Apr 16, 2014

Jewish Easter Bunny-Mouse: Tomme au Marc


Pippa's teacher asks, "Would you come in for English class to talk about Pâques (Easter)?"

I clarify. "Pâque Juive?" Directly translated this means "Jewish Easter" and it's how they say Passover in French. The word "Pâques" comes from the root "Pasques", as in Paschal Lamb, and the Hebrew word for Passover sounds a lot like it and shares linguistic roots: "Pesach".

But as we can clearly deduce from this sign in the Jewish quarter of the Marais where Micky's Deli has proudly been in business since the year 5755, Passover was a holiday well before Easter. So shouldn't they be called "Pâques" (Passover) and "Christian Pâques" (Easter)?

By coincidence, one year my parents are visiting us in Paris over Passover. I frankly don't have time to make a huge Seder meal, since the girls are in gymnastics till 7pm most nights, so we bring home a pre-roasted chicken, and I throw together the following, pathetic Seder plate.

Nearly everything is wrong with this: Our bitter herbs are wilted cilantro; the egg is uncooked; the charoses is just a couple raw ingredients (apples and nuts); the horseradish is actually mustard; and the lamb shank is a chicken wishbone. But at least it's on a plate. In San Francisco, I used to make up a Seder sombrero with a pewter souvenir brought back from Mexico. It's so wrong, I feel like I should cry out "April Fool's!" when I serve it, though if you remember, here I would say "April Fish!"

Yes, I am able to find real matzo at the grocery store. Here's a Seder question for you: One of these things is not like the other. Which one is it?

If your answer is the piece of cardboard, you are wrong. Clearly, the cardboard and the matzo are one and the same thing. They look similar and taste identical. Even Anthony -- who, along with me, is so frugal about not wasting food you would think we had lived through the Great Depression -- encourages me to throw out the 95% of the matzo that remains untouched. My Jewish parents eat croissants and baguettes all through their Passover visit. My mom reasons, "I'm not coming to Paris and passing up French bread to eat matzo."
On the day before Easter last year, we have a family movie day and watch The Rise of the Guardians in which Easter is, appropriately enough, "tomorrow." More perfectly, it stars the Tooth Fairy, including a French Tooth Mouse ("from the European division," as the Fairy says). This is especially à propos because Pippa just lost a tooth. So we are visited this year by both the Tooth Mouse and the Easter Bunny. We are highly inconsistent: We assume the Bunny visits us instead of the Flying Bells since we are American, yet we readily agree that her tooth is collected in France by a Mouse, not a Fairy. Egg dying in France, by the way, is a more difficult task, because it is virtually impossible to find white eggs. That explains the brown-ish cast to our eggs. I personally like the egg labeled "EAT ME" that one of the girls made. What a lovely Easter sentiment.
If you are worried about the possible overcrowding chez nous (what if the Mouse, the Fairy, the Bunny, and the Bells all show up at the same time?!), you should know that several years ago on Christmas Eve, we were successfully visited on Christmas Eve by the Tooth Fairy, Tinkerbell, and Santa Claus. We wondered if there was some sort of magical air traffic controller over our house that night because all went smoothly.

In case you are wondering, Pippa's teacher does not actually want me to talk about Passover to the kids but, rather, American Easter traditions. Which is too bad, because as somebody who grew up Jewish, I don't have a lot to share about Christian Passover. Plus, I have a lot of leftover matzo I could bring in for them to taste.

THE CHEESE: Tomme au Marc

Tomme au Marc is a very unusual raw cow's milk cheese, originally made in Savoie. In fact, it starts its life much like a Tomme de Savoie, until it spends a month soaking in Marc de Raisin for a month. Marc de Raisin, in turn, is some of the stuff -- grapeskins and bits -- leftover from the winemaking process. They in turn age and ferment and form their own alcohol, with drunken chunks. You can see the drunken chunks pressed around the Tomme au Marc.

This technique grew out of a traditional way of preserving the cheese and also using up the dregs after the wine pressing season. Because of that, Tomme au Marc is usually eaten only until the end of winter/early spring.

To describe the combination of the wine-y solids and the cheese itself, the closest example I can give to somebody who's never tasted it is that it immediately brings to mind a 1970's Port wine cheeseball. You can't get the same effect just by taking both a bite cheese and swig of red wine at the same time, because the taste of the Marc is less like a wine and more like a fortified wine such as a Port or Marsala. The flavor is just as unusual as it looks. It's such a strong taste, it's clearly a love-it or hate-it cheese. You can't be neutral. I enjoy it, but I can guarantee that my kids wouldn't.

The cheese itself is a lovely texture and melts in the mouth. But then there's that crunch from the hardened Marc bits that coat the cheese like chocolate shavings on a cake. For an even more interesting texture experience: High-end cheese affineur Androuet recommends putting some Tomme au Marc on a slice of country bread, then melting it in the oven for a couple minutes with some walnuts on top.

In my research, I find one description that says Tomme au Marc has "a strong smell of alcoholic fermentation." Ha! That's an understatement. It reminds me not just of the smell of alcohol, but of the smell of the basement of a fraternity (okay, "Eating Club" at Princeton) or of a bar full of twenty- somethings.


The highly alcoholic, red-wine taste of this cheese goes perfectly with the Passover Seder, in which we drink red wine as part of the ceremonial meal. We use whatever good red wine we'll enjoy with our meal, and never, ever buy kosher wine. Since I don't care about eating kosher, I'm perfectly happy to serve a meat meal and a cheese course. But just keep in mind that if you're going to have a Parisian Seder and want a cheese course, you'll have to eat the Tomme au Marc and other cheeses on matzo (or substitute cardboard), because, really, once you add in delicious French bread, it's not only not kosher-for-Passover, it seems rather to defeat the purpose of the holiday.


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