The Cheese That Was Almost Lost or L'Epoisse Theory
in case you missed last month's article for Alliance Française newsletter ...
I am going to begin at the very end – The Cheese Course. As we passed the cheese tray around the dimly lit dining room table seated full of strangers-turned-new friends, we silently (and correctly – afterall, we had just been taught how to accurately and politely slice and serve ourselves from a proper French cheese platter) cut our fair portion of each of the crumbly, luscious, dense, colorful & custardy choices while we concentrated on Lucy, our instructor/trained-pastry-chef/history-buff/masterful-story-teller as she began The Tale of the Cheese That Was Almost Lost.
But first, before the legend is to be told, some notes on cheese: I believe, as do many others, that the invention of cheese is by far one of humankind’s greatest gastronomical accomplishments. Around 5,000 years ago people in Asia and the Middle East figured out that they could preserve the bounty of the dairy season by taking soured, curdled milk, draining off the whey and salting it. Shortly thereafter, they discovered that they could create something far superior if they stored this concoction in the stomach of an animal (modern day rennet.) From ancient Egypt to modern day France all simple cheese begins its life in the exact same way - as the liquid fruits of the dairy farmer’s labor combined with a quick lesson in chemistry. After that, it is the attention, the inventiveness, the time and the resourcefulness of ancient and modern day cheese-makers that have transformed this simple and nutritious food source into an olfactory and gustatory pastoral illustration of history, legends, cultures, microbes, bacteria, traditions and time.
Back to the story: The tale begins at the beginning of the 16th century, in L’Abbaye de Citeaux in a small village in the Cote d’Or in the region of Burgundy where a small community of Cistercian monks invented and lovingly curated a most unusual, delectable, pungent and secretive of cheeses called l’epoisse. With its signature orange brine and pungent smell it is a time-intensive cheese with an intense manufacturing process (after initial drying, the rounds are hand brushed with brandy and turned up to three times a week.) Unfortunately, sometime around World War I the abbey and all the monks were captured or killed, thus taking their secret recipe with them to their holy gravesites. It wasn’t until after World War II, when a couple found an old family document describing the amazing cheese-making monks of Burgundy and their unique l’epoisse that the cheese began its revival. This couple, Robert & Simone Berthaut, determined to recreate the original recipe, traveled to the monks’ village to interview every person who lived there who might have some tiny recollection of the process (“Oui, I remember the monks buying lots of brandy.” “Non, the monks would visit the cheese cave at least 3x a week,” etc.) It was through these little bits of oral citations that the Berthauts were able to piece together the entire manufacturing process of the monks of L’Abbaye de Citeaux. Fromagerie Berthaut became a huge success and is now run by their son, Jean Berthaut. It was the cheese that was ALMOST LOST!
And now I found it, sitting on my plate. Sitting on my plate in the dining room of a quaint teaching kitchen in the Croix Rouse, a hipster-meets-foodie-scene-meets-family-friendly part of the city that sits perched on top of one of Lyon’s two towering hilltops. Sitting on my plate after a full day of culture, market-to-table shopping, cooking and baking, and, of course, eating. I raised my cheese fork, took a sniff (mmm) and tasted the brandy, the war, the amazing Berthaut’s courageous act of rescue. I tasted the villagers who watched the monks day in and day out, I tasted the cows and the pasture, the time and the caves. The taste of l’epoisse was nothing short of miraculously delicious.
The very next day (and every day after that) I went to local fromageries to purchase l’epoisse. I just had to share this existential-dairy-experience with my family. And every time, the children complained about the smell in the fridge (after-all this is the cheese that is banned from the Paris metro) and my husband would look at me like I had lost my foodie-mind. I finally realized, that my palate was not refined enough for this most pungent of cheeses and that to me – and to most others, even many French – l’epoisse requires a very, very precise palate. I wondered if Lucy had found some other very special brand of l’epoisse; in a way, she did, because it was not, in fact, the l’epoisse that I was tasting and relishing in, it was the legend (while not exactly true) that was being told and the scene that was being set – those were what “tasted” delicious. At Plum Lyon’s teaching kitchen, with Lucy, in that moment it was the tastiest cheese I had ever sampled – all because of the experience.
Brillat-Savarin said, “a dessert without cheese is like a beautiful woman who is missing an eye.”