Oct 16, 2018

Embracing the Fog: Tome du Ségala


Having tasted somewhere around 700-800 French cheeses by this point, it's tempting to be snarky about attending the annual San Francisco Cheesefest. It's not France, after all. And at this point, I'm pretty hard to impress. But I have to admit that I am impressed by a couple of the cheeses and, even more, by the sincerity and passion evident everywhere.

I enjoy many cheeses throughout the evening. Too many cheeses. I love the truffle Italian cheese by Chevoo and Italian-style smoked Mozzarella by Rumiano. But for the purposes of this blog, I specifically seek out the cheeses with the most French influence, such as those made by Marin French Cheese. With a name like that, it's clear what they're going for.

Do these French-style cheeses taste exactly like in France? Not really. A large part of this is due to the pasteurization laws of the US. But some of it is also cheese-making technique, and quite importantly, what the animals graze and feed on. Change the taste of the milk, change the taste of the cheese. So while the cheese above is called a triple cream brie, and it's quite delicious, it's quite different than, say, a Brie de Meaux. The Marine French Cheese Brie is not nearly as funky and pungent, not as oozy and silken, as its French cousins.

The goat cheeses also have a very different flavor and texture than most chèvres in France. I find goat cheeses in the US are either very much like a cream cheese, or trying very hard to be like a cow cheese. That doesn't mean they're not delicious mind you; they're just not super French to me.

The thing that stands out to me as the least French are the names: Petite Cendrée and Petite Breakfast. Why are the names feminine? I don't know. Cheeses are nearly always masculine, despite the fact that it's the female animal providing the milk. Plus, everybody who speaks fluent franglais knows that "le breakfast" is masculine, much like "le weekend", "le Netflix", or "le T-shirt". Then again, the cheeses and cheesemakers are not actually French, they're from Marin, so it they want to assign their cheeses feminine gender, I say #itsabouttime #metoo #yearofthewoman.

Laura Chenel is another French-style cheesemaker from the Bay Area. In fact, the company is actually now owned by the Triballat family, from France, who run Rians, a huge French dairy company, so they do know a thing or two about French cheeses. Again, we have the two styles of goat cheeses that are most popular in the US: one like a camembert / American-style brie and the other like a tangy, spreadable cream cheese.

While they don't cover the wide range of goat cheeses available in France, they do a fine job of presenting to the American public versions of these particular styles of goat cheese. I guess that many Americans consider these to be fairly adventurous, bold cheeses, particularly since they're from goat's milk, whereas to me, they are lovely, mild, safe cheeses -- delicious, creamy, and tangy, but not pushing any boundaries. But again, my cheese perspective is not the norm, even in food-obsessed San Francisco.

At the Fabrique Délices table, I get to speak French with the owner, who makes and sells an impressively authentic line of patés and charcuteries. One of my favorites on his table is the least French, however -- the Chicken Apple Paté, with hints of cinnamon. It's a perfect combination for my francophile side and my American upbringing: paté meets apple pie. I say it's the least-French thing on his table, though, because of the cinnamon, which most French people avoid in the same way Americans avoid mold.

Most shocking, to a French cheese-afficionado like me and to the true Frenchman at the charcuteries table, is that there is (gasp! shock! horror!) no bread at the entire festival. All of the cheeses, patés, jams, and spreads are served either on eco-friendly paper "spoons" or on artisanal crackers. This may well be the most American thing at the festival: cheese and crackers, a combination only rarely consumed in France.

The closest I get to bread is the wood-fired organic bagel stand. It's far from a baguette, but the bagels are divine -- just the right level of crunchy-chewy you'd find on the East Coast with that artisanal, smoky, wood-fired West Coast touch. At the Daily Driver booth, they're giving out their bagel samples with...of course...cheese. But not cream cheese. It's a whole new thing -- le bagel au fromage qui pue (bagels with stinky cheese).

Because this is San Francisco, I'm not surprised that so much is artisinal, organic, fair-trade, and foofy. The description of this jam kind of cracks me up at first: ..."The aged cheddar cheese of jams!" But you know what? I get what they're saying. While other jams feel thin and one-dimensional (sweet), this one is layered and complex with both sweet and tangy, thickness and body. It's heavenly. Expensive, but heavenly.

I'm also not surprised that there are so many pairings. I swear I have never seen a group of people who obsess over pairings as much as Bay Area foodies. And so, I bring you not just fruit and cheese, but pickled fruit and cheese.

And also chocolate and cheese. Dandelion Chocolate, in the Mission neighborhood of San Francisco, offers regular cheese-and-chocolate tasting courses. What do I, personally, think of salty, savory hard sheep cheese and dark chocolate? Um, to be diplomatic, let's just say I like them both, but not so much together.

By the end of the night, after so much cheese-tasting (along with some chocolate-tasting, hard-cider-tasting, bagel-tasting, jam-tasting, and fruit and veggie platter-tasting), I think I might explode. With joy. Because at last, I find some cheeses that remind me of home -- my Paris home, that is. The first shares something in common with many American cheeses and just a few of its cousins across the pond: hysterical naming. When it comes to Death and Taxes, the only thing I'm certain about is that I really enjoy it, and that it reminds me of a washed-rind, orange, stinky cheese in France, such as Le Petit Fiancé des Pyrénées or a Rollot. Finally, a cheese that is not afraid to deliver the pungent funk to the American palate. Do death and taxes stink? Yes! Does Death and Taxes stink? Yes, it does, and I mean that as the highest possible of compliments.

The one goat cheese that tastes truly French to me, and breaks the mold of the camembert-style or cream-cheese-style goat cheeses that make up most of the American goat cheese market, is Humboldt Fog by Cypress Grove. This multiple-award-winning cheese is a classic and has been around for a long time -- by American standards, that is. We're talking decades, not centuries. It has that delightfully dry-creamy texture, with a savory, herbaceous flavor that's not afraid to be a little pungent, a little gamey and goaty even. Even more rare is the middle layer of ash, reminiscent of a Morbier, and the grayish-moldy crust, both of which could certainly frighten off more timid American eaters. With true Northern California spirit, the Cypress Grove people helpfully provide pairing suggestions for Humboldt Fog ranging from wine to beer to honey, fruit, prosciutto, and marcona almonds. Part of me wants to make fun of this, but most of me wants to stand up and cheer. These are my sort of my people; after all, how many times have I told you all to pair your cheeses with honey and fruit spreads?

And my vote for the hard cheese of the night (most-French-style) goes to Broncha, a tiny-batch, hand-made cheese made by a tiny cheesemaker, Achadinha Cheese Company at the Pacheco Family Dairy in Petaluma. This one gets the texture of a European aged hard cheese just right: crumbly, dry, melts in your mouth after it warms up. And the taste too -- that heavenly combination of salty with hints of sweet and nutty. You see that hunk chipped out of the crust? That was done on my behalf. The sample chunks for regular cheesefest-goers were interior only. But I'm no regular cheesefest-goer, and I want to taste the crust! The crust too is uncannily French -- pock-marked and layered, multi-colored and funky, rough and ugly. And oh, it's so good!

Once I discover it, I'm delighted to find that the Broncha is sold every week (while still in stock) at the Clement Street Farmer's Market, a farmer's market near my San Francisco home. And I'm happy to say that the Humboldt Fog is also pretty easy to find in high-end markets around the Bay Area. But, sadly, they are not exported to France, so my French friends and neighbors will just have to imagine. There may not be the diversity and sheer quantity of cheese choices in the Bay Area that I have when I'm in France, but at least there's a little light shining through the fog.

THE CHEESE: Le Tome du Ségala

La Tome du Ségala is a farmhouse cheese made from raw cow's milk in Camboulazet, which is a small town in the department of l'Aveyron, in the Occitanie region, located in south-central France.
The cheese has been made since 1985 by cheesemaker Alain Mazars, though I've also discovered a goat cheese version under the same name made by the Segalafrom association in the town of Carmaux (just 40km away), and a few other versions by unknown makers. So it doesn't appear to be a proprietary name. Who knows, maybe Tomes du Segala will sprout up all over southern France.

In reality, all are named after the local region, Le Ségala, also nicknamed the Land of a Hundred Valleys. The summits and plateaus of all the of hills and mesas provide the pastureland for cattle, good for both beef and cheese.

The Tome du Ségala is a semi-hard cheese pock-marked with air bubbles. The texture is a bit rubbery, not exceptionally melt-in-the-mouth, nor crumbly, but rather something chewy and in-between. The flavor is, similarly, not exceptional. Everybody at our gathering tastes a little slice and declares it "boring" then moves on to other, more flavorful cheeses.

The crust is a lovely, multi-colored, almost volcano-on-the-moon-looking surface. It's a dry, tough chew, but quite pretty to behold.


Tomme du Ségala, my French cheese du jour, closely resembles Broncha -- at least in appearance. Both are covered with crusts that are slightly frightening (or terribly appealing, depending on your persepective). But just to show up that my prejudice against American cheeses and for French cheeses is not always warranted, the Broncha (pasteurized) is deeply flavorful with a gorgeous crumbly texture, whereas the Tomme du Ségala (raw milk) is, frankly, a little rubbery and unimpressively bland. The winner of this round is Team Northern California!


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