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Monday, July 10, 2006

The Fancy Food Show - Part One

It's hot outside, the moon is full and bright yellow, and July 4th is over.

Other than the full-moon part, that means only one thing:

It's time for the NASFT Fancy Food Show at the Javits Center!

This is my 3rd time going. The first time was in 2001, when I was working for a specialty food distributor in Vermont. I was completely overwhelmed, but in a good way.

The second time was in 2004, when I went with my Dad and Step-Mom. Yes, this is our type of family outing.

Last year I didn't go.

But this year, for the obvious reasons (new freelance career, decision that THIS is my life's work), I decided to go.

It was still overwhelming, but fun. A lot of it was frustrating and superfluous. Call me bitchy, but does the world really need more spice rubs for meat, or marinades for meat? Why not just better-quality meat, then we don't have to dump a bunch of crap all over it. And I am disillusioned with so much second-rate, processed food hiding under the umbrella of "gourmet." What the hell does "gourmet" mean, anyway? It's a meaningless term at this point, and I have all but excised it from my vocabulary.

One more rant about cheese, and then I'll get to the fun parts. Haven't we had enough Manchego?! As I walked through the Spanish aisles, eagerly anticipating discovering some cool Spanish cheeses I had yet to try, or at least chatting with folks who bring in such favorites as Ibores, Torta del Casar, Monte Enebro, Roncal, Campo del Montalban, etc., the only thing I found was Manchego. Manchego. Manchego. Manchego in wheels with brown wax, Manchego in wheels with yellow wax, Manchego cut up into triangles and shrink-wrapped onto little trays. Is there really such a demand for Manchego that every Spanish cheese importer feels the need to sell only that cheese?! Feh!

Okay. I'm better now. Thank you.

So here was one particularly fun highlight of the day:
I was wandering through the French aisles, and I happened upon the MS Export booth. I was looking into their case, thinking to myself, "Where's Felix? When will one of these aproned guys stop talking to people so I can ask them where Felix is?" I'm deep in this though when someone YELLS my name from behind me and scares the pants off me (oh wait, I don't wear pants). It's Felix!

When I get frightened, I sometimes laugh, so I laughed for a long time. Then we had a cheese tasting, just Felix and I.

Oh, but who is Felix? He is one of the sales reps for MS Export, and he's a very cool guy. He recently moved from France to NYC, and I know him because at my most recent f/t cheese job, he would bring cheeses to my manager to try to get her to carry them. She would invite me in on the tasting. Even though I had no official authority over what the place sold, my manager came to value my opinion (thanks, Olga!) and I think in some indirect way, I had a pretty big influence on her decisions. That makes me happy. So, once Felix understood how much of a cheese snob I am, he started bringing in cheeses he knew I'd like, with the hope that I'd give Olga a favorable review of them.

He and I really hit it off. He's probably about my age, and we both love cheese. 'Nuff said.

So, we were happy to see each other at the show. Felix knew I was no longer employed by the last place, but he still made me sit down for a private cheese tasting. There really was no business benefit to that; I'm in charge of purchasing for exactly nowhere. So his generosity and hospitality are even more thoughtful.

Here's what we ate:
Coeur Gourmand with Fig: This is one in a line of fresh goat chevres with a jam-filled center. Along with fig, there's also apricot, chestnut, and a few others I can't think of at the moment. These are made in Perigord, France, where most folks have fig and chesnut trees in their backyards. This is also the part of France where one can find truffles.

Coeur Gourmand are hand-made: a layer of curds are hand-ladled into the molds, then a spoonful of jam is placed in the center, then more curds are hand-spooned around the jam and on top of the jam, forming a nice little puck, probably about 4-6 oz. There is no rind, and the cheese is bright-white. It has a very clean taste; it's mild, sweet, and lightly buttery. No goatiness, but there's a hint of grassiness at the finish that says, "this is made from goat's milk."

I remarked to Felix that this would make a delightful breakfast cheese, and he literally jumped up off of his chair he was so happy to hear me say that. He explained that all during the show, when he'd sample this cheese to people, telling them of its suitability as a breakfast cheese, they wouldn't believe him and get a sort of disgusted look on their faces. What is wrong with these people?! This is why I have enjoyed talking with most French people I've met: we seem to understand each other when it comes to food. My Great-Great-(Maternal) Grandmother was French; perhaps this explains it. My Great-Great-(Maternal) Grandfather was Spanish. Perhaps this explains why I'm so pissed about Manchego. And I'm more German than anything, which explains everything else.

Next we tried Fromagerie Soreda's Gourmandise Soreda, which has absolutely nothing with "Gourmandise," the processed, cherry-flavored cheese from France (no, I'm not making that up). These are delightful fresh chevres from another Perigord chevre producer. Most fresh French chevre comes from the Loire Valley, as that's where the Saracens left their goats about eleven-hundred years ago. However, Perigord has some nice goat cheeses. These little chevres are molded into tiny balls and leaves. No rind, very fresh.

We tried one sprinkled with tarragon, which in French is "estragon." My goodness, it's as if tarragon and fresh chevre were made for one another. Last night I was reading an essay in Jeffrey Steingarten's second book, "It Must've Been Something I Ate," about why and how MSG works, and he said that there are many foods in the world that are like natural forms of MSG; they perform some sort of synergy, and enhance the savory qualities of other foods. Some seaweed falls into that category, as do sun-dried tomatoes and Parmigiano cheese. I say tarragon and chevre have that sort of relationship, as the tarragon magnifies all that's good about a very fresh chevre.

Next we tried one dusted with curry powder, which is another excellent companion for fresh chevre. It has the same effect, but not as synergistic (but pretty damn close); and whereas the curry powder provided a warming synergy, the tarragon gave it a cooling effect. This was a really fun discovery, and it still makes me happy to put something in action that I read only last night.

Next, Felix cut into a big, 500 gram wheel of St. Patrick. No, it's not Irish, and as far as I know, it does nothing to rid a land of snakes. It's a triple-creme from Bourgogne. Whereas most triple-cremes are covered with a bloomy rind, this one is fresh and naked. (Sounds like some of my old boyfriends. Oops!) This would make another delightful breakfast cheese, especially for those who believe the day should begin with protein and fat. It's creamy but not goopy, and rich but not heavy. I tasted a sort of minerally thing in the beginning, and that was followed by a lactic astringency, and the second-to-last flavor was faint horseradish, finishing with a balanced, salty tang and the slightest hint of mushroom. Nice.

Felix also broke out the Ossau-Iraty (AOC), this one is called Fromi. It's raw milk (Felix said he knew better than to bring out an aged, pasteurized cheese for me - aw, shucks!), and as is appropriate to its appellation, is from the Basque country. The Ossau-Iraty cheeses are one of my favorite cheese types: regardless of their age, so many of them have such a beautiful balance, delightful complexity, and a combination of flavors that creates a whole new flavor that I can't give a name to. Fromi was no exception.

Next up was Tomme du Fedou, another raw sheep cheese. In a perfect display of the difference terroir makes, this one was vastly different from Fromi. Fedou is from Causse Mejean, located between Roquefort and Auvergne. It's on a high plateau, and the terrain is better suited for shepherding than cattle-farming. Perhaps because it comes from a high elevation, I thought this cheese was almost like a grassier Alpine cow's milk cheese - it had very similar organoleptic qualities. Pretty amazing, considering it's sheep.

Felix told me the story of Tomme du Fedou: nine "back-to-the-land" sheep dairy farmers had been selling their sheep's milk to a dairy, where it was blended with inferior milk. These folks knew how special their sheep's milk was, so they decided to keep it and begin making cheese. Good choice, I'd say.

Next up was Langres, a classic French washed-rind from Champagne, covered in an orange, bloomy rind. Unlike most washed-rind cheeses, Langres is never turned during affinage, so the bottom stays moist and heavy. It's quite creamy and thick, not runny like many washed-rind cheeses. It's not mild, but its pungency is gentle enough that folks just starting out on washed-rind cheeses will find it easy to love. Langres is identifiable by the divot in the top, with a shape and size appropriate for holding a golf ball. That's not recommended; rather, custom dictates slicing an "x" into the concave divot, pouring a bit of Champagne into the cheese, and baking it for a few minutes. Goodness, I can only imagine.

The last cheese Felix presented was Gres de Vosges, a really fruity, beefy washed-rind from Bourgogne. It's made by a small producer who also makes Munster cheese and Gewurtztraminer wine. This one is oblong, and is covered with a sprig of fern, making a beautiful presentation. It's stronger than Langres, with a higher moisture content, making it run easier.

So in addition to all that other cool stuff, I learned something really awesome from Felix. Many of you are familiar with Tete de Moine, and the tool used to cut it into "flowers," the Girolle. Well, Felix told me that in French supermarkets, one can order Tete de Moine by the piece, or by the flower. Yes, they will make cheese flowers for you. But it gets better: Girolle is a name for a flowery-looking mushroom, just like the way the cheese looks when it's cut with the Girolle.

Next time I'll tell you how I met Ihsan from Formaggio Kitchen and Max McCalman - two cheese superheroes in one day!

Yours in Cheese,
-Wendy M. Levy


alex s. said...

I was pretty excited to read about your tasting of Langres--thinking to myself, this sounds like a cheese for me! I do a little background check (a la Jenkins) and I find out it's illegal! What?! Was it real Langres? Felix must be a pretty nice guy to be smuggling cheese for ya.

Wendy M. Levy said...

Hey Alex,
I was pretty excited to eat the Langres, but alas, it was pasteurized. I bet you did a background check by checking Steve Jenkins's Cheese Primer book. Awesome book, my Cheese Bible (along with Max McCalman's first book); but, it's a little outdated. Many cheeses he says are not available are now available in the USA, and many cheeses he says are only available in the raw version are now being made with pasteurized milk for export to the USA. So, no, Felix smuggled no cheese for lil' ol' me. But if he had, as long as he didn't sell it, he wouldn't have been breaking the law.
Thanks again for writing,

Jerome said...

Langres doesn't traditionally call for champagne to be poured in, as I understand it, but rather marc de champagne - a rough grappa-like drink. Failing marc de c, you can use marc de bourgogne, or italian grappa.
It stands up to it, and makes the grappa or the marc taste incredibly smooth.

Wendy M. Levy said...

Jerome! I got this info straight from a French guy. Do you dare contradict the French on cheese-related matters?! haha, kidding. You could be right - your theory sounds plausible, as those drinks would mix nicely with Langres. However, I have heard that Champagne is the Langres pour of choice on more than one occasion, from more than one cheese expert. So, the battle continues!
Thanks for writing, and don't be afraid to write again, in spite of my roaring. roar!
Yours in cheese,