Nov 22, 2013

Pretty Pears, Great Grapes: Comté Fruité

These pretty pears, with the tips of stems dipped in bright red wax are Passe-Crassane. Why the wax? To cauterize the end and prevent dehydration. They remind me of the beautiful $100 melons I used to occasionally receive as a gift when I lived in Japan, but less uniformly perfect. Forget about the occasional Bosc (how boring), here we buy Guyot Rosée, Comice Extra, Packam, Conference, William Rouge, Abate, and others I can't even name.


Then there are these things that look like pears but are, in fact, coings, or quince. They are not to be eaten raw but rather should be cooked with lots of sugar into a preserve or a candy gel. The best way to eat quince, as far as I'm concerned, is to buy the gel already made by somebody else.
These may look like simple grapes to you, but Exaltas are well-named; I have never tasted grapes like them. I exalt in them, every fall for a month or so. They have a distinctly floral taste, as if they were infused with lavender honey. When they pop up, I gorge on them till they disappear.
Pippa has the same reaction to cantaloupes (called, simply "melons"), which may look just like cantaloupes in the States, but they don't taste like them. Well, not exactly, anyway. From May till September, these are the best cantaloupes we've ever tasted -- and especially when we buy them closer to the source, in Provence. Then, from September till May, we don't see even one.
I am a confirmed fruitaholic, so you might think I'm exaggerating things. But on two separate occasions, my friend Andi, who visits us in time for the early fall fruits, helps herself to a fruit snack and then comes to find me in the apartment: "What kind of apples are these?! These are amazing!" and "These are the best grapes I've ever tasted!" She's incredulous that such simple foods that she thought she knew could be this delicious.
Meanwhile, these are plums -- not unripe ones, but rather super-ripe, super-sweet golfball-sized plums of the Reine Claude (Queen Claude) variety. There are also golden yellow plums called Mirabelles. And you thought plums were purple.
I started off a skeptic. Our friend's Marco's parents have spent many long stretches in Paris, and when we first moved to Paris, they raved about how the produce here is even better than San Francisco. We didn't believe it. At first. Since then, we've started to appreciate the freshness, seasonality, and full flavors of the fruits and veggies. It's not just tomatoes: Sure, we've all tasted the difference between a fresh garden tomato and a gray-rubbery-flavorless mass-produced tomato. But suddenly even "boring" vegetables like cucumbers, salad greens like mache and arugula, bell pepper, and green beans really appeal to me. And, oh the figs!
I walk into a store and want to buy carrots. "For eating raw or cooking?" To which I of course respond, "What? There are different carrots for different purposes?" This just shows the depths of what I don't know. But I couldn't have learned it earlier, because I didn't know what I don't know. Until now that I know that I didn't know it. Or until somebody who knows knows I don't know and tells me what I need to know. About what I don't know.
Case in point, the big white carrot-shaped thing is clearly a parsnip, which I love. But the smaller ones are not just baby parsnips; they are persils tubereux (tuberous parsley) -- a vegetable that doesn't even exist in the US, as far as I can tell. The purple-ish thing on the same plate is topinambour, Jerusalem artichoke, a vegetable I'd heard of and tasted but never seen raw.
This one, chou rave, is kohlrabi. Again, I've eaten it in the States, but never seen it at the market. At the recommendation of Marina, my favorite produce-seller, I buy it, peel it, julienne it very thinly, and dress it in a simple olive-oil/lemon/salt vinaigrette. It's sweet, crunchy, juicy, with a hint of broccoli flavor, and I love it. Nobody else in my family is nearly that enthusiastic, however.
Notice the oddly shaped carrots in the background of the kohlrabi. And, while we're at it, the irregular tomatoes, and other fruits and vegetables. It's because they're real carrots, and real tomatoes. Every time I see/buy/eat one of these, I think of This Other Eden, a book by Ben Elton that I read nearly twenty years ago. It imagines a dystopian near-future in which produce all looks perfect but has no taste. Pretty much what you find in current day super-markets. Eventually, the protagonists happen upon old-fashioned vegetables which are ugly, amusingly-shaped, irregular, and packed full of flavor: "The meal was a sensation. Never had they imagined such carrotyness or potatoeyness..."
A root that could never be made beautiful -- celeriac, which adds a nice celery flavor to soups without the stringyness of actual celery. My husband and kids are not huge fans of that one either.
And on the other end of the beauty spectrum, romanescu -- a link between broccoli and cauliflower and perhaps the most beautiful and decorative vegetable ever to grace the Earth?
It takes me a while to find my perfect fruit and veggie stand, but I've got it now. I go nearly every week to the organic stand at the Maubert Mutualité market in the 5th arrondissement, and fill up my caddy with around 100-130€ worth of fruits and vegetables. Despite the weekly sticker shock, I'm rather enthusiastic about it all, and we've become good friends. owners Marina and Jerome always give me truly the best of what they have, with lots of free samples and advice about new fruits and vegetables. On a day when the weather is horrid or I'm sick, they will even take my order over the phone and deliver a couple crates to my door. Heaven.

The fruit is so good that we now often eat it for dessert -- by choice. Occasionally, when faced with a  "real" dessert like a cake or even ice cream flavor that's not floating her boat, Pippa will ask if she has permission to eat red bell peppers instead. Um, yeah, as I parent, I think I'll approve that.

THE CHEESE: Comté Fruité   
Comté's claim to fame is that it is the most ubiquitous cheese in France, and certainly the most popular hard cheese. It's the Starbucks of French cheese: it's everywhere, truly, as the most produced and most consumed cheese in the country. But unlike Starbucks, there's no conformity. Comté is not just one cheese and is never the same thing twice.

Comté is a hard aged cheese. When it's young, it's much milder, and the more the raw cow's milk cheese ages, the tangier it gets. One of Gigi's best friends has spent winter vacations in the Jura since she was a baby, and buys her cheese directly from her favorite farmers. The mother tells me that this 11-year old can tell, blindfolded, the difference between a comté with an affinage of 6, 12, or 18 months (or more). If you gave me them all together, I could probably hazard a good guess. In general, I prefer the 12 or 18 month cheeses, but sometimes these are too strong and salty for people.
Comté is Gigi's favorite French cheese, and I can see why. It's got that sweet-salty combination, with a hint of nuttiness. When it's called a comté fruité, that's not such a misnomer. It is, in fact, just a little fruity. Ironically, Gigi doesn't love the Swiss cheese gruyère, which is a very close cousin -- both in terms of style and geography, but it's true that comté is slightly less pungent.

It's not just the name, but as with pears, apples, grapes, and any other kind of fruit, comté fruité comes in a lot of varieties. Pictures above are Comté Fruité Valoreille, Comte Fruitiere les Majors, and Comte Fruitiere Chapelle d'Huin, but there are countless more. It just depends on which village in the Jura mountains produces it. Also, it happens to be delicious with fruit -- especially apples. But think of this cheese like a watermelon: Don't eat the rind.


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