Today’s cheese is Le Carré du Père Antoine plus nuns, sex and money

What could possibly go wrong?

This cheese is from a town called Vergaville in the Moselle area of Lorraine, bordering on Germany and Luxembourg.  So they have white wine and decent cheese.

Its name suggests its religious background and it’s made by the Fromagerie de l’Abbaye.  Nuns.  Except there isn’t an abbey in Vergaville anymore.  It was established in 966, pretty much ruined during the 30 Years War, rebuilt in 1745 only to be finally demolished off in the Revolution forty or fifty years later.

There’s a long and venerable history of nuns, and perhaps more commonly monks, being involved in making cheese as well as beer and liqueurs.  The abbeys controlled a great deal of wealth, land and livestock and although they had certain responsibilities toward the sick and poverty stricken the wealth was incredible.

Even now the wealth controlled by the churches is staggering.  The Economist estimated that the U.S. Catholic church spent $171,600,000,000 [yes, $171 billion] in 2010.  That’s a lot of people employed and quite possibly, a lot of good work done.  It is also the biggest landowner in Manhattan.   The Church of England is a financial weakling, controlling a mere £4.4 billion of assets as of 2008.

It was no wonder that medieval Europe saw the rise of many religious and millenarian movements raging against the wealth of the church and how this was in clear contradiction of the Bible and any supposed vows of poverty.

At the times of the great abbeys, convents and monasteries the local peasants couldn’t offer much in the way of donations beyond the tithes that were exacted upon them and so the monks and nuns grew and maintained their own fields and livestock, and from their harvests could produce wines, liqueurs and beers, and from the milk, cheese.

And with these pleasures and the inevitable temptations of the flesh, there was a fair degree of licentiousness within the religious institutions.  Nuns spoke of being visited by supernatural beings bringing sexual satisfaction “Incubi infest cloisters”.  In his entertainingly titled book Coryat’s Crudities written in the early 1600s, Thomas Coryat describes plenty of cases of nuns, and even abbesses becoming pregnant or being involved in scandal.

The hysteria around such incubi led to an investigation in 1565 which discovered that local young men were habitually climbing into the nunnery to carry on affairs with the nuns.  When these visits were stopped the hysteria and visions of the incubi began.  In these cases, the nuns, being women and therefore considered to be completely innocent and incapable of such thoughts themselves were found to be pure and innocent. Whilst any monks and priests that carried on these affairs with nuns and brought about this hysteria were denounced as degenerates and were burned.  One priest who was accused after his death was dug up so that he could be burnt.    There are plenty of other fine stories, especially the sado-masochistic ones, but I feel I am becoming distracted and perhaps mildly hysterical myself.

Where was I?

So this cheese then.

This is a pasteurised cows milk cheese with a washed rind with a white bloom.  In this case, it is washed in an eau de vie made from mirabelle plums.  It’s rind is orange, soft and sticky.  The aroma, like most washed rind cheeses is ripe and pungent but thankfully lacking the ammonia aspect of some cheeses.

The paste is ivory coloured and creamy and will start to run if you keep it out, allowing it to warm [as of course you should or even must].  There are a number of eyes throughout the paste, especially towards the centre but these disappears as the cheese matures and softens.  It is smooth and, like the Pont l’Eveque it resembles, unctious and slightly fruity.  Its smell is not mirrored in its taste but it does have a long taste so save it to the end of the evening.  And for wine, consider either a Gewurztraminer or maybe a Pinot Noir.

And yes, the nuns and sex stuff was really to get attention.

Today’s cheese is Bleu de Montbriac

Today I am ashamed to say that I am betraying the small scale cheesemaker.

There are three levels of authenticity in French cheese.

The first is the farmhouse cheesemaker.  Their cheese is often made on the farm and will be made from cheese from cows that live on the farm.  This is the truest, most honest and authentic cheese.  Here you have a sense of that most important of things in traditional French cuisine, the terroir.

Terroir essentially refers to all of the aspects of the location of production that are inherent in the product such as climate, soil, flora etc.  And a part of this also suggests to me the traditions, history and customs of a place.  And all of these things are found, in one way or another, in a region’s foods, particularly in the cheese. For the French, the place where their food is produced is hugely important.  All of the fruit and vegetable stalls in the markets show where the various items come from, and if they are French, what area of France they come from.  If I wanted to go off one one, here’s where I’d let this blog entry spiral off into psychogeography.  Which is a fine and entertaining topic and style, if not sometimes overly self indulgent.  But if this blog is anything, it’s self indulgent.

The second level is artisanal.  These cheeses are made in a certain place with milk sourced from multiple farms in that area.  As you can see, the sense of place is being diluted.  It is no longer possible to be so specific and the terroir is no longer so apparent.

The third level, and the least satisfactory to the connoisseur, is industrial.  And you can see the disdain for this type of cheese in its name.  Industriel.  How could there be anything authentic here?  This is the world of machines and industrial estates and manufacturing units.

And so today’s cheese is an industriel cheese.  But I did buy it the fromagerie, so I’m not all bad.

This is a bleu, but a lesser blue you will struggle to find.  And it is creamy and sweet.  And wonderful if you have some good bread and some good wine.

It’s a pasteurised [so it’s already losing much of its uniqueness there] cow’s milk cheese made in the Haute Loire, in a town called Beauzac, not far from St Etienne. Yes, that St Etienne.

It’s a relatively small cheese, weighing only about a pound.  The rind is grey from ash and it’s quite edible.  Like many cheeses, you’re just throwing money away if you don’t eat the rind since it’s normally pretty good and will often add to the overall pleasure to be had from the cheese.

The paste is a pale hay yellow with very occasional eyes.  And very occasional hints of blue from penicillium glaucum, the same mould you’ll find in Bleu de Gex .  In the picture, you can just about see some blue around one of the eyes to the left.  And that’s it.  More will come with a little more age but it’s not wildly blue.  It’s not a strong blue and it doesn’t give you a real kick like a Stilton or a Roquefort can.  If you have people coming around who claim not to like blue cheeses, they could quite easily tackle this.

The paste, once you bring the cheese to room temperature, is soft and creamy and will start to run beautifully, perfect for scooping up on some crisp bread and served along side a light fruity red [maybe a Beaujolais] or a fruity white wine [a Vouvray perhaps?].

And apologise and raise a glass to the artisan cheese makers before you take a sip.

Today’s cheese is Tomme Crayeuse

This was the first time I had seen this cheese and so, naturally I had to buy it.

In the world of traditional French cheese making this is a relatively new arrival, having been created in 1997 by the magnificently named Max Schmidhauser in the Savoie region of south eastern France.

There are some cheeses of the traditional type that are still created, either to satisfy the cheesemaker and his artisan ways, to fill a gap in the market or range, or perhaps, simply through serendipity.  Either way, it is rare to see anything approaching novelty cheese in France.  Maybe I’m not looking hard enough but the most offensive thing I’ve seen are those little round balls of goat cheese covered in herbs as an apero.  And that’s not offensive.  Not offensive in the same way as Wensleydale with apricots in. Or Wensleydale with cranberries, or those awful layered cheeses where you find a band of rubbery Double Gloucester and a band of Stilton.  The UK has some magnificent cheeses but they [note the use of “they”] also have some of the most callous marketeers and witless consumers.  The same people who allow pizza with hotdog sausage in the crust. Yes, them.

It’s a traditional tomme shape, about ten or 15 centimetres high and maybe twenty or thirty centimetres in diameter.

A tomme is a generic name for a cheese, often from Savoie, that are usually the same cylindrical shape and size.  And that’s pretty much it.

It is a cows milk cheese and is normally aged for two months.  The crust has a bloom of grey, white and yellow, the crust is maybe a millimetre or two thick and quite edible.  The ivory to white paste is layered, with the layer nearest the crust being soft and starting to run and the centre has a slightly firmer paste, with a couple of eyes, perhaps like a vignotte but not at all chalky like a badly matured Brie.  As an aside, the word “crayeuse” means chalky but maybe this means the colour rather than the consistency.

It has a delicate aroma, and very creamy taste and slightly salty with only a hint of refreshing lemon sourness.  This is case for definitely eating the rind since a piece of this cheese, with the rind, some of the runny bit and the firmer paste, spread on a piece of decent bread is grand.  And of course, if you were going to have some wine then a light red from the Loire Valley or a good, crisp dry white would be splendid.

Romanian Shepherd’s Pie

The good thing about the weather turning cold is that I can cook hearty and warming dishes.  Peasants seem to know more hearty and warming dishes than other more pampered types.  Since I aspire to be a peasant [a comfortably well off peasant, safe from the risk of famine and disease and exploitation if you don’t mind], what better way to start my Autumn and Winter life than with a peasant recipe.

This is a Romanian shepherds’ pie.  And very simple and good it is too.  I’ve lifted it from Elisabeth Luard’s excellent European Peasant Cookery.

Take some trimmed lamb [about 250g per person] and cube it into inch square lumps.  You can do as Elisabeth recommends as render the fat for the cooking [as though a peasant shepher, hunched around the cooking pot] or you could do as I did, someone with a cholesterol problem and a passion for cheese, and use some oil heated over a medium high flame.  Chuck the lamb in and stir well, browning all over.  Then add a lot of sliced onions [a medium onion per person] and stir until well cooked.  Don’t let it catch or brown too much, so turn the heat down if needs be.  Add a load of black pepper and some salt and some chopped herbs.  I used dried mixed herbs on the grounds that us peasants don’t have loads of fresh herbs from the supermarket to hand during the winter.  Now add enough water to cover the meat, cover the pot and leave to simmer for an hour.

Now peel and slice lots of potatoes.  I guess around 250g per person.  After an hour, cover the lamb with the potatoes.  Top up the dish with more water if it looks too dry.

Leave to cook covered for another half an hour.  Just before serving time see how much water is left.  If there’s too much, then take the lid off and let some water evaporate.  The potatoes don’t down on the top much cooking like this so you can either sprinkle them with vodka and light it or stick it under the grill for a little bit.  Or you could just not bother.

Now there’s a challenge.  You need to stir a splash of vinegar into the meat sauce and then stir in some cream in too.  You’ll notice that there’s a load of potatoes in the way.  I lifted the potatoes off and stirred the vinegar and two tablespoons of cream in.

Serve with good seasonal veg, such as sprouts and carrots or eat it out of the cooking pot with a wooden spoon, in the style of a Romanian shepherd out in the mountains.

Coq au Vin

Fashion is a cruel thing.  Whilst some things come in and out of fashion, some things seem to have their time in the limelight and then fade, for ever tarnished and associated with the past.

There are two dishes that had their heyday in the seventies and then faded from view, forever in the background, being gently mocked and being taken as shorthand for all things unfashionable.  One is Black Forest Gateau, the chocolatey, creamy, cherry-y and boozy cake which is good but not great and the other is Coq au Vin.

This is a classic country dish ideal for autumn dinners, often served with buttery pasta ribbons or, better still, mash.

Mmmmmmmmmm, mash.  I’ll leave that thought with you.  Mash.

Anyway, coq au vin.  Ideally, you’re supposed to use a tough cockerel for this dish.  I didn’t because there’s only two of us and a decent cockerel’s a canny size.  I rarely saw one in the UK so you might need to ask a decent butcher.  Or you can just buy a chicken.  Please buy a decent one.  Reason 1: It’s only right to buy well-reared meat.  Reason 2:  Well reared meat tastes so much better than the cheap stuff.  Cheap stuff is cheap for a reason.

Actually, cheap stuff is cheap for lots of reasons and I could write a book about how cheap food is terrible in so many ways.  But I probably won’t.  The road to hell and all that…

Get the bird jointed.  Make sure the skin’s still on.

Peel some little onions, grelots or pearl onions or shallots, whatever you can get.  You’ll need six or seven per person or more as you see fit. Keep them whole.

Get some button mushrooms [about 100g per person] and clean them and keep them whole.

There’s a school of though that suggests reducing the wine and then marinating the chicken, onions, mushrooms and herbs in it overnight.  If you’ve got the time, why not?

Get some decent streaky bacon.  If you can, buy it in a single thick piece [about 50g person] and chop it into slices widthways, about 2mm thick.  That’s pretty precise.  I don’t mean to be so prescriptive.  Do as you see fit.  The recipe books always go on about matchsticks but that’s too thin.  What you want are technically lardons.  If you can, buy pancetta or poitrine fumée, again in a single piece.  As a last resort buy smoked bacon from the supermarket.

Heat a pan over a medium heat and add the lardons and get the fat running.  Add the onions and mushrooms [you can also add some carrots too, chopped about the same size as the onions] and cook until everything has a hint of browning, or gilding if you’re feeling all fancy.  Remove them from the pan and add the chicken pieces.

Brown the chicken too but don’t let it get too crispy or dark brown.  Look for a nice golden hint.  Salt and pepper the meat and add a healthy shot of brandy to the pan to deglaze it, let the alcohol fumes fill the air and then add half a bottle of heavy, rich red wine [for two people, increase or decrease the wine according to how many portions you are making].

In theory, you should use a burgundy but just make sure it’s a hearty warming wine.  A shiraz would do it too.  Either way, make sure the wine’s good enough to drink.  Don’t cook with £2 rubbish.  I know that any wine’s pretty drinkable after the third glass but this wine should be OK for the first glass.  Don’t go mad and put an amazing wine in though.  That’s just mental.

Add a couple of stalks of thyme and a bay leaf, a couple of garlic cloves and four or five peppercorns and top up the pan with some chicken stock.

Simmer this gently in a closed stew pot or stick it the oven at around 160 centigrade.  Let it cook for 40 minutes to an hour, depending on the size of the chicken pieces.  Keep an eye on the chicken and don’t let it all fall off the bones.  You want it good and tender but not so that it cooks into sludge.

When the chicken’s done, fish it out along with the mushrooms, bacon, carrots [if you were using them] and onions and discard the thyme stalks, the bay leaf, garlic and peppercorns [if you can find them] and keep in a warmed dish.  Thicken the sauce by heating it on a fairly high heat on the hob.  If you want to add a nice sheen to the sauce as well as thickening it, use a beurre manie [mix a paste from equal quantities of butter and flour] and stir this into the sauce.

If you are going to use a beurre manie, leave enough time for the flour to cook into the sauce.  Don’t do it immediately before you serve otherwise you can taste the flour in the sauce and that’s not nice.

Once the sauce is the thickness you like, return the chicken, mushrooms etc. back to the pan, warm through and serve. With mash.

Of course, like all stews, this tastes better the next day.

See how oppressive fashion can be.  Don’t let the fashion fascists deny you the wonders of this dish.