I rang in the New Year at a French dinner party overlooking the Seine, hosted by Tom's teammate's girlfriend. It was really an international party - a handful of French, a Brazilian, a couple Argentinians, a Dominican, and then us two Americans - but the experience and the food was one hundred percent authentic French. It really was one of the classiest, most wonderful dinner parties I've been to, especially considering the last four years of my life have been spent amidst college athletes and themed keg parties. For hors d'oeuvres we had guacamole, made by one of the Argentinians who is training to be a professional chef, with chips and an apéritif (pre-dinner drink) of mojitos served in a punch bowl. After about an hour of dancing around language barriers, we moved to the beautifully-set table for our first course: foie gras (what else?) served with toast, a small salad, and a sweet wine. Next came smoked salmon and a dill lemon bechamel sauce with a drier white, also served with a small salad. At this point we had to take a break to pop open some champagne and celebrate the New Year - yes, our dinner started at 10:30 and had progressed forward only two courses before 2014 began. But it was a wonderful way to enjoy company and food, decidedly better than the "American way" of loading your plate and stuffing your face. After the toast, we returned to our seats for roast goose with a beautiful red wine gravy and roasted vegetables, paired with a 2001 and a 2005 Bordeaux, courtesy of Tom's French teammate's father as a Christmas gift. The wine was one of the highlights of the meal, and of my wine-drinking life. Thanks to my wine-loving father, I've had my fair share of aged bottles, the best being a 1981 Opus One. But I didn't think I was going to get a chance to have aged French wine while still in Paris, and was infinitely grateful that Jeremie chose to share this beautiful bottle with a handful of foreigners he had known only a few months. Finally came the cheese plate, perhaps one of the most important courses in French dining. Eating cheese as dessert is one of my favorite French customs (and they're not missing out on the sweets since most of them have some sort of baked delicacy for breakfast, or with lunch). There was roquefort, camembert, mimolette, chevre, ossau iraty (sheep's milk cheese), delice de bourgogne (triple cream cheese), comté, and maybe one or two others. After this impressive display of French artisanal cheese traditions we took a coffee break, and then returned to drinking with a digestif of mint and vodka.
The French food tradition is one of finesse, enjoyment, and attention to detail and quality. France has a deep and storied history of artisanal food production, which makes your average home cook a bit more qualified than many from other countries. The standard is set so high for becoming a professional in France partly because their social history has provided them with a standard of excellence in the kitchen at home as a natural part of growing up. it is woven into their DNA. This amazing dinner party with such wonderfully prepared food, better than many restaurants I've eaten at in the States, was probably nothing too out of the ordinary for them on a holiday. The tradition of inviting friends over, cooking an extravagant meal for them, and then enjoying food and drink is one that I hope to bring back to the States with me. And the first thing I want to bring back is my increased knowledge of constructing cheese plates, so here I have written down a collection of simple notes on what I've learned from my fromage adventures while in Paris:
Constructing a Cheese Plate Worthy of France:
Cheese plates should consist of 3-10 cheeses of different textures, types, and flavors, and served at room temperature.
A good mix of textures allows the flavors to distinguish themselves. The official cheese texture scale includes four categories: soft, semi-soft, semi-firm, and firm. Your spread should reflect this spectrum and include a graduation from soft to firm. Soft cheeses often have a rind and are spreadable, like Camembert or Brie. Semi-soft cheese can hold its form without a rind (though may still have the rind intact for flavor) but is still spreadable - Mozzarella, young Gouda, and your typical crumbly blue cheese are examples. Semi-firm cheeses are often aged and can stand without the support of a cracker or toast, such as Gruyère de comté, swiss, or raclette. And firm cheeses are those that are quite aged and may crumble when cut, often used for grating over foods - think parmesan, asiago, mimolette. Texture is easy - all you have to do is pick up the cheese in the store and give it a squeeze to see which category it falls under.
Officially, there are 16 flavors of cheese. If you're really interested in becoming a cheese snob, this infographic by Sean Seidell gives a detailed look at the flavors and where common cheeses fall on the scale. And although I appreciate the existence of "pineapple" in cheese flavor descriptors, I don't quite know really what it is, so I'm going to stick with my dumbed-down version for the typical amateur cook and entertainer: sharp, sweet, strong, and mild. Including a flavor variety makes your cheese plate more interesting and also fills you up more so you don't overdo it. For a sharp cheese, a parmesan or mimolette would work. A sweet cheese would be something like brie, chevre, or a cream-based cheese. Strong cheeses include blue cheese or camembert, and mild cheeses include young gouda, swiss, and mozzarella.
Different animals will mean slight but distinct flavor variations in cheese, which is why it is good to have a variety of cheeses from sheep, goats, and cows.
Pictured above is my almost ideal French cheese plate (although I would add mimolette to this one). The top left is Trou du Cru, a soft and very strong cow's milk cheese. Top right is Pur Brebis, a firm and sweet sheep's milk cheese. Below those is Morbier, a mild and semi-soft cow's milk cheese. To the right of that is the classic Crottin de Chevré, a mild and sweet goat cheese, and in the bottom left is Bleu d'Auvergne, a strong cow's milk cheese. Of course this plate is missing a sharp cheese, which I would have added with the mimolette, but it still has a generally good range of all the flavors, textures, and types. We served it after a dinner of cured pancetta, smoked salmon, foie gras, and salad along with sliced baguette toasts. Voilá! French cheese plate accomplished. When I return home, I'm going to be hunting the pile of imported cheeses at Whole Foods to find some mimolette, roquefort, comté, and chevre to mix in with my favorite Bay Area artisanal cheeses.