (I speak only in terms of wine – the village itself was like a ghost town). I rode up the hill to Romanée-Conti, a small plot of 1.71 hectares that makes the world’s most expensive wine, and heeded the small sign that told me to please keep out of the vineyard itself.

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By that point I was parched and pooped and hungry, and it was with considerable relief that I found Nuits-Saint-Georges, the next village and my home for the evening, to be considerably larger than those that had come before. I grabbed some local Epoisses cheese and a baguette, and made my way to the hotel to lie in an air-conditioned room and eat very smelly cheese for a couple of hours. It was bliss.

That night, after exploring the cobbled streets of Nuits-Saint-Georges, I settled in to what turned out to be a four-course dinner at a local brasserie. I ate oeufs en meurette (eggs in a red wine sauce) and boeuf bourguignon, as well as cheese, and ‘cafe gormand’, which as it turns out does not just mean coffee, but coffee with a trio of desserts. After dinner, I trundled my tired, full, sunburned body back to the hotel.

The second day was a little more challenging than the first, because the nice, easy backroute I had been taking through the vineyards petered out somewhat, and I had to make the choice between braving the highway or taking a route through some wheatfields a la Theresa May. I chose the wheatfields.

The hill of Corton with its weird little toupée of woods eventually popped into view, marking the beginning of the Côte de Beaune, and I doggedly pushed my bicycle halfway up the hill before finding a nice, easy track again. From here, I zoomed down the hill into Aloxe-Corton, and from there, it was just a few more kilometres to Beaune, a medieval town complete with ramparts and a now-empty moat.

Once I arrived in Beaune, I gave my bum a much-needed respite from the bike, and wandered around the streets and museums and cellars while munching on quiche and icecream.

It was an incredible weekend. I sat on the bus back to Lyon and reflected on how these much-anticipated trips often disappoint – this one exceeded expectation, despite my exhaustion and my horrible sunburn and the fact that my final meal in Burgundy was a kebab eaten in a bus stop with an audience of pigeons. And because I was on such a high from my weekend, when I got back to Lyon I got this weird rush of “this is home” and felt super content.