Cheese…and a Revolution!

The Storming of the Bastille, by Jean-Pierre Laurent Houël (1735-1813)

Saturday, July 14th 2012 marked the 223rd anniversary of the storming of the Bastille, King Louis XVI’s infamous prison, whose destruction symbolized the beginning of the French Revolution. Although The Cheese Traveler was busy mongering our great local cheese selection at the Delmar Saturday Market, we couldn’t help thinking about this most important of French national holidays. All of our local, New York cheeses are descended from European cheeses, and since October of last year, we have exclusively sold local cheeses at Capital District farmers’ markets. But for our new shop at 540 Delaware, we will expand our line to include small, artisanal cheeses from France and beyond. We have been thinking a lot about the French cheeses we will sell when we open our shop. Eric has been compiling his list of cheeses for his opening orders, while we have been waiting – not so patiently, grrrr! – for materials to arrive so we can continue our renovations.

As is commonly known, cheese is an integral part of French culture. The history of cheese production goes back to Ossau Iraty, which was being made in the Basque country dating back to pre-history. By the time the Romans came to France, cheesemaking had been in development for centuries – some of these ancient practices still continue today – Salers/Cantal, Beaufort, Fourme d’Ambert, Lagoiule, and Roquefort. During the Medieval times, many of the cheeses we know today were being made by monks in the monasteries – Brie de Meux, Epoisse, Comté (along with other less well known cheeses like Marroilles, Blue de Gex, and more).i Patrick Rance, who wrote the most authoritative book on French cheeses, drew his effort to catalog them to a close at over 750 French cheeses, acknowledging that there were more that were undocumented.ii The passage of time has brought additions and subtractions to Mr. Rance’s list.

In remembering Bastille Day and the French Revolution, cheese may have had a part in the political and economic conditions of rapid industrialization and high taxes that led to the revolution. Industrialization brought vast wealth to the monarchy and noble, owning class. Additionally, France was participating in and funding the American Revolution, which caused the monarchy to levy high taxes to pay for the war effort and France’s growing debt. This contributed to the strife leading up to the French Revolution.iii At the time, cheeses were being made in both the monasteries and by landowners in the countryside. However, landowners, who were essentially tenant farmers, were required to pay taxes, while the monasteries were not. Tax could be paid by means of cheese: not only the infamous Reblochon de Savoie, a cheese invented by cheesemakers who would perform a second milking after the tax collector had left to produce cheese for themselves, thus, avoid paying taxes, but also Tete de Moine, which prior to its identity as a classic cheese from Switzerland was made in the Jura region of France by monks at the Bellelay Abbey. Their cheese was originally called Bellelay. The monks of Bellelay Abbey taught the landowners how to make the cheeses but also required them to tithe the church in the form of wheels of cheese.iv It was with controversy that late in the ancien régime a tithe was extended beyond grain crops and vineyards to include the produce of orchards and farm animals. The peasantry was willing to accept the previous tithing but “the triple tithe” on sheep — lambs, wool, and cheese was what broke their back..v Such taxes contributed to class tension between the landowners and the ecclesiastical classes. For testimony of the importance of cheese to the French, one merely has to look to the history of the Revolution to find that the cheeses that were made in the monasteries were spared while the monasteries were destroyed.vi

For French cheeses, Eric is looking to the honed skills of France’s best affineurs or cheese ripeners/maturers. These are masters of their crafts who have completed training and worked for decades often for their small family businesses to develop their skills at selecting cheeses from fermier – or farmhouse – and artisanal – made by hand in small batches in small quantities (it is not artisan merely because producers call it so!) – producers and bringing them to their special aging facilities so that they can mature them to perfection. By working with affineurs in France we will bring small production, perfectly ripened cheeses to Albany. These are both the selection and quality that you only find at select cheese shops and should you travel to France.

Rodolphe le Meunier Tomme de Vendee

We are excited to feature those beautiful, hand selected, carefully aged cheeses by Rodolphe Le Meunier, the winner of the Meilleur Ouvrier de France and International Caseus Award (World Champion Cheese Affineur in 2007). Eric has worked with Rodolphe at the last two Cheesemonger Invitationals. He has carefully cultivated this relationship and is excited to have Rodolphe’s cheese and hand-churned butter in Albany.

Over the last few years, Rodolphe has worked with his goat’s milk cheese producers to make pasteurized versions of classic French, small format, goat’s milk cheeses, typical of the Poitou and Loire Valley. These cheeses come in various formats – discs (Galet de Cher), donuts (Courone de Touraine), crottins, pyramids (Pyramides de Touraine), and logs (Ste Maure de Touraine AOP). These are among the finest goat cheeses available anywhere – gorgeous texture with clean but complex flavors. We can’t wait to share them with you. These are how the Loire valley goat’s milk cheeses should be!

Rodolphe also selects soft-ripened, bloomy rind cheeses from producers in small quantities. These creamy beauties are typically sold by the pallet indiscriminately (Brillat Savarin), but Rodolphe carefully scrutinizes each wheel and selects smaller quantities so that they are higher quality and in better condition to make the voyage to the U.S. Thus, these are the most perfect bloomy rind cheeses from France that you can find not only in Albany but on par with the best of these French cheeses anywhere in the U.S.

Le Meunier’s table at the Cheesemonger Invitational 2012. Look at that gorgeous Puit d’Astier!

While the cheeses mentioned above are French classics, we are also excited about the less well known cheeses that we shall get from Rodolphe. We plan on carrying too many to list here but we’ll describe a few of them. There are beautiful cheeses from Auvergnes, which were admired in the writings of Olivier de Serres in the 1600: “the cheeses from Auvergne are renowned all over France, from coast to coast.”vii Accordingly we shall sell a rare, fermier (or farmhouse) Saint Nectaire with a well formed natural rind (not the rubbery, factory produced ones with the salmon colored washed rind); Fourme au Moelleux, a blue cheese, washed in a sweet white wine; Puit d’Astier, a giant, 16 pound, sheep’s milk cheese that is shaped like a donut. There are other gorgeous cheeses from Vendée – La Jeune Autise, a goat’s milk, washed-rind morbier style cheese; Tome de Fontenay, another aged goat’s milk tome that is coated in herbs both of which Eric enjoyed at their oozing best after they were heated under a raclette machine last month– oh my God!

In addition to Rodolphe Le Meunier, Eric will work with other affineurs – Joseph Paccard, Jean D’Alos, and maître fromager (master of cheese) and affineur Pascal Bellevaire. Joseph Paccard specializes in selecting and maturing delicious traditionally made, raw milk, alpine cheeses from Savoie and Jura – we’ll open the store with Tomme Fermier La Manigodine, made in the tradition of Reblochon de Savioe; Persille de Tignes, a savory raw goat’s milk cheese with a stunning gray, natural rind; and a gorgeous, Tomme de Savoie Fermier. As we grow we will bring in more cheeses from Joseph Paccard. Similarly with D’Alos and Bellevaire the selections will be limited at first. We shall most likely open the store with two beauties from Bellevaire, which Eric became familiar with at Formaggio Kitchen – Vendéen Bichone, a deliciously full flavored, semi-soft cow’s milk cheese from the Vendée region of Brittany; and Trois Lait, a creamy, washed-rind, semi-soft, mixed milk cheese made from goat, sheep, and cow’s milk from the Couserans valley in the Pyrénées. We can’t wait to grow so that we can bring in the exotic goat’s milk blue from the Vendée region of Brittany – Bleu du Bocage.

The Cheese Traveler is committed to this level of production and quality of cheese in order to bring those cheeses that are made in the countryside rather than the factory to Albany. These cheeses are small production and are similar to what you would find should you travel to France. To taste them is to travel to the French countryside; to experience and come to learn the qualities of the locale, the traditions of the cheesemakers and affineurs, and the heritage of the cheeses. It is with similar scrutiny that Eric will select cheeses from other countries to join the fine American farmhouse and artisan cheeses produced regionally and across the U.S. Thus, we have revealed the other meaning of the name – The Cheese Traveler. For while we have loved our trips to France, and would encourage everyone to travel to France and other places, we also know that we can have a little bit of France in the smallest production cheeses and artisan foods. Such traditional artisan foods get closest to the land (the terroir as in good wine production) and cultural traditions of their home countries. And by sharing these taste experiences with our companions here at home in the U.S., we are able to share in their fascinating flavors and rich stories.

Rue Montorgueil, Paris, Festival of 30 June 1878, Claude Monet

i Rance, The French Cheese Book, xvi-xvii.

ii Rance, xix.

iii The Columbia Encyclopedia, 3rd ed. 1963, p. 771.

v Jones, P.M. The Peasantry and the French Revolution. London:  Cambridge University Press,1988, p. 95.

vi Rance, xvii.

vii Rance, xvii.

Welcoming the Third Annual Cheesemonger Invitational

Rodolphe le Meunier goat’s milk tomme from Jura

This Saturday, an epic cheese contest will take place—the Third Annual Cheesemonger Invitational. Fifty-two cheesemongers from around the world will compete for glory and one thousand dollars in honor. The competition will be judged by fifteen preeminent people from all areas of the cheese business and hosted by the big cheese in importing, Adam Moskowitz of Larkin. Coming on the heels of the famed Fancy Food Show, here is a place for the best and most seasoned mongers to compete for bragging rights to be called the best in the business.

This event is more than a grand fete for cheese or “curdocopia,” as Adam calls it. This is a gathering for cheesemongers, a place for those who wield knives, wheels, and cheese paper, to revel in cheese and the craft of mongering and to show off their skill. Should you think that cheesemongers are simple folk, there are a battery of difficult questions and divisions in the contest that evaluate their skill set. It is something of a “Top Chef” for cheese sellers who, in order to monger well, must demonstrate with precision deep and wide knowledge of world cheese types, textures, and tastes through blind tasting and identification, physical acumen which includes cutting precisely to the ounce requested, and artistic sensibility in plating the cheeses with style and grace. With wheels of all different shapes, sizes, and types, both tasting and cutting precisely by sight and sense can be a Herculean task. Some of the contest divisions include:

1)      Does the monger have a breadth of cheese knowledge?

2)      Has he honed his sense of taste?

3)      Can she move people with wit and charm?

4)      Does he have passion for the craft?

5)      How precise in cutting to order?

6)      How fast and neat can the monger wrap and label?

7)      Can she create magic in just one bite? and can she duplicate this sixteen times?

The inaugural Cheesemonger Invitational took place in 2010 as a closed competition where ten of the most renowned cheese shops in the United States competed against one another. Matthew Rubiner, owner of Rubiners’ Cheesemongers and Grocers in Great Barrington, MA, was awarded the esteemed winner.

Last year was my first year attending CMI. The competition was opened and expanded to include an application procedure and additional divisions of the contest. Proven cheesemongers in the business were open to compete in four contests, and forty mongers from around the world answered the call. Though I was not competing, I drove down from Albany on a sunny afternoon in great anticipation, eager to see my former co-workers from Formaggio Kitchen and mongers I met at a workshop in Philadelphia. I arrived in New York City about an hour before the competition started and I met some people with whom I had only been in contact with over the internet and read about in cheese magazines. It was a rockstar event for me, seeing the best in the business gathered for a celebration together to share what we love.

Once I arrived, I checked in past the long lines.  Next to admission table, at the patio, they were grilling raclette and serving it on a graham cracker with a tablet of dark chocolate and a cornichon. The warm raclette melted the chocolate. It was warm, gooey, and cheesy with a good balance of a sweet and meaty cheese with the sour vinegar pickle with earthy chocolate. After a delicious opening bite, I entered into the warehouse mob scene where folks milled about. To the far left of the open warehouse space were the mongers gathered in anticipation before the big event. I ran into Ian Peacock of Di Bruno Brothers and exchanged greetings, remembering my tour a few months back of Di Bruno Brothers’ original store on 9thStreet, a little shop packed to the brim with cheese nearly overflowing the counters and cases and specialty foods filling the walls. Then I saw Tripp, my best buddy at my short-lived stint at Formaggio Kitchen. I grabbed a beer from Six Point Brewery and noticed Rodolphe le Meunier’s table full of mounds of uncut wheels of cheese. Rodolphe is a fantastic cheese affineur (see our blog post A Visit to the City of Cheese). Rodolphe was off in the judging room, so his counter was understaffed with a single, older French gentleman. Sensing a need after a brief conversation with the Frenchman, I jumped behind the counter, broke down the wheels, and cut samples for the crowd. I intimately tasted some of the most delicious hand-selected and aged wheels from France that could be found anywhere in the U.S.

Side view of Rodolphe le Meunier cheese

Side view of Tomme du Jura

The competitors proclaimed their love of cheese in the first contest over a cheering crowd. Rodolphe’s table held a great view of the competition and we watched the forty mongers set with the task of tasting unlabeled cheeses and identifying country of origin, type of milk, and length of age. The event was a little messy, I must say, with the judges judiciously recording each monger’s answer and forty mongers shifting about the stage. But the thrill of the crowd kept the contestants enthusiastically progressing through the round.

With two contests and twenty mongers left, the third round featured a precise cutting of a ¼ pound of cheese from an unlabeled wheel, and to then cut, wrap, and label two cheeses in a minute. The wheels varied in heights and densities, so each contestant had to intuit what was in front of her. The crowd was reeling with the sounds of a DJ mixing in the back, the clock ticking, and the contestants’ actions projected close-up on a large screen. Each time a contestant weighed in his cheese, the weight was shown from a gigantic digital scale, and the audience went wild. But finally, could they label the cheese with legible handwriting in so little time?

Then the last ten contestants moved into the final round. They each had to create the perfect pairing bites for sixteen judges from items they brought with them, including cheese and accompaniments such as chutney, nuts, vegetables, fruits, bread, beer, and wine. The beauty was in each person describing his pairing to the judges. My buddy Tripp of Formaggio Kitchen in Cambridge, I believe would have won this round because food pairing was his specialty; however he had been taken out in one of the former rounds. Brooke who worked at Formaggio Essex in Manhattan, Tripp’s distant “cousin” in the Formaggio family, moved into the final round with Tripp’s pairing – Challerhocker with a cockle and wild fennel pollen and a gherkin. However, another great monger, Steve Jones won with another pairing featuring Challerhocker with caramel-bacon popcorn, and a Belgian-style ale. Everyone fist-pumped and cheered and congratulated each other in the end. At the time the winner was announced, I was “wedged” between the last year’s winner Matthew Rubiner and then winner Steve Jones. What a place to be in!

After the contest we partied into the night, celebrated our enthusiasm for cheese and cheesemongering, and retired to Brooke’s place to get some shut-eye. I am eagerly looking forward to this year’s event held on Saturday, June 23.

My cheesemongering family will still be at market this Saturday, so come down to get your cheeses for the weekend at the Delmar Farmer’s Market, 9-1pm. I’ll be back the following Saturday at Delmar, and this Tuesday, 4-7pm at the Delaware Farmer’s Market in the parking lot of the Delaware Branch of the Albany Public Library at 331 Delaware Avenue, Albany, NY.