Etienne Boissy - the best tradesman in France (cheese waiter)
I believe that in the home, to make a cheese board, like that, you must not skip quality, even high quality. That can be quite fine, when we get into spring take advantage of the goats being at their best, why not, offer three or four different goats' cheeses. You can make a good cheese board with that and you can add maybe a wine which will go very well. With the goats' cheese you are going to move towards a white wine, dry, lively which will complement it very well.
Good advice on cheese? We could not have a better source - we are discussing this with Etienne Boissy who has just been honoured one of the six best tradesmen in France (cheese waiter) for the year 2004. It is a very prestigious title for the manager of the restaurant at the Institute Paul Bocuse where he teaches 'table art'.
In order to prepare a good cheese board, you have to have, from the beginning, good suppliers, that speaks for itself. But if we are trying for excellence, well, we have to increase our knowledge a bit more than that:
You have to know how to talk about it... cheeses. You have... So, personally, what I'm always trying to get over to my students, it's just that, knowing the names, knowing the origins, the families, knowing perhaps a bit about how it's made, and that's important too, I believe in that too, it's trying the maximum to use cheeses whilst they are at their best for the season. For example, it is true that with spring time now we are starting to have very good goats' cheese as the goats are starting to get out running around in the meadows, eating the grass which is starting to be... to grow, and the milk has much more flavour than in winter and so cheeses which are much better. In winter, well you have cheeses which are typical, there's Mont D'Or, Vacherin from Haut-Doubs, so that's a winter cheese as it's a cheese which has matured that we serve from October till the end of March. Later there isn't any more, it's finished because it's the summer milk, and then later on there are the months of maturation which means that the end of March it's finished and that's great we eat the cheese at the right time. So it's true that today, well... many cheeses... you can have them all year long. But they are not always top at that time. So that, it's... I think that it is also what touches the seasons, that is important.
And then, the importance is also in the restaurant, it's best to explain that. For a cheese waiter, it's cutting, cutting the cheese, cutting the cheeses right for... Each cheese there's a way of doing it. Right away there's the economic stake, since if you cut a cheese any old way, in a flash you're going to have more than the cost for example, you're not going to be able to serve it any more, you have to put it to one side. It's also for giving it, for respecting the product since there are people who have taken a lot of time over it. The cheeses, in the cellars, they are turned, washed, they are taken care of. And so if you come along and you cut it any old way, it's right away logical, right, so a lot of respect for the product is... I think that that's important too.
If France has a world reputation for cheeses, it is not simply because of quality - there are good cheeses everywhere in the world - it is also because of the variety that you can find in the country:
Switzerland for example is a county which has very good cheeses. Holland. In Italy and in Spain, there are very good things too, but the range of varieties, it's true that it's however, without wishing to be too nationalistic, I think we can say, it's very varied in our country. Well in the Middle Ages, even at that time in the abbeys, cheese was well established in France. Cheese often comes from mountainous areas too, that is places which are hard to get to, few chances to move; before manufacturing, cheese was the best way of keeping milk, not wasting milk. That one comes from there, and so I think that, if you like, cheese is very much tied to wine. In France, the agriculture, in the area of wine is very important. It's a product which comes from fermentation and cheese too; so as it is very much connected to that that product too. It is true that, well, Rochefort at first was a bit, surely an accident. There were some white tommes at the start, from sheep, so in the Aveyron, and then by the penicillium of Rochefort, this mould, it's the bread which has been in contact at one moment or another with some mouldy bread so sets of the fermentation in these tommes. So they always tell stories about that: the baker who had forgotten at the bottom of his pantry some sheep's tommes and found them again sometime later when doing a spring clean. They were completely blue. He thought that they were spoiled and damaged and finally while tasting them, as he was curious of course, he noticed that they were delicious.
Once you have the taste for example for Pate Molle a Croute Lavee, then all that is rather spicy cheese usually. Well, there are many cheeses like that in the north of France where the people are hard people. There were the mines etc. They had to have hard things, I think, it's the tradition, and then, well the cheeses were often linked to alcohol, that means they wash the cheese with the alcohol of the area, so with beer in the Maroile, with Marc de Bourgogne for the Epoisse cheese. So this idea of washing the cheese with the local alcohol to give the character, to protect them too. Then in the region of Nord it's true that they found a lot in the very rich pasture land as they did in the area of Paris, Ile de France for Brie for example, and Normandy for Camembert etc. So it's very rich pasture land and that provides these very fatty, very rich, very smooth cheeses that we find in these areas, in these regions, and then in the south they move more towards goats' cheeses. It's true that the south of France is the most arid and so there it's more difficult for cows and really the goats, they are there to eat the little bushes etc, so there are little herds more in the south. There is speciality also for goat's cheese, it's the region of the Loire country, around Poitier, so that's historic, that is in the region there are very few cows. There is a speciality of goat's cheese and so that, that's in history that you have to investigate. It's when Charles Martel stopped... So it was the Moors who invaded France right up to Poitier, so Charles Martel stopped the Arabs and they had with them in their caravans, they had some goats. So whilst they invaded the country they made goat's cheese and it became a tradition in the area. The Sainte Maure de Tourain which is an AOC for example, the Chabichou du Poitou, 'chabi' in Arabic means 'goat' in Arabic. You see, it stayed in the region and there are many AOC in that area for cheese and goats.
We can like that discuss things rather randomly but that explains a little all the... It's a history which has influenced a little all that and then France has truly shown the way by AOC, Appelation d'Origine Controlle, that is keeping the products for the area, defending them, keeping the habits, the knowhow of the farmers.
The threats come from all over. Because of concerns about bacteria such as listeria, some people even wanted to ban the manufacture of cheese from non pasteurised milk. This matter is no longer in the news even if M Boissy does not want them to rest on their laurels:
There was quite some attack then, from the European Union in 1992 when in effect they turned rather towards something rather uniform in the sense of taste, and then cheese from non pasteurised milk was under threat. I think that today the business has turned around, has tried to explain and demonstrate that unpasteurised milk is not a handicap for making safe cheese, since on the contrary a living product, it is true that it can be invaded by a pathogen, but it also has the ability to protect itself as it is alive. So it is really synonymous with good things, the area, the know-how. No, I think that today it is really recognised: we have to be on our guard.
And the health risks, are the unfounded then?
Well, listeria, you can eat some as you can find some in lots of foods. When you go to the supermarket with the package salads for example, they're full of listeria. Well, you are not sick, you see. No, I think that cheese from unpasteurised milk, it's been demonstrated that there are not any risks. That only asks... you must not experiment as a cheese maker or cheese producer, that means there's know-how and whilst it is true, sometimes you go into some farms, today the legislation requires that they are much more hygienic places in the area of manufacture, I think that it is just fine. This has put some small businesses in danger, that is making a white tiled room from floor to ceiling , some have not been able to do it, so they have stopped making cheese. They have taken their milk to the neighbouring dairy, and that's maybe a bit of a pity, but on the other hand that has eliminated maybe some of the worst of them too.
They say that there are nearly 300 varieties of cheese in France. But that does not prevent the courageous from looking for new ones:
I think for example... about goat's cheese, there are small producers of farm cheeses who for example are going to be creative with their products, well, now they are making lots of logs, pyramids, hearts, things like that you see, it's not AOC, they are not in specialised regions, often they are cheese dairies and they manage to make things which are quite wonderful. There are some groups, dairymen too, who are creative, making products , who are trying to do a bit... they are going to cause a stir, they are going to do... when we talk about pasteurised cheese, for example, there are things which are there to please people, what they are going to call cream cheese, soft, which is nice, you see, so they're going to, you know, they're going to heat the milk, they're going to pasteurise it at more than 70oC then they're going to kill off all the activity, so it will be a dead product and then, later they are going to reintroduce fermentation to give it the taste that we want, you see! It's the taste that we want, that's the difference. It's not the natural taste. It's not what nature makes. It is more mountain milk you see, but on the other hand it could be good.
But frankly, for me, I am still, well I'll always be, it will be a pleasure to taste these cheeses, but I will still be the defender of cheeses which come from a place where there is someone who has made them, where there will be a seed, in each region there will be a different seed, in the mountains... you see? Personally that is what I love to defend. That has a lot of importance for me.
M Boissy won his prize of the best tradesman in France thanks to a competition where the participants had to prepare a dish on the theme of "time":
I had, in the area of the availability of cheese, I had set out on the seasons, the cycle of seasons, for the weather with..., so... You see here, the spring is lighter, and summer, autumn, winter, so a sort of... we are going around in that way in the way of cheese, in fact, I had laid them out from the lightest to the darkest, that is we were setting off in spring with the goats, Bries, Camemberts. We were going on to the more golden cheeses of summer. In autumn, redder cheeses, you see, all that is Pate Mille a Croute Lavee, Munster, Livaros, etc and we finish in winter with Pates Pressees, Pates Sombres, Croutes, Tommes of Bauges for example, Beaufort, Abondance, things like that or goats, also smoked, you see. We had a sort of climb in colour which meant that we wanted to turn around the room like that, you see.
So if you do not have the means to make such a display in your home, here is some more modest advice from the master:
Why not serve a good slice of Rochefort that you can accompany with a glass of Port, or to remain French, a glass of Bauyuls, a natural sweet wine? So there you bring it out well, you have a good rye bread with currents, for example, the slice of Rochefort and the glass of Bauyuls. You've made a nice dish. So, cost wise it's good, there isn't any... At home it is true that cheese can be expensive, so it's just fine, and you can give a pleasure to your guests. But sometimes we like to even present a choice too. So because we have the luck in France of having such a variety of cheese in the families of cheeses, like that, if you have a table of ten or a table of eight at home, you are sure to be able to please everyone by offering a fresh goat's cheese, a Camembert from Normandy, a slightly stronger hard cheese for example Epoisse. Then a pressed hard cheese like Beaufort for example and then a blue. So you have a range which... Well, you'll be sure to please everyone. So that, that can also be an opportunity.
For M Boissy, the love of cheese started early:
Why the cheeses, like that? I come from the Drome, from Saint Donin sur l'Herbace near Roman and my grandmother had some goats and used to make goat's cheese in the style of Picodon. So then I have some memories as a child of working with her in the cellar, of the smells and then the tastes as I loved these cheeses.
And invigorated by his success in the competition, he has great ambitions for the future:
I have a big job to do here. I think that I'll be called to go abroad, since, well, here, the best tradesmen of France, be they in the kitchen or the bakery always have the possibility of going all over the world, so well I hope that today I will be able to go with them, you see. And well, I still have ambition, in the future, or later on of being able to create one day at home, create my own business. I am 41 years old. That leaves a bit of time yet. I don't have to do training on the way. If I were doing something, I think that it would be an association of cheese makers, a restaurant, a sort of cheese bar where at the least we would serve cheese at the table.
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