Friday, December 10, 2010

I love cheeses

On Tuesday night I was delighted to be invited to an evening of French goats cheese and a ‘ready steady cook-off’ at Divertimenti in Marylebone. Accepted with alacrity, needless to say.

Bizarrely when I arrived the road was closed off to traffic by police cordon due to a suspect car but the shops and footpaths were open to pedestrians. People wandered about vaguely nervous but otherwise unhindered.

Inside all was calm and warmly welcoming. A glass of crèmant accompanied a catch up chat with some bloggers I met at FBC10 and haven’t seen since. When the crowd was thawed and chilled we were welcomed by Marilyne Le Pape, from ANICAP who explained that many small French producers had banded together to take more of their cheese to the world. I am more than happy to help in the promotion of these wonderful artisan cheeses.

The main tutoring of the evening came from Patricia Michelson, owner of La Fromagerie, one of too few fine cheesemongers in London. This woman really knows her (goats) cheese.

Lots of cheeseboards were dotted about laden with generous quantities of cheese. It always appeals to me just how many shapes you get with goats cheese – it’s a delight before you even taste them. We started with a couple of cheeses from the Administrative region Centre which includes the Loire. The first was Crottin de Chavignol, a small flattened ball of crumbly cheese made with the raw milk of mountain goats. It was gorgeously smooth with a rich nutty taste. As it matures it gains a light mould which is when it is perfect grilled atop a salade de chevre. One of my favourite salads – but then what’s not to love about a salad topped with warm goats cheese and crumbled walnuts? It matched well with the Sancerre we were drinking, another product of this bountiful region.

Next up was Sainte-Maure de Touraine. It comes as a log with a wisp of straw running through the centre. Historically there to make it easy to handle and repair, producers nowadays engrave the straw with their name to prove its origins. Removed before cutting, it leaves a tiny hole in the centre of each slice. You could almost thread them back together to make a necklace. The cheese is a delicate white with a fine coat of charcoal ash. Fairly mild and ever so slightly salty it is rich and smooth on the tongue.

Staying in the Loire we sampled Selles sur Cher, one of the first products to be awarded AOC status in 1975. It comes as a pyramid covered in a blue tinged ash contrasting with the ultra white interior. Nicely goaty with a rich nutty flavour and a tang of salt, it’s really quite dense when you bite into it and then it melts gently in your mouth for a sensuous finish.

Then we tried Cabecou du Rocamadour, from the Lot. I’ve been to Rocamadour and it’s a small village, very pretty, that hosts an annual Fête des Fromages which is the largest cheese festival in the south of France. It has something like 10,000 visitors a day and according to 2009 statistics, 2 tons of cheese were sold. Two tons! You have to love a country that has such serious cheese festivals. This cheese comes in small medallions with a delicate natural rind. Soft, rich and creamy it has a slight nuttiness as well.

Next, Valençay, a cheese with back story. Originally this cheese was made in the shape of a perfect pyramid. But, coming back from a calamitous campaign in Egypt, Napoléon stopped in Valençay. He saw the cheese, loathed its reminder of his failure, wielded his sword and chopped the top off. Been that shape ever since. Produced to traditional methods, when firm enough each cheese is covered in salted ash then matured in a ventilated cellar till ready. It’s an incredibly white cheese, moist and firm and distinctly salty. Apart from straight from the cheeseboard, it would make a great topping for a jacket potato.

The penultimate cheese was one I know and love – a Tomme de Cleon au Jurancon from the Pyrenees. It comes as a sizeable round and is a semi hard cheese with a gentle fruity flavour. The rind is washed in Muscadet or Jurancon which gives it a floral sweetness. It’s an incredibly smooth cheese, really lovely to eat and was the hands down favourite on our table. It makes a quite fabulous cheese sauce for lasagne and vegetable pasta bake and would be sensational with a seafood mornay.

The last cheese had sat neatly wrapped in chestnut leaves tied with raffia on the board for the whole evening. It was a Banon and what a delight it was when it was unveiled. Cutting into the golden rind the interior was lush and runny and smelled divine. It is generously salted then matured for a couple of weeks before being washed in eau-de-vie then wrapped in the leaves to ripen. Small amounts of edible blue mould develops under the wrapper further developing the flavour. The end result is a strong cheese, rich and creamy with a really complex flavour. I remarked to Marilyne that I thought it would go better with a red wine and she assured me it is actually best with a luscious sweet wine like Montbazillac or, particularly Jurancon. No doubt she is absolutely right.

After this fabulous feast of cheese it was time for fun and games. While most of the others had a wander round the shop four of us hit the kitchen for a goat cheese cook off using cheese readily available from supermarkets. Rachel and Anne were team captains, Tracey and I their trusty assistants. We had thirty minutes to make two dishes per team using that all time favourite - a bag of random ingredients. We had butternut squash, figs, hazelnuts, beetroot and pork. Anne decided we'd make butternut tartlettes topped with tomme and grilled bacon and bruschetta with figs and melted mini log with a carpaccio of beetroot and a scattering of toasted hazelnuts.

Rachel and Tracey had haddock fillet, sunblushed tomatoes, pinenuts, pears and a Savoy cabbage. Rachel went for smoked haddock topped with grilled (blowtorched) chevre log with tomato base, and most remarkably given the time restrictions, cheese gnocchi in a sage butter mixing a spreadable chevre with a little flour and egg.

It's amazing how half an hour can be so very slow while at the same time pass in a flash. Both teams made it and though Anne presented two beautiful plates of food Rachel just pipped her in the taste test to be the ultimate winner! There are no recipes of course but it shows you really can make a good cheesey dinner any time.

Hope I've tempted you to try a few new things. All of the cheeses are available from La Fromagerie but if Marylebone is not handy to you it is worth searching out other cheesemongers who will always guide you and give you any help you need, as well as a taste if your serious about buying. This time of year most feasts will incorporate a fine selection of cheese but remember cheese is for life not just for Christmas.

A special thanks to Tracey from International Foodie for letting me use her brilliant photographs of the night.


Sarah, Maison Cupcake said...

I wish I'd been able to make it! I love goat's cheese and a cook off sounded such good fun - worse still I missed out on catching up with all those FBC friends. Oh well, hopefully there'll be another occasion soon.

bron said...

It was certainly goat's cheese heaven and lots of fun. Pretty much a perfect night;-) I hope there will be more too!

Tracey@Internationalfoodie said...

Thanks for the mention!! was a great night - I have a weekend of indulging in the spoils from the night planned for this weekend! Txx

bron said...

Tracey I'm sure you'll enjoy it!