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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

Secret sauce. My Maltese Nanna’s ricotta ravioli recipe

6 Jun

Tessie's tomato sauce with fresh Maltese ricotta ravioli

Who can resist a tried and tested family recipe? On a recent visit to Malta to reconnect with my family heritage and meet long lost cousins, aunties and uncles, one of my most treasured and memorable experiences was that of a cooking session with my wonderful Maltese Nanna Tessie.

Before leaving, my mother begged me to get the recipe off my grandmother for her basic tomato pasta sauce- the most important and versatile base in Maltese cuisine. Being smack bang in the middle of the Mediterranean with a hot and dry climate, the staple food of the Maltese usually involves pasta, rice, bread, cheese, meat, rabbit (fenech), fish often with a tomato base- thus the importance of a perfect and simple tomato sauce.

Here I share with you a visual snapshot of our little cook-off and of course, Tessie’s family recipe for the sauce… including what Tessie swears is her ‘secret’ ingredient which will certainly surprise you!

What about the recipe for the actual ravioli itself you may ask? Well, I thought the same thing when I turned up to lunch expecting a kitchen armed with a pasta-machine, flour dust storm and production line of settling fresh curd cheese. I instead arrived presented with a neat bag of ready-made fresh pasta on the bench! It turns out that most Maltese buy the ravioli fresh and pre-made from their local pasta master of choice because the quality of the bought product is so good and only about €3 for a big bag of 3 dozen ricotta-filled morsels (or so my Nan convinced me anyway). However, If you really want to have a stab at making the pasta yourself to go with it, here are some good resources:

The real-deal: The awesome Italian Mamma ‘Rosa’ shows us how it’s done

Crazy Maltese John cooking ravioli in his kitchen

A video response tribute and step by step guide by the talented ‘Pip’ from MeetMeAtMikes showing  how she made ravioli from scratch with Nanna Tessie’s recipe

 

Setting the scene- here’s my Nanna Tessie with her pot of sauce

Nanna Tessie with her pot of tomato sauce

Ready for that recipe now?

Here it is! (serves approx 4)

Ingredients:

  • 4 cloves garlic
  • 6 whole tomatoes (Tessie insists they must be super-red vine ripened roma tomatoes)
  • 1 tsp white sugar (start with 1/2 teaspoon and add the remaining half to taste as some may find the full amount a little too much)
  • 2 bay leaves (dried)
  • 1 tbsp good quality tomato paste
  • Extra virgin olive oil (preferably Spanish)
  • Freshly cracked black pepper and sea salt to taste

And now for her ‘secret’ ingredient…

Wait for it….

1 chicken stock cube!

Yes, that’s right- a chicken stock cube! A little unconventional and I’m sure they were never part of her own mother’s repertoire, but to Tessie, those things are like butter to a french chef!

The other big no no, she insists, is never to put onion in the tomato sauce, and always cook it slowly slowly, gently gently.

Here she is again- reminding us not to use onion!

Tessie says 'never use onion, and simmer it slooooolwy'

Now for the method:

Instructions:

Using a medium sized, heavy based pot, fill the base with olive oil to the depth of approximately halfway up your index fingertip. Peel and dice the garlic lengthways. You can add 2 extra cloves if you wish, it only intensifies the flavour (in a good way). Add the diced garlic to the pot with oil and gently fry the garlic at a low heat being careful not to burn them.

Fill a separate small pot with water and bring it to the boil. Add the tomatoes and boil for approximately 3 minutes, until you begin to see the skin peeling away from the flesh. Remove from the boiling water, discard water and then peel tomatoes.

Add the tomatoes to the pot with oil and garlic and chop them into small pieces with sharp knife. Simmer at a low heat and stir continually as the sauce begins to thicken and reduce. Gradually add a few drops of water, then add the stock cube and the bay leaves. Stir and simmer for a further 10 minutes then add the tomato paste, sugar and salt and pepper. Keep on a low simmer for a further ten minutes for the sauce to reduce and flavours intensify. Remove bay leaves before serving.

Sauce on simmer

In a large pot bring water to the boil at (3/4’s) full and add 1 tbsp sea salt and a dash of olive oil.

Add the ravioli (fresh bought version or homemade) and cook until all the pasta has floated to the top.

Ravioli on the boil- floating to the surface when ready

Immediately drain in a colander.

Serve on a wide pasta dish with generous servings of freshly grated romano or parmesan, cracked black pepper and finely diced parsley (optional). Traditionally this is served with a side of mortadella ham and a local delicacy- black pepper chesee with crusty Maltese bread called “hobz.”

Savourer!

Side serving: Mortadella ham and Maltese black pepper cheese with crusty 'hobz' bread

Lambrusco frizzante or spumante are refreshingly light and fruity sparkling red table wines commonly found at a Maltese table

Dining at Tessie's Table

Nanna Tessie's kitchen

Sweet tooth. Maltese Kannoli "ta l-irkottaare" is a delicous dessert of fried pastry shell piped with sweet ricotta and dusted with crushed almonds

Viva la ravioli! Ciao, Tessie xxx

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