Friday, February 11, 2005

Rob and Herve Mons in Lyons, France

My friend Herve Mons invites me to Lyons for the first annual Caseus award. This is a competition with twelve contestants, a pair of cheese mongers from the twelve countries invited. America is not on the list. I am there to see how the big boys do it, so that maybe, in two years, when the next competition is held, Murray’s can participate.

I am therefore surprised to arrive in the hall to find Japan among the entries. Surely they are not more cheese savvy than we? Old friends are there: Canut from Spain, Hodgson from England, Sheridan from Ireland, Rubino from Italy. The proceedings are complex; I can’t tell what is going on. But I find out later that the competition is in parts.

The first is to cut a wheel of Comte into small chunks that all weigh the same. Then there is a blind tasting to identify cheeses. Each group has a little booth, so display is part of it. I like the English and Irish booth, but later I find out they are penalized for putting out those great chunks of cheese on top of the case, just like Murray’s does.

The third prize goes to Switzerland, Sweden is second, and to our surprise Germany wins the grand prize. They are all very neat and organized. Portugal comes in last. Clearly, precise and somewhat boring is the judges’ preference. But everyone has fun and meanwhile I am exploring Lyons for three days.

Mostly, this involves eating. I am with Tamasin Day-Lewis, the food writer, and we make the rounds of the restaurants friends have suggested. The first night we’re with Val, who used to run wholesale for us, before she went back to her native France. The typical restaurants are called bouchons, and the little joint the first night in the rue Garet serves big bowls of rilletes d’oie, rosette de Lyon, a cured pork sausage with butter and pickles, cured pig served with lentil in mustard dressing, and lyonnaise potatoes cooked in pork fat with onions.

This is just the warm-up. We will go to a one star Michelin, followed by two three stars (the highest) the two nights following. We are talking seven Michelin stars in a row. So the next night we are at Tetedoie, where Tamasin has the signature dish, tete de veau. I am particularly fond of the cream of chestnut soup served with a poached quail’s egg and slice of bacon. I won’t bore you with all the rest, the parementier de boeuf, the lobster, except to say that we are not going to get any sympathy for our behavior.

The next night at Paul Bocuse, perhaps the most famous restaurant in France, is French via Las Vegas. Big signs, all over the top fixtures, and service by Cary Grant waiters that have more training than a marine. The chef himself stops by to say hello. He is eighty and like a king, or pope. What to have? We ask about the ‘volaille de bresse en vessie mere fillioux demi deuil’ being carved at the next table. Not good enough. We are sent the ‘loup en croute feuiletee’, a whole fish in pastry shaped like the fish, with pastry scales, gills and tail. The waiter opens it tableside, the steam wafts out, and with the fish he scoops out pistachio mousseline and ladles on the cream sauce. Simple and sublime.

Next day, we visit the caves of Mons at Roanne, about two hours away. It is snowing. We get to the caves for a tour and tasting. You can see the photos here.

Mons is one of the leading affineurs in France, and his operation has the buttoned down efficiency we expect. Great tommes and small chevres lined up like little soldiers in the caves, larger versions of what we have built on Bleecker Street to his design. We have a tasting with some other guests. A cheese I have never much cared for, the langres, is best; they wash it themselves in the caves.

That night, we go to Troisgros, where we have the greatest meal of our lives. Michel Troisgros, the chef, is the third generation to have three Michelin stars. He has been influenced by his travels in Asia and Japan. More than fusion certainly. For example, the amuse is a ‘tomato cerise en carapace caramel au sesame’, which is a little sugar coated fried crackling ball with ginger and sesame served on a stick containing the soft pulp of a peeld and marinated cherry tomato. I eat cepes à la saltimbocca with bits of prosciutto, fried sage and capers. Tamasin starts with fennel cream with sea urchins and shavings of raw fennel. The main course is duck in two parts, with the world’s best fries, actually pomme puffs served in paper.

After breakfast the next morning, Herve drives us back to Lyons and we fly home. If all goes well, in two years a team from Murray’s will be winging their way there after hours of practice cutting Comte and identifying cheeses blindfolded. We already have an idea who our team might be.

-Rob Kaufelt
Murray's "Big Cheese"