And so folks, we have our first ever guest post! And who better to write the inaugural one, than my friend and fellow blogger Nat. Check out Nat’s witty blog Bright Lights, Little City for more musings…
Most people have to be dragged kicking and screaming to see their in-laws. But not me; mine are permanent residents in the south of France, which means that every visit is a thinly-disguised excuse to eat, drink…and then eat and drink some more.
So when I mentioned to Rachel that I’d be spending a good chunk of my summer holiday with them, she saw the potential for both a guest post, and the chance to tick a more obscure local cheese off her list.
My qualifications for the job are, I feel I should point out, basically non-existent. My wife loves cheese. One of her cousins works in a specialist cheese shop. But me?
Despite eating pretty much anything, and thinking about food semi-constantly, I won’t choose cheese if there’s the chance of pudding on offer.
Here in France, you don’t get a choice: considering it to be more of a savoury course than a dessert, as well as a matter of national pride, they wheel the cheese out (sometimes literally) after the main course has been cleared away as a standalone pre-pudding offering.
* * *
I’ve always had a soft spot for the French. Perhaps it’s their lassez-faire outlook on life. Maybe it’s the space they have to roam around in (it’s four times the size of the UK, with the same population). French kissing. French fries. What’s not to love?
Maybe it’s because I love their films. From discovering the nerve-shredding tension of The Wages of Fear and Les Diaboliques in my teens, to the piano-based tension of The Page Turner and The Beat My Heart Skipped, there’s a core of steel to French cinema.
And then there’s Julie Delpy in the Before trilogy, for whom sufficient words to do her justice are not available… But I digress.
There’s also the their food and drink, and the central role they both play in French cultural life, from the daily bread collection to the fêtes which dot every tiny village and commune all summer long. This is a country where there’s as much rabbit on sale at the local supermarket as chicken.
These are passionate people, and food is their passion. Haute cuisine, nouvelle cuisine…all invented here. There’s a pride in their food and in their culinary heritage which the French are justifiably proud of, and which they preserve to this day.
* * *
Given the almost limitless variety of cheeses on offer across France, I needed to narrow my search a little. I’m not a fromageophile, so anything hardcore that smelt like a locker room was out from the start.
My in-laws live in the south west of France, near the Pyrenees and the Spanish border in an area called the Ariége. Amongst many other things, it’s fig country, and every October there’s a Fig Festival, where everything from home-made fig ice cream (delicious) to fig liqueur (also delicious) is available across a weekend of figgy celebrations.
It’s a deeply rural, almost forgotten, corner of the country. The Ariègeoise are mostly farmers or hippies; basically, they’re either growing something or smoking it. They are blessed by living in some of the most stunning scenery in a country positively drowning in the stuff.
The pocket of the region they live in is all organic this and recycled that. Road traffic is a light mix of hay balers, teenagers on mopeds, cyclists, tourists and hitchhikers. It reminded me a lot of south Devon, only without the hideous possibility of bumping into Joss Stone.
So in looking for the perfect specimen to write about, I asked my mother -in-law to recommend some local fromages.
Having lived here for seven years, she really knows her oignons. Better yet, she trained at the Cordon Bleu and remains an amazing cook to this day.
She suggested I head to the weekly market in the next town over the hill and get some Brebis (pronounced “brebby”). It means sheep, and like the cheddar family, the name has come to be a culinary umbrella for a range of varieties.
(I even managed to rustle up some Brebis ice cream from an organic catering truck at a fete one night. I plumped for the rum and raisin and washed it down with a homebrew biere pression. It’s a tough gig, but someone’s gotta do it, right?)
* * *
On arrival at the market, I could only marvel at the sheer Frenchness of it all.
Sausages of unknown origin dangled precariously from makeshift tables. Wobbly vegetables dug up that morning from allotments changed hands for a few coins. Dazed and confused pensioners shuffled around blocking traffic on their way to get their wine boxes refilled. Horse steak at the butchers. Crepes with Nutella and chocolat chaud.
And of course, even in a market this mini, no fewer than three separate cheese stalls.
There was the artisan one, all neat displays and side orders of olives.
There was the woman who had come straight from her farm with a selection of hand-rolled goat cheeses.
And there was the take it or leave it insouciance of a guy from the I-made-this-and-now-I’m-selling-it school of retail, with three ages of Brebis on offer.
M. le fromagier was only too happy to let our group try all three – as did all the other stalls; you could probably rustle up quite a decent free lunch just from all the samples available for degustation across the market, from goats’ cheese to duck sausage to croustades, crispy topped fruit pies.
It’s like single malt whisky – they might be essentially the same product, but the aging process gives each one a completely different character and flavour. The ‘young’ was a few months old and anonymous. The six-month middle entre deux variety was in danger of becoming interesting.
But the ‘viex’ (sic), or old, which had just lit up a celebratory candle on its first birthday cake, was a different beast altogether.
It’s lucky my car doesn’t run on this stuff, because at €25/kg you’re going to be skint in a hurry. But then we were paying for the TLC lavished on it over the past year (cynics suggesting its maker just ‘put it in a dark place and forgot about it’ are way off the mark).
So we brought it home and, after photographing it for posterity, attacked it with vigour.
This is medium hard cheese – like a Comté or a Cantal, you’ll need a decent knife for this one – but it’s very smooth, with a nuttyish flavour. It’s actually a pretty unthreatening cheese in the scheme of things – no whiff of the locker room here.
Between us we ate it on just about every comestible going, from an old school baguette to an air-dried cracker thing from Carrefour which crumbled far too easily. All of them worked, but like Laurel without Hardy, it really needed a partner to bring out the best in it.
Turns out it’s been a good year for cherries, and all of the cherry-based jams and jellies my mother-in-law had made with her plunder made the Brebis truly sing.
We washed it down with a bottle of rosé from a local vineyard. Many countries tax booze so heavily that it’s always a beautiful surprise to find yourself in a country where you struggle to spend more than €4 on a bottle.
Brebis is the perfect cheese for pecking at on lazy afternoons in the sun, whilst you admire the scenery and wonder why you don’t live here permanently.
Our next culinary adventure is frogs’ legs. My daughter (9) has been hankering for them since trying – and loving – snails a few years ago. We have turned the region upside down in our search for this most traditional French delicacy. And where did we eventually find them? In the freezer section of the local supermarket.
Nat High writes Bright Lights, Little City, a blog about life as an
expat in Doha.