Dairy is in a class all its own.
 

Meeting Alison McQuade, Chutney Queen

Food and cheese bring together a whole host of wonderful personalities, which is a big part of why I love meeting as many of them as possible and sharing their stories with you. Today, I present to you the strong-willed, big-hearted, entrepreneurial Alison McQuade, maker of McQuade’s Celtic Chutneys. Since launching her chutney business over ten years ago, she has developed a devoted following in San Francisco and beyond.

McQuade's Celtic Chutneys at Cowgirl Creamery.

McQuade’s Celtic Chutneys at Cowgirl Creamery.

The business of chutney came to Alison by chance. She had spent her career doing the sorts of things I dreamed of not so long ago. Leaving her native Scotland behind, she worked at the British Consulate in New York City, the World Trade Center, the United Nations, and in law firms doing intellectual property work (OMG!). Along the way, she had even received her Scottish dancing teaching certificate (Since I’ve done Irish step dancing most of my life, we compared a few dance notes. They’re different dance forms, sure, but related!). After she had settled in San Francisco with her husband, one of the folks at Cowgirl Creamery got hold of a jar, which until then had only been gifts for friends and family. Impressed, the Cowgirls asked for 60 cases of the chutney for their new Ferry Building shop, and a business was born.

These days, Alison is up at around 5am to make chutney, deliver it, and run her business. She now delivers 6-8 quarts a week of the apple ‘n ale chutney to Cowgirl Creamery’s Sidekick at the Ferry Building, on top of a host of other San Francisco shops and restaurants. She also sells online. Her music of choice is Cuban, which she can play in her commercial kitchen as she cooks up fig ‘n ginger, habanero, banana curry, pineapple red chile pepper, cranberry tangerine, and more. Her passion for chutney has opened doors everywhere. She teaches classes about the magic of making chutney. She’s on the board of Grace Cathedral in SF, the SF Professional Food Society (where we met), and is involved with Junior Achievement. She’s a chutney superstar! People yell “Hey Chutney!” at her on the street.

Chutney on the menu at Cowgirl Creamery's Sidekick.

Chutney on the menu at Cowgirl Creamery’s Sidekick.

The progress Alison has made in chutney has given her ideas for her next venture—a Scottish restaurant. Yes, one day very soon, there will be a SF establishment serving up cock-a-leekie soup, rumbledethumps, haggis (“Haggis balls!” she laughs), and a grilled cheese bar. We might even be able to enjoy all these Scottish delights in the next year! Here’s hoping she finds that perfect location soon.

Alison had some words of advice for budding food entrepreneurs out there.

If you’ve got that passion, just follow the passion, but be realistic. You probably can’t make the kind of money to keep yourself going off the bat. You probably have to start and keep your day job for a long time until you’ve built a base, until the money starts trickling in. Even then, you’re not going to become a millionaire. It’s never going to make you rich. I won’t be rich through doing this. It’s my passion. You can’t beat that.

That said, she loves the freedom and high quality of life that making chutney affords her. She spends a month in Scotland every year to see her family and friends. She keeps up with her many friends in San Francisco and around the world. Money can’t always buy moments like that.

I left the café feeling invigorated and inspired. Alison has that way with the world! She just infuses her surroundings, her chutneys, her projects with her positive, focused energy. Thanks, Alison, for the talk! See you and your chutneys soon!


The 2014 California Artisan Cheese Festival

In Northern California, March means Cheese Festival time! M. Cheesemonger and I decided to participate by volunteering on Saturday afternoon. We rolled up to the hotel venue, got our aprons, crept past Janet Fletcher’s morning session, and slid into the back kitchen, where a crew of cheesemongers, cheese lovers, and other cheese pros were already hard at work cutting up huge chunks of cheese for sessions on pinot & cheese pairing, bubbles & cheese, cheesemaking, rind studies, and then some. M. Cheesemonger and I were put in charge of one beer & cheese session.

Ermahgerd. All the cheeses.

Ermahgerd. All the cheeses.

I quickly realized I’ve lost a lot of my cheese cutting skills after these years away from the counter! It took M. Cheesemonger and me a few minutes of turning cheeses in our hands to calculate how we were going to break down each of the 7 cheeses of varying shapes and firmnesses into 30 pieces.  Mucho respect for all you folks who have to do that on a regular basis! It was tough cutting some soft cheeses into uniform slivers, even with a cheese wire. The Bay Blue I had kept crumbling in my fingers. No human or cheese got too hurt during the process, though. We then wheeled all the cheeses downstairs and set them out for the various sessions. Our shift only lasted a few hours, and we were able to get free admittance to the marketplace the following day! Keep that in mind if you’re thinking of volunteering next year! The festival certainly needs as many hands as it can get. Plus, the people are fun, passionate, and ultra-knowledgeable.

Getting ready to plate!

Getting ready to plate!

Sunday morning, having seen the commendable Livermore Valley Opera production of La Cenerentola (Cinderella, by Rossini) the night before, we were ready to do battle in the marketplace! We roamed around, tasted a bit of cider, a bit of cheese, a bit of endive, a bit of toffee, and walked away with what I thought were some of the shining stars of the show: (1) Gypsy Cheese Company’s Gypsy Rose, a raw goat milk, washed-rind powerhouse with flavor the size of Mt. Tamalpais and a texture like melting butter; (2) Laychee from Pennyroal Farm, a marshmallowy, fresh ewe’sand goat’s milk cheese that makes me feel like I’m kissing a cloud; (3) Kenne from Toluma Farms, a soft-ripened goat’s milk cheese that reminds me of my lazy—erm, I mean industrious—student days in Provence. M. Cheesemonger bought a bottle of the refreshingly light Sonoma Valley Portworks Petite Sirah port and McClelland’s Dairy butter. I wanted to get so, so much more, but a girl’s gotta pace herself! We’re running the cheese marathon here.

Garden Variety Cheese's display.

Garden Variety Cheese’s display.

The festival keeps getting better with each year. This year, they had two tents for a less cramped experience. Our little swag bags were lightly insulated and included ice packs. The organizers added as many farm tours and sessions as they could to accommodate the increasing numbers of devotees. California cheesemakers keep outdoing themselves with better cheeses. I’ve added a slide show below to show you all the photos!

Thanks for the weekend, California Artisan Cheese Festival! See you next year!

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What Do We Call It? The US and EU Spar Over Cheese Names

As the United States has entered into free trade agreement-related discussions recently with the European Union, there’s been a significant uproar over European proposals to eliminate usage of certain cheese-identifying terms in the States. We’re talking about terms like “Brie,” which Americans use liberally to refer to any soft-ripened cheese, “Gouda” to identify all sorts of hard or semi-hard cheese/cheese products, and “Parmesan” to refer to the grated stuff in the can.

The Europeans are raising all this fuss over a type of intellectual property called “Geographical Indications,” or “G.I.s” for short. That legal area doesn’t really manifest itself in the U.S.—the closest thing we’ve got is trademark law. There are some agricultural products associated with certain geographical areas like “Florida Oranges” or “Washington Apples,” but there aren’t any stringent regulations on what exactly constitutes a “Florida orange.” In contrast, in Europe, these GIs are often strictly regulated.

A fine collection of French cheeses!

A fine collection of French cheeses!

In France, for instance, for a cheese to earn the Appelation d’Origine Protégée (A.O.P.) label of “Camembert,” it must be made in a precisely defined region in Normandy (there’s a list of each individual town in this region). The cows must be Normandy cows kept under specific circumstances (e.g., they must be pastured at least 6 months a year and the pastures must be of a certain size, depending on the herd), and dairy farmers are required to keep stringent records of each cow in her herd, subject to review. The cheese itself must meet strict production, physical, and gustatory standards. The milk must be raw. Since it’s aged only 21 days, before the 60-day raw milk aging minimum imposed by the U.S., we can’t buy true Camembert in the States. Let’s pretend that we could, though, and that consumers could encounter AOP Camembert and any old soft-ripened cheese labeled “camembert” in stores. From a consumer’s perspective, seeing an A.O.P. label cheese sends unambiguous signals that the cheese will meet specific quality, taste, and texture standards. It’s a lot like branding. For instance, when you go have lunch at McDonald’s, you are going to expect a certain quality and experience because you know the McDonald’s brand. Same thing with these A.O.P. cheeses—if you buy a Camembert, you know how the animals were raised, what the cheese looks and tastes like, and where it’s from. With this kind of quality guarantee, the Camembert can also be sold at a premium over another non-A.O.P. cheese (which could also be delicious, b.t.w.).

Things are different in the States. There’s no Designated Protection of Origin (D.P.O.) regime. On the contrary, there’s an abundance of creativity in cheese names and styles here—think Humboldt Fog, Wabash Cannonball, Tarentaise. There are, however, lots of those strictly protected European terms that have become generic in the States—“parmesan,” “brie,” “feta,” “gouda.” As a result, all sorts of cheeses and “cheeses” are sold with these descriptors. Consequently, consumers, faced with a non-A.O.P. “camembert” and an A.O.P. Camembert can’t always tell what kind of qualities to expect based on labels alone. Or, in the case of Camembert, because true Camembert can’t be sold in the States, consumers are likely to associate some less tasty cheese with the name “camembert” without having ever tasted the real, certified, deal. That’s a big problem when the European agricultural industries have so painstakingly worked to identify, label, and protect their cheese making traditions.

In some ways, the goals behind GIs are similar to those of trademark law. All around the world, businesses use their trademarks, such as logos, words, images, smells, sounds, symbols, etc. as a sort of business signature when communicating with consumers. People learn to recognize a company’s trademarks and identify certain qualities and values with the company. However, in the case of GIs, we’re talking about something broader—traditional food production—part of the larger scheme of traditional cultural expressions (which also includes traditional medicine, folk songs, traditional craftsmanship, rituals, crafts, and a whole lot more). Cheese producers in Europe want consumers to recognize the qualities of their cheeses based on labeling. Currently, some cheeses sold in the U.S. are riding on the goodwill established by their European counterparts.

French regulations only allow Normandy cows to make certain cheeses.

French regulations only allow Normandy cows to make certain cheeses.

I’m sorry to say, the U.S. doesn’t seem to be a great proponent of traditional cultural expressions in general, so I’m not surprised that they’re not warming to this cheese labeling debate. But I do think the U.S. should be more sensitive to these issues. This debate isn’t new; The Europeans have been fighting mighty hard for a long time to protect these terms and others.

For me, the well-defined D.P.O. cases are where I most easily swing in favor of the Europeans. But what about non-D.P.O. words, like “gouda” or “cheddar”? Currently, I’m going to have to side with the U.S. It’s just impossible to enforce something that’s not defined, or defined only by local customs. However, if Gouda does eventually gain DPO protection, then, I think North Americans should respect that and refrain from using the word.

Practically, what would our cheese landscape look like if the U.S. DID agree to curb use of these words? Cheese companies would have to come up with some new names for some of their products. Good luck trying to get everyone to agree on generic terms right off the bat. They’d be better off using some creativity to give their cheese names some individuality. It would be costly to reeducate the public about a whole cheese vocabulary. Very. It would take a lot of time. It might not even work. People might cling to the terms they know. But if it were successful, there would be no confusion about the differences between Parmigiano-Reggiano and “parmesan” cheeses, where they come from, what they taste like.

Camembert, the birthplace of Camembert cheese.

Camembert, the birthplace of Camembert cheese.

The alternative is what we have today. I think sometimes cheese appreciation is lost in a lot of cases because people have come to associate poor “cheese product” substitutes with real cheese.  Especially now that momentum seems to be building for more transparency in food production, the fact that cheese labeling and “cheese product” production is so unclear and acceptable surprises me.

Do the costs of implementing such a change in our cheese labeling outweigh the benefits? What benefits are there to American consumers? To American cheese companies? For now, the U.S. is deciding that the costs of the change outweigh benefits. In the short term, costs would indeed be high as everyone transitioned. But in the long run, it could be a chance for the American cheese scene to redefine itself, quite literally, in developing a truly independent lexicon.


King of the Breakfast Table: Rey Silo

Spanish cheeses don’t often cross my threshold, for whatever reason, so I was glad to get my hands on a beautiful truncated cone of Rey Silo, a DOP-protected cheese from the Asturias region of Spain. Culture Magazine has a great description of its history and name, so I’ll let you delve into that material on their website.

Um, kind of crooked cutting. Because I was hungry.

Um, kind of crooked cutting. Because I was hungry.

Unwrapping this raw cow’s milk cheese was like opening a map to another world. The paprika-dusted rind has developed a full cover of gorgeous brainy wrinkles, characteristic of geotrichum candidum-adorned rinds. Additional fluffy patches of mold grew on top of the folds, giving the impression of miniature snow-topped mountain ranges along the exterior. Cutting the cheese open, I saw a deep yellow ring around the outer edge where the paste had smoothed out from aging. The middle of the cheese was butter yellow, and still flaky. Small eyes dotted the paste throughout the flaky part.

Check out the paste! and the rind! Together!

Check out the paste! and the rind! Together!

M. Cheesemonger and I each put a half to our noses to inhale the dry, earthy aroma. Working on smell alone, I would say that’s the sort of flavor we could expect as well. Wrong! The cheese had a surprisingly buttery, creamy quality infused with flowers and the slightest bit of earth and peppery tang at the finish. There was a similar sort of duality in the texture as well. The cheese was hard, but creamily broke done once in the mouth.

I LOVE this rind! How beautiful!

I LOVE this rind! How beautiful!

All around—win! I think we’ll be seeing this at the dinner (and breakfast and lunch) table again in the future.

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I inhaled. It was terrible.

This year, I had big plans to attend the Fancy Food Show and Cheesemonger Invitational. I was going to make great food discoveries and live tweet the Invitational for Culture! Except, it didn’t happen. Thanks to the gentle prodding of Lassa Skinner (of Culture Magazine), I’m now sharing with you why.

I choked on a piece of bread crust. Well, kind of. On the Wednesday evening before the CMI, during a mini meal of sourdough bread and Gruyère, I felt a flake of bread crust break off and start to travel down my airway. It wasn’t disruptive enough to get me coughing immediately. I tried to dislodge it by drinking a lot of water, but it never went away. A few hours later, it felt like it had moved further down. I started coughing to see if I could reverse the malicious bread’s descent. The coughing continued into the night. The next morning, I ran errands on foot and tried to practice some singing, but found myself increasingly short of breath. By Thursday night, I knew I had to see a doctor.

M. Cheesemonger took a sick day on Friday to shuttle me to the nearest Urgent Care office at 9am. The doctor there heard my story, and could see I was having some trouble at this point! I was short of breath, still coughing, but had also developed a fever. My voice was reduced to a croak. No fun! We were sent to the a pulmonologist (at 12:30pm), who recommended a bronchoscopy that day to see what could be bothering me, and to clean out my bronchial tubes and whatnot.

We set the bronchoscopy for late that afternoon, it was all I could do to drop into bed when we returned home. Then came the chills and fever. Really, piece of bread? Why did you do this? By the time we returned to the hospital, I didn’t care that the doctor was going to have to stick a tube down my trachea. I just wanted to feel better! This was getting ridiculous. Seriously, Offending Bread Crust was cramping my style.

Happily, the bronchoscopy went well. I don’t remember much of it. As soon as I woke up, though, I noticed my voice had noticeably improved, as had the irritation in my chest. M. Cheesemonger, who was starving by this time, took me home at around 11pm.

Although my airways were now clear, the infection lingered for a full week, confining me to my bed the whole time. I’ve completely recovered now, though!

All that to warn all you food lovers to be careful! Make sure you always have water handy! Chew thoroughly, especially when eating old bread.


California Artisan Cheese Guild Meeting at Toluma Farms

The California Artisan Cheese Guild had their annual meeting not long ago, hosted by one of my new local fave cheese companies, Toluma Farms. Ever since I tasted their goat milk Kenne, reminiscent of those Provençal chèvres that were my introduction to fine cheeses so long ago, I knew Toluma Farms was something special.

Toluma Farms' cheeses.

Toluma Farms’ cheeses.

Despite getting lost for about an hour in the back country of northern California (seriously, I was about to give up and go home, and there were absolutely no humans around. Lots of cows, though.), I pulled up to the property where owners David Jablons and Tamara Hicks live, work, play, and make cheese.

San Tomales by Bleating Heart.

San Tomales by Bleating Heart.

The Guild meeting was well underway. The main buzz surrounded the upcoming California Artisan Cheese Festival taking place from March 21-23. The other buzz surrounded the American Cheese Society’s (ACS) annual conference, this year taking place in Sacramento, our backyard! I am totally excited for the cheese festival, but ACS in Sacramento is really the big cheese of conferences. I can’t wait to go and meet some of my favorite cheese heroes and heroines.

Boont Corners by Pennyroyal.

Boont Corners by Pennyroyal.

We had the chance to taste a bit of everyone’s creations. Apart from the Kenne, which I am majorly crushing on at the moment, Bleating Heart’s Seana Doughty made a gorgeous St. Nectaire-inspired cheese from cow, water buffalo, and sheep’s milk called San Tomales. I don’t know if she’s planning on taking this one to market, but if she does, she’s going to have a real winner on her hands. It had amazing depth of flavor, filled with umami and the added complexity of mixed milks. Laura Chenel’s Chèvre brought some Cabecou, which is always a joy to experience—very fresh, citrusy and flavorful. Pennyroyal brought Boont Corners, its aged mixed milk (cow and goat) cheese, at three different ages (2, 4 and 8 months). They were all exquisite, the younger cheeses flaunting some nuttiness and the older cheeses showing some caramel flavor, as well as slightly musty aging room overtones. I also delighted in Pennyroyal’s Laychee, a fresh goat cheese (although when sheep are lactating, there’s ewe’s milk as well). What pillowy, creamy joys this cheese brings to the palate! If you can get your hands on it, don’t hesitate. Get it. There were other notable cheeses on hand as well, like Nicasio Valley’s washed rind San Geronimo—if you want to make a Northern California version of Raclette, this might be the cheese for you. Redwood Hill Farm came with their Bûcheret and Crottin. Someone brought some little French cheeses washed in what seemed to be walnut liqueur.

A mighty fine cheese spread.

A mighty fine cheese spread.

After the meeting came creamery tour time! David took a group of us, and Tamara took another. I was in David’s group, where I learned that not only is he a cheesemaker, he’s a thoracic surgeon and very much a DIY kind of guy. He loves tinkering with cars, but now, also does all the veterinary work for the farmstead. They purchased the property in 2003, but have only begun making cheese in the last year. Now, there are about 100 sheep on the property and a couple hundred goats.

Check out that cheese!

Check out that cheese!

David explained that the inspiration for their cheesemaking operation is La Tur from northern Italy. The couple went into cheesemaking with the vision of creating similar creamy, bloomy rind, mixed milk cheeses. They’re really doing quite well after less than a year of production. Maybe by next year, they’ll have cows and be making their California take on La Tur!

David Jablons (Right) sharing with us the story of Toluma Farms.

David Jablons (Right) sharing with us the story of Toluma Farms.

After a peek around the creamery, I had to visit the animals. What’s a farm visit if you can’t cuddle something? I headed over to the barn, where a lot of goats were hanging out and a couple of newborn lambs and their mamas. I even got to hold one of them!

Holding a lamb. A little awkward.

Holding a lamb. A little awkward.

Thanks so much for opening your home and your farm to the CACG, David and Tamara! I hope to see you and your cheeses again soon!

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New Tree Cafe in Downtown SF

Not long ago, I moseyed on over to the New Tree Café (16 Jessie St, San Francisco, CA 94105) in downtown San Francisco, a prototype store for this established Belgian chocolate company. There, I met with founder and CEO Benoît de Bruyn, who was enjoying a pause as the café wound down for the day. He splits his time between the café, offices in San Anselmo, and Belgium, so it’s a wonder I was able to see him at all.

Ever since The Wang Post interviewed me and called me an “entrepreneur,” I have been putting more thought into what it really takes to earn that title. Not everyone agrees with me, but anyone who offers something to the public can be an entrepreneur. That includes painters, musicians, writers, and food purveyors. For me, being an entrepreneur means taking responsibility for something, final responsibility. It’s about being where the buck stops.

New Tree Café. That's Benoît with his back to us.

New Tree Café. That’s Benoît with his back to us.

In any case, questions surrounding food entrepreneurship guided a lot of our conversation. Benoît didn’t always know he was going to eventually be head chocolatier of his own company. He began his career as an engineer, dealing with the environmental management surrounding dredging. He always loved food, though, from the production to the service. As a biochemical engineer, he has always wondered how he can grow food sustainably and efficiently, create the most healthy environment, and devise the most healthful recipes. That constant questioning resulted in New Tree, which is now trying to extend its sustainable, healthful formula to a retail-focused environment.

We talked about some of the hurdles he faces as a food entrepreneur, even after the immense success of his company. In San Francisco, land of the tech startup, he’s often greeted with skepticism when he tells people he works in food. I’ve seen this sort of attitude before—people who work with food aren’t always as appreciated as those in other sectors. I’m not sure what it is. Maybe because food doesn’t seem as complex as new technology (it is so complex!). Food grown from the soil is of lowly origins. Dealing with it is messy, physical. Whatever the reasons are, the perceptions are there, and I think it sometimes discourages smart people from entering the industry.

New Tree: where you'll find lots of chocolate samples.

New Tree: where you’ll find lots of chocolate samples.

So what’s next for New Tree? They’re expanding on the completely sustainable food chain—from production to transportation to building materials in their shops. We will see more chocolate, but also more shops/cafés. The café is bringing new challenges to Benoît, who, for the first time, gets to interact directly with consumers.

Thanks for letting me visit, New Tree, and if you’re in downtown San Francisco, the café is worth a visit! You can try so much chocolate!

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A Two-Course Cheese Meal to Kick Off 2014

To kick off the new year with some cheese, M. Cheesemonger and I held a little tasting at our place. We featured lots of Parmigiano Reggiano, courtesy of the Parmigiano Reggiano Academy, an initiative to share the nuances of different ages of P-R, and to share some recipes. We had samples of Parm aged 14-18 months, 24 months, and 36 months. The 14 month parm was the mildest, sweetest, milkiest of the three, while the 24 months was a little more assertive and crunchy (thanks to protein crystals that develop in the aging process). The 36 months really surprised everyone. They didn’t expect cheese to taste so much like meat broth. The umami notes were just incredible. We all went through the motions of smelling the cheeses, examining color differences, and trying to find accurate descriptors as we tasted. It was fun and educational!

Lots of Parm with Simple & Crisp fruit crisps.

Lots of Parm with Simple & Crisp fruit crisps.

And that was just the first course!

Our second course cheese plate consisted of Vermont Creamery’s Bonne Bouche, Spenwood from Neal’s Yard Dairy, La Tur from Italy, Tomme des Reussilles from Switzerland in all its washed rind glory, and Shropshire Blue from the UK. The new ones for me were the Spenwood and Tomme de Reussilles. The Bonne Bouche was excellent—a little on the young side, so not so creamy, but reminiscent of the Loire Valley chèvres I love so much. Everyone loved La Tur with its ice cream texture and triple milk complexity. That disappeared about as fast as a cupcake discovered a 5 year old. Shropshire Blue shone like an orange and blue king on the platter, and surprised people with its strong stony flavor.

Happy eaters.

Happy eaters.

Spenwood was a great, happy discovery. Made of ewe’s milk in Berkshire county, England, I pretty much fell in love with it right away. It was the thin, slightly mottled natural rind that got me first. Then it was the mostly smooth, but not too smooth, pale yellow paste. I inhaled that milky, fruity, kind of musty (from the rind) perfume, and took a bite to find a surprisingly combination of fruity, creamy, and nutty. I use these terms to describe Gruyère or some other French alpine cheese a lot, but this was different, not just because we’re talking ewe’s milk. There was another element like an overwhelming earthiness that I suspect might be due to terroir, different land, different weather and bacteria, different environment from what I’m used to.

The Tomme des Reussilles was another stellar discovery. With its dense, thick paste and slightly crisp rind, it makes for a happy snack. The characteristic washed-rind smell can be a little off-putting for some, but get past that, and you will be rewarded with a gorgeous taste experience—full, unctuous, full of umami, but also hints of grass and cream. I secretly delighted in the fact that some of my guests were turned off by the smell alone—more for Miss Cheesemonger!!

The aftermath.

The aftermath.

To accompany everything, we had some jams (rose petal and pepper), honey, crusty French bread, and these funky dehydrated fruit crisps from a company called Simple & Crisp. I got the pear, apple, and orange crisps, and everyone really loved the pears and apples. The orange, because of the stronger tasting rind, was a little harder to pair. But the apples and pears went really well with everything. I loved them with the Spenwood and La Tur!!

Dessert was a special treat of lemon tarts from Tartine Bakery. Yup.

This dinner party was a particularly silent one. Everyone was so busy eating and enjoying the food! Good sign?

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La Maison Christian Faure–Posh French Pastry in Montréal

Before leaving Montreal, there was one final place that Chef Stephen had insisted we visit, and that was the swank Maison Christian Faure pastry shop at the Place Royale. Open since August 2013, it has quickly gained a devoted following, thanks to the leadership of Un des Meilleurs Ouvriers de France (MOF), master pâtissier Christian Faure. (Note: this title is handed out every four years to top artisans in a variety of crafts—baking and pastry, but also all other types of craft, like woodwork, jewelry making, or blacksmithing).

So much beautiful pastry at Maison Christian Fauré.

So much beautiful pastry at Maison Christian Fauré.

The only meal we had available by this point was breakfast, and who can pass up a plush pastry-laden breakfast with tea? Not Miss Cheesemonger!

After passing through the glass door, my eyes swept across the large mural that adorned the entire left wall showing historical views of the Place Royale and depictions of historical bakers wearing the modern “Meilleur Ouvrier de France” collars.

I want to eat it all!

I want to eat it all!

Breakfast was quiet. M. Cheesemonger and I predictably took our favorite pastries—him the hazelnut éclair, and me the millefeuille. We were won over before the first bite. I loved the particularly crisp pastry layers (how do they cut those layers so perfectly, with such precise angles and no ragged edges?) and uniform, pillowy puffs of filling. How do they so lightly sweeten that hazelnut éclair filling day in and day out with marvelous consistency? We savored every single crumb from our pastries before deciding to shop for our plane ride meals at the counter.

Millefeuille.

Millefeuille.

I couldn’t stop myself from taking photos of everything, and told the friendly woman at the counter that I’d be putting them up on my blog. Her eyes lit up and she asked, “Do you want to meet the Chef? He’ll be right down!”

And so, Chef Christian descended from his school. Not really for us, but to meet a prospective student. He turned to greet me, and offered to take M. Cheesemonger and me on a tour. In the following moments, I realized that Christian Faure’s vision extends far beyond pastry.

Making macarons at Maison Christian Fauré.

Making macarons at Maison Christian Faure.

The school has only existed for barely six months, but already, it is attracting applicants from all over the globe. The intensive program, which accepts a dozen students at a time and lasts six months, has at least 600 hours of activity (demonstrations, practice, special lectures). Chef Christian invites fellow Meilleurs Ouvriers de France, recognized masters in their crafts of chocolate, confection, and pastry, to instruct. The final exam consists of a buffet—each student prepares certain prescribed items (E.g., a chocolate sculpture, croissants, specific cakes), and is then graded on the final results.

In addition to learning the technique of pâtisserie, these students learn about enterprise and entrepreneurship. Chef Christian invites experts in social media and marketing, business planning, accounting, amongst other subjects, to teach his students how to handle the business of pastry. His goal is that they should all know how to write a business plan, how to market their product, how to track their finances. They learn that opportunity is found on a global scale; sometimes, the best jobs are in the United Arab Emirates or Singapore, not Montreal or even Paris.

Hard at work.

Hard at work.

Chef Christian shared with us that the accreditation process with Canadian education authorities was well underway, and that it would happen in the next year. That means that soon, the Maison Christian Faure will be able to accept international students (although it looks like there are plenty of Canadian applicants already). There is already a scholarship program in place for those who cannot afford the tuition.

A storeroom where students can grab ingredients for practice.

A storeroom where students can grab ingredients for practice.

We absorbed all of this information as we walked by the main demonstration kitchen, practice stations, storerooms filled with ingredients, bakers making macarons, bread, and chocolate confections, slabs of house-smoked salmon, and a Christmas tree. In the separate basement shop atelier, a part of the team of seven staff pâtissiers were there constructing pastry. There was even another of the Meilleurs Ouvriers de France instructors in the back working with chocolate (So sorry! I forgot his name!).

The Maître and Miss Cheesemonger.

The Maître and Miss Cheesemonger.

I am so grateful to have this behind-the-scenes peek at the Maison Christian Faure. I especially love the insistence on learning business lessons as well as the technique. Best wishes to you in 2014, Chef Christian Faure! Thank you for training the next generation of fine pâtissiers!

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Maison Christian Faure: 355 Place Royale; Montréal, QC H2Y 1Z6


L’Express in Montreal

On our last full day in Montreal, the plan was to walk in the snow and sub-freezing temperatures through Vieux-Montreal, to the Village neighborhood, then to the Cinemathèque Québecoise in the Quartier Latin. I only started minding the cold about an hour into the walk, when tea splashed on my coat, and the droplets froze in neat rows as they slid down the front. When we approached the Cinemathèque and saw that it was closed for the holidays, M. Cheesemonger and I realized we needed a new plan.

Romping in the snow.

Romping in the snow.

The day was saved by a visit to L’Express, a French brasserie with authentic Parisian style and ambiance. It came to us highly recommended, and we were not disappointed. The bustling dining room was full when we arrived, so we slid into two seats at the counter. From there, I could watch the waiters in their crisp white shirts and vests bring out traditional French fare like bone marrow, steak/frites, and steak tartare. The clatter of dishes, coffee machines, happy diners’ conversations, filled the air. I scanned the short menu, handwritten in French-style script, and chose to battle the cold with a sunchoke soup, a smoked arctic char. M. Cheesemonger went all out with a Montreal blond beer and a steaming pot au feu, a comforting stew with beef, carrots, cabbage, and marrow bone. “That’s what you needed, a warm restaurant and a good meal,” M. Cheesemonger teased me as my grumbling about the weather dissipated.

L'Express.

L’Express.

The restaurant is open until 2am, which makes it a favorite post-work hangout for the restaurant industry folks, I learned. If only I were a night owl!

Pot au feu.

Pot au feu.

If you decide to try L’Express for yourself, I highly recommend reserving a table in advance. It gets pretty crowded; we just got lucky with our counter spots. The restaurant phones were ringing off the hook during our lunch, so I imagine it’s not always easy to get a table.

At the counter at L'Express.

At the counter at L’Express.

Another note: During this restaurant tour of Montreal, I did notice that dining prices are considerably higher than in San Francisco, and diners are still expected to leave a 15-20% tip. Just something to note if you are planning your Montreal visit!

L’Express: 3927 St Denis St, Montreal, QC H2W 2M4, Canada

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