Back and forth, hither and yon – whether on my habitual trajectory between Touraine and Paris or further afield… destinations, encounters, events and observations I can’t resist sharing.

Edible fragrance: eau de huile d’olive

June 12, 2012
Estoublon olive oil

Competition in the haut olive oil category is on a par with fine wine.

Top of the line French oil is from Provence*, and one savvy producer – Chateau d’Estaublon – is carving a niche straddling the fragrance  and food categories.   The minimalist spray flacon and carton are inspired by  Chanel perfume, and the description “hints of fresh cut grass with a slightly fervent finish”  made me want to spritz it on my neck.

They suggest spraying it on vegetables, salad or fresh pasta.  The flavor is light and quite delicious.

I received mine as a hostess gift from a chic Parisian woman.  It is so quintessentially French that it may become my go-to-gift to bring over when visiting friends in the States.

For the moment is is distributed in the US by World Harvest Foods of Missouri, but their mark up is surprisingly steep.  Must have something to do with weight of the thick glass.  Best to hold off until your next visit.

*The official appellation is AOP les Baux-de-Provence.

Best cheese plate assortment – Rodolphe Le Meunier

May 17, 2011

I asked Rodolphe to suggest four varieties to create a cheese plate for a dinner party. French cheese is classed into five main families, so I was limiting him somewhat. He might have preferred I said five, so he could pick one from each family.

Rodolphe begins by saying “At that time,” meaning “at this time of year (i.e. spring),” and goes on to propose several options for each of the first three selections.

Suggestions by family :

Chèvre/Goat – Couronne de Touraine or Pouligny.

Croûte Fleurie/Soft Ripened – Saint-Félicien, Saint-Marcelin or Brie de Meaux.

Pâte Pressée cuite ou non cuite/Cooked or Uncooked Pressed – Comté (cooked), Salers (uncooked), or Saint-Nectaire (uncooked).

Bleu/Blue or Croûte Lavée/Washed – For the fourth recommendation, he suggests including either a blue such as the Roquefort he has on the plate in front of him, or a washed (pronounced wa-shed in the film).  Munster, Livarot, Maroilles and Epoisses are from the washed (croûte lavée) cheese family.  They tend to be golden or orange in color and have a pungent aroma, although the taste is not as strong as the aroma suggests.

His specific recommendations for another time of the year would be different but he would still select one cheese from each family.

Rodolphe Le Meunier, Touraine’s Champion des Fromages

May 12, 2011
Fromage de Chèvre

Along with wine making, the French cheese industry is undergoing a back to basics renaissance, marked by renewed appreciation for authentic flavor and organic process. As with natural wine production, which respects the idiosyncrasies and inconsistency of terroir, a new generation of cheese producers, refiners and sellers are putting science back in service of nature.

Rodolphe Le Meunier epitomizes the new vanguard.  At 35, he doesn’t have much left to learn about cheese.  Since 2007, he’s collected an impressive set of awards, including Meilleur Ouvrier de France, which is the gastronomic Pulitzer for food artisans, and the International Caseus Award – the Olympic gold of the cheese world.

He and his sister Caroline are the third generation to run Les Fromages du Moulin in La Croix en Touraine, between Tours and Amboise.  Instead of making goat cheese and selling it at local markets as their grandmother did, Rodolphe uses his expertise to identify the best French and European cheese, which he then ages in cold storage until it’s ready to be sold.  To guarantee that every cheese arrives at its destination in perfect condition, Rodolphe added a distribution and export business – From’europe – located in the Rungis wholesale market outside Paris.

Le Meunier has a profound appreciation for how well nature gets the job done if the conditions it requires are respected.  The title affineur (refiner or cheese ager) gives a false impression of his role, since cheese matures with or without human intervention.  His job is to create the optimum environment by controlling temperature, humidity level and air circulation, all the while carefully surveying how things are progressing.   “It’s the same with wine.  Storing it in an insulated wine cellar will produce better results than allowing it to age in a warehouse where temperature and light isn’t controlled.  Either way, the wine in the bottle continues to evolve, but one will taste much better than the other.”

Like French celebrity chefs and winemakers, Le Meunier is leveraging his reputation to diversify his business and expand reach.  Increasingly, the cheese and butter he exports to New York and Japan are marketed under the Rodolphe Le Meunier brand.  The classic package design features a label with his signature, three gold fleur de lis and the distinctive MOF medal.  Among his American clients is Wegmans, an 80-store mid Atlantic food market, ranked by the Food Network and Consumer Reports as America’s best grocery chain.

Le Meunier cheeses are produced in partnership with select cheese makers he’s identified as best in their class.  Few producers he’s approached have turned him down.  His partners are pleased to be singled out by a discerning judge in a field crowded with competitors.  Le Meunier functions as product development and marketing consultant as well as distributor.  His association permits independent producers to introduce their cheese to markets they otherwise wouldn’t have the opportunity or inclination to reach.  “There are so many wonderful French cheeses that aren’t consumed outside of France.  Certain goat, sheep and soft ripened cheese are tricky to export because they need to stay moist yet breathe in transport.  The solution is airfreight but even then you can’t risk delivery taking more than three days.”  He also sells to French supermarkets, but circumvents the distribution chain, which can be fatal for fragile cheese, by delivering direct to stores.

If you’re a cheese lover like I am, it’s an infinitely fascinating subject and I arrived at our meeting with tons of questions and a fair number of, as it turns out, wrong assumptions.  The first myth dispelled is that buying cheese with the AOC label (Appellation d’Origine Controllé) or AOP as its EU name has become (Appellation d’Origine protégée) is an assurance of quality.   “AOP tells you a cheese is made in a certain location using a particular method, but guarantees nothing in terms of quality.  It’s the quality of milk used and who is makes the cheese that determines whether it’s good. Again, like wine, there are great cheeses without an AOP label, and inferior cheese with one.”

Mold is a good sign on ripening cheese. “Fuzz is natural.  If it doesn’t grow on the skin of cheese, it’s pasteurized.  On a soft ripened cheese like Saint Marcellin, it’s so fine you don’t see it but it’s there.”   You might not like the taste, but it’s perfectly ok to eat – it’s a question of preference.  “Some people don’t like the rind on Brie, but if the cheese is a good one, it’s delicious.”

Not every cheese needs to breathe while aging.  Some washed rinds like Maroilles or Epoisses, are aged wrapped in plastic, to make them creamier.  Even so, the cold storage room for this cheese family had a particularly pungent odor.  The aroma of the goat cheese room was also memorable, but the cold chamber lined in Austrian terra cotta bricks where his pressed cheese age, was pleasant.

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Marrakesh II

February 5, 2011
Medina Gate Bab Agnaou,

It didn’t take long for my eerie premonition of Magreban Revolution to play out in Tunisia and now Egypt.  Morocco could well be next.  I was riveted by the surge of protests which erupted in Tunisia the week of our return.  They gained astonishing momentum, prompting the clandestine flight of Ben Ali, the autocratic, unelected president, in what Tunisians are calling their ”Jasmine Revolution”.  Ben Ali, who ousted Tunisia’s popular post-colonial president in 1987, had been preparing a gilded retirement in France, where he owns sumptuous properties in Paris, the Cote d’Azur and Courchevel.  He was refused the right to land here and members of his immediate family, already in France, were told to leave.  So much for that pipe dream.

The mood in France is supportive of the Tunisian people’s emancipation. The Sarkozy government took heat for protracted silence throughout the protests, then proposing support to help quell violence.  Most took that as a sign of support for Ben Ali rather than a strategy to avert violence used against protesters. The police fired on crowds and there were scores of deaths.  Hard for the French administration to stage a graceful about-face after positioning Ali as a close friend, putting up with his despotic, corrupt rule, because he squashed Islamic opposition parties and claimed the healthiest economic growth record in Africa.  Ali was hardly a comic book villain like Saddam Hussein, but has plenty in common with Permanent President Mubarak in Egypt where freedom of speech and true political opposition are also forbidden – as we can no longer ignore.

Morocco’s Royal Highness, despite his seeming popularity, has reason to be nervous.  The domino effect could take off as it did in formerly communist Eastern Europe.  The fact that Mohammed VI’s portrait is ubiquitous in commercial establishments throughout Morocco can be interpreted as a gesture of fear rather than fealty.

Geopolitics aside, I did promise to share visit recommendations to the Rose city. The reaction of French friends to our Marrakech holiday was a chorus of,  “It’s nothing like it was… isn’t the real Morocco… Morocco à la Française.”  But hey, french tourists flock to New York and Miami – which are hardly representative of America’s heartland.  Key to Marrakech’s appeal is the alluring cocktail of cosmopolitan sophistication, exoticism and a whiff of decadence – out of your cultural comfort zone without being overly disorienting or dangerous.

If you read French (and even if you can’t), pick up a free copy of the monthly official Marrakech Pocket Guide, distributed in hotels and restaurants.  It has a calendar of events, most of the addresses you’ll need grouped by category, plus ads for many good restaurants, cafes and shops.

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Turning a duck’s liver…

December 10, 2010
Maison Perrin

…into a silken slice of ambrosia.

‘Tis the season of gourmet delicacies – truffles, oysters and foie gras – perennial stars of les fêtes de fin d’année. The seductive/repellant duality of these acquired tastes is undeniable.  There’s an unsettling aspect either to their appearance, texture or how they are produced, which heightens the guilty pleasure of consumption; earthy truffles detected by a pig’s snout, fresh oysters ingested essentially alive, and the incomparably subtle flavor of a force-fed duck’s swollen liver.

Working on French Country Hideaways, which features several properties that produce foie gras and truffles, I stopped short of hands-on involvement.  So when friends proposed an atelier foie gras offered by Maison Perrin, a small Touraine producer, I was all in.  I always found purchasing foie gras a challenge with so many variations and pricing inconsistencies. Numerous French friends prepare it at home, but I envisioned a complicated ritual.

Maison Perrin is a farm in La Celle Guenand, near Le Grand Pressigny, owned by Valérie and Philippe Charcellay.  Its remote location conjured images of a convivial country kitchen with our intimate group gathered round a worn trestle table scattered with earthenware terrines, warmed by the glow of an open hearth.  The destination conformed to expectation, as did a modest shop with hand woven baskets suspended from the ceiling, shelves stocked with conserved duck dishes from cassoulet to rillettes and a cold case stacked with vacuum-packed magrets, lobes of foie and jars of foie gras mi-cuit.  Maison Perrin

It was startling to discover that the idyllic kitchen was actually a chilly white tile and stainless steel laboratoire, where to match EU standards, the ambiance exuded the charm of a hospital canteen annexed to a morgue.  Comfort was not to be part of our experience.  The temperature had to be 50 degrees Fahrenheit.  I regretted forgoing the long underwear and fur-lined boots I’d considered because of snowy weather.  Gloves weren’t an option, but mercifully we got to warm our hands intermittently under a steamy tap.

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