Sunday Indulgence

The trumpet vine in summer

The trumpet vine in summer

We spent the weekend at one of our largest spring chores, trimming back the trumpet vine that surrounds part of our house. It requires a very high ladder, various shears, and patience. Planted just after the end of WWII, the vine provides an entire ecosystem on our south-facing wall. Birds’ nests, lizards, ants, various other insects I don’t care to think about but which leave me alone, even a beehive at the very top which we can never bring ourselves to remove because, well, the bees don’t bother us and they seem so happy there. The trumpet vine, left untrimmed (as it was when we bought the house many years ago), will climb right up and lift the tiles off the roof. Pruned, it provides shade to the front entryway and a waterfall of flowers. The dried vines make for some of the best fire kindling I’ve ever used.

Today, in celebration of the beginning of spring and the completion of the annual vine tending, I decided we needed to have an Indulgent Brunch. Two of the main components will be one of my top ten favorite cheeses, Brillat Savarin, and paired with that, some champagne. A half-round of triple-creme Brillat Savarin instantly classifies any meal or snack as indulgent, and not just because it has a fat content of 75%. It has a delicate mushroom flavor mixed with buttercream, and a snowy edible rind. Invented in the 1930s and produced year-round in Normandy and Burgundy, it was named for famed 18th century gastronome, Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin – who just happened to be born in Belley, a little over an hour from our house (by car, of course). He wrote The Physiology of Taste (1825), and led a life of various ups and downs, fortune and loss, that saw him exalted in France, exiled in Switzerland and living from violin lessons in America (although not necessarily in that order).

We have friends visiting from out of the country, and I asked them what they would like to have. Cheese, they said, lots of cheese. So, an indulgent brunch of cheese it is, starting with the luscious Brillat Savarin.

As Brillat Savarin said, “The senses are the organs by which man places himself in connexion with exterior objects.” We will be doing just that – placing ourselves in connection with cheese, champagne, fresh spring strawberries and best of all, friends.

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