A WAY WITH CAMEMBERT

 
 
 
 An invitation to visit Isigny-Sainte-Mère in Normandy had me reaching for a map. I had long been familiar with beurre d’Isigny and crème fraîche d’Isigny on leading supermarket shelves;  but until now, if you had asked me where exactly the place was I could no more have been sure of my answer than of telling you the subjunctive pluperfect of être. By contrast, even today many a U.S army veteran would be able to pinpoint the spot unerringly. In June 1944, Isigny was a few murderous miles from the key D-Day American objectives of the Pointe-du-Hoc and Omaha Beach. That summer, dairy cows, innocent victims of the allied invasion, lay dead and bloated in the lush meadows bordering the present great white Coopérative Laitière (dairy cooperative)  d’Isigny  on the outskirts of town.
 
 
 
 Some dairy! As a child in Sussex I frequently had the task of fetching the milk from the nearby farm. There, often huddled in my outdoor clothes, I would sometimes watch Ted Gumbril milking the Jersey cows by hand. In memory I can still hear the milk jetting into the pail. Today, it would be virtually impossible to witness so potentially an insalubrious procedure on any of the 250 farms which, depending on the time of year, supply the Isigny cooperative with anything from 30,000 to 45,000 litres of milk a day. “Our producers undertake to rigorously  comply with the Agri Confiance manual”, says the press handout. ” This covers feedstuffs, animal welfare, the levels of hygiene on the premises and milk collection. In addition to all the audits carried out by an independent certifying body, our own quality control teams pay routine visits and carry out checks on all our producers. This way we can guarantee complete and audited traceability”. 
 
 
 
 So no  “Shove over there my beauty!” as Ted Gumbril butts a tan and white Jersey flank with his head (which is covered by a handkerchief, knotted at the corners) and draws his stool closer to the good natured animal that is supplying the essential accompaniment for tomorrow’s porridge. Here in Normandy only gleaming stainless steel and snaking plastic tubes. Only impeccable white wellies and long white coats and disposable caps imperative for all visitors. No sparrows chirping in the rafters. Only the hiss of air filters and hydraulics. Only the low, background gossip of machinery that never sleeps. And yet: “ On the farms in the old days they used to fill cheese moulds by degrees, ladle by ladle, giving time for the milk to settle between each.” explains my guide. “Now, we replicate the process automatically with that apparatus you see there”. Up and down go the stainless steel cups, in and out of the milk, opening and closing above the moulds passing on the conveyor belt below. In the control room a man surveys a battery of computer monitors. One of them, I suppose, is keeping track on the production of the “Traditionally churned” butter, another on the Crème Fraîche d‘Isigny  (Médaille d’Or Paris 2004). No dipping one’s finger in the cream churn when Ted Gumbrill isn’t looking.  No swinging my quart can round and round at arm’s length, vertically, in an elementary demonstration of centrifugal force as I go homeward up the hill.
 
 
 
 Centrifugal force is key in this state-of-the-art transmutation of some of the most nutritious grass in the world (the area of supply is strictly Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée) into some of the most internationally famous food products of France. At scientifically calculated speeds, fat and buttermilk are spun apart, the one to be metamorphosed into umpteen varieties of cheese (Camembert, Brie, Livarot, Pont L’Évêque, Saint-Paulin, Saint-Jouvin, Mimolette…………) cream, and several of distinctive Beurre d’Isigny, the other into instant skimmed milk powder. A far cry from waiting 24 hours for the raw cream to rise to the top of the milk, then skimming it off by hand. An age away from strong arms labouring at wooden churns. And the cows: where are they? For three or four months of the year as likely as not “au chaud”: happily indoors; munching away at a varied menu of hay, root vegetables and maize and whatever else constitutes the bovine plat du jour. Twenty per cent of the A.O.C. production area is constituted by the marries — land long-since reclaimed from the sea but seasonally inundated by the rivers Douve and Taute and Vire and Aure and Merderet— which cannot be grazed until it emerges from the winter floods. When it does, the grass is especially rich in nutrients and grows so fast (the locals like to tell visitors) that anything inadvertently dropped in the morning will be irretrievably overgrown by the afternoon. Then, the native Normandy breed and the Holsteins take to the meadows again. 
 
 
 
I round off a morning’s tour of the great dairy cooperative of Isigny in the tiny kitchen of the restaurant Chez Roger at le Grand Vey, near Carentan, just across the bay. Joël, the chef patron, is showing me how to produce something I have never heard of before — a baked camembert. First blanching some slivers of fresh garlic, he then pushes them into half a dozen incisions he has made with the point of a knife in the surface of a beautifully ripe specimen of the famous cheese. That done, he scatters chopped basil, thyme and parsley on top, adds a twist or two of black pepper from the grinder, sprinkles a little red wine overall, puts the camembert, still in its box, into a small casserole without the lid on and consigns it to a very hot oven. Ten minutes later, after another glass of Moët et Chandon Brut, we eat the melted cheese as though it were a fondue, using pieces of very crisp baguette as dippers. Sensational!  Truly, a revelation!  Joël says that almost any fresh herbs will do but that the cheese must be in a box, which has been stapled together; not glued. 
 
 
 
Neither Chez Roger, nor Joël’s way with camembert, nor Isigny, will be news to a host of serious gourmands. For myself, all three were happy discoveries. Off the beaten tourist track, the restaurant owes much of its repute to word of mouth among the Anglo-Norman cognoscenti. If only every source of restaurant intelligence were as reliable!
 
 
 ‘A Way with Camembert’ was commissioned 6 years ago by a magazine that then went out of business, so to the best of my knowledge the piece was never published. (And  was I ever paid?). The superb Coopérative Laitière d’Isigny is still alive and well, though I dare say some of my numbers might need revision. But what of Chez Roger? If any of my readers can update me it will be a great kindness.www.west175productions.com/Great_Food/recipes/recipe031.
www.isigny-ste-mere.com

 

 


GOURMET IN THE GORSE

Remembering Alaska, when dinner in the gorse on the Sussex Downs was over, instead of burning the empty foil packets (‘pouches’, as the makers call them) in which it had been cooked and from which it had been eaten, I sealed them carefully in a plastic bag (Alaska grizzlies have an ultra-keen sense of smell), poured myself another wee dram of Laphroaig single malt whisky and read Peter Fleming’s News from Tartary until my eyes got too tired.

It was not the first time I had dined by candlelight in a gorse thicket. When Robert Louis  Stevenson’s Vagabond stated a preference for ‘bed in the bush’ he had a point. For the timorous traveller, the chief advantage of gorse over any other kind of boscage is its obvious (though I would contend superficial) inhospitability. Potential predators are discouraged. Anyway, for the ridgeway walker at the eastern end of the South Downs scarcely any choice of cover for a bivouac presents itself: it is gorse or nothing.

I had come no more than 6 or 7 miles from Eastbourne, but my pack was heavy, the climb up out of Jevington had seemed especially demanding and by 4 pm I had had enough. With the sun already low in the sky and my reserves of energy swiftly following it, I scanned the ground ahead for a likely patch. What I sought was a configuration of prickly vegetation in which a deceptively impenetrable margin yields to an inner clearing spacious enough for the erection of a one-man tent. Fortunately, an almost ideal situation awaited me and by the time it was necessary for my 24-hour camper’s candle to be brought into service my establishment was more or less ship-shape and Bristol fashion.  It seemed the moment for a dram or two of something to set against the very rapid and potentially insalubrious fall in temperature up there on the Sussex chalk. It was now that I first brought out the flask of Laphroaig

And so to dinner.  To confess to having brought little to eat but what was contained in two 3.3 oz packets of freeze-dried food may well invite the scorn of outdoor romantics, but it was not just any old freeze dried food. The year before, following a camping expedition in the remote northern wilderness of Alaska, a packet of Mountain House Beef Almandine and another of Chicken Chop Suey, made in Oregon and purchased in the Four Winds supermarket, Fairbanks, had travelled back to England with me. Moreover, this was not just  common or garden Mountain House, which itself is excellent, but a particular  product range with the endearing  brand name of Woodsy Owl. A couple of centuries ago it was observed that, within reason, the longer the voyage of a cargo of Madeira, the better the wine. I am now able to testify that there is a je ne sais quoi about Woodsy Owl Beef Almandine and Chicken Chop Suey that have travelled to northern Alaska, thence half the world to England and have ‘rested’ (as they say in the wine business) among miscellaneous camping gear in a basement in London SW4 before being consumed on a winter evening on the South Downs.

‘Serving suggestions for main course entrées and meats’, said the solemn legend on the packets.  ‘Add boiling water and eat directly from the pouch – no dishes to wash, no cooking required, wait 5 to 10 minutes and enjoy’.  It may not sound the sort of thing that the Michelin Red Guide to France would distinguish as being “vaut le détour”; but that evening. both beef and chicken seemed to me not far short of epicurean. Ask which was better  and, risking some Mountain House chef’s feelings, I am bound to say the Chicken Chop Suey;  but then, I long since came to the conclusion that Chinese cuisine may be the best in the world.

It was after eight when I blew out the candle. Though I started with my shoulders out of the sleeping bag I awoke about midnight, snuggled right down, secured the drawstring of the hood until scarcely even my face was exposed. and was blissfully warm and comfortable. Yet while I slept the Downs were turning white in a heavy frost.  So far as I knew, not a woodsy owl had hooted or a grizzly had stirred.


After the Paulée

So that’s that for another year. With the superb professionalism of the French traiteurs matched by that of the Circle of Wine Writers’ own Jancis Robinson as she Tweeted her way from the sea bass truffé to the petits fours, (how on earth does anyone manipulate a Blackberry or an Ipad while the Magnums of Meursault and Methuselahs of Montrachet are jostling around the table?) the Paulée de Meursault 2011 passes into Burgundian history.

What time did the world’s best-known lady of wine get to bed last night, or this morning? We may never know. But blog life must go on, and even as the cutlery and crockery in Meursault are carted to the dish washers, and the similes in Sussex are checked for wear and tear, we are indefatigably concerned with future blog postings. Faithful to our declared editorial policy, the majority are most likely to be about France, but there are other riches in store, so that not infrequently there will be more than one item on the menu. There will, be no shortage of wine. Rarely great wine, but always good, honest French wine: wine of ‘character’ encountered on our travels in that greatest of all wine countries.

There will be no wine in our posting on Thursday, 24th November, however. On that day we shall be driving. Accompanied by an American lady, we shall be on our way from Le Touquet in the Pas-de-Calais to Biarritz in the Pyrénées-Atlantiques. The experience will feature in a moving story entitled ‘The Trouble with Cynthia.’

Au revoir.

FRUITS DE MER PAR EXCELLENCE

The coast of  Normandy  at five o’clock on a grey afternoon. Looking west from the Royal Marine Commando memorial on the cliffs above Port-en-Bessin, I can see offshore at Arromanches the huge concrete blocks that are the remains of the Mulberry artificial harbour built for the allied invasion of 1944.  Eastwards, are Omaha Beach of infamous memory and the Pointe-du-Hoc.

It is high tide. Below me, one by one, minute by minute, the trawlers — the  chalutiers— which since the very early hours of the morning have been lying alongside the quays of the inner  basin, are leaving the port and fanning out  into the English-Channel. Some continue until they are lost from  view. Others seem to be holding, or moving very slowly, only a few miles  distant  and I wonder if already they are dredging the ocean floor with their metal  rakes and pouch-like nets. Some night very soon  they will be back to unload their catches into the great  shed where before daylight  they will be sold à la criée:  by auction.  A few hours later the precious shellfish will be displayed on  colourful seafood counters  all over France.

Coquille Saint-Jacques; pecten maximus;  the mollusc immortalised in the 9th century legend of Saint James of Compostella, its fan-shaped shell an enduring pilgrim symbol and a favourite souvenir of many a happy day on the beach, its succulent flesh said by some to be as beneficial for the libido as that of the oyster. At  the offices of  Normandie Fraîcheur Mer  it is impressed upon me by the head of  the fishermen and wholesalers cooperative, and  the head of quality control, that what I am going to be learning about here  in Port-en-Bessin is not just any old coquilles Saint-Jacques, but coquilles Saint-Jacques Red Label, Label Rouge.  The difference?  Red Label is a distinction awarded by a National Commission for standards in food products, hard to get and jealously guarded. Red Label coquilles must be freshly caught in approved fishing grounds at the most favourable time of the season, rigorously selected from the whole catch by the fishermen themselves and stored flat between catch and auction in order  to keep sea water in the shells; all circumstances which decisively affect the wholesomeness and taste.

Quite new to the whole subject, innocently but truthfully,  I remark that I had always supposed coquilles Saint-Jacques to be exclusive to Brittany. There is a pained silence;  then, politely but firmly: “Monsieur ! Two thirds of France’s entire consumption come from Normandie ! ”. Chastened, I learn that from October to May coquilles Saint-Jacques are the staple livelihood for about 250 local trawlers, each with a crew varying in number from two to four.  In summer, the closed season for the shellfish industry, tourism is very important for the likable little town with its pastoral hinterland and sandy beaches, but it would not be a wild exaggeration  to say that Port-en-Bessin largely lives off the coquilles.

And the coquilles themselves: what do they  live off and how sustainable is a resource which the fisheries of Normandy alone are depleting at the rate of some 10,000 tonnes a year?  “Plankton”, says my expert informant, then by way of allaying my environmental concerns cites a body of laws and safeguards in support of  an assertion that his industry is one of the most strictly regulated in the world. The catch is limited by season, quantity, zone of activity, regular scientific evaluation of impact on habitat, and so on and so impressively forth. Nevertheless, and as always (cod in the North Sea; tuna in the Mediterranean; whales in the wider world …….) I am left disconcertingly unconvinced as to the ability of the oceans to withstand the unceasing demands made upon them.

There appear to be no such misgivings in Port-en-Bessin. Collected by a guide from the Centre Culturel,  I am taken on a tour which includes a lofty hangar where, safe from the keen north wind, a whole team of shipwrights are hammering what I take to be oakum between the planks of  a beautifully constructed new trawler. It is curiously comforting to observe that the process of caulking appears to be as it probably has been since Jesus walked on Galilee and that someone or has faith enough in the future of pecten maximus  to have commissioned a boat which is going to cost half a million euros.

The boatyard is the last item on my  sightseeing  tour at the end of a busy morning. Knowing that I am likely to be dining and wining handsomely  this evening, I  lunch frugally but agreeably  with soupe de poisson  and  a beer at a brasserie facing the inner harbour, then drive to Omaha Beach where the horrific  opening scenes in the film “Saving Private Ryan” (though shot in Ireland) were supposed to have  taken place. I have been to Omaha twice before. No matter how many times I might come again, the knowledge of what happened here in June 1944 would always overwhelm and appal me. Formal memorials  are unobtrusive. Most eloquent, as they are likely to be the most enduring, are the remains of the massive German fortifications from which came the shell and machine-gun fire that were mostly responsible for more than 2,000 American dead in the space of a few hours. Two or three miles offshore is an area where no trawler today would ever let down its dredge. Still intact there, guns pointing landwards, are the Sherman tanks which were supposed to have “swum” ashore  to support the infantry, but which went to the bottom with their crews seconds after leaving their cross-Channel transports and entering the sea.

Sombre thoughts do not survive my arrival back at Port-en-Bessin and  the delightful 4-star hotel-restaurant La Chenevière on the outskirts of town. Briefed on my current preoccupation, the chef, takes me into his  kitchens for  a crash course on the preparation and cooking of  coquilles Saint-Jacques. Opening them (they are alive, of course) is easier than opening an oyster. Once demonstrated, separating the mollusc from its shell  and discarding what small part of it is inedible is simple. Cooking embraces a number of classic methods and recipes, all governed by the ineluctable rule that the coquille is a delicate animal, almost impossible to undercook. To illustrate the point a thin slice is cut from a  noix (the white, main part of the coquille) for me to taste raw. It is delectable. So are the Tripoux de Saint-Jacques à la mode de Port-en-Bessin  (one of the chef’s specialities) which he makes for the first course of our dinner.

No praise is too high for the sauce beurre blanc  which we have with the sea bass. Under instruction,  I made that myself.