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Sep 12, 2014

Tropical Bretagne: Sablé de Wissant

THE STORY:

Every summer, we visit friends who have a vacation home in Dinard, a small village in Bretagne with a front row seat to the walled town of St. Malo. But that view is not even the best part of being here.


My favorite part is the view of the water itself. This isn't called the Cote d'Emeraude (Emerald Coast) for nothing.




The color of the water reminds me much more of the tropics than of the Atlantic beaches I grew up seeing in the Northeast of the US. Technically, this isn't the Atlantic either, I suppose. It's really on "La Manche" -- meaning "The Sleeve", which we know as the English Channel.

 

The water is crystal clear and turquoise, but one thing that isn't tropical is the temperature. Brrr! It's around San Francisco's Pacific water temps, about 17°C, or 62°F the first time we visit, in early July. I know first hand how cold that feels because my friend blackmails me that she will only invite us again for a second visit if I at least go fully in and under at least once. Despite the chill, there is certainly something about the water here that draws me in (until I feel it numbing my ankles...). We learn our lesson and come in August the second time around. Much better. A balmy 20°C, or 68°F. But when the sun really shines and warms up the shallows, even I can coax myself in for more than a token dip.


We are here because of Pippa and her school friend, whose family has invited us to stay at their guest house. Her mother has become one of my dear friends here, and one of her older brothers was a friend of Gigi's from class last year, so it's like a full family playdate.


The dads don't exactly speak each other's languages, but yet they speak each other's language, if you know what I mean. They and the older boys go out and have an incredibly successful fishing trip. Holy Mackerel! We are told that they normally catch nothing. Here, it turns out to be one of the best fish meals I've ever had.
 
 
 

By the way, if you think it looks like we have nothing but gorgeous sun, blue skies, and warm summer weather, it is my obligation to tell you that it rains miserably and constantly the entire time we are here.


I have promised our friends that we will do our part to keep the masses away by playing up the stereotype of the Breton weather. A famous Breton answer to the question, "But doesn't it rain a lot there?" is "Why, it's sunny here several times a day!" Somehow, we manage to enjoy it -- both the sun and the between-sun bits -- anyway.

 
THE CHEESE: Sablé de Wissant
 
Sablé de Wissant, which means "Sandy from Wissant", certainly lives up to its name, in appearance at least. The surface looks for all the world like a beach of white and golden sand, rough-textured and grainy. In fact, even the crust tastes just as smooth as most cheeses, which is to say that it's a bit dry and chewy, and many people will prefer to cut it off, but it's perfectly edible. Not at all like chewing a mouthful of sand. The unique crust is caused not just by mold but also by being brushed with the local pale beer.
 
 
It's a raw cow's milk, pressed cheese from Wissant in Nord Pas de Calais, which is on the Côte d'Opale (Opal Coast) further up the English Channel coast from Bretagne's Côte d'Emeraude.


As for the taste, I found one source that called it a very "sensual and feminine" cheese. Personally, I think the Sablé de Wissant has hints of trapeze prowess and ostrich feathers, with an undertone of Broadway musical. Which is my snarky way of saying I have no idea what that means. To me it tastes like...cheese. And, frankly, a rather strong one with a hint of beer so that, in my mind at least, if I had to go there, I'd say it's far less feminine and sensual than it is masculine and gym-socky. There's a sort of sweet, herby tang to the pong.

The texture is rubbery to cut, but gets soft and creamy in the mouth. It's an artisanal cheese made by brothers since 1990 with the milk from two farms in the village of Wierre-Effroy, which is just 15km inland from the beach at Wissant. They take about 3,500-4,000 liters of milk per day, heat it, and age it themselves in their own cellars for a year.

THE CONNECTION:

Though Sablé de Wissant is not exactly from the region, it's a close neighbor, just up the Channel from Dinard. But more to the point, it's a sandy cheese (both in texture and in name) that complements a sandy beach here at our summer almost-home-away-from-home-away-from-home.


 

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