Wednesday, March 29, 2017
Of Blind Tasting Cheese and meeting a Cheese Monger!
One of my favourite aspects of food is Cheese. The art and science of cheese making fascinates me. I've been fortunate to travel all over the world. I have tried fresh cheeses from Italy and stone hard smelly cheeses from the high Andes. I have met fantastic cheese makers and purveyors. And I have found that the more I explore, with cheese, the more there is to explore.
I take every opportunity that comes my way to learn more about cheese so when I was invited to a European Cheese tasting I accepted with pleasure. The tasting was and initiative by the European Union and CNIEL, to promote appreciation of European and French Cheeses and was conducted by French Cheese Monger François Robin at the Artisan restaurant at Sofitel Mumbai BKC.
I arrived at Artisan, to a room buzzing with chatter, as bloggers friends met, caught up and comparied notes on the current food scene around the city. I love getting out for food events because it gives me a chance to catch up with food friends! I got myself a coffee and found a seat.
Post a very entertaining introduction to himself, cheese, and particularly French Cheese, he revealed that we would be blind tasting cheese! In fact, not only would we be blindfolded we would also have our noses blocked! Within minutes all of us were blindfolding and nose blocked and a plate of cheeses was placed in front of us. Francois then got us to taste each of 4 cheese on the plate.
Cheese 1 at 12 o clock: A soft creamy shapeless mass. I pinched off a litttle bit and put it in my mouth. From the texture on my hands I already knew it was a cream cheese. On my tongue it was salty with a hint of milky sweetness and a distinct tang - It had to be a Chevre. Only a goats cheese can have that addictive tangyness. Strike 1 for the cheese lover!
Cheese 2 at 3 o clock: As soon as I touched it, I knew what it was. An easy guess because of the wedge shape it was cut in, it had to be a Brie or Camambert. But beyond that without my eyes to tell me if it was white or yellowish and my nose to help I could not distinguish which one exactly. So I just savoured the textures of the moldy skin that gave way to the silky insides and waited. It was Camembert - a favourite. Strike 1/4 (for loving cheese enough to not let trivial matters like WHICH CHEESE get in the way of savouring it!)
We removed the nose pinch at this point.
Cheese 3 at 6 o clock: This one was hard to guess. My fingers told me it was a semi soft cheese - chedder like - and I know all Cheese making countries have their equivalent of a semi hard cheese but I could not remember the French one. I remembered tasting it in my early days as consultant to Natures Basket, when they were building the cheese tasting concept but I just could not put a name to it! Creamy, with a pleasing saltiness it was a Comte. Much loved in France. Rarely found in India. Strike 0 I am afraid!
Cheese 4 at 9 o clock: The last one. Formless and creamy, this one, again was a no brainer! It was a blue, and French Roquefort is stellar as far as blue cheeses go. I find blues with blue mold singularly strong. Random trivia the Roquefort has green veins not blue. IMHO this makes it more nuanced.
Total marks 2 1/4. Not as good as I would have liked. I made a resolution to change that. Must get to know French Cheese better!
Blindfold on, Nose blocked. It was surreal to taste without seeing what I was putting in my mouth. Not smell... But I have to share, the blind tasting was a brilliant idea, distinguishing from usual tastings. Though blocking the nose was a new one. When we taste food, the eyes and nose play a huge part in how we taste although its the mouth that is in focus. So with sight and smell blocked my experience that day depended on my fingers, and solely on my taste buds. I was able to distinguish with my hands, able to taste sweet, salty, sour, bitter and umami and on my tongue and my palate was able to feel textures like creamy and grainy, but visual and nasal ques were unavailable! I realised what asignificant contribution they make to foods high on aroma, like cheese. I was intrigued. I also found it educative to observe reactions from fellow participants. It brought home to me the fact that we all have our own taste memories and food references that made us react differently to each cheese!
Once our collective excitement ebbed, Francois invited us over to a cooking station where he would showcase some recipes. Confessing it was his first time in India, he shared that he had worked with the chefs at Artisan to create some recipes that mixed cheese with a touch of Indian inspired flavours. I was skeptical, fusion can be hit or miss at the best of times, more so when one is not acquainted with ingredients. My fears were pleasantly dispelled as he showcased four simple ideas.
Chevre Dip - He mixed creamy Chevre with finely chopped fresh coriander, spooned it into dip bowls and sprinkled over toasted black sesame seeds. The result was lovely, crunchy, earthy sesame that gave way to creamy tangy chevre that had a herby zing from the coriander.
Comte Bites - Next he took the Comte, removed the rind and cut it into bite sized chunks. Sticking toothpicks in them, he dipped each chunk - just the surface - in balsamic vinegar reduction. He then dredged the balsamic coated bottom in toasted white sesame. The result was a hit of crunchy sesame, sweet sour balsamic and nutty beautiful cheese.
Apricot, Camembert 'Sandwiches' - In this one, Francois, combined Mascarpone with finely chopped apricots, pistachios and a little bit of gin. He then slliced a wheel of Camembert in half, piped the Mascarpone mixture into a layer and sandwiched the two haves together. It was chilled and served up in little wedges.
Cashew Baked Camembert - Wheels of Camambert were dusted with curry powder and sprinkled with cashew. The whole was baked until the cashew was toasted and the cheese soft, runny and aromatic. I was most skeptical about this one but fell in love once I tasted it!
The recipes Francois shared were really good! I stood corrected. He wisely played with just 3-4 ingredients, mixing singular flavours and textures allowing the cheeses to shine through. The ideas were unpretentious, fuss free, quick and easy. Also lovely to look at! (And I do not say this easily. I pride myself on my cheese platters). But I'd never have thought of combining Comte, balsamic and sesame? And that Apricot Camembert idea! WOW! With the sort of inspiration these have given me, cheese platters are going a notch higher around these parts! Thank you, Francois!
I've attended many, many cheese events and many, French food events, this was by far one of the funkiest ones.
First of all, meeting Francois was exciting! I've met cheese makers, sellers and more but this was my first encounter with a Cheese Sommelier/Monger. (Imagine a job eating cheese ALL DAY!) And François Robin is one of the best of his ilk, an awardee of 'Best Cheese Monger of France'. Not only is he passionate about his subject, but like every expert that loves what they do, he makes the tasting of cheese entertaining and educative, but most importantly pretention free. Its ok to not know, or not like. As a curator of food events, I know what it takes and Francois hit the perfect notes with his curation of the tasting session!
Then the Blind Tasting! As concepts go, the blind tasting was riveting for me on a personal level too. It takes so much trust! Of the people putting food in front of you at that moment. Of being vulnerable. Expect to see more experiments with blind tasting on these pages.
And the Demonstration - A cooking demonstration is only as successful as what the participants take away from it. I took away a lot!
We have a fair selection of cheeses from around the world coming into India (though cold chain woes and government import regulations hamper the category a fair amount). But if you find European and French cheeses, indulge! Some of the best artisnal cheese in the world comes from Europe where -unlike many other parts of the world where cheese production is commercialized, cheese making is a tradition, that has evolved over centuries, with knowledge passed down through generations. And the production is still at a hands-on, small farm level, where the farmer knows his cows by name. This results in great products.
I am really glad, that entities like the European Union, CNIEL and Atout France are bringing us interesting people and food from the European and French food Industry. Because French cuisine is worth exploring and we do not have enough of it in this country! Look forward to more!