Thursday, January 05, 2006

The Sweet Stink of Cheese

I must digress from my normal musings of my home-cooking adventures for this: Consider the stink.
I like cheese. I really do. It is fabulous: Stinky, sweaty, gooey cheese or firm, nutty and buttery-- cheese is just plain good.

Like most American families growing up, my refrigerator contained plastic— or rather, “American Cheese”. From time to time, we would head north to Wisconsin and pick up some good cheddar or swiss for a traditional grilled cheese. Every now and then, my mother would bless us with some brie. Delicious, buttery brie, which we would melt for a few seconds in the microwave and sop up with some good bread. I remember this distinctly. Most American children are not exposed to real cheese.

I began taking French language lessons in elementary school. I continued in junior high school, and like the other French language learners, I was provided a pen-pal in the 6th grade. The highlight of my school’s French program was the 8th grade: All French classes were given the opportunity to go to France and really apply our language skills. Even at this young age, I was consumed with wanderlust-- of course I went.

The fabulous parent-less journey was 3 weeks long. 1-½ weeks spent in Strasbourg with our pen-pals. We stayed with our pen-pal’s families, attended school, went wine tasting… Then 1 week in Paris for the traditional sites, and ½ week on the beaches of Nice, where most of us had our first topless experience.

My pen-mother was a fabulous cook. Every lunch, we sat down to a traditional French feast. The homemade cuisine featured many regional dishes, saturated in ham, they were pure and succulent. After every meal, my pen-father would yell to the son something I could never understand. Moments later, the sacred box of cheese would emerge. For the next 20 minutes, we gluttonously devoured our cheese course.

Years later, I found myself studying in Prague. Before my studies, I took some welcomed travels to visit my friend L who was living and studying in Paris. Everyday, we awoke late after a night out on the town. Next was the boulangerie for a baguette, then to fetch a reasonably priced local wine, and the favorite part of the shopping: the local market where cheese filled an entire aisle. L and I would walk up and down smelling all the unpasteurized goodness. We would return to the apartment, or the nearby park to a bench, and stuff ourselves silly. It was a deliciously cheese-laden time.

My friend A may attempt a claim that I do not like cheese. This is not true. A went through a macaroni period. (I must at this time point to the recent NY Times editorial on mac and cheese.) A, in fact, became an expert macaroni and cheese chef. She and her roommates tested and combined all varieties of cheese and added all sorts of sausages, hams, or beef to the mix. They perfected The gooey cheesey sauce. But I quickly became tired of the sometimes failed attempts (and the overindulgence of cheese) making claim that I could eat cheese no more…

Until a work holiday party at Artisanal. The sweet stink of this lovely restaurant. My coworkers and I walked in and were dutifully overwhelmed by the stench of this fabulous establishment. My boss at the time became giddy, standing on her tiptoes to spy the delights behind the counter. The uncultured men of the group complained they could have spent dinner in a locker-room for a more pleasant smell. But the fromagier in us knows when a bad stink means good.

I cannot recall the main course I ordered. I do remember the two savory, ribbon-like productions of our starter fondues as cheese dripped luxuriously from our forks. I will also reminisce on their famed cheese puffs (which inspired a much more simple recipe in me that is yet to come): Soft, fluffy balls of pure debauchery in the mouth. And of course, the final cheese platter. My boss and I ran to the counter to imbibe in cheese knowledge and select our desserts. Two tots in a toy store, we ogled, we salivated, we begged the master behind the counter for more of what we desired: cheese.

Today it brings me great pleasure to welcome Artisanal into my home. To my delight I hold in my possession two newly acquired stink bombs. The first, pictured on top is the Fium’Orbo. A goat cheese from Corsica that is “sheepy and persistent but not overly funky.” I say it is slightly salty, with a powerful and delightful afterglow that pairs well with dried fruit. Or, as D makes claim, “strong like Napoleon” (who was born in Corsica). At bottom the Flada, a Swiss cheese, I like to call The Brain. A much stronger flavor and “barnyardy aroma.” This one just melted as I indulged-- I traded my cheese knife for spoon as the stench filled my apartment. I suppose more of an acquired taste, D stated this one was more like “Napoleon’s stables.” His loss, more for me.

There actually is a proper way to eat, or prepare cheese:
1) Provide each cheese with one (more more) knives. This way cheese flavors will not intermingle when cutting.
2) Cheese should be served at room temperature to get the most flavor out of it. In other words, if you're having a party and cheese is involved, put the cheese out about 1 hour before guests arrive for full cheese flavor.

In the next few hours I will lose myself to cheese, adieu.

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