May 23, 2014

Le Temps des Cerises: Ossau Iraty


It's that magical, fleeting, ephemeral time: le Temps des Cerises -- which translates as the Time of Cherries, the Season of Cherries, and the Weather of Cherries. And, in this case, it's really all three. A few weeks ago, cherries started popping up at the market.

Each week, they are getting riper and harder to resist.

There is something about the brief appearance of this sublime fruit that brings out artistic sensibilities. The phrase "Le Temps des Cerises" is most famous in France as the title of a song written in France in 1866. The story is that it was dedicated to a nurse killed in the Semaine Sanglante (Bloody Week) when the French government violently overtook a commune.

A small example of the lyrics:
"Mais il est bien court le temps des cerises
Où l'on s'en va deux cueillir en rêvant
Des pendants d'oreille...
Cerises d'amour aux robes pareilles (vermeilles)
Tombant sous la feuille (mousse) en gouttes de sang..."

which I would quickly translate as:
"But it is so short, the cherry season,
When the two of us can go pick them together, dreaming
Of these dangling earrings...
Cherries of love in the same dresses (vermillion)
Falling under the leaf (mossy) in drops of blood..."

More recently, this song was used to help promote the socialist left in the 1980s, during Francois Mitterand's tenure. Besides the political connotations, my French friends tell me it has a certain sad, nostalgic feel. This charming little bistro in the Marais is anything but sad, but it does seem awfully nostalgic.

It's no coincidence that the restaurant is on the corner of the Rue de la Cerisaie -- Cherry Orchard Street. Interestingly, this too has a connection to the arts: La Cerisaie is also the French name of The Cherry Orchard, the play by Anton Chekhov.

At first glance, Goldenberg's deli, also in the Marais, doesn't seem to have much to do with this. But upon closer inspection, you can see the hand of gentrification at work. The former Jewish deli, in the heart of the Jewish quarter, is now Le Temps des Cerises & Japan Rag, a trendy clothing store.

All this talk of cherries, and the enormous bag sitting in my kitchen, inspire me to make cherry clafoutis, one of my favorite things to do with cherries, favorite French foods, and favorite desserts.
Every year in San Francisco, we used to take the girls and go cherry picking and make clafoutis, which is like a cherry-filled cross between a custard and a pancake, and not just any pancake but a Dutch-style, fluffy, oven pannekoeken. Just look at what comes out of my oven!

This year, I try -- and discover I prefer -- a recipe from Nathan Lyon, who is an incredible chef and a new friend. And he's a clafoutis fanatic, so he gets extra points in my book, which is an imaginary book. His book, on the other hand, is an actual book: his fantastic cookbook titled Great Food Starts Fresh. I usually leave the recipes to Paris' many food bloggers, but I just don't feel right keeping this to myself. It's so easy and unfussy, but you get such a big reward for your small effort. It's not super-rich or super-sweet, and I give you full permission to eat it for breakfast, too. Or you can add extra powdered sugar and even ice cream (and still eat it for breakfast when the kids aren't looking).

One caveat: Nathan Lyon creates his recipe with California cherries. And while you've heard me rave about French fruits and veggies, this is one time when the French just can't compete. I find my cherries are so much less sweet and delicious in Paris than when I am in San Francisco, I have to increase the sugar in the recipe a little to compensate.

photo by Nathan Lyon

Vanilla Cherry Clafoutis
Chef Nathan Lyon
Yield: 8 servings

4 large eggs
4 tablespoons granulated sugar, divided
¾ cup unbleached all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon grated lemon zest (zest of 1 lemon), grated on a Microplane
teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 cup whole milk
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 pint fresh sweet cherries, halved and pits removed (2 cups)
Confectioners’ sugar, for serving

1. Adjust an oven rack to the middle position, then preheat the oven to 425ºF.

2. Combine the eggs with 3 tablespoons of granulated sugar on low speed in a blender for 10 seconds.

3. Gradually add the flour, lemon zest, salt, vanilla, and milk until well blended, 30 seconds.

4. Let rest undisturbed for at least 5 minutes. This time allows the flour to absorb the liquid resulting in a better finished texture.

5. Combine the butter, cherries and the remaining granulated sugar in a medium, oven-safe, non-stick sauté pan, over medium heat. Cook, stirring occasionally, for approximately 5 minutes until the cherries are soft and a syrup has formed.

4. Pour the egg mixture evenly over the sweet, hot cherries (sounds sexy, right?). Transfer the sauté pan into the oven and bake, uncovered, for approximately 15 minutes, or until the crispy brown edges have puffed up and the middle of the clafoutis is golden brown.

5. Remove from the oven and, using a spatula, slide the clafoutis out onto a cutting board.

6. Slice and serve on dessert plates dusted with confectioners’ sugar.

Note: If you happen to be a bigger fan of orange than lemon, feel free to substitute the zest of 1 large orange (1 tablespoon) for the lemon zest, and substitute 1 teaspoon Grand Marnier for the vanilla extract.

THE CHEESE: Ossau Iraty

Ossa Iraty is a hard, raw sheep's milk cheese -- no, wait, scratch that. Ossau Iraty is the hard, raw sheep's milk cheese. It hails from Basque country in the Pyrénées and has had its AOC status since 1980. There are about 150 farms and a dozen dairies that make this fantastic, crumbly, hard cheese.

The farms and dairies are centered around Laruns, a village in the Ossau Valley. Another cheese called Laruns and even other local hard sheep cheeses are related and somewhat similar. But there is something about the Ossau Iraty that captures the minds, hearts, and taste buds of the French.

Ossau Iraty is made in the winter and spring in the fields and on the hillsides, and for some farmers, even higher up in the mountains on summer pastures. It's aged for at least 3 months, during which time it become firm and crumbly, yet retains enough moisture to be creamy in the mouth. It also develops a lovely, nutty, sweet-salty taste. The cheese is an ancient one, with its ancestors mentioned in Latin in the 1st century; then in the 14th century, it was known to be used as payment for rent and goods.

When you are sold or served an Ossau Iraty, you will almost always be offered cherry jam to go with it. The sum is definitely greater than the parts. Together, it's like having the best of both world -- salty, dry, creamy cheese, and gooey, sweet, fruity jam. Kind of what makes a cheesecake good, but much denser and saltier. It's a heavenly combination.


No other cheese is so closely associated with cherries as Ossau Iraty. In fact, when anybody mentions Ossau Iraty, they always mention cherry jam in the next breath. Of course, other sheep cheeses (especially hard) pair well with cherries, but there's just something about this combo that's ingrained in the French psyche. When it's time for cherries, it's also time for Ossau Iraty.



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