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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

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

4 Jul

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!

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

30 Apr

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

A heart between two homes

6 Mar

paris_sydney_cheese_je t'aime

Dear Australia,

I love you. You raised me, bathed me in sunlight and blessed me with beautiful beaches, an awesome lifestyle and my treasured family and friends, but I am sorry, I am leaving you. This little holiday at home has been magical, but the time has come, and I am going back to my adopted country, France.

Now, don’t be like that; please don’t be jealous, we absolutely cannot compare the two of you. And don’t be so presumptuous please- it’s not the wine I’m leaving you for. It’s also not the amazing markets and restaurants, nor is it for the fashion. You did everything right, my dear homeland, but you did one thing wrong. There is just one thing missing in this relationship…. Let me explain…

Chère France,

I love you, too. And I am coming back to you, if you will take me. How you have such a strong pull on me, honestly I don’t know. In reality, you treat me kinda mean. You’re painfully cold 6 months of the year. You make me drink too much wine, eat too much bread and not do enough exercise. You made me tolerant of passive smoking, and living in overpriced shoebox-sized flats. You make me spend too much money on pretty things I probably don’t need. Your metro is an efficient but dehumanising experience. Your lovely pebbled pavements ruin my stiletto heels and your thousands of poodles leave their sh*t everywhere. Too many of your shopkeepers are rude and obnoxious; your Michelin star waiters refuse to serve me real cappuccinos and most of your café coffee sux.

OK OK … maybe that was a little rough, after all, for a love letter, this didn’t start so well. No need to be insecure. I do love your amazing fashion, and strolling around the city at night is like living in a walking museum. Your effortless elegance, manicured gardens and romantic summer nights certainly wooed me, but that is not why I am taking you back. I’m coming back, my dear France because you offer me in abundance one thing Australia cannot – real cheese.

That’s right baby. Unpasteurised, unhomogenized, unadulterated, raw milk, artisanal, wonderful… CHEESE! Fresh ones, aged ones, soft ones, hard ones, stinky ones, mild ones… I’m only just getting started. You know you’ve got what I need my love, and over 400 of them….

So yes, you won me over.

Yours truly,
Rachel

Rachel Bajada with giant Mont d'Or cheese

At Rungis Markets, Paris with a 'Mega Mont d'Or'

And so there we have it. Going home after almost two years in the land of wine and cheese, I have returned as a changed woman. Arriving in Sydney was like walking into my hometown with a brain transplant. My country has not changed a lot, but I have evolved enormously. I’m the same person, with different eyes, and slightly evolved tastebuds. A new language, a million crazy stories, hundreds of new friends and bank accounts in multiple countries.

Out of habit, one of the first things I did was to check out the cheese selection at the local delis and department stores (like, isn’t that what we all do)? Wasn’t that just a depressing experience? Hate to say it but Australia really is the communist Cuba of fromage. We are living in the height of cheese communism. How can such a developed and progressive country still have strict bans on raw milk production? As long as Australia keeps a ban on raw milk cheese production, I’m going to have a hard time living there!

So I’ve decided to do something about it. Next month I’m launching a campaign in conjunction with Slowfood International and Australia’s top chefs to lobby against the ban on Raw Milk production and sale in Australia- the principle thing preventing artisan cheese makers cultivating a rich and diverse industry. Let’s support local producers and artisans and support the freedom of choice over what natural raw foods we have access to.

Watch this space and stay tuned for updates. In the meantime, check out some reading material on the issue here, and while you’re at it, join my Facebook Cheese Fanclub

See you at the Paris fromagerie!

Rachel
xox

How I became an international French cheese smuggler

13 Mar

Now here is a very funny real life foodie adventure story.

We’ve all been there. Stranded at customs or airport security begging the security agent to let you though with you your so-called ‘prohibited or dangerous’ goods- usually an expensive hand cream, alcohol, perfume or gourmet gift that you put in your hand luggage, not knowing of, or forgetting the crazy cabin baggage policies of today. Bring back memories? I bet it does. I’m still laughing to myself about the journey I went through with my precious French cheeses went last night when taking a short EU flight between Marseille and Malta, and since it’s quite a laugh, I just had to share it.

– Printed board pass and passport in handbag? Check

– 15 kilos suitcase pre-paid check in luggage. Check

– Bag of edible goodies and gifts for expat friends ? (Check-in bag already at 15kg so will have to go in hand-luggage). Check

– Hand cream, lip gloss, nail polish and hairspray: All under 100 mls and sealed in plastic zip-lock bag? Check

And so, there I was. Bag checked in and ready to go through security to board my flight.

It started with the usual procedure. Laptop out, boots off, jacket off, liquids separated and in plastic bag, handbag in tray and on the conveyor belt. I then pulled out my shopping bag of goodies intended as gifts for friends and family in Malta and put it in the tray.

I had spent a good 45 minutes in the local fromagerie yesterday deliberating over which of the finest, stinkiest French cheeses to take with me and bring delight to those eagerly awaiting at the other end for their foodie fix.

Aside from a top French sauccisson and a block of fine dark chocolate, I had 750 grams ‘quota’ to fill with cheese After much indecision, I ended up choosing three of my favourites, just imagining the look of pure delight as they were received by their cheese deprived recipients.

A 250 gram Tête de Moine (my new favourite). Usually served as an appetizer, it’s a firm cow’s milk cheese that’s loads of fun to serve using it’s special ‘shaving handle’ implement which shaves it into cute little ‘chanterelle-shaped morsels.

Tête de Moine cheese

Tête de Moine shaved into chanterelle morsels

An 350 gram round wooden box of divine Mont d’Or. For those of you not familiar with this cheese, all I can say is: this is the stuff dreams (and round hips) are made of. An unpasteurised ‘cru’ cows milk cheese which has an exquisitely creamy oozing centre and washed rind. The best way to eat Mont d’Or is heated in the oven in it’s own round wooden box, mixed with white wine till it’s an oozing and melting pot of liquid heaven.

Mont d'Or cheese

Mont d'Or: a melting pot of liquid heaven

And finally- I couldn’t go past 250 grams of the irresistible and classic Blue d’Auvergne. Another one of my personal favourites (especially with a walnut and endive salad) it was also a special request anxiously awaited by my friend Dennis at the other end.

Now… I got a little carried anyway there describing those cheeses- let’s get back to the story.

The dialogue from this point went a little something like this:

Security checkpoint officer woman: “What’s in the plastic bag?”

“Oh… just cheeses.”

“What type of cheeses? As some kinds of cheeses are not allowed”.

And then it occurred to me: Maybe you actually can’t take unpasteurized cheeses outside of France? So, knowing that 2 of the cheeses were ‘cru’ and one was not- I responded sheepishly with “Tête de Moine” (the pasteurised cheese). Hoping that would get me out of the red. After-all, the x-ray machine can’t tell the difference….right?

So, I proceed to go through the scanner gate. No beeps. All clear. I wait anxiously at the other end for my bag, laptop, jacket, shoes and- cheeses.

The woman at the other end opens the goodie bag and goes through it piece by piece.

Saucisson- fine. Chocolate- fine. Tete de moine- fine.

Just when I think it’s all good, she starts poking at the slab of blue cheese, shakes her head, and then puts it aside.

Then she picks up the round box of Mont d’Or…. and … puts it aside.

“Sorry- you can’t take these two cheeses- the other things are fine”

My panic begins to set in. Stay calm, don’t look stressed.

“But why? They don’t say that the milk is unpasteurised? And it’s the EU?!

She glares back at me, shaking her head and says:

“No no no it’s not that- that doesn’t matter. You are carrying too much LIQUID”.

Now I’m getting confused. I respond:

“You mean, it’s ok that the milk is unpasteurised, but I can’t take it because it’s a LIQUID?!”

She calls over Mr French Security Officer to further explain.

He lifts up the two offending cheeses and starts squeezing and poking them, shaking his head in dismay.

I respond “Mais… je ne comprends pas” C’est incroyable… This is not liquid- It’s CHEEEEEEEEEEEEEEESSSSSSE!!!”

“Yes, madame, but these cheeses are too soft so they are classified as liquid, and you can only take 100 mls of liquid on board.”

My jaw drops. I try to imagine possible ways of hijacking the plane armed with my Tête de Moine and Blue d’Auvergne. My imagination did not take me very far. Now I’m just annoyed at the sheer ridiculousness of the situation.

“But I HAVE to take the cheeses with me- they are important GIFTS!”

“I’m sorry, but that’s the rule. Can you put them in your check-in baggage or give them to a friend?”

“I have already checked in my bag, and there is no-one here who can take them from me.”

“Then, I’m sorry Madame, but there is no other option.”

Now my determination takes over. I respond, evidently flustered, in clumsy French:

“I cannot leave the country, and arrive empty-handed, without the cheeses- everyone waiting for them will be soooooo disappointed!”

He looks mildly apologetic, shrugs his shoulders and again, apologises. Now I am even more determined- I refuse to abandon my beautiful cheeses at the border.

That’s when it occurred to me. A flash of inspiration. A wise, authoritative voice in my head says:

“Pull out the Grandma story.”

So that’s exactly what I did.

Holding a piercing gaze with Mr French Security Officer, I respond with full conviction and my best possible French:

“You don’t understand. My Grandma is going to CRY if I don’t bring this cheese”

His face instantly starts to melt, kind of like the gooey Mont D’or. Now that I know I have struck a chord, I come in for a second strike.

“She has rung me twice this week, just to remind me not to forget her cheese”

His bottom lip begins to quiver.

“She has been waiting SIX MONTHS for me to come, with this cheese, and if turn up, empty handed, she will be DEV-A-STAT-ED.”

The Grandma guilt trip is working. Mr French security officer is clearly disturbed by the thought of my sweet little 87 year old ‘Mamie’ missing out on her long-awaited cheeses.

He takes a deep breath, lowers his voice and pulls me aside.

“OK. There is one thing you can do. Are you listening?

Yes.

“Go back out of Security with your belongings, and the soft cheeses. Go over to the café, and buy two baguettes. Cut each of the cheeses in half.

“O…..K……”

“Put one half of each of the cheeses inside a baguette, and wrap up the other half separately.”

“OK…”

He continues: “ This way, technically, the cheese between the baguette will not be classified as a liquid substance anymore, and the other half will be closer to 100 mls.”

Again, I can’t believe what I’m hearing. First the cheese is a liquid, now a baguette is a liquid defying agent. Craziness.

“You mean, if I put the cheese in a baguette, It’s not a liquid anymore?”

Mr French Security Officer whispers with a very serious face:
“Yes… It’s not really ‘by the book’ but it’s the only way.”

And so off I went. Back out through security, passers-by watching and wondering why I am going in the wrong direction.

I go to the café and alors- there is only one baguette left for sale- and of course it’s filled with ham.

I buy it anyway. It’s better than nothing. Out goes the ham, I take a plastic knife and begin chopping the blue d’Auverge in half, much to the baffled looks of the other café patrons at my table. I then proceed to stuff the empty baguette with massive slabs of blue cheese, and wrap the remaining half.

I then realise the sad reality. There is no solution to save the Mont d’Or. Quelle dommage. This beautiful cheese, and I’m going to have to throw it out. Even if there were baguettes, it’s too soft to remain edible once its been squashed inside a baguette.

In desperation, I do the only thing I can to make the most of the situation.

I crack open the Mont d’or. I tear away a piece of the baguette and I scoop a big morsel of cheese, then eat right there, on the spot.

I have to say, cheese has never tasted as good as that moment there. Time stopped for a precious 10 seconds as this ‘forbidden’ cheese, about to be abandoned at the border, slowly melts in my mouth.

A Final boarding call for my flight abruptly ends my moment of pleasure with the Mont d’or.

I wrap up the blue cheese baguette, painfully drop the box of Mont d’or in the bin then run back to security.

The security officers let me jump the queue. I go through the drill once again with my belongings on the conveyor belt where I meet once again with Mr and Ms Security Officer who are giggling at my determined efforts to save the cheese. Amused, they inspect my baguette and hacked slab of blue cheese as I explain that I did exactly as they had asked me, and how I had to make the agonizing decision to throw out the Mont d’Or.

“It’s better than nothing” says the security officers.
“At least your Mamie will have some good French bread to go with it!” Someone else adds.

I thank Mr Security Man on behalf of my Grandmother and run to the boarding gate where I just make my flight, short of breath, stinking of blue cheese and proudly satisfied with my success.

Once again, Grandma saves the day.

And so there you have it. 10 points to the French for this one I say. Who else but the French care enough about food and the family bond with food, to bother finding a solution in the pursuit of getting good cheese across the border?

My faith in the French is restored.

I arrive at my destination and present my friend with his much awaited blue cheese. It’s not pretty. It’s squashed inside a stale airport baguette. It’s been through a tough journey.

But damn did it taste good.

Thanks Nanna.

The end.

Got a similar story to share? What’s the craziest thing you’ve done for the love of food? If you enjoyed this story or have a good one to add, add your comments below.

Blue cheese in baguette

The 'non-liquid' Blue d'Auvergne arrives at it's destination

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