Monday, 14 August 2017

Cheese Fondue for summer! recipe

Fondue at the height of summer? It sounds all kinds of wrong doesn't it? But actually this works very well. It's not just a dish for snowy, shivery winters.
The twist on this cheese fondue is that it's made entirely from Comté cheese, with the addition of Vin Jaune de Jura, a local sherry-like wine from Franche-Comté. It's also the easiest and simplest fondue that I've ever made. Comté cheese is so dense that it doesn't split once heated, a problem I've had with more complicated recipes. I got this recipe from a quaint mountain lodge and restaurant next to the Swiss border, La Petite Echelle (named after the ladders the Swiss neighbours used to climb the Jura range). To make it really authentically Arpitan (the local dialect), add some Sweet Woodruff herb to the fondue.

Fondue Jura

Serves 6
Preparation time: 10 minutes
Cooking time: 5 minutes

What you will need
A fondue set
A bottle, or several, of chilled white wine
Stale Bread, cut into inch square cubes
Green salad with dijon mustard dressing.
Pickled Silverskin onions
Optional:Small waxy potatoes, baked or boiled in their skins.

For the fondue:
1 clove garlic
15g butter
1 kilo young Comte cheese, cut into cubes
A generous glug of Vin Jaune
A few sprigs of Sweet Woodruff

Rub the fondue pan with the garlic clove.
Turn on the fondue pan heater or start off the fondue on a low heat on your stove.
Add the butter.
Add the cheese.
When the cheese starts to melt, add the Vin Jaune.
Continue to heat until it all melts.
Add the Sweet Woodruff if you have it.
Start eating by putting a cube of bread onto the end of your long fork. Dip it into the fondue.
Accompany with the pickles, potatoes if you wish, green salad

Low carb version:
Instead of bread use large ivory cauliflower florets, broccoli florets, carrot sticks, slices of courgette.

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Tuesday, 8 August 2017

Knife making at Blenheim Forge

Blenheim Forge

Jon warshawsky  of Blenheim Forge
Blenheim Forge

Cooking and preparing food is a great deal easier if you have a good knife. I spent years struggling with inherited blunt junk shop knives. My mother doesn't have a good knife, nor does my sister, my sister-in-law or my niece, and they are all keen cooks. Having a good knife doesn't appear to be a female objective when it comes to kitchen tools. For male cooks it's probably the first thing they would buy.
For Christmas I gave my niece a Global knife:
'It's changed my life' she enthused.
This summer, at my parents kitchen at their home in France, frustrated with the hand-me-down knives from previous occupants, I nipped out to the local supermarket and bought my mum a couple of knives: an all-purpose Chefs and a small ceramic paring knife.
'It's changed my life' said my mum.
Earlier this year I visited Blenheim Forge in Peckham, which makes hand-forged knives. It was started by three self-taught friends in their late twenties: Richard Warner, Jon Warshawsky and James Ross-Harris. They met when they were students house sharing. Richard and James studied design engineering at Goldsmiths college while John did philosophy at Kings.

Their workshop is under Victorian brick railway arches. Outside, the forge spits and hisses.
Inside Richard shows me the raw material for making knives. 
'Our steel starts off like bars. Which becomes the dark part of the knife. This is Japanese blue paper steel- 'yasuki steel' ordered from Japan.'
I picked up a 2 foot steel square rod, quite heavy.
'That's just over £30, if that was ordinary steel... it would cost £2.'
Are the Japanese the best at steel?
'One of the best. We make Japanese inspired knives so we use their steel.We make our knives using their hands-on process. German knives are really good, but factory-made. The Japanese style of making stuff is more human.'
What about British knives?
'There's definitely heritage in Sheffield. Sheffield steel is famous. Stainless steel was invented in Sheffield.'
The French make knives...
'Sabatier, Opinel.'
I have Global knives.
'You could do worse. They are not... they are mass produced. The grade of the steel isn't high.'
How did you learn to make a knife?
'Trial and error. We played around with it for a long time. There's not many places you can learn to do what we do.'
I looked at one of their beautiful knives.
'We laminate the steel, fusing it together with other metals to create a sort of sandwich. We fold it many times depending on how many layers are needed. Some knives have 30 layers, some have 300 layers. Functionally there's not a massive difference, it's more a style. '
It's almost like the rings of a tree.
'A laminated blade has many advantages over a single sheet of metal. Most (culinary) knives used to be laminated. It's coming back into fashion. In the East, in Japan, 90% of the blades are laminated and have been for years but now this technique has been rediscovered in the West- first in the United States, reappearing thirty or forty years ago. It's like puff pastry. You can see the difference, the middle layers, folded outside.'
It's the millefeuille of knives. Have you sold to any famous chefs?
'Nigella has got a blade from us. Her publisher bought her one. Jay Rayner has got one. Frances Mallman, an Argentinian celebrity chef.  But mostly we cater to anyone who likes to cook, not celebrity chefs. Most of our customers are home users.'
Price-wise how do they compare? 
'Our knives are a little bit more expensive than Global. Relatively they are cheaper... if you compare a Macdonalds hamburger to say Wagyu beef. Big Macs are expensive because it takes fuck all for them to make a hamburger. Same for mass-produced knives. You are paying for branding, marketing, transportation.'
On another scarred wooden bench, I pick up some cardboard templates.
How long have you been making knives now?
'Three years.' 
That's not very long, and you've got to this point within 3 years.
'It helps being three of us. Normally it would take say eight years by myself. It's accelerated the learning curve. You could say we have nine years worth of experience between the three of us.'

Jon shows me how he cuts out the shape of the knives. He places the cardboard template on the hammered and laminated steel. 
'Cut off the excess and you end up with a blade. This will then be heated, make it look like a blade, it's a bit thick right now. Fifteen layers of iron folded on the outside. For our standard blades, the layers are more for looks, you don't need an excessive number of layers. We just make a few on the outside, to give it support, so you don't end up with a blade that's too expensive. Every process takes longer when you do it by hand but we want an affordable high quality blade.'
This is quite light.
'It goes even lighter.'
When you are making a knife, do you want it light or heavy?
'It depends what blade you want to end up with. This style is Kyoto, which is stronger, meant for processing meat. Kyoto were created when they started importing western knives to Japan and they saw a western chef's knife, longer and wider than a Japanese chef's knife, which is a Santoku.'
I've got a Santoku, which has a kind of diagonal at the end.
'A Kyoto is a Japanese interpretation of a French sabatier knife 100 years ago.'
In China they are using cleavers with great expertise, a huge thing that can do quite delicate things sometimes. Do you make cleavers as well?
'Richard made a few.'
I see a box of thick wooden sticks. Is the wood you make the handles from?
'We make them from walnut, which has nice patterns on it. The bit at the end is copper.'
Why do you use copper?
'It looks nice and gives a bit more weight to the handle. Otherwise you end up with a pretty light handle. It balances out the weight. If you didn't have any metal on the handle, you'd end up with a knife that tips forward.'
Where do you see yourself going with this? More types of knives?
'We like the things we are doing at the moment. We make between 20 and 30 knives a week.'
Is that enough to make a living off, for the three of you?
'We have a lot of expenses but we make just enough to make a living. We could be making 50, but your quality goes down once you increase your numbers. The three of us make 10 knives each. Ten knives is manageable. You know each knife. If you make more it gets messy.'
Are you trying to make them as uniform as possible? Or is each one individual?
'You want them all to be different in some respects'. 
Do you feel like some of your soul is going through to the chef?
'The knives have got character. If you've forged it well, you get that wave where the black line touches the rim of the edge of the blade. If another blacksmith looks at it, it's a gage for the level of skill. We still make a lot of mistakes, so we waste material.'
Can you melt the steel down and use it again?
Do you have slightly bodged-up ones that you sell a bit cheaper? 
'No. We used to but not anymore.'
Do people ever come back and complain? 
'If a knife was rejected, we've profiled it wrong. The finish is not good...' Jon strokes a knife: 'The handle and blade fit well on this one. It'll be a bit of a step with your finger. You'll have a little sharp corner in there. That seems like a detail but after using it for hours, you'll notice. 
Have you got good knife skills?
'Not really but I use my own knives at home.'
There are about 20 knives in front of me. Are these ready to go out to customers? 
'No they are being finished, oiled.'
Do you make ladies' knives or men's knives? Obviously women have smaller hands. This is why I like the Santoku. 
'No. There are ladies who like big knives and ladies who like...' He laughs. 'Probably men would like larger ones. Your hands are like different sizes, but food is the same size.'
The Japanese are also famous for making swords.
'Most knife making techniques are derived from making swords.'
I've heard there are 500 words for cutting in Japanese. I wondered if John liked making knives because it's more clear cut than philosophy.
Do you make axes? I had a boyfriend who was a lumberjack. He was a genius with an axe. The way he behaved with an axe- it was like an extension of his arm.
'If you make axes you've got to make just axes. You have to specialise. We don't do weaponry things. It's a different mentality. Kitchen knives are finer products. We make small hunting knives but if you go into swords and machetes, you need a bigger set up, a bigger forge, a bigger grinder. At the moment we are set up to do small fine things.'
On another bench there's a French guy, using the workshop at the weekend, making a large knife for his dad.
'My dad used to cook quite a lot, he went to cooking school. I'm trying to do a more French style of knife. The shape is different, more classical. This shape is more European. The shapes are more simple.'
A Sabatier look?
'Yes. They have a more triangular shape. For me, I love this shape. This is all-purpose. It's quite small, if you cook with meat.'
On top of a cupboard I see two cardboard boxes, with the labels 'Fucked' and 'Not Fucked'.
The Frenchman smiles and waves towards the boxes... 
'...when they first started. Obviously they worked a lot to develop their skills and on the way... ' he shrugs.
Jon returns:
 'They come in this cardboard sleeve with Blenheim Forge stamped on it. It's simple but represents well the spirit of the brand. Efficient. It takes about 3 weeks to get one if you order.'
So out here, what's happening?
'We are doing the hot work: the forging, the grinding, heat-shaping the blades, making the final blade shape that you want. You heat it up and cool it down really fast;
How many times?
'Start high - 800c then bit lower. Three times for most. Last time is on medium heat, to seal it.'
Does the temperature make a difference?
'You want to achieve a result with the lowest temperature possible. The environment inside the forge, you keep it so that's there's almost no oxygen.The more it oxidises, you end up with less carbon content in the steel. So when you harden it, it'll be less hard. The edge will not last as long.'
Is it very expensive a giant grinding wheel like this?
'You can't buy it. we made it. That's why it looks so pikey', Jon grins.
We hear the rain hammering down outside and the train overhead. It's a wonderful Peckham day.
Is there a reason you started in Peckham?
'We lived in Peckham. Now it's really expensive, unbelievable! Eight years ago when we first moved to Peckham, it was £200 a month for a really nice semi-detached house. Now you don't find things under £700. It's tripled. Even a workshop like this, the rent's gone up.'
Are you going to stay?
'If we can. But all of this is coming down' Jon gestures to the archways. 'It could be five years, could be 15. Peckham's kind of cool now.'

Come to Kilburn, it's not cool.

Prices from £140 to £280. 

Monday, 31 July 2017

Comté, the Cheddar Cheese of France

Tas the cowboy and dairy farmer with Montbeliarde cow, comté, Franche-comté

Comté, L to R, mature to new.
La fruitière à Compté, de Chilly sur Salins, Franche-comté
Every day in France at least one farmer commits suicide. Isolation, few marriage prospects, poor status, long hours, no holidays and a low income contribute to this sad situation. But dairy farmers living in the French département of Franche-Comté are an exception. Their farms are home to the most beautiful cows in the world, the brown and cream Montbeliarde, which, cow bells tinkling, pasture on the green hills of the Jura, like a children's picture book illustration. Each pampered cow has a hectare to graze upon.
These farmers earn a good living. The milk they produce is so rich, so high in protein that it is worth twice as much as British dairy farmers get for their milk. This high quality milk produces France's most popular cheese, which is not Brie or Camembert or Roquefort but Comté. Comté is the nearest French cheese to cheddar. I met a passionate farmer with the mononym 'Tas', a leather hatted cowboy whose parents and grandparents farmed before him. 
Why are you called Tas? I asked, thinking, this isn't a very French name.
'From travelling' he twinkled.
'Is it something Turkish?' I guessed.
'Further south'
'Yes that's it'.
But I wasn't sure if I believed him.
Tas was ruggedly handsome, with blue eyes and blond hair, who looked more German than French as Franche-Comté is close to the Swiss and German borders. We chatted over dinner in the grand dining room of the hotel. He was wearing a crisp white shirt with a 'Comté' appliqué on the collar and 2 wolves and a moon appliquéd on the pocket.
'I like your shirt' I said.
'Tas always wears a Comté shirt' he puffed proudly.
Then: 'Tas thinks the internet is a terrible thing. Tas thinks the work of a blogger is imperceptible' he announced.
'Uh huh'. I was so confused by the fact that he spoke about himself in the third person, I didn't have time to feel insulted.
Sandra, the red-maned French PR came over, crouched between us and said:
'Please explain to Tas why the internet is important.' 
Tas replied: 'Tas thinks parents who let their children be on the internet in their rooms is not a good parent. Tas thinks families who allow mobile phones at the dinner table are making a big mistake.'
I agreed with Tas but explained that to choose not to use the internet is the equivalent today of refusing to learn to read and write. 
His blue eyes burned at me. 
I clarified, trying to appeal to Tas, by saying that the internet, blogging, social media, is a way of democratising self-expression, publishing and writing. Tas nodded. 
La fort Saint Antoine, cave for comet cheese, Franche-Comté
The next day Tas leads myself and a group of bloggers to an enormous cheese cave, a former fortress, housing 100,000 wheels of Comté. The smell of ammoniac is overpowering. 
Every day these cheeses are turned and inspected. Then as time goes on, the cheese is inspected once a week, then once a month and so on. They are aged up to 18 months. Each wheel weighs 40 kilos. 
'This is why only men could work here. A woman is allowed by law to lift up to 25 kilos.' explained Tas. 'Today a robot does most of the work, guided by the 15 'affineurs' (cheese maturers) that work here'.
The cheeses are stacked on rows of spruce wood shelves, up to 40 metres high. We watch a robot trundle along the passage way, lift up a metal shelf with a plank of wood, pull out a yard-wide cheese wheel, lower it, brush the top with a brine solution then raise it back to its place on high. The work is hypnotic. Towards the last few months of maturation, the wheels are tapped all around with a 'sonde' which is both hammer and cheese iron. The sound of the cheese hints at the age within. A hollow sound suggests a crack. The other end of the 'sonde' is used to sample a tube of cheese. The cheese is sniffed and rubbed between the fingers, if the top part breaks off, it's ready. The rest is reinserted back into the cheese and smoothed over.
Comté is a thousand years old, but until the 1960s was referred to as Gruyère. Compté comes from the Gruyère family of cheeses. Emmentale, often conflated with Gruyère, is an industrialised cheese that is 'matured' very rapidly, hence the lack of flavour,  using gas and heat to create the holes. 
Fruitiere sign,comté, Franche-comté
a dripping Montbeliard cow's udder, Comté, Franche-Comté
Churning the milk for comté
vacuuming out the milk to put into comté moulds, Fruitière, Franche-Comté

Fruitières and Affineurs

Comté is made with raw milk, which I tasted warm and frothy from the udder. A farmer such as Tas will milk his cows and deliver it directly to a 'fruitiere'. In the Middle Ages, farmers only had one or two cows each. They formed cooperatives called 'fruitières' to supply enough milk to make cheese. We visited a fruitière: the fruit of the workers. 
The dairy or fruitière smells like steamed milk. The cheesemakers wear white rubber boots, doctor's coats, hair nets. It's hot in there. 
The raw milk is heated to 12ºC  then 'ripened' to 31ºC in a huge open copper tank. Cheese culture is added and the milk is further heated for 45 minutes to reach 56ºC when the rennet is mixed in.
The curds are finely cut, to the width of a grain of rice, and at this point, the whey or 'petit lait' and curds are separated. The whey is drained into another tank to be dried into a powder and used in baby formula, biscuits, medicines.
The curds are vacuumed (literally with a giant sterilised vacuum cleaner) into smaller Comté wheel-sized tanks where it is pressed into moulds. To make the distinctive rind, the cheeses are washed with salt.
'The cheese are ours for only a few weeks' explained Tas. 'then they are taken to the affineurs, a cave where the cheeses are matured'. 
Each cheese wheel uses 400 litres of milk and weighs 40 kilos at the end. A ratio of 40 to 1. Cheese is, after all, portable milk. 

 These 'hieroglyphs' scratched on the side of a wheel of Comté mean something to affineurs.
This is hay.


You can tell the difference between a Comté made from summer milk and one made from winter milk.
During the summer, the cows eat grass and flowers. The cheese is yellow.
In winter, the cows eat hay, dried grass. The cheese is an ivory colour. 
Everyone was bandying around this term 'hay'. Finally I asked:
 'What actually IS hay?'
The country dwellers rolled their eyes. Hay is dried grass. Straw is dried grain stalks. So now I know.

Comté is the most popular cheese in France. Locals eat 30 kilos a year of the stuff.
'You can eat Comté three times a day' asserts Tas. 'Tas eats Comté every meal'.
France eats the most cheese in the world anyway, around 26 kilos a year per capita.

At the end of our visit to the Fort/cave we tasted a three year old Comté. 
'When a Comté is this good, you don't cut it, you chip it' murmurs Tas.
The cheese is creamy, dense, nutty, long lasting with crystals. It's a huge chunk but between the ten of us, we finish it. Comté is well matched with a Vin Jaune de Jura, an almost sherry-like wine. You can use younger Comté for cooking as it melts well.

Outside I take pictures of Tas with some Montbeliarde cows in the lane. He calls out to them, a strange sound, a kind of echoing sing-song:
'Tas' cows, they recognise the timbre of a voice. Tas doesn't know these cows so Tas has to approach them carefully'.
He advances sideways, eventually inclining his head, tipping his leather hat towards them, letting them smell him. The brass bell around the cows neck clangs as the cow allows him to come near, it's a gentle scene.

Back in the van, I sit in the front next to Sandra.
'I'd marry him' I announce.
'So would I' says Sandra.
Chipping a piece of mature 3 year old Comté, Fort de Saint-Antoine, Franche-Comté
Franche-Comté countryside, very green, Vin de Jura vineyards.
Dairy farmers and cowboy Tas with a Montbeliarde cow, Franche-Comté