Jun 10, 2014

Breaking Cheese With Friends: Bleu des Basques


If you come visit me here in Paris, you are certain to be invited over for cheese. The further I go along in my Year in Fromage, the more I need help tasting all of them. So I figure I should give you some pointers I've learned on how to throw a simple yet very fun cheese tasting party. And it's not just about the cheese. As with most entertaining, I find that having a great group of people is the most important ingredient of all.

Two families of close friends are visiting from the US, and we invite along American friends from Paris. And the timing is perfect, because this is the weekend Chef Nathan Lyon comes to town with his girlfriend, Sarah. As the two are friends and indirect relations to good friends of mine, we are introduced by e-mail. Going by the transitive property that any good friend of a good friend of mine will be somebody I also like, I invite them for a little tour of some Paris treats and time this cheese party chez moi so they can join us. They come as strangers to the Great Cheese Degustation (of March 5th) and leave as good friends.
Through trial and error, I have found that though cheese makes a wonderful course after an appetizer and main dish and before a dessert, if you really want to plow through a lot of cheeses, it is simply too much as one of four (or more!) courses. So nowadays, I dispense with formalities and tell everybody off the bat that it will be a meal of cheeses.
Now that, too, can be a bit much for most people, so I always put out some charcuterie (good hams and such), olives, raw vegetables -- either salad or crudités, fruit and/or honey toppings, fresh or dried fruit and/or nuts depending on the season, and of course good bread and wine. Red, white, rosé: a variety of wines to go with a variety of cheeses and a variety of toppings for a variety of tastes.


I'm not a person who a) is very formal or b) remembers to buy paper napkins when we run out (despite reminders from my husband), so you may notice a roll of paper towel on the table. My friends must not be stuffy, either, because not only does nobody seems to mind, one of my friends has even taken to wearing hand-me-down swim goggles we've just passed to her daughter. The cheese is heavenly, but it's the company that makes it fun. Somebody brings a box of lovely desserts which gets doled out to the children, and I don't hear any of them complaining.

We also have an annual all-cheese-all-the-time dinner with some family friends of ours who come through Paris each spring. Barbara is an author and expert on French impressionist painting and Leon has recently been written up in both the New York Times and the Boston Globe for his collections of golf-themed poetry. Every year, they and their son come over for a dinner that consists solely of salad, bread, many cheeses, and wine, and they bring some delightful dessert from one of their favorite pâtisseries.


And here, dinner with some local Parisian friends. Again, all one course of cheese, meats, and veggies. Generally, even my French friends don't know a single one of the cheeses I'm serving, given that I've already gone through most of the obvious, common cheeses. It's fun for them to help me describe and compare the cheeses, and I certainly appreciate all the input I can get.


THE CHEESE: Bleu des Basques
As the name suggests, this blue cheese comes from Basques country, and that makes it a sheep's milk cheese. In this case, it is made from milk gathered from various farmers in the high valley of the Aldudes, then refrigerated, pasteurized, and made into an artisanal cheese.

Even with the blue molds and after have been aged three months, the cheese ends up very mild. Perhaps that's due to the pasteurization of the milk. The flavor is mild, a little dry and with just a hint of the blue tang, sheep, and salt that you might expect in greater quantities by the description alone. The texture is somewhere between rubbery and creamy, with a thick dry crust you probably will choose not to eat.
It's a relatively new cheese, launched in 2001 by the Onetik fromagerie who makes 150 tons of it each year.
Bleu des Basques is one of the cheeses at the Great Cheese Degustation (of March 5th, that is...) and is part of a cheese game I invent called Spot the Cheap Cheese. On the plate of blues, along with Bleu des Basques, is a Bleu Regalis and also Saint Agur. Both Bleu des Basques and Regalis are fine, artisanal or farmhouse cheeses purchased dearly at the elite Quatrehomme shop. The Saint Agur, here shown on the dark blue flowered plate is an industrial, mass-produced, inexpensive cheese purchased from the large grocery store Monoprix.


The idea of Spot the Cheap Cheese, of course, is to have everybody give their honest opinions and see if they can figure out by taste, feel, and look alone (no packaging, of course) which is the cheap one. In case you're wondering, our friend Kevin nails it, by the way, going by his own time-tested method that whichever one he liked the most was certain to be the cheap cheese.


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