Having been to the Chocolate Show (which will travel to New York November 9 to 11), yesterday, Michael, my husband, and I, took the road less traveled and ended up spending hours talking about crop rotation and tasting everything from semi-dried prunes to oysters.
While most of the stands at the show – it almost seemed like a country fair – were fairly utilitarian, the huge display of cheeses from Marayn de Bartassac, a cheesemaker from Gascony, was arrestingly beautiful. That’s just a tiny corner of the stand in the picture above. It might be hard to tell what you’re looking at – the colors and textures suggest mushrooms and chestnuts rather than cheese – even when you get close up, it’s not so easy to recognize the various cheeses: so many of them have been aged for one or two years and have become so hard and so brown that they don’t look like any cheese you know. And lots of them don’t taste like cheeses you know either, since they’ve been finished with ingredients like massala, a mixture of, among other spices, cinnamon, cloves and cardamom (who ever would have thunk?), cognac, wild herbs or piquant peppers. Here’s another of the cheeses – long, lovingly tied packets of cow’s milk cheese that is both dry and creamy:
And we had a nice long visit with Rene Lartigue, who grows and dries haricots-mais, or corn beans, in the Bearn
The beans, which are very much like the more famous dried beans from Tarbes (see what David Lebovitz does with the Tarbais beans), look a little like cannelini beans, but what makes them special is the way they’re grown and the fact that they’re planted, harvested and shucked by hand. Normally, I wouldn’t know a thing about cultivating beans, but having toured Blue Hill at Stone Barns with Dan Barber, I had just enough knowledge to ask a question that animated M. Lartigue so much that he pulled out a photo album and spent the next 20 minutes explaining the fine points of planting haricots-mais. It was fascinating. When I was at the Stone Barns farm, Dan told me that they were experimenting with a type of planting called three sisters, in which you plant corn and then beans, which use the corn as a pole, and then plant squash around the corn and beans. I thought Dan told me that the system came from Native Americans. Well, Farmer Lartigue, plants two of the three sisters, corn and beans, and plants them in exactly the same way – first the corn is planted at a depth of 5 centimeters, then the beans are planted at a depth of 3 centimeters, and the beans get to climb up the corn-pole. According to M. Lartigue, this is the method Christopher Columbus brought back from his travels in South America. The fact that I, a city-dwelling American knew anything about this just about knocked the socks off this French farmer. Merci, Dan.
Of course I bought beans. And I also bought some wonderful Provencal olive oil to go over them
After all this tasting we were hungrier than ever, so we picked up what seems to be the snack of choice at salons like this. Not fried dough, not hot dogs (although there were such good saucissons everywhere), not hamburgers (although there were butchers with gorgeous beef), not French fries – although there was aligote, the mixture of potatoes and cheese that gets stirred with so much elbow grease that it can be stretched for miles
No, the snack of choice is a foie gras sandwich, and the drink of choice, a glass of Sauternes. I don’t think this combo will be adopted anytime soon at country fairs around the States, but I’m sure glad it’s easily getable here.