For me, traveling and tasting go hand in hand. So much can be learned about a country’s history, region and way of life through by trying what’s eaten there day to day. Walt and I have come to love exploring the our ports of call through their cuisines. Whether it be through food tours, cooking classes or simply sampling interesting looking restaurants in our neighborhood, I feel we peal back the stories we read and the suggestions we’ve heard and finally get to experience just a bit of a place first hand.
So before we even arrived we knew we wanted to participate in some food tourism while we’re in France. If we had more time here, I would have loved to enroll in some practical cooking classes. I don’t need to go to the Cordon Bleu or anything, but I would love to learn a thing or two about true French bread… or sauces… or pastries… I digress. Unfortunately, we only had a limited time here, so we opted for an evening class about two of the most quintessential items in French cuisine: wine and cheese.
We left work a bit early and headed to the 3e arrondissement to the aging cellar of Paroles de Formagers where we met with Caroline and eight other students to learn about cheese making and how to pair them with wine. It was fascinating to hear Caroline describe the shape, texture and color of each different wheel, cake or pyramid of cheese, namely because there was a practical story behind each. For example, comté (or gruyère de comté) is often made in huge wheels and takes a long time to age solely because it’s made in the mountains. Back in the day it was really difficult for the alpine cheesemakers to make it to market twice a month like their chevré cheesemaker counterparts in the valleys (their soft, fresh cheese is ready to sell in a few weeks, tops). So instead, the mountainous farmers compiled their milk harvests into large batches and aged it for months at a time so they only had to venture into town a few times a season.
Another reason I love to build our travels around food oriented classes and tours is that we get to meet truly impassioned people. Watching Caroline’s eyes light up when telling us about different regions, various stories about specific cheese varieties and answering our noobie questions was really special. You could tell that the art of cheesemaking meant a lot to her and that she really enjoyed sharing that excitement with her guests.
Next came the tasting. We tried seven cheeses and three wines with our tasting, working from the freshest chevré up to some particularly funky camembert. With every new cheese, Caroline would walk us through the steps: first, look. See the color, the texture and the variation in the rind. Next, smell. Try to name the things that come to mind – nothing is too silly to call out. Third, taste it. When doing so, breathe out your nose to lift the flavor into your mouth to appreciate the subtlety as much as possible. Lastly, take a sip of wine with the cheese lingering on your palette and note how the flavor changes.
Standing alone, my favorite cheese we tried was called ossau-iraty. It’s a semi-firm sheep cheese and is totally something I can imagine buying back home and putting in basically everything. But truth be told, it was the last part of the tasting steps that was truly magical to me. Pairing these cheeses with the wines completely changed their taste. I was particularly dubious about the epoisses, (the one orange-ish rind pictured below – It was so soft we had to eat it with a spoon) but when we sipped some Vieille Vigne with it, I swear to god it tasted like toasted hazelnuts with a hint of chocolate.
Nutella. It was basically Nutella.
We had such a fun time with the rest of our classmates calling out flavors and smells we were picking up. I wouldn’t say that we were terribly great at picking up all the subtleties, but we made a good show of it!
As it turns out, I actually booked Walt and me for an extended tasting, so we had to hang out for three more cheeses and two more wine parings on our own. Whoopsies.
We really enjoyed our time with Caroline. We climbed out of that cool aging cellar with so much more knowledge and appreciation for the amount of care that is required to make a truly great cheese. Unfortunately, I can’t say that I learned a ton about how one goes about finding those sensational parings wine & cheese combos, though. I have notes, but I’m not confident I’m gonna be able to replicate the magic at home. Perhaps it’s just something that can only be replicated in the basement of a cheese shop in Paris by trained professionals. We’ll see.