In summertime, I follow Parisians who’re making a mass exodus from the city. We scurry from the city, jamming crowded autoroutes and packing the train stations. The city offers few trees or shade, and the sunlight reflecting off the white buildings means little respite from the withering heat no matter how hard you look-and there’s only so much icy-cold rosé that I can drink!
So I often make weekend trips to the village of Coulommiers, where there’s a lively outdoor market selling the most famous cheese in the world: Brie.
Brie is not a town, but a region to the east about one hour away by car or train. The sunday market in Coulommiers is one of my favorites because no where else in the world will you find so many cheese vendors selling all kinds of Brie, many unavailable anywhere else.
There are two true Brie cheeses. The classic is Brie de Meaux (Bree-du-Mohw), about 14-inches across, each disk weighing approximately 5 pounds. Brie de Melun (Brie-du-Meh-Lahn) is slightly smaller, a tad higher, and doesn’t ripen all the way to make a creamy pâte, like Brie de Meaux. Often you’ll cut open Brie de Melun and discover a drier layer of underripe cheese in the middle (at left). These cheeses have the most superb flavor in the late spring-to-early summer, when the cows feast on mustard blossoms, giving the cheese a musty, complex flavor and slight golden tinge.
Brie de Melun is aged longer than Brie de Meaux. It has a firmer texture and many aficionados prefer it because of it’s stronger and more aggressive flavor. Both cheeses can be made with raw or pasteurized milk, although I prefer the raw versions, which are rarely available in the United States due to regulations in the US (where you’re allowed to drive at high-speeds on freeways while talking on a cell phone and drinking a giant latté, but prohibited from eating cheese that has been prepared the same way for centuries.)
These two Brie cheeses are AOC (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée) as of 1990, a product designation given by the French authorities, which states that these specific cheeses meet certain criterion for heating, coagulating, and salting the milk, the subsequent ripening, as well as being fabricated within the specific region. Most cheeses you’ll find labeled Brie are not a true Brie unless the AOC label is affixed to the exterior. In the US, you’ll only find it at a specialty cheese store…if you’re lucky to find it at all. In France, a notable exception is Brie de Nangis, which is a young, milder Brie from the region but does not carry the AOC label, but it’s good. The AOC designation has also been given to 34 cheeses as well as other products like the tasty green lentils from Puy, Haricot Tarbais (the dried beans used to make cassoulet), and the free-range Poulet de Bresse.
Although AOC is often a sign of quality, other products don’t carry the appellation, since they may be made in a neighboring region, or a slightly larger size, or stirred a few more times than the regulations allow during production. So as with anything, let your nose and the taste be your guide. No matter where you live, always seek out a good cheese shop and ask the fromager for advice: they’re a wealth of knowledge and should be proud of their cheeses and happy to help you.
Coulommiers is another excellent cheese from the region, and not AOC. It’s a smaller round, about 6-inches in diameter, and not widely known outside of France. Coulommiers has the same barnyard-like smell that is delectably appetizing in Camembert and indicative of a truly ripe Brie, but is a bit more pungent.
Locals in Brie are perhaps the only ones who have developed an appreciation for Brie Noir. Normally Brie cheeses are ripened for between one and two months. Brie Noir is ripened much longer, often 8 to 10 months. It’s such a regional specialty, and only appreciated by people of the region, that you’re likely never to see it anywhere else.
As you can see, Brie Noir is dark, brown, and crumbly. It’s covered with dusty powder and it tastes, well…horrid. After my first eaglerly-anticipated bite, I could not get the vile taste out of my mouth. It’s bitter and acidic. A friend from Coulommiers suggested I dip it into my café au lait at breakfast, which I suspiciously tried, which actually moderated the flavor and made it more palatable. Who knew?
Brie Q & A’s
But my supermarket cheese says Brie…isn’t that Brie?
Real Brie is almost always Brie de Melun or Brie de Meaux. Most of the other cheeses labeled ‘Brie’ are not true Brie. They often won’t ripen properly and taste worlds apart from real Brie.
Should you eat the rind?
The general rule for eating the rind of any cheese is that you may eat it as long as it won’t interfere with the taste or experience of the cheese. For example, something with a lot of mold growth obviously wouldn’t taste very good. A tough rind, like the rind of Parmesan, you wouldn’t want to eat either.
How do I cut Brie?
Think of any round wheel of cheese like a pie or cake. You should slice a triangular wedge out, so that you have a nice portion of cheese.
When presented with a full cheese plate to serve yourself, never cut the ‘nose’ off the cheese, the pointy end: It’s very bad manners!
Can I bring back raw milk cheese into the US?
That depends. Most of the time, I’ve found Customs Officers (oops…I mean ‘Department of Homeland Security’) officers will look the other way as long as you’re bringing in cheese that’s for personal consumption. Obviously if you have 60 wheels of Brie, you will likely get busted. Many fromageries in France will Cryo-vac (sous vide) cheese for transport to contain the fragrance, which I recommend. I once traveled with cheese in zip-top bags and by the end of the flight, the overhead bin totally reeked of cheese.
Luckily the other passengers were French…and for some reason, the US officials quickly waved me through customs.
10 Reasons The Amateur Gourmet Should Come to Paris…
1. They have no idea who Bobby Flay is.
2. The have no idea who Rachel Ray is.
3. They know who Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes are, but don’t care.
4. Scientology is illegal.
5. Since they wouldn’t let Oprah into Hermès, there’s an unclaimed Birkin bag for Adam’s mom.
6. They know who Oprah is, but don’t care.
7. Yes, figs are really in season here.
8. “Brangelina” and “Bennifer” are not in the French vocabulary.
9. Richard Quest has been ‘on assignment’ for a suspiciously long time.
10. We need some New Yorkers here to show Parisians that you can’t just walk right into people and expect not to get slugged.
11. Carrie Bradshaw left.
I’m in heaven with all the sensational fruits that explode at the markets every summer. Each shopping trip, I invariably lug back with way too much fruit. But everything looks so good I can’t resist; rosy nectarines, blushing apricots, and crisp, dark cherries.
So to help you choose the best summer fruits, here’s some shopping tips. Best bets are often at Farmer’s Markets, where the growers take primo care of what they’re selling and often they encourage sampling before you buy.
The most popular sweet cherry varieties are deep-dark red and plump, with moist, perky stems. Bing cherries are reliably excellent. Although some varieties, like Queen Anne and Rainier, are light red and yellow-colored, they have a more delicate taste, which some people prefer. Cherries should be washed, then stored in the refrigerator. Unlike most other fruits, cherries are more appealing when served very cold and crisp.
Avoid cherries that are wrinkled, which means they were picked a while ago. Split apart cherries means they got wet while growing and will mold quickly.
When buying berries that are packed in plastic or cardboard containers, peek underneath: moisture on the bottom indicates the berries below are soggy or moldy.
Strawberries should be uniformly red with no green at the tips or at the stem. (Did you know the cluster of seeds concentrated at the tip is referred to as a ‘cats nose’?)
Strawberries should have a sweet smell. Some berries have been hybridized to be red on the outside, but disappointingly underripe within, so color’s not always an accurate indication. Avoid buying commercial strawberries after rainy weather: since they grow near the earth, they’re often sprayed with a rather nasty chemical to prevent mold. Look for organic strawberries instead.
If you’re not going to eat strawberries the same day, store them on a plate in the refrigerator, in a single-layer, so they don’t mush each other down.
Raspberries, blueberries, and other bushberries should be plump and dry. Blackberries should be inky-black and a bit soft, never rock-hard. There’s nothing worse than a sour blackberry.
Blueberries should be firm. Most have no fragrance. Did you know that each blueberry can contain up to 100 seeds? If you don’t believe me, slice one open and count. I never wash any berries since they’re too fragile-except blueberries and strawberries.
Can you freeze fresh berries or pitted cherries? Yes. Lay the fruits out in an even layer on a non-reactive baking sheet (or line one with parchment paper.) Freeze. Once frozen, store in zip-top freezer bags. Frozen berries and cherries can be used for sauces, or added frozen mixed with other fruits for pies, crisps, and cobblers.
It’s been said that finding a good melon is like falling in love. Sometimes you have to try a lot of them to find the right one.
Judy Rodgers in The Zuni Cafe Cookbook insists that the best melons are the ones with lots of netting and claims not to have picked a bad one since learning that. I always take a good sniff. The most amazing melons I’ve tasted were melons that I could smell before I could see them.
Choose a melon that’s heavy and relatively firm, but not-rock hard (except for honeydew melons.) Any mold by the stem end or mushy spots are indications of it being over-the-hill.
A simple melon dessert can be made by pouring sweet wine, such as Muscat or Sauternes, over slices of melon and berries and chilling them well. Store melons in the refrigerator.
The best peaches have a sweet, perfumed aroma if you sniff the stem end. Peaches need to be picked a day before ripening, then ripened off the tree. Or better yet, the same day. If they’re too green, they were picked too soon and will never taste good. Ditto for nectarines. Find fruits that are mostly red and blushing.
If faced with a bin of underripe fruits, find one that’s rather soft and smell it. If it smells good, chances are the rest will be too, once ripe.
Neither of these fruits boast much aroma, but they make up for it with lots of flavor. Apricots should have an appealing blush and no green. Red-tinged apricots means they’ve received lots of sunlight and will likely be good. Apricots are best when they’re gushy-ripe. They should be very soft, like a water balloon. My favorite variety are the Royal and Blenheim apricots.
Most of the flavor in plums are in the skin, and they make the best jam, especially when mixed with raspberries. Santa Rosa and Elephant Heart plums are reliably good.
Baked apricots are a superb, easy dessert: simply halve ripe, but firm apricots, place face-down in a baking dish, pour in a wine glass of white wine (dry or sweet), and drizzle with a copious amount of honey (use more than you think, as apricots get quite tart when cooked.) You can add a split vanilla bean too. Bake until the apricots are tender and juicy.
Delicious with vanilla ice cream!
Ha! I fooled you.
This time, this really is a ‘no-recipe’ (unlike my No-Recipe Cherry Jam) since unless you have your own bushes and pick them youself, you’re not likely to have enough red currants to make jam.
(The rose petals, not the cleavage!)
God forbid you don’t buy fresh bread every day in France. And I love bread, so it’s not unusual for me to come home carrying more than I should. So the problem is, it’s rather difficult to eat all that bread.
So what to do with all that lovely leftover bread? I make Panzanella, a Tuscan salad designed to use up lots of leftover bread, which we ate this weekend during an outing in the countryside. Tuscans don’t salt their bread, which goes back to a long-standing rift between them and the people from Pisa, who controlled the prices of salt many years ago..and they say I hold grudges!
(But if you’ve ever had unsalted bread, you perhaps can understand why they have so much leftover.)
You can use any firm-textured bread you have on hand. I prefer levain bread, which is dense and won’t fall apart when tossed around. But you should use what you have leftover as long as it’s not too airy. And in spite of what everyone tells you, it’s not vital to use pricey heirloom tomatoes:marinating them in copious amounts of fresh herbs will infuse ordinary tomatoes with summertime flavor. And feel free to use lots of chopped fresh herbs as well. Oregano, marjoram, thyme, and fresh mint are all wonderful mixed in.
About six servings
Adapted from The Sweet Life in Paris by David Lebovitz
In traditional panzanella, the bread gets soaked first. However I find tossing it in a copious amount of liquid from the tomatoes, and the dressing, does the same thing and adds lots of flavor. Interestingly, I’ve read that tomatoes were supposedly not used in panzanella until 1928. But like most foods, origins are often mired in controversy.
- 4 cups torn pieces of hearty, country-style bread (approximately 1-inch/3 cm pieces)
- 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
- 1¼ teaspoon sea salt
- lots of freshly ground pepper
- 2-3 cloves garlic, peeled and finely minced
- 3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
- 1 red onion, diced
- 3/4 cup best-quality olive oil
- 8 medium tomatoes (1½ pounds/750 grams)
- 1 large cucumber, peeled, halved, and seeds scraped away
- 3/4 cup pitted black olives, preferably kalamata
- 1 cup packed (80 grams) coarsely chopped mixed fresh basil, mint, and flat-leaf parsley
(Note: I don’t precisely measure herbs for this, so feel free to use lots and lots. The more the better!)
½ pound (250 grams) feta cheese
1. Preheat the oven to 400ºF (200ºC) degrees. Spread the torn bread pieces on a baking sheet and toast until deep golden brown, about 15 minutes. Stir once or twice as they’re toasting. Set aside to cool.
2. In a large bowl, whisk together the mustard, salt, pepper, garlic, and vinegar. Add the diced onion and let sit for at least 30 minutes. Stir in the olive oil. Remove the stems from the tomatoes and cut into 1-inch (3 cm) pieces. Cut the cucumber into ½-inch (1½ cm) pieces.
3. Add the tomatoes and cucumbers to the bowl with the dressing. Add the bread, olives and fresh herbs and toss well. Taste, and add additional salt, oil, and vinegar to your liking.
Crumble the feta over the top in large chunks and toss briefly.
If you plan on eating at Le Verre Volé (The Stolen Glass) be sure to call first and reserve a spot. It’s located just next to the Canal St. Martin, a trendy quarter of Paris, and there’s only seats for about 18 people or so. But unlike New York or San Francisco or Los Angeles, you could call that afternoon and likely get a spot. During dinner I told my dining companion that if this was in New York, there would be a line out the door…and around the corner.
I began the complex task of choosing from one of the wines from the shelves. Each has the price written across the neck of the bottle since Le Verre Volé doubles as a retail establishment. To drink it there, they add a modest 7€. I scanned the shelves and chose a red Mazel from the Ardeches (18€) that was very light and fruity. A bit ‘fresh’ when first opened—once it sat, it gained complexity. I was happy that it was the perfect choice for the warm evening and hearty food. During the evening, practically every three minutes, someone would roar up on their scooter, disembark, and rush in to buy a bottle of wine for dinner.
We shared a jellied terrine of oxtails (5€). The finely shredded meat was gently molded with some spring asparagus and peas, all barely held together with jellied beef stock that was light. It was served with pickled, vinegary capers on their stems and dressed salad greens.
All the main courses were meaty: blood sausage with roasted apples and potatoes, andouillettes de Troyes, and veal Marengo. Not being much of a fan of ‘variety meats’ (as they’re politely called in America), I chose the caillettes ardechoise (10€), a patty of well-seasoned pork ground-up with tasty and still-chewy beet greens and spinach. It was roasted until searingly-crisp on the outside, and when I split it open, a moist cloud of steam erupted revealing fork-tender meat within.
One could also make up a meal composed of lots of the appetizers, like the roasted eggplant caviar, salt cod-stuffed peppers, or platters of various meats and cheeses.
The genial young men who run the place managed to keep the small crowd happy. One took orders and opened wine, while the other stood behind the tiny bar and dished up salads and roasted meats and sausages in the small ovens. Behind the bar is a glass door leading to an air-conditioned room, a jumble of boxes and bottles of wine.
I’ll see you there.
Le Verre Volé
67, rue de Lancry
tel: 01 48 03 17 34
Métro: Jacques Bonsergent
UPDATE: In late 2010, Le Verre Volé remodeled and put in a real kitchen and additional tables. I still like the place, however it did lose the impromptu feel that it used to have after the transition. And having a kitchen has made the menu a little more “ambitious”, which I’m not sure is necessarily a good thing. (I miss the copious cheese and charcuterie boards, for example.) It has also become quite popular so it’s best to book well in advance if you want a seat in this still relatively small dining room. On my last visit, our reservation was in their reservation book, but they told our small group that they couldn’t give us a table because they didn’t have room for us. The did give us the name and phone number of a restaurant in the 20th arrondisement that they recommended.
Related Links and Wine Bars
Stand back. This is gonna get messy.
I’m going to teach you how to make something without a recipe.
Before you panic, remember that your grandmother made lots of things without recipes and without measuring everything down to the last 5/9ths of a teaspoon. Just breath. That’s right, it will be okay. It’s easy to make jam and you can do it without a recipe.
No-Recipe Cherry Jam
You’ll notice a difference in the cherries and the jams shown in the post. The lighter one is made from sour cherries and the darker is made from sweet cherries. The recipe will work well with either.
1. Buy as many cherries as you feel like pitting.
Usually I have the patience for about 3 pounds, but it’s up to you. Figure one pound of cherries will make one good-sized jar of jam. Plump, dark Bing cherries work really well, although Burlats are good, and if you can find sour cherries, your jam will rock.
2. Wear something red. Rinse the cherries and remove the stems. Using the handy cherry pitter that I told you to buy a few weeks ago, pit the cherries. Make sure to remove all the pits. Chop about 3/4ths of them into smaller pieces, but not too small. Leave some cherries whole so people can see later on how hard you worked pitting real cherries. If you leave too many whole ones, they’ll tumble off your toast.
3. Cook the cherries in a large nonreactive stockpot. It should be pretty big since the juices bubble up. Add the zest and juice of one or two fresh lemons. Lemon juice adds pectin as well as acidity, and will help the jam gel later on.
4. Cook the cherries, stirring once in a while with a heatproof spatula, until they’re wilted and completely soft, which may take about 20 minutes, depending on how much heat you give them. Aren’t they beautiful, all juicy and red?
5. Once they’re cooked, measure out how many cherries you have (including the juice.) Use 3/4 of the amount of sugar. For example if you have 4 cups of cooked cherry matter, add 3 cups of sugar. It may seem like a lot, but that amount of sugar is necessary to keep the jam from spoilage.
6. Stir the sugar and the cherries in the pot and cook over moderate-to-high heat. The best jam is cooked quickly. While it’s cooking, put a small white plate in the freezer. Remain vigilant and stir the fruit often with a heatproof utensil. (Wouldn’t it be a shame to burn it at this point?) Scrape the bottom of the pot as you stir as well.
7. Once the bubbles subside and the jam appears a bit thick and looks like it is beginning to gel, (it will coat the spatula in a clear, thick-ish, jelly-like layer, but not too thick) turn off the heat and put a small amount of jam on the frozen plate and return to the freezer. After a few minutes, when you nudge it if it wrinkles, it’s done.
If not, cook it some more, turn off the heat, and test it again. If you overcook your jam, the sugar will caramelize and it won’t taste good and there’s nothing you can do. Better to undercook it, test it, then cook it some more.
Once it’s done and gelled, add a bit of kirsch if you have it, clear cherry eau-de-vie which will highlight the flavor. Or add a few drops of almond extract, but not too much, or it will taste like a cheap Italian cake. Ladle the warm jam into clean jars and cover. Cool at room temperature, then put in the refrigerator where it will keep for several months.
See, you did it!
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