Le frometon

There is nothing like a bit of cheese to get you through January — or any day, any time of year. To me, le frometon, as it’s affectionately called, is the perfect comfort food. Along with eggs it is the reason I could live fairly happily as a vegetarian but not as a vegan. Let me give you a tour of a few personal favourites.

Leading a sheltered life outre-Atlantique until my mid-twenties, I was only aware of maybe three types of cheese: cheddar, Swiss and Gouda. I won’t count Philadelphia. Somewhere in the early 1980s our culinary horizons expanded in Canada and I discovered such delicacies as Brie and goat’s cheese.

None of it prepared me for France. The first time I opened the fridge door and was hit by that smell — What or who died? — I knew things were going to be different. Raw-milk cheeses, especially the softer ones like camembert, are like living creatures whose enzymes keep maturing until they reach a level bordering on the putrid. This is when many French cheese lovers consider them ripe.

These days, while cheese is a staple of my diet, I rarely venture into the ‘fromages qui puent’ like camembert. I have nothing against them but it just so happens that my preferred varieties are less inclined to stink up the house.

Comté (the ‘m’ is pronounced like ‘n’) is my go-to hard cheese. Made from unpasteurized cow’s milk in the Franche-Comté province of eastern France, it is ubiquitous in France. I love it for its somewhat rich texture and easygoing flavour — not too strong or too bland. My favourite way to eat it is as a snack, on its own or with an apple. It’s also lovely grated and melted in an omelette.

Saint Agur is my favourite of the blues. Unlike the famous Roquefort, which is a sheep’s milk cheese from the south, it is softer and creamier with a bit of a tang but not the raw force. It is not a traditional cheese but was developed commercially in the Auvergne region to woo the French back to the fading glory of the blues. The move was apparently successful as it is the most-consumed blue cheese in France today.

Le Gruyère Suisse d’Alpage

There are no holes in my favourite Swiss cheese. What we generally think of as Swiss cheese in North America is actually Emmenthal — it’s the one with the holes — and while it originated in Switzerland, it is also made in France. Gruyère Suisse (preferably d’Alpage, meaning from Alpine pastures) is by far the tastier Swiss cheese. Dense and flavourful, my preferred aged variety has little hard crystals that tell you it has reached its nirvana of maturity. Can you see them?

I love goat’s cheese in just about every form. Its tangy taste, its velvety texture. ‘Rocamadour’ is one that I often buy as it’s just the right amount for one serving. A tiny, perfect raw-milk delight.

Okay, I’m going to get some people’s goats now by naming another Swiss cheese. Apologies to my French friends but I live very close to the border and it must be said that the Swiss also know a few things about cheese as well as chocolate.

La tomme Vaudoise is another tiny, perfect wonder of a cheese. It is one of the few whose edible mould of a skin I eat without qualm. It comes from our area, just across the lake on the Swiss side in the Canton of Vaud, and is often flavoured with ‘ail des ours’ (wild garlic leaves), truffles or grilled pine nuts. I enjoy it plain.

So there you have it, the cheeses that most frequently populate my frigo.

Although I do have a confession to make. I could be shot for treason saying this but if I could only have one kind of cheese, it would probably be a good old, sharp cheddar.

Comfort food, right?

What’s your favourite cheese?

La truffe

Their rich yet subtle aroma is earthy and reminiscent of rich chocolate. They are prized for the intense flavour they bring to cooking and the rarity of their supply. They are most often found in certain regions of France and Italy.

Truffles are found growing in the root systems of trees like oak, beech, birch, hazel, pine, and poplar, especially where the soil is light and high in limestone. In France, the Périgord region in the southwestern part of the country is most famous for its prized black truffles or ‘la truffe noire du Périgord.’ The best white ones are said to come from Alba, Italy.

Truffles can be cultivated but are most often found growing wild under trees. Truffle pigs or dogs can be trained to earth them up, but the pigs are more inclined to eat the bounty before the hunters can grab them. I guess because they are, um, pigs?

Oddly enough, some of the best truffle dogs look quite like the prized truffles themselves, don’t you think?

One of the things I love most about truffles is the word play in French. ‘La truffe’ is either a truffle or — you guessed it — the canine sniffer that finds them. In other words, a dog’s nose.

The resemblance is quite remarkable, n’est-ce pas? Although I wouldn’t want to eat a dog’s truffle, especially if it looked like my dog’s (not the one pictured below, which actually doesn’t look bad…). And also as I know where it’s been!

However, as much as the authentic truffle is to be savoured, there is a disturbing trend in restaurants these days to use truffle oil, a fake, chemical flavour that bears little resemblance to the real deal. Personally, as I am highly sensitive to perfumes and other synthetic (chemical) smells, it gives me a headache.

I enjoy the taste of truffles but am not crazy enough about them to go truffle hunting or pay the price for the privilege of slicing off shavings from one of the little nuggets to flavour a nice risotto. I will happily order such a dish if prepared with authentic truffles by a good chef. I recently heard about one such place in Paris, an Italian restaurant: http://www.prestofresco.fr/

How do you feel about truffles? Have you ever been truffle hunting?

Le yaourt

If you think cheese is the biggest staple of the French diet, think again. Here in France, le yaourt (yah-OOrt) is consumed morning, noon and night. Either for breakfast, as a dessert at lunch or dinner, and even as a snack, although probably not more than once or twice a day at most.

The variety of yoghurts on offer was one of the biggest differences I noticed when we moved to France. The category takes up an entire aisle in the grocery store – both sides. Strictly speaking, however, this part of the dairy section offers not just yoghurt but other ‘produits laitiers’ (dairy products) and alternative desserts from soy and lactose-free vegetal sources.

Another difference is that yoghurt in France is almost exclusively sold in individual servings — pots de yaourt — rather than the family-size containers in North America.

yaourt

French yoghurt is traditionally made from cow’s milk. You will also find variations made with goat’s milk (chèvre) and sheep’s milk (brebis). Sheep’s milk yoghurts are most often referred to as Greek-style or ‘à la grecque’ (although not all so-called ‘Greek’ yoghurts are made of sheep’s milk). The best ones are thicker and more sour-tasting (my favourite — yum!). Most varieties of yoghurts also come in non-fat or ‘0%’ versions, accounting for its own section on the dairy aisle.

The French also enjoy ‘fromage blanc’: literally ‘white cheese’ or quark, which is similar to ricotta or cottage cheese but without any visible curd. It belongs to a family of fresh cheeses that are similar to yoghurt such as faisselle and the thicker, richer petit suisse. Fromage blanc is often served for dessert with fruit compote or a simple spoonful of sugar. In restaurants, it sometimes comes in a little puddle of crème fraîche.

In France, yoghurt must adhere to strict regulatory guidelines in order to be labelled as such. It is made of milk that is fermented by two types of bacteria: lactobacillus bulgaricus and streptococcus thermophilus. While they sound less than appealing, those are the little guys that do all the work for our gut by pre-digesting the milk proteins and making them more easily assimilated in the body. (More details in French here: https://www.europe1.fr/societe/le-yaourt-est-il-vraiment-si-bon-pour-la-sante-3625073)

Yoghurt is undeniably a key part of the diet here. French kids don’t drink milk, or at least not much. They get their calcium from yoghurt and cheese. My kids grew up and thrived on a steady diet of yoghurt and petits suisses.

Now my daughter is vegan, and I have recently discovered some tasty dairy alternatives made with almonds (not great for the planet, but alas…). I am not a fan of soy, but I do support dairy alternatives for dietary and moral reasons that each of us must decide for ourselves. Clearly, it is a trendy new category taking up more space in French dairy cases.

As for me, I am a die-hard yoghurt fan. Each morning, I have a plain, probiotic yoghurt for breakfast with fruit and nuts. My evening indulgences often include a Greek-style low-fat yogurt with a bit of fruit or honey. Unless, of course, I go for ice cream. But that’s another story!

How do you like your yoghurt – or not?

Les œufs

On a fine spring morning when people are outside in the garden hunting for Easter eggs, it seems as good a time as any to dedicate a few lines to that most perfect of foods: les œufs.

The challenge with eggs in France is not eating them – we have no shortage of farm-fresh eggs and specialties ranging from omelettes, quiches, mousses, meringues and flans – but to spell and pronounce the words properly.

First we must get past that funny little vowel configuration created by the ‘o’ and the ‘e’. When these two characters get overly familiar and become one as in ‘œ’ this is called a ligature and has its own particular sound, somewhere between the two vowels. A bit like the ‘ou’ sound in enough. But it changes slightly depending on what comes after.

Un œuf (uhf) in the singular becomes des œufs (euh) in the plural. Put like that, it seems easy enough. But for some reason I’ve always struggled with these words.

For one thing, in French they have a weird similarity to eyes. Un œil (oy) and des yeux (yeuh). Am I imagining this?

Les oeufs dur

Eggs in France are almost always brown in the shell rather than the sterile white I grew up with in North America. They sometimes bear scraps of dirt and feather on the shell, reminding us of their origins. They are date-stamped with either the ‘date de ponte’ (date they were laid) or the ‘date limite de consommation recommandée’ (DCR or use-by date).

I recently learned of an easy trick you can use to tell if an egg is still fresh.

Here are a few of the ways you will find eggs on the menu in France:

  • Œufs au plat: fried eggs, usually served sunny side up
  • Œufs durs: hard-boiled eggs
  • Œufs à la coque: soft-boiled eggs
  • Œufs brouillés: scrambled eggs
  • Œufs pochés: poached eggs (my personal favourite)

And of course, les œufs de Pâques. Easter eggs. Preferably au chocolat. Hope you are enjoying the kind you like best on this holiday Sunday.

And, in case you’re wondering, this year the Easter bunny will not be on the menu.

Joyeuses Pâques!

Se vendre comme des petits pains

I was intrigued by the line-up circling around the block to buy these mouth-watering creations on a recent trip to Lyon. They were selling like hot cakes or, in the French idiom, ‘ils se vendaient comme des petits pains’.

This is not such a common sight in France where traditional pâtissierie shops are on every corner and the French are less inclined to line up for the latest trend.

Closer inspection revealed that these marvellous confections of brioche, meringue, chocolate and cream were a whole ‘thing’ that had completely escaped me up to now. ‘Aux merveilleux de Fred’ is a chain of patisserie shops specializing in these little marvels of cake-making genius. I felt my resolve weakening as I drooled over the flavour variations including cherry, caramel, coffee, almond and hazelnut.

It seems that Fred got the idea from a cake called the Merveilleux that originates in Belgium. As with so many ideas, it is often a question of who markets it best. Like Ladurée with the ever-popular macarons.

I’ve been curtailing the carbs lately (alas…) and trying to reduce my sugar consumption (especially given the amount that goes to the liquid variety via the hop and the grape). So, I sucked in my gut and contented myself with pictures only.

But I’m thinking that next time I’m in town, I’ll have to give them a sample.

What say you? Have you tried one?