Friday, October 31, 2008

Excommunicated Cheddar

Maître Bernard Anthony--eleveur de fromages, cheese pope of southern Alsace, host extraordinaire of Käs-Kaller, and kindred salt lover--doesn't welcome Cheddar into his holy sea of cheese, only the canonical raw milk ones of France, and maybe one or two from Italy. The closest he comes to pardoning English-style cheeses is a yellow, crumbly Cantal, which appeared at the center of one of the four cheese plates Paul, Katie, and I struggled--and failed--to finish last Thursday at Käs-Kaller. I can't remember when the Cantal appeared during our once-in-a-lifetime dining experience; there was just an extraordinary amount of cheese.

This is an entry about too much cheese, not the infallibility of Maître Anthony. It's about being overwhelmed by the occasion and not being appropriately reverent. It's about not being able to be counted among the faithful. It's about my humble status as a lay cheese lover.

Back in early September, when I was still in New York City and had not yet left my job to go on a great Cheddar adventure, Paul sent an e-mail, asking his wife Katie and me whether we would like a reservation at Käs-Kaller (42 EUR plus beverages) during my stay with them in Basel in October. With the dismally weak dollar, the price seemed quite steep, especially on my limited travel budget, but I gave Paul the go-ahead. The hilarious Babblefish-translated description of Bernard Anthony as the cheese pope was enough to persuade me, even though I had never heard of him--mirable dictu. Who can deny the cheese pope? Considering myself part of the cheese faithful, I certainly couldn't.

We three had no idea what to expect at this dinner. It was a given that there would be a lot cheese, but beyond that, we didn't give it much thought. We were willing to give ourselves over to Maître Anthony and his cérémonie de fromages. Katie and I got a bit worried, however, on the day of the cérémonie. Paul's former assistant, affectionately referred to as the Butler, sent Paul an e-mail, which he forwarded to us, with the specific details about the reservation. The Butler advised that "The tasting of cheeses comes with a few accouterments (potatoes, bread), however, is not a traditional soup-salad-main course-dessert meal, although it is absolutely possible to have cheese for hors-d'oeuvre-premier plat-dessert." He went on to wish us a "world of savors." It hit us: this meal was going to be just cheese. What had we gotten ourselves and stomachs into? And where exactly were we going?

Käs-Kaller wasn't listed in the red Michelin guide to France. This meant a couple of things. One, this unknown place might not be worth all the cheese and the dough, and two, we didn't know how to get there. Katie printed out Mapquest directions on her printer which didn't have enough toner and gave them, as illegible as they were, to me as the navigatrix. We hoped for the best on both counts.

Things didn't go well. The drive from Basel to
Vieux-Ferrette that should have taken us forty minutes (or twenty, according to Souphie on, who extols Käs-Kaller as "the best fromagerie period, wherever in the World") took over an hour and a half. We got lost along the dark country roads of charmless Alsace. It was no one's fault, but as navigatrix, I blamed myself. By the time we had finally arrived in the empty village, forty minutes late for our reservation, and had found our way to Käs-Kaller, thanks to locals at the only restaurant around, my stomach was uncomfortably tense and I was thinking drink, not cheese. You know, to take the edge off....

It was going to take more than a drink to put everyone at ease. To my relief,
Maître Anthony was gracious and didn't show any obvious frustration that we were so late. Looking more like a French version of Grandpa from the TV show The Munsters than a cheesemonger to royalty (Monaco) and the world's finest restaurants (Alain Ducasse's), he showed us into the small restaurant which seats just ten people. Attached to the retail section of his world-class operation, which looks to be carried out in a modest home, the dining room resembled a finished kaller in its first sense, a basement. The white walls had thick wooden detailing, and two of the three tables were placed in corners of the narrow room and had dark benches around them, with backs like picket fences. The unpretentious dining room, with framed photographs of a younger and slimmer M. Anthony, seemed more appropriate for hosting a neighborhood Super Bowl party with buffalo wings and nachos, not the finest cheese in the world (as many believe).

After a very necessary trip to the bathroom, I slipped onto the bench next to Paul, gulped the good, local pinot gris, and started talking much more loudly than Paul felt comfortable with. I can't help it. At the end of the day, I'm a loud American. On top of that, everyone, including the only other diners, a middle-aged German couple, was speaking in the hushed tones of church before the service, and I found this silly in such a simple dining room. We were meant to be relaxed, but no one was. I was just trying to be myself, but this was a no-go. I poured myself some more pinot gris from the extraneous fourth glass and resumed my anxious banter, sotto voce.

With everyone in place (and quieter), M. Anthony presented the first course, a lightly toasted slice of pale brown bread, brushed with olive oil, and topped with a circle of melted cheese, like a poached egg, and a sprinkle of herbes de Provence. I don't what the cheese was, unfortunately. That was the main problem with my fully appreciating audience with the cheese pope. He would say what the cheese was and I would soon forget because there were so many others to keep track of, or I just wouldn't understand him. He was speaking in French, of course, which I don't speak, and he had a funny accent that Paul and Katie had difficulty following. I wish I knew what it was because, for me, it was the most distinctive cheese of the evening. It resembled a slice of Bucheron, but the interior, instead of being chalky, was like warm, milky ricotta. The first course was promising. Maybe the meal wouldn't be all cheese, all the time.

Wrong. The next four courses were just cheese, one-ounce roughly hewn chunks circling the rim of our small, country plates. In all, M. Anthony must have served us about twenty-eight cheeses. The saving graces in this baptism by cheese were the boiled fingerling potatoes from Normandy liberally dusted with fleur de sel, the small plate of butter, also from Normandy, that tasted like caramel and was hard to stay away from, and Katie's stash of paper napkins and large, stylish handbag, into which she surreptiously
placed the cheese we couldn't finish. Moderate Katie could eat no more after the first cheese plate of goats' & sheep's milk cheeses; I gave up after the second plate of cows' milk cheeses, and Paul slowed down after the third one, also cows' milk. Paul and I valiantly ate the two (or was it three?) cheeses on the fourth and final cheese plate, a Munster and something else, and also tucked into a simple, almost freezer-burned crescent of ice cream. To cut through all those thick dairy products in my stomach, I wanted a local kirsch, which was offered to me, but it was too late and I went without.

For the true believers, what I have written must border on blasphemy. Like Fox Mulder, I want to believe, but I just couldn't that evening. Here I was at the temple of cheese, but I couldn't appreciate the microbial miracles before me. There are a few reasons why. First, as mentioned above, there were just too many bloody cheeses! The normal person's
palates can distinguish only so many different tastes at one sitting. At a certain point your tastebuds refuse to work. On top of that, the stomach can comfortably accommodate so much cheese. Eat too much, you feel ill. As the evening progressed, the appropriately modest slices of yellowish cheese on our plates became challenges instead of eagerly anticipated morsels of lactic yummy-ness. Second, I didn't know what I was eating. After he handed each of us our plates, M. Anthony would go around one of them, pointing at and naming the assembly of cheeses, but when he got to where he had started in the circle, he would start going around again, but give the cheeses a different name. That was only part of the problem. Just as our palates and stomachs can handle a limited amout of cheese, our brains can remember only so many names. I wish that we had had a list of all the cheeses served that evening so that I would know exactly what I was eating and trying to appreciate. A pen would have been helpful, too, so that I could write tasting notes on these sheets, if they existed, even if Paul protested in embarassment. As it was, the evening was just a creamy blur of cheese. Third--a confession here--I am not a connoisseur, just an enthusiast. If I were a connoisseur, I would have been able to have eaten all my cheeses and not have Katie wrap them up in napkins and stash away for another day. I would have been able to identify the cheeses and remark out loud--and too loudly--that these were the best cheeses in the world. To me, the uninitiated, I could tell that they were superb specimens of farmhouse cheeses--excellent texture, unblemished rinds (which M. Anthony believes, according to Souphie, are like women's clothing and should come off), desirable and balanced flavors that lingered long in the mouth. But the world's best? I just didn't have the expertise to say. If anything, they were a bit too salty. And that's saying a lot from me, salt-lover that I am. In sum, if I had been served M. Anthony's much-lauded four-year-old comté (which I could have been), I wouldn't have known it, and even if I did, I wouldn't have had the room or knowledge to fully appreciate it. Is this a sin?

I know I've been negative, but I really would like to go back, after I have learned my cheese catechism. My upcoming two-month stint at Neal's Yard Dairy in London, which starts Monday, should help. By January, after eating cheese seven hours a day, five days a week, I should be able to handle an obscene amount of cheese and know better what makes a properly aged farmhouse cheese extraordinary. For now I thank Paul and Katie for their generosity in treating me to a world of savours and for excusing my poor navigating skills and crude American ways.

Until I go back, I am left wondering whether M. Anthony, with his squinty eyes and slight resemblance to my father, is one of my people. Part of my background is Swiss French. I am also wondering whether, with his predilection for salty flavors,
M. Anthony has a salt lick in the kitchen, which he turns to for solace when his American guests show up forty minutes late and his two typically punctual German ones are left waiting for their first course, which he inexplicably must serve at the same time to everyone. It is from them that I should have asked forgiveness. And if I go back, I'm going to get that kirsch!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hi, funny to read your horror trip to Maître Anthony. A little more EU table culture and you might have know a few cheeses by their name... my friends and I - when in a restaurant asked for what kind of cheese - always say " tout ce qui coule" meaning all that is melting, meaning pate molle. I mostly finish a big dinner with cheese, and not the dessert. That is why to me it can be main course. Read my comment here:

I invited some clients and some of them could also not eat a lot, while ME, I told Maître that he MISSED a plate!! Imagine everybody looking at me: yep, I am a cheese freak. He missed French Jura's "Comté", served with "Vin Jaune" - a wine almost nobody likes, very dry and intense. It's my favourite wine.

I admit I wasn't at his place for a few years and this spring almost missed the place. Not so easy to find, so that is a sad thing for tourists like you, getting lost. I really hope you will go there again, better prepared, and be able to enjoy it. It's out of this world quality! Cheers, Emil