When my cheese shop boss asked if I wanted to go to the Fancy Food show, how could I refuse??? And when she asked if I wanted to attend a Cowgirl Creamery-sponsored discussion led by an affineur, Clarence Grosdidier, from the Bordeaux cheese company Jean d’Alos, I KNEW I could not pass this opportunity up at all.
As I descended the escalator into the convention halls, I realized that I was in for way more than I was anticipating. There wasn’t one, but two enormous, football-sized halls featuring over a thousand exhibitors of specialty foods and beverages. And they all had many, many samples. That goodness I didn’t have lunch that first day. I ambled on over to The French Farm, a wholesaler of delectable French products. I do admit I did a little gavotte of glee when I saw they had tins of butter “palet” cookies (it’s my Breton side). The products there were among the most delicious in the whole show–a creamy garlic spread, amazing truffle mustard, a variety of jams, floral jellies, and olive oils. Mmm mmm mmm. And this was just the beginning.
I dazedly wandered around, sampling random things, when my boss told me that Ina Garten, host of The Barefoot Contessa, author, and one of my grandmother’s favorite celebrity chefs, was meeting people at the Barefoot Contessa booth. For Oma’s sake, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to meet this woman who’s managed to charm her way into our family’s Vietnamese kitchen. My boss kindly offered to take a photo of us on my dinky, fuzzy cell phone. Ms. Garten turned out fine. I think I look like I’ve just turned 13. Score one for Oma!
Cowgirl Creamery/Jean d’Alos discussion time: Upon entering the room, I received a packet with a small description of Jean d’Alos, the cheeses they distribute in the U.S., a color map of France, and a tasting notes section, as well as a sampler plate of cheeses that would be treated during the discussion: comté, morbier, ossau, and . . . drumroll . . . Tome de Bordeaux. To cleanse the palate between cheeses, we each received a single Cowgirl Creamery crackers made by Rustic Bakery.
What a treat this whole experience was. From one of their affineurs, Clarence Grosdidier, I learned that the company ages about 100,000 wheels of approximately 250 cheeses amongst the porous rocks of a former renaissance-age convent. These stones contribute to the final qualities of the cheeses through the notion of terroir (more on his discussion of that in a bit). M. Grosdidier broke down the work of an affineur into three parts: 1) selecting the cheeses to age, based on her understanding of the terroir (farm, fields, weather, vegetation, environment, etc.) in which the animals, and thus the milk, come from; 2) “raising” the cheese to its adult life and bringing out the terroir in each cheese; 3) transforming known cheeses into new ones, or inventing totally new cheeses. To elaborate on this, M. Grosdidier explained how he uses al of his senses determine the aging and quality of cheeses under his care, including sound as he knocks cheeses, listening for the particular sound a good cheese makes. On the second point, I learned that the role of the affineur in watching over 100,000 wheels of cheese is understanding the inner cycle of the product, the evolution of the cheese as it sits on the cool, dusty, shelves of the old Couvent des Recollets. There are certain milestones particular to each type of cheese, so affineurs must know them, recognize great wheels from good ones from bad ones, treat the cheeses accordingly, and, if necessary, sort them for market segmentation.
He also painted a somber picture of the artisanal cheese industry in France, explaining that many small farmers are disappearing. Young people are no longer drawn to artisanal work. They’re seeking careers elsewhere. Consequently, the cheeses that ARE being produced are less diverse, creativity is lagging. Unfortunately, the government aid in this sector does not reach the very smallest, and most threatened, cheese producers. The artisanal cheese industry is so small, M. Grosdidier estimates that there are a mere 10 artisanal affineurs in France. In an effort to revamp industry interest in artisanal cheese, Jean d’Alos is taking initiative and heading a program that trades funds for new cheeses. M. Grosdidier explained that in many cases, these cheeses being supported by the initiative are NOT AOC (appellation d’origine contrôlée) cheeses. According to him, in his most intriguing statement of the afternoon, he said that he sees the AOC system as a means for larger cheese manufacturers to benefit, not these small producers. Usually, Americans love cheeses that sport the AOC label because they are supposedly the most “authentic.” M. Grosdidier believes otherwise. Right now, I am kicking myself for not asking him to elaborate further on this, but I promise to delve deeper into this potent assertion.
In my next post, I’ll get into the cheeses we tasted, and the experts’ tasting notes.