Lunch with Yamashita: Paris’ celebrity vegetable gardener

5 Jan
Degustation menu at Yamashita

The degustation menu: Clockwise from top left: Chicken hearts and liver in miso; Bonito Dashi with Kometsuna Japanese greens; Wasabi leaf, kabu and avocado, cherry tomato salad; Black carrot, Hokkaido Pumpkin and chicken dumplings in dashi broth; Steamed edamame and sweet corn; Fried Chicken and Okara tofu with Japanese leeks; Pickled cucumber, wakame and miso salad; Udon with fried carrot leaves and shrimp; Apricot Mochi with green tea

Asafumi Yamashita in his greenhouse

Asafumi Yamashita in his greenhouse

Asafumi Yamashita is not your average French vegetable grower. Firstly, he’s not French – he’s Japanese; and his clients are not your average grocers, retailers or restaurateurs. Yamashita can count his current clients on less than two hands – three-starred hands, in fact. Yamashita is the select vegetable supplier to top chefs such as Pierre Gagnaire, Sebastien Bras, Sylvain Sendra, Pascal Bardot (l’Astrance), Eric Briffard (George V) and Anne Sophie Pic (Maison Pic), but don’t quote me on the currency of which of these are on the list at this moment. What’s even more interesting, however, is Yamashita’s personal story behind how this came to be.

A regular day at the Yamashita family household

A regular day at the Yamashita family household – a Japanese haven on the outskirts of Paris

I first met Yamashita when I was on the panel at Haute Cuisine Paris. Yamashita gave a demonstration and tasting of his exotic Japanese vegetables along with chef Sylvain Sendra from Restaurant Itinéraires. It was that day when I first tasted the sweetest, juiciest raw corn that had ever passed my lips, and the intriguing texture and flavour of his trademark vegetable, the Kabu – something I describe as in-between a daikon, zucchini and a green apple. More importantly, chatting with Yamashita that day was when I discovered his personal story.

Yamashita first came to Paris 24 years ago. At the time he was a bonsai artist and made a modest living from selling his bonsai trees. One fateful day, all but one or two of his Bonsai trees were stolen from his property. Left without his valuable assets for the bonsai business, he turned to his other hobby, for which he had natural gift – growing vegetables. With all but a green thumb, a few packets of dried seeds brought from Japan, and a handful of existing plants, he slowly built up his vegetable garden and started supplying local Japanese restaurants in Paris and surrounds with hard-to-find Japanese varieties. Eventually, his niche supply of top quality, seasonal Japanese fruits and vegetables caught the attention of the country’s best chefs, and now, 17 years later Yamashita has gained somewhat celebrity vegetable grower status amongst the ranks of France’s greatest chefs.

Salad bowl at Yamashita's

Salad – as fresh as it gets. Wasabi leaves, kabu, avocado, red and yellow cherry tomato

So it was with great curiosity and anticipation when I finally went for “La table d’hôte de Naomi et Asafumi Yamashita” experience at his farm in Chapet after scoring the last reservation of the season thanks to a last minute cancellation (the waiting list can be up to 2 months in advance).

Yamashita and his wife offer a traditional Japanese degustation lunch or dinner nine months of the year on their homestead property in Chapet, 40 kms West of Paris. The food served is sourced almost exclusively from their own farm, so it’s as authentic, fresh and local as you can get. Yamashita’s farm is not certified organic, nor does he think all that highly of the concept. He makes all efforts to avoid pesticides and chemicals but is very upfront about the challenges and realities of growing quality small-scale produce to meet his client’s demands on consistent supply and quality.

Yamashita is a modest, simple, yet switched-on, charismatic and passionate character. He personally served the ten guests at our lunch table each course, explaining in detail the produce and ingredients used. Luckily for me, I had brought along my friend Phoebe, who just happened to live in Japan for 12 years, so with her fluent Japanese we got even more out of the experience, including a translation from Japanese to English of one of Yamashita’s recipes (below).

La table chez Yamashita

The other guests at Yamashita’s table

Surprisingly, most of the other guests at our table had never before eaten food of this kind – real, home-style Japanese cooking, I mean. In reality, I shouldn’t be surprised about this. The majority of Japanese restaurants in Paris are actually under Chinese ownership, and they offer the standard sushi, sashimi teriyaki menu you see everywhere. Of course there is authentic Japanese to be found in Paris, but it’s rather hard to come by. The French sure do French cuisine well, but I have to admit, they have a long way to go on offerings of ethnic and Asian cuisine. So when a table of self-confessed French foodies– most of them from Paris and surrounds admitted to never eating wakame, dashi or tofu before, we can understand why.

Japanese Hokkaido Pumkin and Chicken Dumplings in Bonito Broth - chez Yamashita

2 soups

The food is not fancy, it is super fresh, modest and designed to make the produce itself the star – presented and served simply with a thoughtful progression of flavour and complexity throughout the courses. I personally was totally stuffed by the fifth course, and had not even eaten managed to get through those in entirety. The chicken liver and heart dish we started with was not something I could stomach, and by the time the udon arrived, I was ready to lie down and sleep in the greenhouse next to the kabu. Everyone else at our table had no problems polishing off the entire 10 courses however… I’m forever impressed by how much French people can eat.

Yamashita's Farm

Bresse Chickens raised on Yamashita's farmBresse Chickens raised on Yamashita's farm

Bresse Chickens raised on Yamashita’s farm

Sweet corn, tomato and black chillies from Yamashita's farm

Sweet corn, tomato and black chillies from Yamashita’s farm

Japanese vegetables at Yamashita's farm

The famed vegetable: Kabu – a Japanese turnip, growing at Yamashita's farm

The famed vegetable: Kabu – a Japanese turnip, growing at Yamashita’s farm

Gooseberry from Yamashita's Farm

Phoebe holds up a freshly picked Gooseberry

Edamame beans growing at Yamashita's farm

Edamame beans

Seedlings growing at Yamashita's farm

Gumboots at Yamashita's Farm

Phoebe and Asafumi

Phoebe and Asafumi

Rachel and Asafumi Yamashita at his farm outside of Paris

Wow… wasn’t expecting that one! Yamashita’s all affection. Must be something about those wasabi leaves…

My favourite dish was actually the simplest – a gorgeous, small side dish of cucumber wakame miso pickles. Thank you to Yamashita and his wife Naomi for generously sharing the recipe below.

How to have the Yamashita communal dining experience:

You can visit “le Kolo” communal table for lunch or dinner on weekends only, outside of the winter months.  The price per head is 40 Euros for lunch, 50 Euros for dinner, plus wine.

Come prepared with a big appetite, an open mind, expandable pants, and preferably in a car. For the more adventurous types, Yamashita offers the chance to try raw sashimi chicken at your meal… but you have to “pre-order” it two weeks in advance. Enough said.

Address: Chemin des Trois Poiriers, 78130 Chapet (Yvelines) FRANCE

Phone for bookings: +33 1 30 91 98 75

Nearest transport: By train: Gare des Clairières de Verneuil (from Gare Saint-Lazare, take 31 minute train MALA in the direction of GARE DE MANTES LA JOLIE, €6) then walk 15 minutes through the Bois de Verneuil to reach the farm.

Recipe: Yamashita’s Pickled Miso Cucumbers

Yamashita's Miso Pickled cucumber and wasabi salad

Ingredients:

1 egg yolk
2 tbsp  dried wakame
4 tbsp mild white miso
2 tbsp rice vinegar
1 tbsp sugar
1 tsp Japanese mustard
6 baby cucumbers
Coarse Sea salt

Directions:

Rehydrate dried wakame in a bowl of warm water and drain well.

Shave cucumbers with skin on, into long thin strips, preferably using a mandolin. Sprinkle sea salt generously over the cucumbers and allow to “sweat” for approximately 10 mins. Rinse the cucumbers to remove excess salt, squeeze out excess water and then pat dry with paper towels. In a small bowl, mix the miso, egg yolk, vinegar, sugar and mustard until dissolved and well combined. Combine wakame and cucumber, then pour over sauce and mix in the dressing.

Fromage under fire: Why French cheese faces extinction

22 Oct

This article was written for the Spring Edition of Australia’s French Living Magazine. You can view an extract of the article here, or pick up a copy of the publication here.
French Living Magazine Spring Edition Cover

When I first arrived in Paris over two years ago, if you had tried to convince me that French cheese was an endangered species on the culinary food chain, I would likely have choked in disbelief on my staple lunch order of Salade de chèvre chaud.

My first exposure to the concept of “Les fromages en voie de disparition” (endangered cheeses) was through a French documentary called “La guerre des fromage qui pue” (The war of stinky cheeses) — an eye-opening exposé on the French dairy industry revealing the how countless French cheeses annually become extinct due to increasing hygiene controls enforced on small-scale producers, globalisation by mega dairy cooperatives, and the general decline in demand by French consumers for premium, artisanal products. Curious to learn more, I arranged to meet with one of Paris’ most respected, accomplished and outspoken men in the cheese business: Philippe Alléosse. A master fromager and affineur, Alléosse’s task is to ripen cheeses in his vast network of Parisian caves. He is not only a master when it comes to cheese making, but also a passionate ambassador for the preservation of what could be a dying art – the cultivation of stinky, gooey and delectable fromage.

Philippe Alléosse with two goats cheeses at different stages of ripening and machengo

Philippe Alléosse in his caves with two goats cheeses at different stages of maturation, and Spanish machengo. Image © Rachel Bajada

I meet with Alléosse at his cheese maturation caves, which are situated near Clichy in the buzzing and eclectic 17th arrondissement. Eager to get to the bottom of the situation, I ask him which exactly of the French cheeses face extinction. His response is terrifying and astonishingly simple: “All of them”… When many French people think they are buying a Brie, Roquefort or a Sainte-maure-de-touraine today, what they’re getting is mass-produced industrial cheese, it’s not AOC and a lot of the time it’s not even made from raw milk… take Camembert AOC, there are only a handful of producers left making AOC Camembert, not to mention all the lesser known cheeses made on a small scale whose producers can’t keep up with the strict hygiene regulations being imposed on them.”

Alléosse is determined to show me first hand the dedication, patience and savoir-faire required for the genuine artisanal production, and it’s serious business. For one, the hygiene standards on site are higher than your average hospital. I am quickly covered in a long white lab coat, my hair is whisked away in a plastic net, and my new season’s espadrille wedges are given attractive blue plastic sockettes to cover them completely- much to the amusement of the on-site staff, but necessary to prevent any foreign microbes entering the caves. “Pas de problème!” I oblige willingly- I would hate to be responsible for infecting the Parisian cheese supply!

Rachel's shoes and the first cave doors

The first cave and… my shoes. Image © Rachel Bajada

Occupying over 300 square meters underground, the caves are divided into four separate zones categorised by variety: Cave à croûtes lavées (washed rind cheese cave) which includes Reblochon, Maroilles, Epoisses; a Cave aux chèvres (goats milk cheese cave); Cave à pâte molle à croûtes fleuries (soft cheeses with bloomy rind) which includes Brie, Coulommiers, Saint Félicien, Saint Marcellin, and lastly a Cave à tomme pâtes cuites/pressees (pressed or cooked hard cheeses) housing varieties such as Comté, Beaufort and Pecorino.

Alors…the first thing that hits you is the smell. The odours oozing from hundreds of cheeses slowly ripening underground in closed vicinity could only be described as taking in a long, deep sniff from a bottle of pure, industrial-grade ammonia. Alléosse senses my discomfort and assures me I’ll get used to it.

Making a conscious effort to breathe through my mouth, the giant fridge doors to the first cave are swung open. My cinetrash mind makes a quick comparison to a scene from a H.R Giger sci-fi film, where you see thousands of alien eggs resting dormant underground. But what lies before me is far more interesting and a little more terrestrial: in this room, the simple elements of milk, bacteria, perfect conditions and terroir combine to transform humble curds into complex, diverse and delicious cheeses. I instantly want to know everything there ever was to know about cheese!

We start with one of the most renowned of all French cheeses- you either love him or you hate him, and they call him Epoisses. I couldn’t have named this cheese better myself; the word is effectively a perfect onomatopoeia. Eposisse: ça puuuuee!

Epoisses being sprayed in Marc de Bourgogne

Epoisses being sprayed in Marc de Bourgogne saline solution. Image © Rachel Bajada

Epoisses comes from the Burgundy region and was actually the favorite cheese of Napoleon. Its offensive pungency ranking means it’s apparently banned from being carried on public transport in France (I have yet to see anything official confirming this). When Alléosse explains exactly how the cheese is matured, I start to understand why. Epoisses develops a characteristically slimy orange rind as it is progressively washed in a solution of Marc de Bourgogne (a local brandy), mixed with 50% water, twice a week over the period of approximately four to six weeks. Amazingly, the rich orange colour of the rind is a natural effect caused by a reaction from the carotenes in the unpasteurized cow’s milk.

Next I am introduced to an orangey-pink cheese that has three rows of something resembling a green ribbon neatly wrapped around it. The cheese is called Livarot and comes from Normandie. The wrapping in river reeds and is a tradition that was originally designed to represent the stripes on a Colonel’s uniform. The assemblage of the bulrush reeds is carried out by a particular group of women in one village who are efficiently complete the assemblage of each reed in under 5 seconds. Not a bad party trick to hand down through the family!

Livarot – with river reeds. Image © Rachel Bajada

Eager to know the secrets of such a cheese behemoth, I ask Alléosse what the Reblochon is washed in. His answer is disappointing, to say the least. “Ça, c’est un secret,” he says with a devious grin. “Je ne le dis à personne (“I don’t tell anyone”)… If anyone else knew, I wouldn’t have the best Reblochon, would I? Not even my wife knows. The recipe has never even been written down. It has been passed on through three generations of fromagers purely by word of mouth. And it will stay that way.”

Taken back, I had nothing left to say. It seemed both wonderful and slightly worrying at the same time that the secret to creating such a highly coveted product is in the hands of one sole individual. I can’t help but reflect on irony in this story. Here is a man whose life’s passion is to continue and conserve the tradition of traditional cheese making as has been done for centuries, yet the key and secret to one of the greatest French cheeses is held in this same man’s hands- and there’s no spare copy. Only in France!

Alleosse and his famous Reblochons

Alleosse and his famous Reblochons at three different stages of maturation. Image © Rachel Bajada

We move to the next cave- a room full of cheeses made mostly from goats’ milk. Now this is what I call paradise. Pyramids, bricks, cylinders, bouchons, and heart shapes… the chèvres are endless. I spot one of my favourites- a Corsican cheese covered in a soft blue-grey mould, wild bush herbs, juniper berries and fennel seeds- the lovable Brin d’Amour, which Philippe tells me is frequently imitated and sold under the name of Fleur de Maquis. Again, another copycat cheese! I like to think I have at least been getting the real thing.

Philippe beckons me over to a large rack of log-shaped chèvres- I identify them correctly as Le sainte-maure-de-touraine, La Loire Valley’s famous goats cheese. Just when I think I am gaining some points on my cheese knowledge, Mr Alléosse is quick to clarify.

“Now this is Le sainte-maure-de-touraine, but the large majority of what you find in the supermarket, at le marché, and at a lot of fromageries, is not the real AOC kind. The straw that sits inside the log to keep it stable during maturation must bear the markings and name of the producer. If the straw is blank, it could have come from anywhere.”

touraine straw and brin d'amour

Cheesemaker’s mark: the genuine Touraine chevre, and Corsican Brin d’Amour. Image © Rachel Bajada

Lastly, I am guided to the fourth cave, which is also the coldest. This special room houses the most mature, complex, exotic and fascinating of cheeses- it’s the Cave of pressed/hard-cooked cheeses, or what I would label as the Cheese Hall of Fame. Spanish Machengos, Italian Pecorinos washed in wine and coated in grapes off the vine, huge wheels of Beaufort and Comté, and beautiful old Mimolettes with crater-like corroded crusts. I remark that Mimolettes look like something has been eating away at them, and Philippe laughs and says: “Well it is being eaten- it’s covered in cheese mites!”

Vieux Mimolette

Vieux Mimolette

He taps one on the bench and a pile of dust gathers. This is no ordinary dust; they are microscopic bugs whose action on the cheese’s surface influences flavor and character. This cheese is literally alive.

Live cheese mites

Live cheese mites. Image © Rachel Bajada

It’s in this moment that I begin to really grasp and appreciate this artisanal trade for what it is- a simple miracle of nature, an art, a science, a passion and a skill which has been handed down through humanity since it was first created by accident over 6,000 years ago.

Walking out of Alléosse caves d’Affinage, I feel so fortunate to have seen and experienced this ancient tradition first-hand, being kept alive in the current day- and something I was never exposed to in Australia. At the same time I can’t help but feel a sense of melancholy at the sad reality. France, the original cheese mecca of the world, has an industry that is fast declining. Meanwhile, the artisanal cheese industry is fast booming in the US and the UK with mass demand and export to Japanese, Russia and the UAE. It seems the new world is embracing the old.

Philippe Alléosse said himself- “We don’t know where we’ll be in ten years from now.”

I for one find it hard to imagine France without its wonderful stinky cheeses, and I hope even more so that we will never have to.

Let them eat cheese!

3 chevres at different stages of ripening

Three goats cheeses at different ages. Image © Rachel Bajada

Genuine Brie de Meaux

You don’t get this in the supermarket: Genuine Brie de Meaux.Image © Rachel Bajada

Some further food for thought:

• Of the 100-150 raw milk cheeses available, three disappear each year, meaning around 40 have become extinct in the last decade.
• While Americans, Australians and Britons are increasingly going for unpasteurized cheese, in France raw milk cheeses dropped to 179,750 tonnes in 2008 against 183,500 tonnes in 2006.
• Bleu de Termignon, Vacherin des Bauges, Vacherin d’Abondance, Persillés de Tignes des Aravis and de Semnoz, Reblochon du Mont-Cenis, Colombier des Aillons, Galette du Mont-d’Or are just some of the cheeses that have disappeared. During the last 30 years, more than 50 traditional cheeses disappeared, whereas industrial production continues to increase
• French people eat 23.9 kg of cheese per capita per year, which is the second highest consumption rate, just after the Greeks. But that good score hides a cruel reality: raw milk cheeses are only 7 per cent of that consumption

How to give good bread: Buying the perfect baguette

5 Aug baguettes_thumb

Every day I am faced with at least two or three bad baguette sightings, and it bothers me more than it should, like a niggling sore throat in the morning– every, single, time.

When I say ‘bad baguettes’, I simply mean a Parisian civilian walking along their way, carrying a really crappy, shitty, nasty-looking… baguette. Last week it happened again, and this time it really got the better of me. I watched a Frenchman walk out of an award-winning bakery holding a baguette that looked even worse than what they sell in a Carrefour supermarket.

These days I can detect them from a mile away. My bad bread radar picks up on the tell-tale faux golden colour, the floppy sunken spine and the flourless flaky crust– so thin you can almost see the mesh pattern of the baking tray. They remind me of those awful ‘French sticks’ my Mum used to get from the local bakery in country Victoria, only she had the good sense to make croutons from them, and nothing more.

Parisienne Baguettes

Parisienne Baguettes: The good, the bad and the ugly

And now here I am, living in Paris – the mecca of the baguette, the land of milk and honey, the country of good bread, and I see French people buying and eating so much bad bread that it still to this day perplexes me.

Now, I personally don’t actually eat a lot of bread, since as you may have noticed, I prefer to consume my calories in the form of cheese rather than carbs, (and I am of the belief that grain foods are not good for our health in general) but whenever I DO buy bread, I’m going to make sure it’s the best damn baguette I can get my hands on within my given 1km walking radius.

In my effort to understand this bad bread phenomenon, I decided to conduct a logical retrace of steps in order to figure out where it was all going wrong. So for just one minute, please imagine with me that you’re an average Frenchy in Paris. Ready?

1. You wake up and decide to buy some bread – as you do, to dip it into your coffee, smother it in nutella, smear stinky runny cheese all over it… whatever you do with your bread it doesn’t matter, but you’re French so it’s likely that you eat a lot of it.

2. There is probably a boulangerie within 200 meters from your home. Even if it’s not the best, you’re in Paris after all, so by global standards it’s going to be pretty damn good.

3. You walk in, wait in line, and get your change ready or prepare the coins using the bread money machine (you wouldn’t even think about paying with a note).

4. You cast an eye over at the freshly baked, piping hot baguettes on the back wall, and this is where you would say something like “Une baguette s’il vous plait”. Seems pretty easy, right?

5. And then you pay your 1€ or so and walk out, with your baguette under your arm on your jolly old way.

6. This is the point where if you were walking past me I would probably be sneering under my breath at the sight of your shoddy looking bread. Sorry about that…

bread money machine

No coins? No worries! These bread money machines distribute small change

– Fin –

So, where did you go wrong? Why is that annoying woman frowning at you and your bread?

This challenge was beyond my expertise so I enlisted the help of expert bread buyer, super foodie and most qualified of all: zeee very Meg Zimbeck of Paris by Mouth herself, in order to get to the bottom of it. Lucky me managed to squeeze into a ‘Best of Montmartre’ food tour so I could personally investigate, and of course bring back documented photographic evidence and my newfound wisdom for the rest of us.

This is where you need to hit the play button in this little video we shot below…

Meg Zimbeck with one of Paris' best Baguettes de Tradition

Meg Zimbeck with one of Paris’ best Baguettes de Tradition

Did you catch that? Hear the magic word? It’s a simple as knowing which KIND of baguette to buy. There’s a big difference between what you will potentially walk out with when you ask for a “Baguette” as opposed to a “Baguette de Tradition”. That’s it. Une Baguette… DE … TRAD-I-TION- si’l vous plait. Uh huh. Voila. Open sesame!

Paris' best baguettes in a boulangerie

Devil’s in the detail. “Baguettes de Tradition” sit alongside standard bread at one of Paris’ award-winning bakeries.

Comparing good and bad baguettes

Dead giveaway. A Baguette Parisienne and an award winning Baguette de Tradition are compared side by side.

And there is a very simple reason why. After the First World War, there was a need for high quality bread to be made available to the working class. Baguettes were, at the time more of a luxury item reserved for wealthy Parisians as their long thin shape and lightness meant they only stayed fresh for one day. Real leaven bread (like a sourdough) was cheaper, but took over 8 hours to make, compared to the two hours it took to make a baguette. So, in 1920 the price of a baguette was officially fixed by French law to ensure all citizens the equal right to daily fresh bread.

The baguette price capping legislation was not lifted until 1987, but the legacy stuck. You can imagine how public outrage rose when the cost of a baguette inched past the 1€ mark, so even to this day, it’s still considered unthinkable to pay more than the standard 80 or 90 cents for a standard Baguette Parisienne.

Since the consumer is only willing to pay under 1€ for a baguette, boulangers are forced to ensure their product remains profitable – so quality therefore follows suit. It’s simply not cost effective for a baker to spend eight hours rising and carefully baking bread made from high quality flours and natural yeasts when they can only charge 90 cents for the product, or 40 cents for a demi-baguette.

So this is why you will find BOTH ordinary, inferior ‘bad-guettes’ as well as the higher-end, quality, baguettes made with natural levains and quality flours at the same boulangerie. The latter version must then be labelled as “Baguette de Tradition” “Baguette Ancienne” or “Baguette de Campagne” to differentiate, and cost all of 0 to 50 cents more, but the difference can be enormous – as you have seen.

bad baguettes or french sticks paris

The “Bad-guettes” at a typical Parisian supermarket. Almost sold out, of course.

The prize for Paris’ best Baguette de Tradition is a highly coveted title which began in 1993 and sheds light on the reasons why a boulangerie with this title sells both “bad-guettes” and the best “baguette de tradition” around. Enacted that same year, French law states that the bread must be mixed, kneaded, leavened and baked on premises, never being frozen. They must be additive-free and can contain only wheat flour, water, salt and yeast. The annual prize-winner gains both great prestige and the chance to supply the French Presidential palace with bread for the year. Pas mal.

So now that you know how – you have no excuse to give bad bread.

If you’re visiting Paris, you can check out the best boulangeries, pâtisseries, cheese shops and secret foodie gems with a Paris by Mouth group or private food tour. Tours resume for summer 2012 on August 16th with 2 x 3 hour tours daily at 10.30 and 3.30pm. Book a few weeks in advance and don’t eat breakfast! More info here

Now go forth, and give good bread ☺

Meg Zimbeck comparing baguette quality on tour

Weapons of dining destruction. Meg Zimbeck holds up an example of a bad baguette

Paris by Mouth Food Tour Group

The Paris by Mouth Montmartre food tour group

 

baguette car

I don’t know where this photo came from so I can’t credit it but it was just too good to leave out.

My recent run-in with Rome’s ‘Nazi di Formaggi’

4 Jul sprung

I thought this was an appropriate post for the 4th of July. As per usual, this is a true story, with not a word of a lie (okay there are possible embellishments for entertainment value only, that’s all). Enjoy!

Rachel at Rome's Cheese Nazi

There is a good reason this pic is blurry — it was shot at the very moment we got sprung taking photos inside the boutique of Rome’s ‘Nazi di Formaggi’… explanation below!

cheese fridge Beppe e I Suoi Formaggi

The magnificent cheese fridge at Beppe e I Suoi Formaggi, Rome

On a recent trip to magnificent Rome, I found myself in a scene that I can only describe as the Italiano, formaggi version of that “Soup Nazi” episode from Seinfeld. Confused? Let me tell you the story.

In my extensive research to find the best cheese, pasta and foodie gems in Rome, I stumbled across this post by Parla Food on a special cheese boutique nestled away in Rome’s Jewish Ghetto district. Beppe Formaggi is a cheese concept store featuring divine Italian cheeses, mostly from the northern alpine region of Piedmont, and a rustic dining salon for private degustations and wine tastings.

After wandering for over an hour and getting completely lost trying to find the shop, I had hoped for a welcoming reception to match my high expectations and bright-eyed, food tourist enthusiasm. Armed with only my iPhone camera, pocket Italian vocab book and sheer excitement, I proceeded to do what came most naturally — taking photos, of course!

Little did I know, this was NOT the done thing in the boutique of Mr. Beppe Formaggi.

The man himself emerged from the back room: a gusto, hearty Italian character with a powerful presence who proceeded to sternly look at me and slowly shake his head. Confused, I attempted to introduce myself in hopeless broken Italian. I could have said, “My name is Rachel; I’m here to order a lifetime supply of formaggi for the entire extended family of Berlusconi,” but it would not have made a difference.

“No photos!!!”

Ugh… how stupid of me not to ask permission first, I thought to myself. I’m not off to a good start here.

Here’s the photo I managed to take before being scolded like some sort of despicable undercover paparazzi:

Fresh Goats cheese selection at Beppe e I Suoi Formaggi, Rome

Some of fresh Goats cheeses at Beppe e I Suoi Formaggi, Rome

Next attempt: Come on Rachel, you’re a cheese journalist (did I invent that title?) … Surely it will change things if I explain myself?

A younger, handsome lad with piercing northern Italian blue eyes arrived at the counter. This one smiled. I explained to him (resorting to English) that I am a journalist writing about cheese for America and Australia, and was it OK for me to take some photos?

He went to the back of the shop and had a few words with Mr. Beppi Formaggi, who again crossed his arms and shook his head. Blue-eyed boy came back with bad news.

“Sorry, miss, you can’t take photos.”

And that’s how I found myself as rejected as our friend George Costanza being told “No soup for you!” by the Soup Nazi — only in my case it was “No cheese for you!”

Ouch.

Okay, maybe that’s pushing it a bit, since I was still allowed the cheese, just not the photos.

So I figured, if I can’t take pics in the store, I will just have to taste the cheeses, buy them and photograph them back at the hotel room. So that’s what I did.

I started with the mildest of fresh Italian goat cheeses, the beautiful array of Meline di Capra — soft, delicate and crumbly, decorated and adorned with black ash, dried wild flowers, camomile buttons and herbs. I then worked my way through the brothers, sisters and cousins of the king of cheeses, Parmesan, and then finally asked for the rarest Italian blue cheeses I wouldn’t be able to find anywhere else.

Blue-eyed Italian boy disappeared under the counter and then produced a seductively oozing, runny blue cheese with a pale pinkish-orange rind. It was a six-month-old gorgonzola from Piedmont made of unpasteurized, non-treated cow’s milk.

creamy sweet blue cheese

The undercover photo: A sweet, mild and creamy gorgonzola from Piedmont, Italy


“This one’s really special,” he said. “It’s too soft to pass you a sample but this one is so nice, she is almost sweet.”

“I’ll take it! Now, please show me your strongest blue cheese. A strong, very ‘gusto’ one, please!”

He returned holding a seriously mean-looking blue from under the counter.

“Are you sure you want to try her? Most people can’t handle this one, it’s verrrry strong.”

I replied without hesitation: “Absolutely!”

So, slicing off a sliver, I tried the sample. Boy, was that one big cheese! This blue had serious power. It was so strong it was almost spicy. The blue mould was so developed and intense you could actually feel the texture of it, kind of like a silver foil — practically crunchy. The aftertaste was a warming white peppery sensation that lasted a good 10 minutes on the palette.

Next, the pretty little fresh goats cheeses and our sweet and spicy feisty blues were wrapped up before we rushed off back to the hotel.

For our final night in Rome, what better way to celebrate than an Italian cheese pre-dinner aperitif with a nice bottle of champagne? I took some better pictures before the cheeses were quickly devoured. The rest of the blue came home with me and I’m still working my way through it and loving every spicy morsel!

Thanks, Mr. Italian Cheese Nazi, your welcome wasn’t exactly as warm and fuzzy as that spicy blue, but your cheeses are simply wonderful and made for an incredibly memorable last day in beautiful Rome.

formaggi and champagne in Rome

Happy days: The ultimate pre-dinner aperetif of Italian cheese and champagne back at the hotel in Rome

italian fresh goats cheeses

Meline di Capra: The gorgeous fresh goats cheeses adorned with black ash, dried wildflowers, camomile buds and mountain herbs

strong blue cheese

Cheese that knocks your socks off: That strong and spicy Italian blue cheese


This article was originally published for The Cheese Course — a European-style cheese shop in with nine locations in Miami and Florida, offering over 150 artisanal cheeses imported from dairy farms all over the world. Check out my new column where I write and video blog as “The Cheese Reporter” on their blog here.

The Roman Cheese Nazi (AKA “Beppe e I Suoi Formaggi”)
Is located at:

Via Santa Maria del Pianto 9A/11
00186 Roma
tel 06-6819-2210

www.beppeeisuoiformaggi.it

If you do visit, say “hi” from me!

Mamma Mia Ciasa Mia! Could this be the best pasta in Paris?

20 May best pasta 2jpgciasa mia

I know I know, it’s a big call, but trust me — I take these statements very seriously. After my first meal at Ciasa Mia, I got home, and in an unprecedented event, I could not sleep. And not because I ate too much either. I simply could not stop thinking about the incredible meal I had just experienced, and found myself lying awake dreaming about that amazing PASTA like some intoxicating whirlwind holiday romance.

ciasa mia best pasta in paris

The stuff dreams are made of. Ciasa Mia’s Kamut Spaghetti with Mussels, Girolles and Smoked White Pepper with Pecorino.

Ciasa Mia potato and rosemary ravioli with speck

Potato, speck and rosemary ravioli filled with cèpes and mageret de canard fumé

The discovery wasn’t all mine, so I do admit I was tipped off. When you hear your Italian friend’s voice rise two decibels excitedly describing food with dangerous hand motions and enough passion to scare the French diners at the table next to us, I knew I had to check this place out. And yes I’ve been back multiple times since, just to make sure I wasn’t kidding myself the first time, but the food at this place never ceases to amaze and delight me.

For someone with a terrible memory, I can still remember and describe in intricate detail, every course I have eaten there: Truffle-filled egg yolk amuse bouche, pine infused ice cream, cèpe and white truffle carpaccio with parmesan soufflé, scallops in hay-steamed smoke, pastas that are delicious enough to overcome the strongest of carb-nazi willpower, deconstructed tiramisu, melt in your mouth house-made focaccia, and not to forget the famous “colours d’automne”- a dessert experience you absolutely must save space for. The flavours, the products, the seasons, the passion for quality, innovation and creativity with respect for tradition and romance, the flamboyant service with flair and precision… the passion the food is made with here paired with the warm friendly ambience of a family–run Italian alps ski chalet is so cosy you could just crawl up by the fire with your limoncello, satisfied belly and just dream away.

Who would have thought this little gem on a tiny street just next to the pantheon was hiding there? If you didn’t know to look past the cutesy quasi-kitsch restaurant signage and lace curtains on the facade, you could easily miss it. And if you can’t get there in person, don’t worry. In my usual form, I shamelessly went back and asked the chef for the recipe so we can all enjoy the pleasure of THAT PASTA (scroll down for recipe).

Where was the best pasta you have ever eaten? My runners-up for Paris are Procopio Angelo and Bocca. Drop a comment below to share your favorite addresses in Paris and beyond.

Ciasa Mia Restaurant is located near the Pantheon in Paris’ Latin Quarter at
19 Rue Laplace 75005
Ph: +33(0)1 43 29 19 77
www.ciasamia.com

See a video review by Francois Simon here

La lotte en croute Ciasa Mia Paris

La lotte en croute de peau de poulet (monkfish in chicken skin crust) with balsamic lentils, rosemary potato and vanilla eschalotte

ciasa mia italian wines

Wine selection at Ciasa Mia

Lemon brulee with almond praline

Lemon brûlée with almond praline- amazing!

ciasa mia paris truffle injected egg

Six minute scallops- steamed in hay smoke with sea salt. Black truffle jus-injected egg yolk. explosions of flavor- literally.

Deconstructed Tiramisu Ciasa Mia Paris

The delightful deconstructed tiramisu

Pine infused Icecream ciasa mia paris

Pine infused ice cream – unforgettable.

Chef Samuel Mocci with Italian white truffles

Chef Samuel Mocci with Italian white truffles

Organic kamut spaghetti with mussels, girolles, pecorino, and smoked white pepper

Recipe by Samuel Mocci from Ciasa Mia Restaurant, Paris

Serves 4 people

This recipe cooks the pasta using the absorption method, like you would a risotto. It soaks up all the flavor from the stock and self-sauces once you add the cheese and remaining ingredients.

Ingredients:

300 grams kamut spaghetti (or substitute with a similar fresh pasta of your choice)
1 litre of unsalted chicken stock
30 grams sea salt
2 tbsp olive oil
1 knob butter
50g pecorino finely grated
50g parmesan finely grated
Freshly ground smoked white pepper (if you can’t find smoked pepper you can use smoked sea salt to add the smoky flavour)
200 g mussels (weight without shells)
200 g girolle mushrooms (you could substitute for cepes or chanterelles also)
2 cloves garlic- finely diced
2 tbsp finely diced flat leaf parsley

Recipe Ciasa Mia Pasta

Preparing the Ciasa Mia Kamut Spaghetti Recipe

Directions:

Bring the chicken stock to boil in a large pot with olive oil, butter and sea salt.

To cook the mussels: In a separate pot, place mussels in their shells with white wine, olive oil and finely diced garlic and parsley. Once the mussels open, remove the mussels from their shells (leave a few in the shell for presentation purposes). Leave in pot and set aside. Thoroughly rinse and then pat dry the girolles with paper towel. Dice the mushrooms finely and set aside.

Once the water is boiling add the spaghetti to the pot and gently stir the pasta and water until all the water has been absorbed by the pasta, being careful not to let the pasta stick together or to the pot. Check that the pasta is cooked just to al dente. If it is still too firm, add more stock and cook further until it’s absorbed (as you would a risotto)

Once the spaghetti is cooked, remove from the flame and add the parmesan, pecorino and a generous portion of freshly ground pepper. Mix through well- you will see that the remaining moisture in the pasta mixes with the cheeses to ‘self-sauce’

Sprinkle the diced girolle mushrooms on the base of the serving plate and then season with quality virgin olive oil. Serve the pasta into portions over the mushrooms and then add the mussels, with a few still in the shell over the pasta. Serve with extra grated pecorino and diced parsley to garnish if desired.

My top 10: The best addresses for cheese shopping and finding a good coffee in Paris

30 Apr coffee

It’s about time I shared the love. Two of my great loves are of course: coffee… and the other you already know — cheese. Not necessarily together or in that order! I’m often asked for tips and addresses on both of these subjects so I have compiled my top 10 and made interactive maps for both the lists. After all, what trip to Paris is complete without eating too much cheese? Then after all the fun of running around buying and tasting it, you will be needing a good coffee to pick you back up again if you want to make it on your last legs to that pastry shop…

Coffee and latte in Paris

COFFEE:

Let’s start with coffee, since it’s rather problematic in this city. A good friend of mine recently moved for a six-week stay in Paris and called me in a panic: “All the coffee is so aaaaawful here… what am I going to dooooo?? Why can’t I just go into a café and drink a decent latte?”

And she’s absolutely right. Unlike cheese, the good stuff is simply not common and easily available in this city, in fact, getting a real coffee is more like a treasure hunt — you almost need to plan your day/meeting around it to make sure you get your fix in one of the very few places that know how to make it. There has been a lot of press on the issue recently, and the scene is quickly changing for the better thanks to French-Australian partnerships who are raising the bar, such as Café Lomi who supply most of the places on my list.

So here is the list I gave my latte-longing friend. There is hope, I promise.

Where to get a good Latte / drink real coffee in Paris:

Café Lomi Paris 18eme
Black Market – Paris 18eme
Le Bal Café – Paris 18eme Clichy
KB Café Shop (formerly Kooka Boora) – Paris 9eme
Coutume Café – Paris 7eme
Sugarplum Cakeshop and Café – Paris 5eme
L’inconnu Bar/Café – Paris 10eme
Ten Belles – Paris 10eme
Télescope (great coffee in a central part of town) – Paris 1eme
Vélo Café (mobile coffee cart at Place de la Bourse) – Paris 2eme
Alto Café (mobile coffee cart at Galeries Lafayette and Passage du Havre) – Paris 9eme.

cafe lomi latte

L’art du Cafe at Lomi, Paris. Image © Rachel Bajada

CHEESE:

First things first, I need to lay down the rules of engagement here: no cheating and buying cheese at the supermarket! Sure, you may be able to find a decent fresh chèvre or biodynamic faisselle in the dairy isle, maybe even the occasional genuine AOC Camembert, but the vast majority of cheeses sold in big chains like Monoprix, Carrefour and Franprix are industrially processed, inferior, pasteurized milk cheeses which are actually slowly killing the real artisanal cheese industry in this country. Sadly, a growing number of French cheeses become extinct every year due to the industrialisation of the French dairy industry so please be a conscious cheese shopper and support artisanal cheese makers and small businesses by favouring quality over convenience and bargain basement price tags.

There is only one time and one reason only when you have an excuse to buy in the supermarket, and that’s if it’s your last stop in Paris and you’re buying cheese to take on the flight home. This leads me to my next important piece of advice and a common question:

Can I take raw milk French cheese back through Australian customs?

The answer is YES, you sure can! There is just one catch. Firstly, you must of course declare it on your arrival card, but as long as the cheese you bring in is “commercially prepared and packaged and originate from countries free from foot and mouth disease” you are allowed to bring it in. And don’t worry, as long as you wrap it in lots of layers of plastic and foil to avoid your entire luggage smelling of cheese, it will certainly last and wont spoil during the long journey home.

Because of this, you can’t just go to the farmers markets and buy a fresh unpackaged cheese to take overseas; so this is when the supermarket may be your only option. I have done this numerous times without problems but usually I stop at Galleries Lafayette Gourmand or la Grande Epicerie where they stock a good range of quality raw milk cheeses with sufficient labelling and packaging to keep you off Border Control at prime time. If you do however find yourself in a sticky situation with customs, here is how to successfully talk your way out of it.

The full details on Australian quarantine regulations can be found at the daff.gov.au site here. I regret that I don’t know enough about current regulations in the US, UK and Canada etc. to provide them but if you know please drop a comment below.

My favourite places to buy and taste cheese in Paris:

Fromagerie SecrétanParis 19eme (owners are extremely friendly and helpful and they stock a range of beautiful seasonal and special cheeses)

Galerie Fayette Gourmande – For the pre-flight stock-up to take home

Market bio 17eme and Marche bio Raspail. Excellent organic/biodynamic producers of goats cheeses and nearly every French cheese you could dream of. More expensive but worth it, make sure you get there before midday. The markets are my weekend sport.Hah.

La Ferme Saint Hubert FromagerieParis 9eme. You will smell it before you find it. This is a good thing. Very traditional with a great range.
A memorable shopping experience.

Quatre Hommes CrèmerieParis 7eme. A top quality cheese shop which also produces and sells exciting new cheese varieties such as Pistachio Brie.

CantinParis 7eme. Run by cheese queen Marie-Anne Cantin fromager de tradition and Affineur with 7 impressive caves, the shop has been open since her father set it up in 1950.

Marche BastilleParis 11eme. Here you will find a few great stands with excellent cheeses. My favourite is the best Burrata I have found in Paris from the Spanish and Italian food stall. You can also find more exotic cheeses such as Guinness Cheddar and Goats Milk blue. Photos here

Alléosse - Paris 17eme. Stocks an impressive array of artisanal AOC cheeses such as camemberts, Saint Marcellins, a large choice of chèvres and the best part- a selection of rare, hard to find cheeses such as Persillé de Tignes made by the last remaining producers of their kind in the country.

Mmmozza – Italian Mozarella and cheeses – Paris 3eme. A great spot to buy giant buffalo burrata, fresh burrata from Puglia, smoked and classic Mozzarella and Treccia, other Italian cheeses and excellent Prosciutto and Parma hams, in the heart of the Marais and a stroll from Marche des Enfants Rouge.

The ultimate cheese selection at Edouard Loubet, Bonnieux France. Photo courtesy of Arturo Zavala Haag www.arturozavala.com

Ready for the suitcase: Black Truffle Brie at Lafayette Gourmet, Paris

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