Art, fashion and perfumery aside, France can be credited for introducing the world to its hallowed cuisine, in particular delicious French cheeses, which are sought after by every cheese fiend worth their rennet.
By extension, that reverence for French cheese has given us cheesemonger Francois Robin, who has been lauded as an Un des Meilleurs Ouvriers de France, or “one of the best craftsmen of France” – a title that is no easy feat to acquire.
Robin, who has worked with famed Parisian delicatessen Fauchon as well as with pastry chefs Christophe Adam and Benoit Couvrand, spends much of his time introducing enthusiasts like myself to French cheeses. At a recent workshop in Dubai held by Spinneys in collaboration with Sopexa and the French Dairy Board, I learnt that Robin’s main tenet is “anytime, anywhere, anyhow”, in reference to how you can enjoy these delicious cheeses.
Robin explains that French cheeses are complex in flavour even though they are usually made with only four ingredients. The indigenous and best cheeses come with a PDO sticker that demarcates the specific region, process and expertise required to uphold the highest level of quality and authenticity during the making process.
When it comes to pairing cheeses, Robin simply says to think of pairings that enhance each other. He reveals his top combinations, including Roquefort-stuffed dates topped with sesame and drizzled with molasses; miso and black garlic to create an umami lusciousness that goes well with Comte; and sliced Camembert, lightly smoked with olive wood and zaatar (which Robin demonstrates using a small portable smoker), then topped with more zaatar and set on a cracker.
The master fromager believes the key to these astute pairings is to “remember not to change the DNA of the cheese itself”. Inspired by all Robin’s knowledge and dishes, here are three recipe ideas that will fit well with all levels of cheese expertise.
Create a casual-chic cheeseboard
When creating a cheeseboard try to fulfil all of your guests’ expectations. Purchase a selection of cheeses, varying in flavour, texture and intensity.
Interject the cheeses with bread, crackers, fruit, nuts, dried fruits or honey. Be brave in your choices; chances are, if you like it, so will your guests. For example, I added cacao nibs.
Lay out your cheese in order from the mildest to the strongest. In the board pictured, there’s a Brie de Meaux with truffle on the right, sliced and arranged to highlight the truffles inside. In the centre sits Brillat Savarin Affine, cut in a Pac-Man style to show of its beautiful milky inside and bloomy rind. Finally, there is a strong and earthy 18-month aged Comte, cut into shards. The Brillat Savarin can easily be replaced by Camembert and the Comte with Tomme de Savoie.
Allow your cheeses to come to room temperature before serving (a cold cheese has a muted flavour).
Bake a Camembert for two
250g Le Rustique Camembert
1 garlic clove, cut in slivers
Rosemary (fresh or dried), to taste
Chilli flakes, to taste
1 tsp maple syrup
Allow your Camembert to come to room temperature (it takes between 30 and 45 minutes) after removing any plastic packaging and setting the cheese back in its box.
Cut a cross-hatch pattern into the cheese. Into the cross-hatch, press slivers of fresh garlic alternating with rosemary. Sprinkle with a pinch of chilli flakes.
Bake at 180°C for 15 to 20 minutes. Drizzle with the maple syrup in the last five minutes.
Serve immediately with accompaniments such as boiled potatoes, mushrooms or pickled onions.
Enjoy gougeres with cheese custard
Makes 30 to 32
Ingredients and method for the Comte custard
33g unsalted butter, cubed
Pinch of nutmeg, grated
1 bay leaf
1 garlic clove
4 egg yolks
50g Comte, grated
1 tsp Dijon mustard
Pinch of crushed sea salt and freshly crushed pepper
2½ tbsp chives, chopped
Bring the milk, butter, nutmeg, bay leaf and garlic to a boil, and whisk the egg yolks with the cornstarch in a small bowl in the meanwhile.
Once the mix is at a boil, take it off the heat and strain some of it into the egg yolks and cornstarch, whisking immediately. Discard the bay leaf and garlic
Strain the rest of the milky mix into another saucepan and add the yolk-milk mix to it. Melt the cheese with the mustard, salt and pepper on a medium heat whisking continuously to thicken and until smooth.
Remove from the heat, then add the butter mixture and chives. Whisk until the butter mix dissolves. If it’s too thick, add a little milk to loosen. You want the texture of a thick custard. Fill this into a piping bag and set in the fridge.
Ingredients and method for the choux pastry
85g unsalted butter, cubed
½ tsp salt
½ tsp sugar
115g flour, sifted
½ tsp pepper, ground
1 egg plus a splash of water for the egg wash
Grated Comte, for topping
Combine the water, butter and salt and bring to a boil. In the meanwhile, whisk the eggs in a bowl and sift the flour and pepper into a separate bowl.
Once the butter has melted and the mix is boiling, remove from the heat and add the flour mix all at once. Beat with a wooden spoon or spatula to incorporate.
Return to a medium heat and beat constantly for one minute to dry out the dough. Remove from the heat once the dough makes a film on the base, but comes together. Cool for a few minutes.
Add the eggs in four increments, beating with a spoon and making sure the dough absorbs the liquid before adding the next increment. Beat until smooth and until the dough can hold an indentation in it without the sides collapsing.
Using a piping bag with a large star-tip nozzle, pipe two-centimetre rounds on parchment-paper-lined trays, leaving space for them to rise a little. Make sure to pipe without the nozzle leaving the dough and pull away upwards, leaving a little tip. Wet the tip of your finger and pat down the tips of the choux. Brush with the egg wash and top with the cheese.
Bake the gougeres at 190°C in a preheated oven for 25 minutes. Once risen and golden, remove from the oven and quickly prick them with a toothpick on the side to let the steam escape. Pop back into the oven for another five or six minutes. Once done, remove, prick again and place on a cooling rack for 10 minutes.
Allow the custard to come to room temperature. With a paring knife stab a little cross in the bottom of the gougeres. Fill the custard through this hole until the pastry feels slightly heavier. Serve immediately or store in the fridge once filled and reheat at 190°C for six to eight minutes when serving.