Sunday, May 17, 2009
I have a very specific memory of sitting outside next to a 10th century castle, that 2003 summer in France which incinerated the entire country, bicyclists and all. There was an umbrella over our heads, thank God; and red checked tablecloth, a (several) basket full of bread, a (few) bottles of wine, and sun-and-sweat (and wine) induced delirium. The ground was dusty. The waitress was the cook. She was ancient and overweight, and not particularly nice. Which was why it was such a splendid lunching experience.
So much of my childhood is epitomized by memories like this – blissful, sweaty outdoor meals and a language barrier. I am the luckiest person on earth. Or maybe the most burdened, because now that is the standard to which I hold my happiness – and its astoundingly difficult to meet.
There are two things that stand out about these memories: now, my mother; and always, cheese. Yes. I have reason to believe that my mother’s main reason for her absolutely illogical, unprecedented Francophilia was cheese. That particular afternoon may stick in my memory because it was a christening of sorts: this was the first time that I had ordered precisely what my mother ordered, to see what all the fuss was about – for she could (and did) talk for hours upon hours in syrupy, descriptive language about the beauty that was a salade au chevre chaude. So I got one, and so did she.
Maybe it was the sun, maybe it was the bacon, but that day I started one of my most delectable addictions that I have yet to shake. This salad. I swear my mom ordered it everywhere, every lunch, every time we went to France. And she always closed her eyes and made a particular “mmm” noise when she took the first bite, then she would lean back in her chair, fondle the stem of her wine glass, and smile. My brother and father’s distaste for any cheese with an aroma would always meet this look with a sneer, and my mothers reply, “You don’t know what you're missing.”
My love of cheese, especially hot goat cheese melted on toast, served over a bed of frisee with the occasional flourish of lardons, is something I developed later in life, completely thanks to my mom. I am thrilled that my brother has found a French girl who can rejoice in a stinky refrigerator harboring something old and moldy and altogether orgasmic. So I find it appropriate to write a post on this blog dedicated to cheese – I’m sure if you rifled through the archives, you’d be able to find a similar one written by my mother herself.
This salade au chevre chaud – pregnant with memories from all walks of life; I believe it started when I was seven and we were living outside of Lyon, France, in the small suburb St. Didier-au-mont-d’or. While my memories are fuzzy, I do have some amorphous recollections of a dimly lit dining room late at night, and a suspicious pile of greens with something overtly fragrant wafting over to my place. And the same expression approval from my mom, night after night, and me, associating the smell and the look with the same string of muffled French.
And then, the year 2000; we spent a week in Paris this time. Here, unfortunately, the salades au chevre chaud are of varying quality, of course, as big city bistros are not to be trusted as pastoral auberges in their quality. But in our many forays to Paris, my mother was never fully dissatisfied, only surprised at the variations she received. Sometimes, rather than toasted, the gooey, tangy deliciousness was breaded and fried; other times simply served warm and crumbled. The dressings varied, some more mustardy than others; the greens were just as frantic, from raddichio to arugula to frisee (but never romaine). Always constant was my mother’s obvious pleasure of warm goat cheese and crisp greens, with starch, whether (ideally) in the form of an adorable, crispy slice of baguette or in a delicate breadcrumb crust.
When we would return to the United States, her jet-lag was always accompanied by a rueful sorrow in the absence of said salad. Because while it is ubiquitous in France – I mean, cobb salad ubiquitous – it has not made it to Seattle, or even New York, in my experience. There are versions of it, warped plates of greens with a vain blob of semi-warmed cheese served – GASP – to the side of the salad, which, in my opinion, is blasphemous. The toasts should be an integral part of the salad, floating atop, making intimate contact with the greens so the warmth of the toast radiates, and the dressing softens its crisp edges. Because of its seeming nonexistence in the restaurant circuit, my mother spent years perfecting her own homemade version, which I’ve since learned as my go-to recipe.
But the 2003 trip – this was my introduction to this obsession, and at this auberge in Fougeres, next to that looming and haunting castle, ironic in its quaint surroundings, I had my first taste of the pleasure my mother knew we had all been missing. My satisfaction was obvious. From then on, whenever my dad was gone, and my mother and I were left to ourselves to prepare dinner, we made this salad. And to this day, a salade au chevre chaud is my ultimate comfort food. I probably prepare one at least 4 times a week, now more, just to evoke those poignant memories of my mother.
Even in making the salad at home, however, you can’t find cheese like you can find it in France. Very rarely is a cheese so unfortunately stinky that you know it will melt on toast like white gold; and if it is, it’s way out of a college students price range. Last weekend, however, I did find a Crottin at the Walla Walla farmers market that had the perfect rind, run, and cellar-y smell that I was willing to part with my pitiful salary for a week just to indulge. And, just like a certain cheese smelled up our entire cottage that 2003 summer in France (all the more troubling when its 110 degrees outside), this too smelled up my 5th floor apartment. I apologized to my roommate, but I begged for her forgiveness – for the love of goat cheese, and for the love of my mom.
Here’s a recipe – enjoy it, and with each bite, remember my mommy!
SALADE AU CHEVRE CHAUD
1 shallot, minced
2 teaspoons (or to taste) Dijon mustard
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
6 tablespoons olive oil
salt and pepper
Mixed greens, preferably frisee, arugula, and baby field greens
6 oz, or however much you want, high-quality goat cheese (the quality of the salad depends on this)
4 slices French baguette
Whisk together the shallot, mustard, and red wine vinegar. Slowly whisk in the olive oil in a small stream to emulsify.
Toast the baguette slices under a broiler on one side until golden brown. Remove from the oven Slice the goat cheese into 8 ½-inch to ¾-inch rounds, depending on how much cheese you want, and place one round on the untoasted side of each slice. Place back underneath the broiler and toast until bread is dark brown and cheese is melted through and browned and bubbling on top.
Toss the greens with the dressing. Put a generous helping of mixed greens on each of four plates, and top each salad with two goat cheese rounds.
Bon appétit, Maman – manger le bon fromage, ça sera toujours pour toi!!