A big thank you to Cheeses of Europe for sponsoring this post and graciously hosting Handan and me last night at the Connecticut Open Tennis Tournament in New Haven. All opinions are my own.
I know, I know, it’s hard to believe, right? Last night, the shackles came off, and Handan let me out of the
dungeon workshop for a little R&R. Last night, I traded in my glue-crusted apron for a shirt with actual buttons! I hung up my torn work pants and donned a pair of jeans with no holes! Last night, I pulled off my smelly old sneakers and slipped into some fashionable footwear! (Well, I think it was fashionable about 8 years ago. Now? Who the hell knows?) I even showered and sprayed myself with some cologne I bought in Dubai International Airport on our way home from Afghanistan 7 years ago! We were going out, and I was going to make the most of it!
Our destination was Yale University. Oh, I know, you’re probably thinking that they were going to award me a well-deserved and long-overdue honorary degree for my Notable Achievements in the Field of Excellence, but that wasn’t the reason for last night’s excursion.
Nor were we there for the tennis, which I hear was top notch, as the fiercest ladies in the game battled it out for court supremacy.
No, we were there for an entirely different and entirely more delicious reason. We were there to eat cheese, drink Champagne and talk about the wonderful world of French cheeses with lovely folks from Cheeses of Europe.
Believe it or not, I have a lot of experience with French and European cheeses. Back before the ball and chain I met Handan, I managed a wine bar in San Francisco. Along with wines from around the world, I offered an ever-changing selection of fine cheeses. For about three years of my life, I ate a dinner of cheese and cured meat almost every night. It was Nirvana. Oh, crap, Handan is probably reading this…ummm, I mean, it was horrible! Drinking wine every night and eating the best cheeses on Earth! Just Horrible!
Anyway, when it comes to cheese, I’ve pretty much eaten them all. There is magic and mystery in every bite of cheese, and I want to tell you about some of the French cheeses I love. So let’s dig in and talk cheese.
Humans have been making and eating cheese for over 10,000 years, and they’ve been the best 10,000 years of history – especially the last 7000 years when grape-based wine came on the scene! And during these last 10 millennia, we’ve not only perfected the craft of cheesemaking, but we’ve come up thousands of delicious variations. Great cheese is made in all corners of the Earth, but some of the very best cheeses come from Europe in general and France in particular. When it comes to cheese and wine, France rules above all others.
Cheeses of Europe had six glorious French cheeses on display last night, each one a masterpiece of controlled spoilage. Let’s start with Brie…
Double Crème and Triple Crème Brie
Brie is the most famous soft cheese in the world, and for good reason! The moment the soft, creamy pâte (that’s the gooey middle) and the slightly pungent rind hit your palate, your brain knows right away that something good is happening, and it encourages you to take another bite. And another. And then one more. Smear some on good crusty bread and top it with honey, fig jam or quince paste, and you’ve got yourself the Royal equivalent of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. I can’t count the number of dinners I’ve made from brie and jam on French bread. But if you want a real treat, you have to make a melted brie and apple sandwich on a toasted sourdough. Bonus points for adding bacon!
Brie is what’s known as a bloomy rind cheese. After the initial cheese curd has formed, the cheesemakers form the curd into rounds and then coat the rounds with a specific type of mold spore. As the cheese ages, the mold grows soft and white on the rind, and it also softens the interior and produces that beautiful Brie flavor.
Brie has been produced for over 1300 years. It used to be called the “King’s Cheese.” But attitudes in France changed somewhat after the French Revolution as Royalty fell out of fashion faster than royal heads tumbled from the guillotine, and since then, it has been called “The King of Cheeses.” Today, Brie is beloved by nobility and commoners alike.
For many folks here in The States, Emmental might be confused with that generic product we call “Swiss Cheese.” But this is no deli counter hackjob! Though the most famous Emmental is, in fact, made in Switzerland, the Emmental from Savoie, France is a subtle and savory cheese that is just slightly salty with the tiniest bit of sweetness. It melts like a champion, so it is a fantastic addition for mac and cheese and grilled cheese sandwiches.
About those holes…
For decades, the prevailing theory on the holes in Emmental was that the fermentation of the cheese produced carbon dioxide which formed the bubbles as the cheese matured. But lately that view has been challenged by a new theory (new to scientists, anyway – apparently the farmers have known it pretty much forever) that suggests tiny particles of hay are to blame for the air pockets. It seems when the cheese is produced in a barn (where one might expect to find a lot of hay), small bits of hay in the air land in the milk buckets and create natural weak spots in the cheese curd which allow for the accumulation of gasses.
Hay or no hay, the cheese is delicious!
The next cheese offered by Cheeses of Europe is a smoky delight that is only available in Florida at the time of this writing, but they promise that it will be available everywhere soon. And I’ll tell you, I can’t wait for it! Handan and I were gobbling it like we’d been lost at sea and it was the first food we’d encountered in months!
The recipe for this cheese is totally modern by cheese standards, as it was created in the 1950s in Annecy, France.
Nestled in the French Alps a few miles from Switzerland, Annecy sits on a gorgeous, sapphire-blue glacial lake with the cleanest waters in all of Europe. It is in this pristine and perfect location that this sublime cheese is made from melted Emmental, alpine butter (that’s a fancy term for butter that comes from cows with a diet of alpine wildflowers and grasses. Their milk is fattier and sweeter than the lowly valley cows) and hickory smoke. It is soft and mellow with just a hint of smoke. Once this cheese hits the broader American market, I think it’s going to knock smoked Gouda from its number one spot atop the smoked cheese rankings.
Ah, mimolette! This was Handan’s favorite cheese of the night, and it’s been a favorite of mine since 2007.
Sharp and nutty, salty with hints of butterscotch, Mimolette is one of the most delicious cheeses in the world, and it harbors a little secret that may shock you when you hear it. But one taste of this orange beauty and you’ll forget all about its little quirk, as you’ll be too busy stuffing it into your face to care!
Curious? Then read on.
The cheese mite is a common pest endemic to those producers who age their cheeses. The microscopic bugs love to munch on the mold spores found on aging cheeses. Most producers simply brush them off at regular intervals, keeping the cheese as clean as possible. But Mimolette producers encourage the mites and do everything they can to help them along, for the mites are what give Mimolette its distinctive flavor and cantaloupe-looking rind. When the cheese has finished aging (anywhere from 3 to 24 months), the mites are then brushed and blown off with compressed air.
With all the bacteria and mold already present, cheese is absolutely a living organism, so a few little mites can’t harm anything! But speaking of mold…
I’ve saved the best for last – the best “blue” cheese in the world and the best story. Though we call Roquefort a blue cheese, its mold is actually green. It is the oldest blue cheese in the world, and it is considered by many to be the best.
The story of Roquefort is the story of love itself.
A young shepherd was grazing his flock on the high slopes of the hills above his village. It was late in the season, and his flock had already eaten through the lower slopes. The boy didn’t like being this far up. This far away. Especially this late in the season.
The wind picked up, and the weather started turning foul. The shepherd hoped the rain would hold off until his flock was done grazing.
But before he knew it, the wind started to scream, and the hill became shrouded in fog. As the rain started, the boy scrambled to find shelter.
At last, he found a cave among the boulders that littered the high slope. He ducked into the cave and escaped the worsening storm.
He walked back and discovered that the cave was very deep. Once he was well inside, he sat and unpacked his lunch. At least he could eat while he waited for the storm to pass. He unwrapped a hunk of bread and some cheese curd.
Just as he settled in to eat, the shepherd boy heard a voice, a cry on the wind. He paused and turned his ear towards the mouth of the cave. He listened.
There it was again!
A woman’s voice!
It was the sweetest and most haunting sound he had ever heard! He must see who made it!
And so he set his cheese and bread on a rock, and he ran out into the storm.
But he found no one.
And he heard nothing.
He searched the hillside as the rain pelted his eyes, but he never found the maiden nor heard her song again.
Dejected, he searched for his cave so he could at least finish his lunch.
But he couldn’t find the entrance. He got so turned around trying to find the singing woman in the storm that he lost his bearings.
When the storm clouds lifted, he gathered his flock and returned to the village. Winter closed in, and the sheep stayed in the village until spring.
The young shepherd again took his flock up the hills the next spring. He marched his sheep past the lower slopes and led them directly up into the high hills.
And there he saw it.
He walked inside and made his way to the back.
He looked down at the rock where he had left his lunch last year.
There was the bread – a gray mass, covered in mold. He looked over at the cheese.
What devilry was this?
The cheese was white! It looked untouched by time.
He picked it up. It was still firm. He broke it in two and saw veins of mold running throughout the curd.
He was so hungry from the climb up. Maybe he should taste it?
He took a bite and his eyes went wide.
Again, Handan and I want to thank Cheeses of Europe for an awesome evening of French cheese and Champagne! It’s not often that we get to brush off the sawdust and trade our screwdrivers for champagne flutes!
Please do check out their website and download the Cheeses of Europe app for iPhone or Android. They have an awesome website and a great free app chock full of information on all the major European cheeses, incredible recipes, videos, and a retail locator for those days you’re driving down the road and you just gotta have some Mimolette!
Hint: Whole Foods has a great selection if you don’t live near a dedicated cheese shop!