Thursday, 28 January 2010

40. Cheesed off..

28th January 2010. Here in France, cheese is a serious subject - as you might expect from a country that has n cheeses (where n is a number between 400 & 500) although this French web site suggests that there are now over 1,000.

I had an encounter outside the Grand Hotel in the centre of Bayonne the other day with a market research lady with a clipboard. After I confessed to being a Brit, she quickly established that I'd heard of cheese and then she asked if I'd like to participate in a cheese tasting survey inside the hotel. (quiet in the cheap seats!)

She sat me down at a table in the bar and I had to tell her which cheeses I was familiar with from a list. She then invited me to eat a dry cracker while she went off to fetch the first cheese.

She put a healthy wedge of an un-named Basque cheese in front of me. It was sat in a plastic tray container similar to the ones that St Agur or Roquefort is sold in. Then the questioning started. Did I like cheese presented in plastic? (all answers were on a scale from 1 to 5) Or did I prefer paper? Did I like the look of the cheese and was the cheese sticking to the plastic and did this bother me? Did I like the look of the crust, the feel of it, did it make my fingers sticky, did I like the smell of it on my fingers, did I think the crust looked real or man-made, did I think the crust was too thin or too thick, did I like the colour of the cheese, did I like its smell and a few more questions I can no longer remember before she finally said, now cut a piece off and taste it. More questions followed concerning what were my positive reactions to the cheese followed by my negative reactions.. What did I think of its ease of cutting, body, taste, smell, after-taste, texture, granularity, creaminess and saltiness?

She then invited me to have another bite which triggered another endless stream of questions - apart from the only one I was ready for (the Major Bloodnok question), but which, alas, never came: "Is it like Cheddar..?" Gawd knows what she'd have made of the cheese of my youth - Kraft Dairylea..

She disappeared off to fetch another one and by now, I was starting to lose the will to live. When she returned she went through exactly the same procedure with the new cheese with the addition of a few comparative questions relative to the first cheese..

She wouldn't tell me what the cheeses were but I think the cheeses I tasted were both varieties of Etorki. This is a cheese made in the French Basque country, at Mauléon-Licharre in the interior of the Pays basque.

In the interests of balance, I google'd the British Cheese Board and it appears that there are over 700 named British cheeses produced in the UK, with "a cheese available for every occasion". I wonder if any of the occasions imagined by the BCB included tiling the bathroom floor, wedging open the garage door.. or stopping that annoying wobble of the dining table.. we'll never know.

Here's what the great and the good have to say on the subject of French cheese:

"A country producing almost 360 different types of cheese cannot die."
Winston Churchill in June 1940

"Comment voulez-vous gouverner un pays qui a deux cent quarante-six variétés de fromage?"
("How can you govern a country which has two hundred and forty-six varieties of cheese?")
Charles de Gaulle (Le grand fromage himself!)
(I've never quite seen the link between the number of cheeses produced by a country and its ability to govern itself..)

"Un repas sans fromage est une belle à qui il manque un œil."
("A meal without cheese is a beautiful woman with an eye missing.")
Brillat-Savarin (from La Physiologie du goût)
(a bit OTT this one - dare I say it: it's only cheese!)

Nostalgia Dept: Next time it's a Sunday lunchtime, close your eyes and play this one.. and let it conjure up the smells of a Sunday roast at home in days gone by.
Time for a late New Year's resolution: in the interest of preserving what remains of my reputation, this year I don't intend to enter any more hotels with strange ladies bearing clipboards to "discuss cheese". Unless, of course, they're offering a glass or two of red wine with it..

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