Oct 28, 2016

Poor Man's Truffles: Pierre Blanche


It's Cèpe season, and that means that I buy the largest mushroom in this photo and pay 19 for it --for just the one. Mind you, it's a big mushroom (nearly a foot or 30cm tall). But still, that's rather expensive. Is it worth it? Well, in a lucky and unusual turn of events, I prefer the taste of the cheap Champignons de Paris (like button mushrooms, but with more flavor). I find the Cèpe just a little bit slimier, with a slightly chemical twang.

If it's hard to describe the flavor, it's also hard to get your hands on a mushroom, or even a photo of the mushroom. Blink, and you might miss them. 

In fact, they come and go so quickly that if I don't happen to have my camera with me on market day, by the time I return on the next market day, they are already gone. Even on the day I do have my camera, the woman in front of me sees that I'm taking a photo of the mushrooms and tells me, laughingly, "That's right. Take a photo now. Because I'm about to buy a lot of them up." And so she does, leaving just a few hole-y mushrooms in the bin. But even with holes, they're expensive as hell.

It's partly that the season is short: usually just a month or so from mid-August to mid-September. Sometimes, if you're lucky, it will extend into October. Partly it's that people get excited when they arrive and buy a whole lot. And partly it's that my organic grocer doesn't get regular shipments of them, except my beloved but very simple Champignons de Paris.

Elegant, high-end, not-quite-truffles-but-they're-still-special-treat mushrooms include not just Cèpe but also the Girolle, which we call Chanterelle in English (technically, a Girolle is a type of Chanterelle, but we use the words pretty much interchangeably).

There are over 3,000 types of mushrooms (champignons) in France, but most of them are poisonous, to some degree -- possibly even fatal. Pharmacies, especially those in the countryside where people are likely to pick their own fungi, are trained to help identify them and distinguish edible from toxic. Besides Girolles and Cèpe, you'll also "often" (it's a relative term) find Morilles. You can, at the very least, get a hold of them frozen in Picard. It's not quite the same, but it does show you just how important all these mushroom varieties are to the French.

Some mushrooms are rare, so rare in fact I don't know if I've ever seen them in any form: Bolet, Mousserons, Oronges, Sanguins, Pleurote, Coulemelle, Coprin, and Pied de Mouton.

Despite the fact that I have seen truffles, but have never the other mushrooms I've just listed, truffles must be the rarest of all, seeing as how they're the most expensive of all. And at the other end of the spectrum, the cheapest and -- by some miracle -- my favorite mushroom of all: the Champignon de Paris.

THE CHEESE: Pierre Blanche

Pierre Blanche is a raw cows' milk cheese, from the very north of France, in the village of Roncq, from a family farm that traces its roots back nine generations. They used to be dairy farmers, delivering milk to neighboring villages, but by the 1980s, this part of their business was dying out, and they needed to diversify. So, they started making cheese, starting with Carré du Vinage and eventually adding in others like farmhouse Saint Paulin, Tome du Ferrain, and this Pierre Blanche, whose name means "White Stone", among about 20 varieties of cheese.

The farm has a troup of about 60 milk cows of the Rouge Flamande and Holstein breeds, who provide roughly 450,000 liters of milk annually (over 100,000 gallons). Pierre Blanche is a classic, northern, white-mold, soft cow cheese. And by classic, I mean it's got some funk. Some stink. In my notes I write that there's an ammonia odor to it. Yet it's also got a naturally mushroomy flavor, so mushroomy in fact that my note to myself also reads "like cream of mushroom soup." Behind the mushrooms and ammonia smell are grasses and a sweet-salt tang. The interior texture is buttery, oozy, and silky, held together by the firm crust.

I get this cheese in a gorgeous delivery box from La Boite du Fromager (not on their current list of offerings, however), along with the Carré du Vinage from the same producer. While this is clearly the less powerful of the two cheeses, I actually prefer it. It has a good amount of stink and character without being overpowering. And the cream of mushroom soup kick makes it feel nostalgic, even though it's a new cheese for me.


I just had to use Pierre Blanche for a story on mushrooms because I had such an overpowering memory of cream-of-mushroom soup while I was eating it. One of the rarer mushrooms that I have yet to taste is called Pied de Mouton, which means literally "Sheep Feet". This sheep cheese does smell a little like feet, come to think of it.


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