TRISH DESEINE slopes off piste in search of some cheese, molten preferably …
Skiing was never the same for me since the day I disembarked a ski lift at the bottom of the piste and instead of expertly swooshing to a halt in a perfect curve, kept on sliding. Time slowed as in horror I watched my slapstick self crashing into a crowd at a ski-race prize-giving ceremony, in what was probably my most mortifying ski moment ever.
And there have been many. It’s certainly up there with removing my skis, and walking down a red slope, sobbing through fear and vertigo and the time I was caught sneaking in a solitary midday fondue when a raclette had been planned for that evening’s dinner.
Glossy readers, I apologise, but this skier is very much rooted in l’après-ski. I am, if I might say it myself, a great person to invite to a chalet holiday as I will very happily cook for all sporting friends in need of refuelling several times a day. It’s wonderful, as grateful friends always believe it’s my sacrifice, giving up the skiing bit, when all I see and have ever seen in winter sports is license to eat cheese.
And in the Alps, let’s face it, the cheese is the most spectacular part of the scenery. Huge, mottled wheels of Beaufort, Comté and Abondance piled high, half moons of melting raclettes and mountains of spruce-encased Mont D’Ors are just as pretty a sight as any old poudreuse annointed mountain slope.
Each cheese has its story to tell. Le Mont d’Or takes its name from the mountain range in Franche-Comté. It was invented as milk became less plentiful after summertime and a smaller cheese (than Comté) was needed. Made only between August 15 and March 15, handily, it ripens as winter begins and our craving for melted cheese returns in earnest. Like Camembert or Brie, you can help its gorgeous gooeyness along by roasting for a few minutes in the oven, but what joy to wait and leave it to ripen, prodding the velvety, pillowy rind every day until the creaminess underneath moves under your fingers and you know it’s time to dive in with a spoon. Seriously, after that, who needs pudding?
Along with raclette, Roblochon is probably the greatest of made-to-melt cheeses and the star ingredient of the majestic tartiflette. Its name comes from the term “re-blocher” – to milk again – in the days when milk was taxed and farmers secretly milked their cows twice, at nightfall, to make Reblochon cheese.
Perhaps the most prized of all the hard, melting Gruyère cheeses and one of the sacred fondue trinity along with Beaufort and Comté, is Abondance. It is named after the breed of cattle whose milk is used to make it, a medium-sized, sturdy, red white-headed cow, with curved horns, distinctive eye patches and the perfect constitution for mountain life. The Abondance cows’ rich milk and the spruce planks upon which the cheese is ripened make it buttery and delicate with notes of hazelnut, pineapple and citrus.
When all this effort, human and bovine alike, has been put in to making such a perfect, delicious substance, it’s worth repeating, I feel, that January is not a month for deprivation or for punitive measures after the excesses of the end of year festivities. These are four weeks where we hunker down and snuggle in, when we warm and comfort ourselves indoors after the ruggedness of outdoors – whether we’re skiing or not. Instead of counting calories, we should forget them. So I’m giving you two glorious, classic French recipes, for it is the time of year joyfully, willingly, to give in to the power of cheese.
Tartiflette may be a French recipe, but its ingredients – potatoes, cream, cheese, onions and bacon – feel decidedly Irish. This recipe comes from Durrus cheese, celebrating 40 years of cheesemaking in West Cork, and they know a thing or two about cooking with it. You can use double cream instead of the crème fraîche if you prefer.
For 5 – 8
10 minutes preparation
45 minutes cooking
750-1kg potatoes. Scrubbed, skins on. Orlas are perfect as they are waxy and tasty. • 1 medium onion, peeled, chopped • 25g butter • 4 rashers bacon, cut into 2cm pieces • 4 or 5 tbsps crème fraîche • 250g Roblochon or 1 small Durrus, sliced
1. Start by steaming or parboiling the potatoes for 15 minutes or so, until they are almost cooked through but still have a bit of resistance to a knife piercing them.
2. While the potatoes are cooking, heat the butter in a frying pan over a low heat and soften the onions for 4 or 5 minutes. Increase the heat slightly, add the bacon and stir a little. Cook until it is golden, but you don’t want too much colour on either it or the onions.
3. Pre-heat the oven to 180oC.
4. When the potatoes are ready, cut them into 3cm chunks, still with the skins on. Tip them into the hot pan and gently stir them into the onion and bacon without breaking them up. Add a little freshly ground pepper (you won’t need salt with the bacon and cheese.)
5. Then put the whole lot, scraping the bottom of the pan, into a gratin dish or a small casserole. Dot the crème fraîche over the potatoes, lay the slices of Durrus on top and cook for a further 10 to 15 minutes, until the cheese is bubbling and the potatoes are perfectly tender.
6. Leave to cool very slightly before serving with steamed green vegetables or a crisp salad.
10 minutes preparation
20 – 25 minutes cooking
40g butter • 50g plain flour • 250ml full fat milk • 2 egg yolks • 5 egg whites • 75g grated Comté, Beaufort or Gruyère cheese • A pinch of ground nutmeg • Salt and freshly grated ground black pepper
To grease the soufflé dish
15g butter • 1 level tbsp plain flour
1. Heat the oven to 200oC.
2. Grease and flour a 14cm diameter, 8cm high soufflé dish, then leave to cool in the fridge.
3. Make a roux by melting the butter in a non-stick saucepan, adding the flour and cooking for a few minutes. Stir the roux continuously with a small whisk or wooden spoon over a medium heat, until the flour “cooks out” and the roux takes on a golden colour. Don’t let it stick or brown too much.
4. Add the milk little by little, stirring or whisking (or both) as you go, to avoid any lumps. Bring to the boil and immediately remove from the heat.
5. Let the béchamel cool for four or five minutes before beating in the egg yolks and then add the cheese.
6. Season with the nutmeg, salt and pepper and leave to one side while you whisk the egg whites until they are moderately stiff, like whipped Italian ice cream.
7. Add a little beaten egg white to the cheese béchamel mixture with a large metal spoon, to loosen it up. Then gently fold in the remaining egg white. Spoon the batter gently into the mould and cook for 20 to 25 minutes, checking it if you can see into your oven. Take a look at 22 minutes if not. The soufflé should be risen and the top golden.
8. Remove from the oven and serve immediately.