The Hervé Way

Maybe it's the bright colors, or the lofty ceilings, or perhaps it's the baroque selection of fantastic cheeses. Whatever it is, there's something about the Murray's store on Bleecker Street that evokes for me all the excitement and grandeur of the opera. And like any good opera house, Murray's even has a President's Box, ensconced in a small loft in the rear of the store. I refer of course to the cozy, low-ceilinged room where Murray's holds their Cheese Course Classes, seminars on all things cheese from basic tasting techniques, to beverage pairings, to explorations of geography and terroir. Where else would one want to be to savor some poignant arias sung by the world's greatest cheeses?

Last night I witnessed one of the performances of the century, composed and conducted by the great French affineur Hervé Mons. Along for the ride was his assistant and translator Laure Dubouloz, also an affineur in the Mons company. The class was entitled "Vocabulary of Cheese," essentially an introduction on how to taste, describe, and appreciate cheese. His cast of characters read like a who's-who of French cheese: Brillat-Savarin , Tomme de Templiers (a mild washed-rind made from raw goat's milk , Lavort, a very special 18 month-old Comté, Maroilles Fermier, Bleu de Sassenage, and Persillé du Malzieu. Paired with these were four French wines and an American beer: Arbois Savagnin (Puffeney 2002), Sancerre (Dom. La Croix St.-Laurent 2005), Brooklyn Lager (Brooklyn Brewery), Coteaux du Layon (Dom. Baumard 2002), and St.-Chinian "Travers de Marceau" (Rimbert 2004).

But like any good opera, the climax of these pairings would be delayed until Act 2, for before that we would go through a short tasting boot camp, to get our buds in shape. The class began with a description of how the five senses can all be engaged while eating. Four of those five are obvious to me, but I was interested to find out how I could engage my auditory sense during a tasting. Listen for crackling, fizzing, and crunching, advised M. Mons.

Following that we were given an array of flavor-samples, each with varying amounts of either salty, sweet, acidic or bitter flavor. We were asked to identify which of those four flavors was present in each sample. As it turns out, it is much easier to identify acidity and bitterness than saltiness and sweetness, when they are found in comparable amounts.

After this non-cheese tasting was complete, it was on to the good stuff--Act 2 if you will. Hervé chose to pair the Brillat-Savarin with both the Coteaux and the Sancerre. I much preferred the former, where the sweetness of the wine balanced perfectly the tangy creaminess of this triple crème. For the Tomme des Templiers, which had subtle cooked milk and goaty/smoky flavors, he paired the Sancerre. Not a bad combo, but it didn't quite reach the same heights as the Brillat-Savarin/Coteaux pairing. Lavort is a sweet, buttery, slightly spicy/piquant sheep cheese and in my opinion it was best savored on its own.

The 18 month-old Comté was one of the best I've ever had: walnutty and sweet, yet so savory it tasted almost of grilled meat. And a remarkable thing happened when paired with the Arbois, a fruity, nutty, yet acidic wine. The match between these two was revelatory, with a uniqueness of flavor not found in either food alone. And when my ecstasy of gustatory intrigue ended at the inevitable swallow, the clean, perfect finish was simply sublime.

The Maroilles, a washed-rind cheese made in Nord-Pas de Calais in the northernmost region of France, is one of those beautiful, pungent Trappist-style specimens. I detected earthy, animal-like flavors, and someone else in the class mentioned hints of Brussels sprouts. When I first heard this I sort of chuckled to myself, but then I took another bite, and lo and behold, that flavor figured prominently! Must be something the cows are eating up there... Hervé recommended to pair it with the
Brooklyn Lager, which was a nice choice. I also liked it with the Coteaux, where the sweetness of the wine cut nicely with the savoriness of the cheese.

Rounding out the plate were the two blues, which were actually quite different from one another. The Blue de Sassenage tending toward a more spicy, nutty flavor (I tasted almond, Hervé mentioned hazelnut), and the Persillé du Malzieu being more barnyardy and yeasty (similar, as it is, to Roquefort). I enjoyed the latter far more, especially because it had this curious texture that simply melted away in your mouth. In a few seconds, what started as a soft, yet solid, paste melted in my mouth into a sort of moldy, creamy soup. This one also paired really well with the Coteaux, and Hervé even mentioned that it goes really well with grilled bread.

This was a great class, with all the ups and downs, the drama, the suspense, a denouement and the raw artistic emotion that any good opera should have. And as always with these sorts of things, if you can stomach the cost (this one was $75), your stomach will thank you.