All things cheese in France

Monday, 16 August 2010

Bees, Honey and Terroir

In the middle of August Paris is deserted. The last of the stressed out Parisians have left for les vacances and lots of the city is closed leaving us diehard residents to flâner in a ghost town. And so a little bored this weekend, we were roaming around and happened upon this most interesting shop in a fascinatingly time warped area of the 13éme arrondissement, La Butte aux Caille. Almost like Montmartre or rue Mouffetard in the 5th but original, uncrowded and thankfully a bit too plebeian for the menace of the colonizing bobos.

Not something I would have gone in search of but here under a threatening sky, albeit plant based we discovered another form of produits de terroirs. In this tiny shop called Les Abeilles  (the Bees) fresh from les ruches (beehives) were honeys of all sorts, from mel à la tireuse (honey by the pull), named mille fleurs (mixed flower) to miel de cru (single flower vintage honey), beeswax, beeswax candles; soaps and every thing related to the practice of apiculture. The owner Monsieur Jean-Jacques Schakmundès says honey is one of the last pure products on earth, one that comes 'direct from the producer - the bee to - us, the consumer; one that undergoes no treatment, no form of transformation and no additives'. And this being France, honey is subject to strict controls, so it is as pure as if you went out in the fields and collected it yourself.

Terroirs! Well, of course, cheese has it so why not honey too! And just like wine and cheese, honey has its own vocabulary and some even have an AOP designation (Appellation d'origine protégée) as well. Honeys are described by colour, texture, taste and provenance. Each honey, just light wines, has a provenance, while the colours depend exclusively on the origin of the flowers the bees are pollinating. The rule of thumb says that the clearer and lighter the colour, the milder the honey will be; the darker more amber the colour, the more full bodied or spicy the honey will be.

We learned that the textures are different as well, some are light and creamy others are dense and stiff. And when it comes to the texture, all honeys are liquid when they come out of the hive, the textures varying from liquid to creamy and thick to firm. All of them will cystallize at their own rate according the varietal, but a crystallized honey has the same taste and therapeutic values as those that are still liquid.  And wow is it healthy!

Suffice it to say besides falling prey to an enormous slice of Pain d'épices to take home with us, after we sampled five or six of the most exotic single cru honeys, we walked out with four amazing specimens : two light, golden ones - Néflier (from the Medlar tree) and Bois de Cuir (from the Leatherwood tree) and two dark copper ones - Chêne (oak) and Sarrazin (buckwheat flower).

Here is some of the descriptors for French honey:  
Colour : blanc (white), crème clair (clear cream), ambré trés pâle (pale amber), ambré clair (clear amber), ambré (amber), roux (red), ocre pâle (pale ocre), brun soutenu (deep brown) 
Texture : fluid, creamy, thick, firm 
Taste : trés doux (very mild), doux et parfumé (mild and fragrant), trés parfumé (very fragrant), délicat (delicate), soutenu (pungent), fort (strong), corsé (spicy), légère amertune en fin bouche (lightly bitter long note)

Les Abeilles French honey : 
Acacia mild flavour is liquid, clear and does not crystallize Provenance : all regions of France  
Amandier (almond tree) is deep brown, creamy in texture and spicy with a light bitter after taste Provenance: Vaucluse
Châtaignier (Chestnut tree) is dark brown in colour and extremely liquid, it is strong and spicy with a light bitter after taste. Provenance : Cévennes 
Eucalyptus (eucalyptus) is pale ocre colour, creamy in texture and pungent in taste. Provenance : Corse, Andalousie  
Fleur d'oranger et d'autres agrumes (orange blossoms and other citrus fruits) is clear amber, very creamy and very fragrant. Provenance : Spain and Corsica (mandarin)  
Garrigue et de montagne (honey scrub and mountain flowers) depends on the provenance of the flowers. It is generally liquid in texture, very fragrant and deep red. Provenance : Languedoc  
Lavande de Provence (lavender) is cream coloured and very fragrant with a slightly granular Provenance : Drôme, Vaucluse  
Sarrasin ou blé noir (buckwheat) is deep brown in colour, spicy and thick. Provenance: Brittany  
Trèfle (clover) is a white honey with a creamy texture and very mild flavour. Provenance: all regions  

Les Abeilles
21, rue de la Butte-aux-Cailles
75013 Paris

Téléphone : +33 (0)1 45 81 43 48
Métro "Place d'Italie" ou "Corvisart

Sunday, 1 August 2010

Terroir - The Very Soul of the Earth

The other day while doing some research, I came across an old interview with someone I much admire - Marie Quatrehomme, the first woman to be awarded the coveted Meilleur Ouvrier de France (2000). She is one of the best maître or in this case Maîtresse fromagère-affineuse in Paris, a star, an expert in her field. What was interesting about this was that the interviewer asked what spurred her curiosity for cheese and her response was la gourmandise

Really? Gluttony? One of the seven deadly sin? Was this really what she meant I wondered, for this woman is purported to be one of the most modest and genteel people in the business and gluttony seemed a bit strong (watch this BBC interview to see her in action and judge for yourself). To be sure, translation is a landmine, and while today the sinful word is more often translated as la gloutonnerie, in earlier times gluttony translated as la gourmandise. So in this case I have to believe she was referring to a more subtle, refined meaning of the word gourmandise, like delight or indulgence or delicacy.  Using my version, her response to the question about what inspired her passion for cheese was :  

"Indulgence (delight). There is not one cheese I have not tasted, and I would be hard pressed to say which I prefer. What is interesting with cheese is their infinite variety. To a certain extent, each cheese is an individual: with sample that bear the same name, you can have different tastes depending on the season, the degree of ripening, even the time of day. That's indulgence, ephemeral pleasure, fleeting, but that one can repeat at will."  

She goes on to say that "People here want des fromages de terroir (local cheeses) of which the progress from cow to shop does not eluded us! It is part of a history, the geography, in short, the way of life of our country. There is not a region in France that does not produce cheese, including Brittany." All very interesting and very true. The interviewer summed up the passion Madame Quatrehomme has for the subject of her metier in this phrase - "Cheese: a delicate substance, eminently appreciable, elusive, it is somehow the soul of the earth." 

Indulgence, delight or just a pure pleasure, when it comes to cheese, it is indeed any one of these, for to share the very soul of the earth it offers us is truly worth the sin.