Channon Hodge dispatch #4: Bread and Cheese in France – Where Life Gets Good

Ahhh…Bread and Cheese. The very basics of French Cuisine. If you head to your local Whole Foods and attempt to pick out a French cheese, it can seem pretty daunting, it seems like there are a million varieties and they all have names that sound funny. Likewise, it is nearly impossible to find a decent crusty bread, both in the US AND even in France. Either it’s uber-chewy on the outside and goopy in the middle or it lasts for less than one day and unlike me, you can’t bring yourself to eat an entire baguette in 4 hours.

Clarence, here’s what I’ve been learning: French people know where to buy baguettes and where to NOT buy baguettes. And ALL french cheese is good:)

BREAD / PAIN

For my bread, I’ve found the best place to go is a “brasserie” which sells loads of sandwiches. This little place next to the Gare (train station) in Montpellier sells hot, crusty french baguettes for 0,75 euro or about $1.25. The bread acts as your napkin and, in fact, it’s not easy to FIND paper napkins in the grocery store because people just soak things up with bread (or kitchen towels that ACT as napkins).

Bread should be crusty on the outside, golden and crispy. You should be able to tear it apart with you fingers, and it should flake into “flakes” not “powdery crumbs”. And the inside should be creamy, and white – soft and easy to spread with jam and cheese.

It should have lots of little holes inside but unlike Italian Bread (which is UBER SOFT), french bread is a little meatier. It should stand up to being left in the fridge overnight and reheated in a 325 degree toaster oven the next day for breakfast. I eat a good baguette with basically anything. But my favorite is a recipe that comes straight from the southern Languedoc Region –

Chevre et Miel (Goat Cheese and Honey)

I know it seems a little strange, but it works. This is for anyone who loves sweet and salty – you MUST give this a go. It’s so simple and yet, you won’t believe how tasty – perfect little inexpensive hors d’oeuvre.

  1. Take 1 baguette, slice of toast, half of italian bread – whatever you’ve got
  2. Optional – slice the bread, sprinkle with a little bit of olive oil and salt
  3. Spread with Chevre, or slice chevre into thin slivers and layer on top – Look for a tart goat cheese with some kick.
  4. Take a warm spoon (run it under the tap) and dip into your honey jar. Drizzle over the bread – about 1 tbsp per serving
  5. Sprinkle with “Herbes de Provence” – if you can’t find that use what you’ve got – a mixter of dried herbs preferably – Basil, Oregeno, and Thyme
  6. If you’ve got a few minutes, stick the whole darned thing in the toaster. If not, don’t feel bad about just sinking your teeth in right there. Sweet!

CHEESE / FROMMAGE:

Most French cheeses that you’ll find in the supermarkets or the local boulangeries are soft, melty, creamy cheeses. French people make cheese that just kind of melts off the baguette and onto your fingers. Don’t hesitate to just ask your cheese guy for a nice soft cow’s milk cheese, and it will be great with anything.

We’re all familiar with a nice “BRIE” – soft and not-to-smelly. Brie is typically soft cheese and easy to eat. In France you can buy a round like the one you see in the pic above for about $3. Likewise, French people make some great, soft goat “chevre” cheeses which are tart enough to go with a nice slice of prosciutto or braised tomatos. For another soft and not-so-smelly type – try good old Camembert – easy to eat and won’t scare off your guests, Promise!

Loads of other french cheeses have very strong “parfumes” but to me, that just signifies a really great flavor! I love this one – Chaumes or Munster. Try eating strong cheeses with some nice grapes to cut to the flavor.

My other favorite cheese might not be really “cheese”. Somehow they’ve figured out how to take cheese and turn it into something that’s like yoghurt. Donc! You end up with a creamy, white cheese (low or no fat) that has a light flavor like “yoghurt” but without the tang. Perfect substitute for cream or creme fraiche on top of desserts, or mixed with a teaspoon of preserves and granola for petit dejeuner.

Now, there’s lots of talk about what wine you should drink with what cheese, blah blah blah. Wine is one of the few things in France that is NOT expensive with our lovely little crappy US Dollar exchange rate. It still comes in at about $4-$7 at the grocery store and that’s for the middle of the road brands. The mass-produced wines come in at abotu $3.50. Donc! I just buy whatever looks good. If I’m eating something from the southern region of France, I buy a Languedoc Wine or Muscat – a sweet aperitivo (which they are known for). Pair region with region, and don’t be afraid of Rose – if you can find a nice dry rose, it’ll go great with cheese – not to strong, and acidic enough to cut the fat.

My new favorite drink has become Panache, introduced to me by my German roommate, Sandra. (THanks Sandra). In France it is NOT weird if guys are seen with lighter beers or drinks with lots of funny pretty colors. And I love this right here: Panache is a lovely little combination of lemonade and beer, it goes down smooth and easy and in my opinion goes with any frommage you can scrounge up. Isn’t beer the perfect accompinament to anything?

That’s it for me Clarence. I’m still going to the gym to dry to work off this little soccer ball stomach I’ve gotten from those baguettes.

Another great recipe with Goat Cheese, Miel and Figs! http://maminaclaude.canalblog.com/archives/2006/08/14/2455355.html (For more recipes for cheeses, click on the cheeses underlines in blue).

I can’t attempt to explain each and every french cheese, so let’s just cheat off someone who already did! For a little explanation of each french cheese:

http://www.cheese-france.com/

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