Sunday, December 9, 2007

French cheeses Comte is usually denominated as the king of French cheeses. It is aged in cellars up to 24 months (for 8 months at least). Its main taste is that of hazelnut and main smell is that of fresh French fruits. But never it’s quite the same. Taste and flavor change from year to year, from village to village, from producer to producer.

It takes about 140 gallons of milk to make one 90 lb round of comte, and the traditional smallscale producers, of the Jura - a region of valleys, peaks, forests and mountain streams bordering Switzerland - make an awful lot of it. Along with some genuinely remarkable local wines, wild mushrooms, and cured and salted meats, comte cheese is the staple of Franche-Comte's cuisine. Whatever you're eating, of course, it is rather difficult to escape it included in the dish, or at least one of its brothers - regional mountain cheeses such as Bleu de Gex, Morbier and Mont d'Or.

Even more than a regional cuisine, this is a strictly local cuisine, what the French call "simple and true" cooking. Starters will include mountain cured meats, hams, knuckles and sausages smoked - hopefully - in the huge hearth around which the Franche-Comte farmhouse was once built. There is also a porridge soup, les gaudes, of very humble origins, based on grilled corn flour and served with either sugar or salt and cream; and crouton aux morilles, which is essentially mushrooms on toast.

Heartier appetites will opt for a cheese tart of comte, eggs and cream; petites choux aux comte, which are what they say they are; or feuillete comtois au jambon (ham and that ever-present comte, cooked in puff-pastry envelopes). Perhaps the best-known Jura dishes, moving on to the more serious business, are coq (or truite, or poularde) au vin jaune.

If coq au vin does not suit your mood, then local cheeses will loom large on the menu, adding body to the other classic Jura main-course dishes: escalope de veau comtoise is a veal cutlet and slice of cured ham, covered with mushrooms and, yes, a comte sauce; and escalope de veau jurassienne replaces the comte with the milder-flavoured bleu de Gex.

True addicts, of course, will not want to miss three dishes that are in fact nothing but cheese: michon, which is comte mixed with flour, water and salt, and fried in a pan; "une Morteau", the local name for a Mont d'Or in its spruce case, melted in the oven with a half-glass of wine in the middle; and Cancoillote, sold in a jar and eaten like fondue. Typical desserts are poires au vin, galettes and fruit tarts, but the tempting if cholesterol-rich pets de none de Baume-les-Dames (small spoonfuls of dough dropped in hot oil and served covered with sugar) are worth trying if only for the name, which translates - not to put to fine a point on it - as Baume-les-Dames nun's farts.

When it comes to the wine list, of course, the opportunity to try vin jaune should not be passed up. Considered by many to be one of the world's superior white wines, it is produced traditionally at Château-Chalon, but also in the Jura winemaking centre of Arbois with Savagnin grapes. The colour is a bright yellow or gold shot with amber, the nose is mainly walnut. The region is also more or less the only one in France that still produces vin de paille, or straw wine, a sweet wine made of a blend of savagnin, chardonnay and poulsard grapes that, before being pressed, have been thoroughly dried on beds of straw. It is honeyed, potent stuff, and goes brilliantly with foie gras.

Pets de Nonne

Or sweet, deep-fried dough balls, known locally as nun's farts - what, no cheese? Serves six.

100g plain flour 200ml water 20g salt 80g butter 55g sugar 5 eggs 1 litre vegetable oil Caster sugar

Sift the flour into a large bowl. Combine the water, sugar, salt and butter in a pan and bring to a boil. Remove from the heat and pour in the flour, stirring vigorously with a wooden spoon. Return to a mild heat. Cook for a minute then, off the heat, beat in the eggs one by one. Heat up the oil in a deep-fat fryer to 160C, and then carefully drop in dessertspoonfuls of the mix into the hot fat - they will puff up as they hit it. Fry until golden brown, about four minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon and drain on kitchen towel. Sprinkle with caster sugar and serve at once.

Oeufs brouilles au fromage

Or posh scrambled eggs with cheese. Very simple. Very cheesy. Very Jura. Serves six.

6 eggs 55g butter 500g comte or Gruyère cheese 2 tbs double cream 25ml cold water Croutons

Break the eggs into a bowl. Add salt, pepper and water. Beat with whisk. Melt the butter in a non-stick saucepan. Chop up the cheese roughly and add to the pan. Melt it gradually, stirring all the time. Add the eggs, stirring them gently to make sure they mix with the cheese as they thicken. Add the cream, and mix it well in. Serve with some crunchy croutons.

Cotes de veau Jurassienne

Or veal chops, Jura-style. Meat, veg and, of course, cheese. Serves six.

6 large veal chops 1 knob butter 1 dssp oil 6 slices cured ham 1 glass white wine 280g mushrooms (morels if possible) 300g bleu de Gex, comte or Gruyere 250ml cream

Preheat oven to 160C. Dry the chops. In a frying pan, heat the butter and oil. When the butter has stopped foaming, add the chops, two or three at a time, and cook for three to four minutes to brown. Turn over, season, and brown the other side. Transfer to a roasting pan. Fry the mushrooms for three or four minutes. Transfer to the roasting pan. Pour any fat off the frying pan and deglaze with white wine, scraping up any bits and pieces off the bottom. Pour the reduction over the chops.

Place a slice of cured ham on each chop. Grate the cheese and add to the cream. Mix and pour over the chops. Bake for between 15 and 20 minutes, and then serve.