"Mooooooooooooo!!!" And with that loud mimick of a cow, Adam Moskowitz landed in Paris where I greeted him at the welcome gate with my home made Mr. Moo sign. The numerous taxi drivers and families awaiting their clients and loved ones looked on in bewilderment. You don't walk with Adam, you walk amongst him such is his booming personality and aura.
After the incredible and life changing week I had with Ivan Larcher, I was looking forward to the next chapter of my Fellowship which was a road trip with Team USA , culminating with the World Championship of Cheesemongers in Tours, Loire Valley. I was here to support and guide America's two competitors, drawing from my experience finishing 4th at the 2013 edition of this prestigious event. I was invited to compete again this year, however with 9 weeks of travel for this Scholarship, reluctantly and regrettably, I declined. This regret was eased somewhat when Adam called me two months ago in Melbourne and asked if I would love to join Team USA and be on hand as an assistant coach. I didn't need to be asked twice!! I pictured myself as Apollo Creed, Rocky Balboa's foe and now trainer/mentor in Rocky III, taking the two boys through their paces to the music of "Eye of the Tiger" whilst shouting war cries like "There is no Tomorrow!"
The two competitors from USA were Justin Trosclair of St. James cheese shop in New Orleans and Perry Soulos of Arrowine in Arlington, Virginia. Both had won the Cheesemonger Invitational, America's National Cheesemonger championships and one hell of a party that Adam, owner of Larkin Logistics and Columbia Cheese, created 6 years ago with the intention of uniting America's cheesemongers.
From the onset of the Road Trip, I knew that the week ahead was going to be full of highlights and stories that will be retold for many years to come. Adam, aka The Beat Poet, was chief protagonist and resident DJ. Within the first hour of travel, he opened my ears to an entire world of music I had never appreciated properly; old school Hip Hop and fresh house beats. The many hours we spent on the road over the course of the week provided many laughs, memorable rants, freestyle rapping, picturesque landscapes and plenty of bromance moments with the Americans!
Whilst in Normandy we stayed at the incredibly swank Hotel Spa Ivan Vautier with its Michelin starred restaurant of the same name and dined there on the first evening, with the highlight dish being the 700g Lobster served 3 different ways with Foie Gras. Opulence at its finest. The next day, mind you, quite gingerly, we awoke early to visit the town of Livarot, home to the famous Fromagerie Graindorge, producers and affineurs of both pasteurised and raw milk Pont l'Eveque, Livarot, Camembert and the wickedly rich Normandy Cream. Graindorge Dairy was set up in 1910 and throughout their existence they have been at the forefront in the production and promotion of traditional Normandy cheese including the resurrection of Livarot, known as the Colonel, due to the rafita banding that holds this cheese together and to a lesser extent but somewhat important footnote; its funky aroma!
Graindorge Dairy has an amazing walk through museum open to the public that has viewing windows to the entire production facility and it's here where you notice the sheer size of this facility. What I discovered here and at other dairies we visited over the upcoming days was the size of the production and the amount of farms that these dairies sourced their milk from. What was more impressive was the fact that the majority of their production was unpasteurised cheeses considering they were drawing milk from across the region from farms with herds averaging over 100 cows each. This was in stark contrast to what I had experienced with Ivan and I began to ponder at what point do we stop calling these producers artisanal and begin to look at them as industrial? Don't get me wrong, I am not disrespecting this producer or the high quality of their cheese, rather the marketing and ideals of farmhouse / artisanal that the majority of the French cheese industry and to a larger scale; the EU are peddling with their AOC regulations for protected cheeses and their requirements for modern "safe" machinery. (Alrighty, time to get off the soap box and back to telling my story!)
Day two of the Normandy experience took on a rather sentimental and sombre importance for my American compatriots and myself. We travelled to the beaches to visit Omaha Beach and the American D-Day memorial. We went through so many emotions as we visited the beach, walked through the German embankments in the hills above the beaches and the War memorial and its cemetery. For those of you who don't know, Omaha Beach was the most intensely fought battle on D-Day in WWII with the American forces losing large numbers of troops on the first day of battle due to landing craft landing in the wrong places caused by a stronger than expected tide, aerial cover bombing past the German Frontline targets and the numerous ideal gun placements & blockages laced with mines the Germans had set up but through sheer will and courage, the Americans breeched the frontline.
On our third and final day in Normandy we visited Fromagerie Reo who my great friend, Rodolphe Le Meunier, MOF and Affineur based in Tours, Loire Valley, selects his camembert and 'to-die-for' butter from. This was an incredible experience as we were given a private tour through the facility to look at every step in the manufacture of raw milk camembert. Despite the sheer number of vats of milk, about 100 and counting, each one was still hand ladled into cheese moulds as per the traditions of real Camembert de Normandie that is protected by AOC regulations.
The Maturation rooms were a site to behold and so was their aroma. The first room, which stored the cheeses during their first few days after salting had a rather lactic sour and yeast like aroma, the second room which had temperature and humidity conditions to encourage the initial development of geotrichum on the rind of the cheese possessed the strong aromas of geo that can sometimes be mistaken for chlorine or ammonia. The final resting place of Camembert before it is packed and shipped contains conditions that support the growth of Penicillium Camemberti, the white mould we all recognise on the rind of this amazing cheese, and it had an overwhelming smell of mushrooms and beef stock, aromas that are representative of the flavours of this cheese.
Our tour of Fromagerie Reo culminated in a tasting of their superb camembert de Normandie and salted butter with local cider under the clear blue skies of this great Normandy summer day. I couldn't help but feel a sense of wonderment as we stood there amongst a newly formed brotherhood, tasting three bastions of Normandy excellence under the soft rays of the European sun. My soul began to heal and my thoughts transcended my surroundings and to a deep satisfaction that life's simple pleasures really are the most memorable.
Day three of the Normandy tour took us to Mont Saint Michel, the picturesque island commune about 1km off the Normandy coast that is on the UNESCO World Heritage List. This island Abbey remained unconquered during the 100 year war with England including a full scale attack in 1433. It was low tide on the day we visited so you could see vast empty land for miles from its great heights and you could only imagine what a strong point it would have been when high tide sets in and covers these surrounding areas, washing away any on rushing ground forces. My imagination took me once again to the pages of the Lord of The Rings as similarities between the Mont and Gondor flashed before my eyes.
After three glorious days in Normandy exploring its rich countryside and amazing history, we left for the Loire Valley and Tour, destination; Chateau de Fontenay, which would be our accommodation for the rest of the week. Now, this Chateau and its vast property of vineyards and guest houses tucked away beside perfectly manicured lawns and rose gardens was like something out of the fairy tales. I was truly blessed to be a part of all this and I cannot thank Adam enough for allowing me to have this once in a lifetime opportunity as part of my Fellowship.
Not wanting to leave the grounds of this beautiful property as there was a lot of exploring to do, we headed for the local town to have dinner in the town square under the fading light of another memorable sunset as the sun tucked away behind the 14th century Church that dominated this small town (10.25pm sunset to be precise!!). What was a crew of 4 became a group of 14 as we met with more friends from around the Cheese world who had descended upon Tours, like us, for the Mondial du Fromage. Plenty of local Loire wine was shared and tales of past gatherings retold as we drank and laughed the night away.
The next day, we awoke bright and early and headed to Fromagerie Cloche d'Or. This cheesemaker produces 4 traditional and AOC protected goat's milk cheeses which Rodolphe Le Meunier once again selects and allows me to exclusively import into Australia. The Fromagerie sources their raw goat's milk from 60 local farms who each have an average of 200 goats of the breeds Saanen and French Alpine. Every morning the milk is collected by 3 trucks and the milk is then used to make cheeses such as Valencay, Selles sur Cher, Couronne de Touraine (the donut) and little Crottin. We were taken on a tour through their production rooms and bore witness to the Couronne de Touraine through its maturation cycle. The pictures below show this stunning lactic set cheese at 2 day old curd pre ash and salting, at 5 days old as it begins to grow a geotrichum rind and at 9 days old when it has formed its rind which begins to break down the heart of the cheese into a soft fudge like consistency.
What I love about these Loire Valley cheeses is their clean flavours born from beautiful fresh local raw milk and the process of setting the curd via lactic fermentation, whereby the milk is inoculated with a bulk starter and left to slowly coagulate over a 12 hour period. This slow process captures the gentle sweet lactic, slightly citrus notes of these great cheeses and when mature, their fudge like texture and mineral flavour at the back of the palate.
The next day we visited the stunning Chateau de Chenonceau. Woah! This was more like a Castle compared to the Chateau we were staying in (not that I'm complaining!). It was even more magical and picturesque than anything I had ever seen thus far on my travels. If there is one thing you must do when you are in Loire Valley, visit the numerous castles and chateau that adorn its valleys and if you are as lucky as me, end up touring the grounds of the Chateau de Chenonceau as the sun begins its decent on another glorious summer day. I'm just going to leave the two photos below for you to have a look at, no superlatives are needed to describe the beauty we were able to experience that day. As the saying goes, you must stop to smell the roses, and what better place than amongst the manicured rose gardens of a Chateau...
Alrighty, I better finish this post there as there is so much more that happened that week, however I'm sure you have had enough for one read and the envy derived from the photos has reached breaking point! Up next is the Mondial du Fromage itself!