Monthly Archives: November 2012

Winter delights


Vacherin Mont D’Or

I’m not really much of a winter person, but there are always a few things to which I look forward when the snow starts dusting the mountains, as it did for the first time this week.

Over the weekend we had a local fromage favorite which, although it is neither champagne nor whisky, goes with either (in my unrefined opinion). It can also be more traditionally eaten with either red or white wine. It’s a versatile table companion, I guess – just the way I like them.

Mont d’or cheese is a soft cheese made of cow’s milk, and comes from the Jura region along the border between France and Switzerland, about an hour from our place.

This cheese definitely falls into the category of locally-produced, non-industrial slow food. It is produced only between August and the following March, and sold only from September to May. The history has something to do with winter cows, fed only on hay, not producing enough milk to make large amounts of cheese such as Comté, and farmers making due by creating these small rounds of cheese so as not to waste the milk they had on hand. The French version is made from unpasteurized milk, the Swiss from pasteurized.

The cheese is stored in round boxes made of blanched spruce, which certainly adds to the flavor. The early cheese, in September, is still very mild and fresh, while the later, more aged cheese can develop a stronger taste.

If you don’t like smelly cheeses, but you do like cream, you’ll probably enjoy this – it is usually eaten at room temperature, or warmed in the oven, and then scooped out in spoonfuls of rich, decadent goodness. A bit like fondue, but you don’t dip anything into the cheese itself. It’s rich, thick, but fresh and tangy from the spruce wood. Aromatic without being overpowering. Despite its soft texture, it is not really anything like brie or camembert.

The reason it’s on my mind is that we had it on a recent weekend at a small party, with a number of guests who had never had it and were a bit cheese-shy. We served it by gently scoring it across the top, sprinkling a few diced shallots and a couple of tablespoons of white wine on top, and then sticking it in the oven for 15 minutes. When it came out, we put it in the middle of the table alongside a basket of bread and gave everyone a spoon. The entire box of cheese lasted about five minutes.

Some people serve it alongside a small, simple green salad, or warm peeled potatoes. I’ve read that some families spoon it onto chocolate for the kids, but we haven’t tried that variation. We are generally purists and just take our Mont d’or straight.

‘Belts’ of pine wood are placed around the fresh cheese

Bears & Otters


After a previous post on M13, one of only two free-roaming bears in Switzerland, I started wondering about bear populations in the rest of western Europe.

As it turns out, France has a grand total of 22 bears currently living in the wild, their range being the length of the Franco-Spanish border along the Pyrénées mountains. All 22 have adorable names like Cannelle (Cinnamon). The French government has a sizeable budget to reimburse farmers whose livestock or beehives have been damaged by the bears. Overall, of the thousands of sheep that roam the mountains, approximately 15,000 are lost each year for a variety of reasons – of those 15,000, only 200-300 are estimated to be lost to bear attacks (according to French government reports). Last year, a grand total of 3 beehives were judged lost to bears. This is across a range of over 7500 sq. kilometers (3000 sq. miles). Yet local farmers and tourist offices often claim the bears are a severe threat to their livelihoods.

I read how other countries that have much larger bear populations, mostly in eastern Europe, respond to this kind of outcry. First of all, where there are a lot of bears, there is also a higher tolerance for shooting bears, which is not the case in France and Switzerland. Second, and more importantly, those living in bear country know how to deal with bears. They put up better fences, they don’t expect to lead a life free of the occasional bear visit, they calculate the occasional loss of a grazing animal as the cost of being a livestock farmer in bear country. They remember how humans live alongside large predators.

This got me to thinking: In ecosystems of any kind, what is the overall benefit of large predators such as brown bears? And I don’t mean in terms of a healthy, natural balance, or a feel-good notion of things being as they ought to be, or even the right of species to survive our human sprawl. I mean: Why are conservationists trying so hard to reintroduce large predators in the form of miniscule populations that cannot possibly survive without decades of outside assistance in terms of breeding and protection?

The programs may seem intuitively correct to me, and I may have a deep inclination to support them for a variety of reasons, but what do they really bring in terms of environmental and economic benefits that I could express to someone less positively inclined?

Then I found this. It’s a paper recently published by Chris Wilmers and colleagues in Frontiers in Ecology and Environment that discusses the extent to which top predators increase the amount of carbon stored in ecosystems. The study focuses on the amount of sea kelp present in area both with and without those darling marine predators, sea otters. The paper included this appealing illustration:

The authors conclude that while marine and terrestrial ecosystems differ in too many ways for a direct comparison, the presence of top predators is indeed a strong force in the sequestration levels of carbon in a given ecosystem. This can have larger economic implications, depending on the level of plant life in each ecosystem and relevancy to crops and livestock (i.e. the issues that interest humans), not to mention the function of various fauna and flora further down the predator’s food chain.

If I understand this line of argument correctly, for example, if the vast range of the Pyrénées is to be kept intact on any level as a functioning ecosystem, with humans and livestock and tourists, it probably needs its bears. The alternative is that over a term longer than we have currently catalogued (bears have been scarce there for about a century), it will change irrevocably into a different ecosystem.

Sea otters in kelp



Night Blossoms



The Night-blooming Orchid (Bulbophyllus nocturnum) was chosen as one of the International Institute for Species Exploration Top Ten New Species 2012, one year ago this week.

Bulbophyllus nocturnum, I thank you.

Not for being the only known orchid species to blossom only at night, even though being so unique among the other 25,000 orchid species indeed makes you noteworthy. Not for being discovered on the remote island of New Britain off the coast of Papua New Guinea by researchers studying a potential logging site. There are plenty of singular species already lost to science through logging, so in that respect, you are nothing special.

Not for being so newly discovered that you don’t even have a common name yet, leaving open all manner of suggestions. Queen of the Night is already taken by a stunning cactus flower and – don’t take this wrong way – you don’t really live up to the title.

Frankly, you look like a limp spider poorly drawn by Salvador Dali. Pale, droopy petals and dangling appendages that supposedly imitate a local slime mould, favorite food of a kind of midge. I’m sure you have a winning personality, but your looks won’t dazzle the average flower enthusiast in search of a new exotic for the garden.

You don’t have the flair of the bat-pollinated Midnight Horror Tree, also known as the Broken Bones Plant – your flowers aren’t large and ghostly, you have no sword-like pods that break off to look like a pile of broken bones.

Neither dangerously pretty nor predatorily fragrant, modest B. nocturnum, your claim to fame is that you bloom only at night, and for one night only, and you are the only known orchid to have learnt that trick.

Like a washed-up singer persuaded to do that one last show, you come alive in one place, under cover of night, and around dawn you go to pieces, never again to glory in the light of the moon or bask in the attention of your nondescript, nightcrawly admirers. Even vampires get to return for a repeat peformance.

And it is for this I thank you.

Even as the search begins for a suitable name, we can already start using you as a sublime metaphor.

Of course, the first thing that comes to mind is the short-term romance, begun after dark in the corner of bar and finished at dawn without so much as a backward glance or a proper exchange of names. A B. nocturnum fling –a bit ugly, losing the last smidgen of its already meagre appeal by the light of day. The Last Call orchid of the tropics.

Your potential for poetic duty doesn’t end there. You, my darling epiphyte, may serve as the descriptor for unattractive deeds, carried out under cover of night or deepest obfuscation, meant to attract the same swarms that would otherwise feed on slime mould, acts of brutal brevity that nonetheless perpetuate the parties involved.

Perhaps we can stretch the notion of a single night to indicate the very brief duration of something from when it is conceived in darkness and falls apart by light of day or public examination. The Sub-Prime posy. The Bank Bailout floret.

We could instead focus our attention your fragile, unsightly, yet useful form. Like an interim military government following a popular uprising, no one thinks you’re the belle of the ball, but they still all want to dance with you. At least for now, before you start falling apart, and before anyone else finds out who, exactly, has been deigning to be your dance partner. The pale Orchid of Egypt, perhaps.

I’d use you as a metaphor for the logging industry that will be your probable demise, for that industry is useful and ugly at the same time, but it has operates round the clock and not just at night – and will likely do so  until we run out of trees.

For the moment, my new friend, I will just congratulate you for what you are: A survivor, a plain wee vessel that has carved out its own discreet niche in the big, big world, not bothering anyone, and recently elevated to international stardom just for being yourself, the otherwise unassuming Night Blossoming orchid.

Expat Thanksgiving – Update


We spent a wonderful expat Saturday Thanksgiving with friends in London. I managed to find fragrant, delicious squash ideally suited for pumpkin pie (Crown Prince variety, for the intrepid squash pie experimenters among you), our host concocted remarkable gin cocktails (garnished with fresh cranberries, of course) with a cranberry syrup reduction made from our cranberry sauce, and we were able to introduce several non-Americans to the sticky-sweet candy joys of genuine pecan pie.

But best of all, we decided to smoke the turkey out on the grill rather than roast it in the oven. This was purely pragmatic – the oven was too small and the Weber was big enough. This wasn’t best of all simply because the turkey turned out very well, but mainly because someone called the London fire brigade, who showed up due to copious amounts of smoke originating in the vicinity of a house that was under renovation. So we had several concerned firemen shouting over a second-story terrace fence down into our small garden, home of the smoke-house bird.

It was only when our hosts opened the grill to reveal a massive, brown, succulent bird that the faces of the firemen relaxed into smiles. We invited them for dinner but I’m not sure they were impressed by our cooking methods. They wished us a Happy Thanksgiving and left. Thank you for checking in on us, guys, and for letting us finish smoking the bird!

Thank you, flying shell creatures


Limacina helicina Photo: Alexander Semenov

The pteropod Limacina helicina, a tiny sea animal that is usually under 1 cm in length, swims through the open ocean. They are a food source for birds, whales, fish, and other sea animals only slightly larger than themselves. They feed on plankton and float in large colonies, flapping their wing-like lobes. They have fragile, almost transparent shells that are present during the entire life cycle of many sea butterfly species. It is these shells which are the object of interest today.

Clione limacina: Sea butterflies are the primary food source for the sea angel (Gymnosomata), a shell-less sea slug.

According to the British Antarctic Survey (BAS), while carrying out research in the Southern Ocean together with other institutions, discovered severe dissolution of the shells of living sea butterflies, i.e. the shells are being dissolved by the raised acidity of oceans due to increased levels of atmospheric CO2 being absorbed by oceanic systems . Why is this important?

On one level, it’s bad for the sea butterflies themselves, even if they don’t die from their shells being dissolved. They are more vulnerable to disease and predators. According to Dr. Geraint Tarling, co-author of the study, “As one of only a few oceanic creatures that build their shells out of aragonite in the polar regions, pteropods are an important food source for fish and birds as well as a good indicator of ecosystem health.”

But there are enough indifferent climate observers who aren’t really interested enough in a specific ecosystem, even if it might impact the amount of fresh seafood on the dinner plate, to make the sea butterfly’s plight a point of concern, much less action.

So, aside from the biological relevance of the sea butterfly, their shells form an important component in the global carbonate cycle, part of which is the deep-sea calcium carbonate sediment formed by the remains of creatures like the sea butterfly. This sedimentary sink of CaCO3, which gathers like deep-sea snow in the form of discarded shells from the sea butterfly and many other animals, forms a buffering process between ocean chemistry and atmospheric CO2 by neutralizing the acidic influence of the carbon dioxide.

Prior to the evolution of creatures with calcium carbonate shells in the ocean, the global atmosphere is thought to have been far more volatile – these shells helped mitigate the carbon cycle at shallower ocean levels and lead to an extended period of the more stable atmosphere which we humans need to thrive.

The tiny sea butterfly is thought to comprise up to 12% of the global ‘carbonate flux’. For their miniscule size, they are heavy hitters in the atmospheric game. Their shells are the thinnest and most fragile. They are, not to belabor an overused metaphor, the little canaries in our atmospheric coal mine.

So, the next time we read about the relief felt over the discovery of a new fossil fuel source or promising new extraction technology, spare a thought for the sea butterfly, and keep your fingers crossed that our skin is thicker than their shells.


* Press release: First evidence of ocean acidification affecting live marine creatures in the Southern Ocean (BAS)

* Paper: The role of the global carbonate cycle in the regulation and evolution of the Earth sytem, Ridgewell/Zeebe

Cider season, old-school style


My neighbor is pressing cider this week, hauling in dozens of wooden crates filled with apples from his orchards. He uses this press now, a smallish unit which is modern but still pumped by hand. He’s a huge supporter of traditional knowledge and farming practices, and takes the press around to local schools so the kids can see how cider gets made before it gets into a bottle at the supermarket.




When we first moved here many years ago, however, the family used a different cider press – this one:

The main press stone is from the mid-19th century, from a masonry that used to exist two villages away from us in the Jura mountains. It’s massive, and I wonder how many horses it took to haul this behemoth down the mountainside and into this farmhouse.

It was operated by hand, as well – or rather, several hands. When we moved here, we were still witness to the annual cider days, when the whole family would gather and take turns at the giant pulley system, visible here only as the tree-trunk post used for turning. There was a cartwheel-sized circular pressing slab attached to the old system that would crush apples added from the top (via a wooden chute), sending cascades of juice and pulp out through the bottom.

The flat stone surface is marked by deep grooves on all sides – cut over decades by the acidic juices as they flowed into the catchment channel and were directed to the front spout.

I feel very lucky to have seen this old system in action – and even luckier to profiter from our proximity, because we are the fortunate recipients of a yearly gift of apple cider, fresh off the presses.

Expat Thanksgiving


One of the things I miss most about the United States is the Thanksgiving holiday. It’s always been my favorite. No gifts, no costumes, no obligation except to spend time with family and friends, and share thanks for what we have.

Expat Americans tend to feel the magnetic pull of fellow countrypeople around this time, and we usually celebrate the holiday by having a big celebration on the Saturday following the actual Thanksgiving Thursday – after all, kids are in school during the week, and here, it’s just another work day.

It used to be a challenge, or an impossibility, to find the right ingredients for a traditional turkey meal. Oh, potatoes are easy enough, but turkeys the size of a small car just weren’t to be had at any price.

Cranberries? What’s that?

Pumpkin pie? A sweet pie made of squash? Disgusting!

People liked the sound of pecan pie, but the nuts weren’t to be found, and Karo syrup is still an unlikely supermarket product. The pecan has since become a fairly standard imported product.

I’ve noticed that many of my friends Stateside have branched out over the years, trying new and innovative variations on the old themes. In my experience, long-term US expats are all about tradition – it’s a meal that reminds us of home, and is thus not available for much culinary tinkering besides alterations necessitated by a lack of ingredients. For example, I have found that a French squash, the potimarron, makes for a superb and velvety pie filling, while the regular pumpkins that look more like our own are too stringy and watery on this side of the Atlantic to make a decent pie.

Several supermarkets in our area, in response to the very large expat population, now carry just the kind of giant turkeys for which we Americans hanker – mostly fresh, but also frozen. Cranberries can be found if you know where to shop – information passed by excited word-of-mouth starting in late October.

We used to just celebrate with other Americans, but our daughter loved the holiday so much she told her friends, and the gathering last included large numbers of various nationalities who really wanted to try for themselves what they’d seen in American movies. Between her friends and the other families, we usually have at least 25 people sitting down to eat together.

So Happy Thanksgiving – I won’t be having mine until Saturday, but I can practically taste the mashed potatoes already.

Bottles of Bubbly


Champagne & port tasting in the Pays-de-Gex, just outside Geneva: Standing in a group of people consisting of an American, a Swede, a Dane, two Brits and a German, discussing French products in French with a Portuguese port representative. Fairly typical, I’d say. The only people who didn’t really speak any English were the very knowledgeable and friendly French representatives of a storied Champagne house, Philipponnat.

They gave, however, an entertaining presentation that included the story of how their current bottle shape was designed. Namely, the photo above – which is of one of the vineyards used to produce one of house’s choicest Champagnes  – was taken back near the beginning of the 20th century. Someone turned it on its side – see the image to the right – and voilà! The Philipponnat bottle was born. Cute. The house has been run by the same family for 16 generations.

We tried three cuvées – Royale Réserve (mostly Pinot Noir grapes), Grand Blanc (all Chardonnay), and Clos des Goisses (Pinot Noir). All tasty – I don’t pretend to be an expert in nomenclature, but all three were unique and excellent in their own way.

The rep told us that 300 million bottles of Champagne – that is, products exclusively made from grapes harvested and processed in the Champagne region – are exported and sold every year. Seems like a lot. And the market is growing as developing economies have increasing populations that can afford to buy champagne. Like the market for good chocolate, the appetite seems to be insatiable.

Champagne tasting. And port.


Going to a tasting of champagnes and port wine tonight at my favorite local wine shop, World Wide Wines – a wine shop in France that specializes in foreign wines. Kind of a daunting undertaking in a country so proud of its own product (rightly so, of course), but the shop’s done well in our area. After all, the population is over 40% expatriate residents.

I’ll report on results tomorrow.