06 December 2009

More about gastronomes and fromages

It's funny and revealing, the French word « gastronome », I think. How do you translate it? The Grand Robert et Collins dictionary gives “gourmet” and “gastronome” — only the first of those works for me. However, the American Heritage Dictionary says a “gastronome” or “gastronomer” (!) is “connoisseur of good food and drink; a gourmet.”

I hear English-speaking people use the term “gourmand” for “gourmet” in English, and I don't like it. But they aren't wrong. The AHD says in a usage note: “A gourmet is a person with discriminating taste in food and wine, as is a gourmand. Gourmand can also mean one who enjoys food in great quantities.” To me, it means the latter more than the former.

Courtine describes Bleu d'Auvergne cheese as having
« un goût un peu sauvage, piquant, très remarquable »
a taste that is slightly earthy, sharp, and quite remarkable.

In French, the two terms are more differentiated. A gourmand just loves food. I'm one of those. A gourmet is, according to the Grand Robert dictionary, a « personne qui apprécie le raffinement en matière de boire et de manger » — a person who appreciates refinement in food and drink. I guess I'm also one of those, but if you put the two words on a scale, in my case the gourmand would greatly outweigh the gourmet.

Sometimes, I think my tastebuds must not be very sensitive, because they like nearly everything that passes over them.

Courtine doesn't have a lot to say about French-made Mimolette,
which resembles an American orange-colored Cheddar or Colby. About
“authentic” Dutch Mimolette, he says it is « d'une grande finesse
de pâte
» — of a very refined texture and taste.

Anyway, I assume the late great Robert Courtine, was a (French) gourmand and a gourmet, an epicure and a gastronome (or gastronomer or gastronomist). He was what we would call in our straightword American English a “food writer” — he wrote 1500 columns as a chronicler of cooking and restaurants for the Paris daily called Le Monde, under the pen name La Reynière. His mentor was the great Curnonsky.

Evidently, he liked good puns — « Courtine-La Reynière aime les calembours bons », I read in an article published on the occasion of the gastronomer’s seventieth birthday, in 1980. He supposedly lamented in a column the decline of the good old mixed drink, the cocktail, which was losing favor to brand-name apéritif drinks in France: « L'art chatoyant des coquetels se perd. Saint Zano, priez pour lui. » I'm not going to translate that.

What Courtine says about Billy goat cheese mystifies me.
He describes it as being made in the village of Billy, near
Selles-sur-Cher and Saint-Aignan. But the only Billy I've
ever seen is this Petit Billy cheese that is made in Brittany.

Robert-Julien Courtine billed himself as Robert J. Courtine when he wrote the Larousse guide Les Fromages (1973, 1980) and when he published a revised and corrected version of the voluminous Larousse Gastronomique (1967) food and cooking encyclopedia. I wonder why he adopted an anglicized version of his name, but never mind.

He was called the « prince sans couronne de la gueule » — the uncrowned prince of the gullet, I guess you could say. Somebody who is a « fine gueule » has a fine gullet, or very discriminating tastes in food and drink. Did you know that people who are in the business of selling, preparing, and cooking food are said to exercise « les métiers de bouche » — the mouth trades?

Getting to the point: here's what Robert J. Courtine says about Morbier cheese in Les Fromages. After describing it as a cheese made by taking the curds from the bottom of the vat after the good curds used for making Comté cheese have been skimmed off the top, he says:
« Le Morbier est plus une curiosité qu'un fromage attractif par ses vertus gustatives et son intérêt gastronomique. » — “Morbier cheese is more of a oddity than it is a cheese that appeals by virtue of gustatory qualities or gastronomical significance.”
Let me quickly add that Walt and I both enjoy Morbier and have been buying it for years, both in France and in California. However, a friend who knew Paris well back in the 1940 to 1970 period once told me he had never really heard of it until much more recently. It must not have been “exported” to markets outside of its local environment until the 1970s and '80s.

I wonder what Courtine would say about « Nouveau » wines
like our local Touraine Primeur. I bet it wouldn't be praise.

And here is more of what Courtine says about the classic Swiss cheese fondue, or la fondue savoyarde as it is known in France. First, he compared la raclette to la fondue by saying the former was « combien meilleure » — so much better — and « plus chaleureuse, plus savoureuse ! » — much heartier and tastier. Then he snidely dismisses cheese fondue by saying:
« Ce plat national suisse communautaire et indigeste a ses ‘fans’. » — “This Swiss national dish, Europeanized and indigestible, has its ‘fans’.”
Now I'm not at all sure about translating « communautaire » as “Europeanized” but it's as good a guess as any. I think he might mean that the fondue has been bastardized and corrupted by being adopted and adapted by cooks in so many regions and countries. It doesn't have a very strictly defined identity — not the way la raclette does.

I think, too, that what might bother an old-school French gastronomer (!) about a dish like Swiss cheese fondue is that it includes a hodgepodge of ingredients. Three different, albeit fine cheeses are mixed and mashed into a gloppy mess, with the addition not only of white wine but also kirschwasser, nutmeg, and cornstarch. How much more elegant and pleasing is a good, rich cheese simply melted slightly and immediately served. With la raclette, you know what you are getting.

Here's a cheese that usually goes into a fondue.

Okay, all that said, I have to admit that Walt and I started making cheese fondue again, after years of not even thinking about it, at least 10 years ago. We enjoy preparing and eating a fondue savoyarde every Christmas Eve, using a selection of cheeses. I follow a recipe given to me by a French friend, one who had lived in the eastern part of France where fondue cheeses are made, more than 30 years ago. We've used combinations including Gruyère, Emmental, Comté, Beaufort, and even Cantal cheese for our fondues since we moved to Saint-Aignan six years ago.

So we love fondue, despite what Courtine says about it.

After all, Robert J. Courtine was also quoted as saying that the potato is « un tubercule exotique d'origine récente [qui] n'intéresse pas notre cuisine » — “an exotic tuber of recent origin that doesn't have a place in French cuisine.” Joël Rebuchon, if he were dead and buried, would be spinning in his grave. I guess Courtine would have considered Gratin Dauphinois a bastardized and corrupted dish as well.


  1. Ken, Well now that we know what Morbier stands for - an oddity - I guess that makes us 'the odd trio', because, just like you and Walt, I like Morbier :))!

    Talking about 'fondue' reminded me of a classic recipe that was given to me by the owner of a well reputed cheese shop here in Belgium. He recommends 50% of Gruyère, 50% of Emmenthal and a slice of Alpenzeller (I know that makes more than 100%, but who's counting!) + white Swiss Fendant wine and a dash of kirsch and some nutmeg. I only tried it once, but it was delicious. Can you get Alpenzeller in Saint-Aignan? Martine

  2. P.S. Make that the 'odd quartet' as my friend C. likes Morbier too;)!

  3. Billy would be an odd goat cheese, considering that "billies" don't give milk.

    I use gourmet and gourmand the same way you do(or would, if the terms ever came up in conversation) and it must be that Julia Child explained the difference, otherwise where would I have picked it up?

  4. I have never cared for fondue because of the strong alcohol test in it (the fondue I ate in Switzerland, [never had a french one]). I think that when Courtine wrote "ce plat communautere", it's because Switzerland is part of a communaute (German, Italian and French, or because of the cantons). Don't you hear sometimes on the radio comments about "la communaute Suisse"? But I could be wrong and he meant to write about Europe. Maybe Monsieur Courtine got bitchy in his older days, or maybe he didn't always know what he was talking about. We take people for granted sometimes and then we find out they were phonies or had someone else do research without checking the facts. That Billy goat story is a red flag to me. (As I am re-reading my comment, I realize that I don't really care of what Courtine thought. I question his objectivity and taste). Who is now the food critic at "Le Monde"?

  5. When you say "gastronomer" does it mean you have to wear a g-string to go to a five-star restaurant?

  6. I thought this was a great observation:

    "I guess I'm also one of those, but if you put the two words [or two people -- my addition] on a scale, in my case the gourmand would greatly outweigh the gourmet."

  7. Nadege, I agree with you on your "maybe" comments about Monsieur Courtine ... of course, I hadn't even heard of him until Ken's post. I love the way Ken's posts so often include research from this spot and that-- provides for interesting learning and discussion. :)

    I always hesitate to buy into comparisons that turn into competition where, perhaps, there is no place for it. It often simply feels like someone has a bias against something, and so pits that thing against something else he/she prefers, when, really, there's no need to put the two things into competition. Case in point: raclette and fondue savoyarde. Just because the two dishes are based on melted cheese is no reason for M. Courtine to suggest that they should be compared, and one should be declared the winner. It's silly. It sounds to me like someone who needed a topic for a column one day, or an "edgy" entry in a book.

    Personally, I have had huge indigestion from Raclette *mdr*... I think I mentioned before that my first experience with it made me feel that my entire intestinal tract was blocked with starch and cheese *mdr*. As for fondue savoyarde, I really like the wine flavor in it (and, word to the wise, don't EVER try to replace the wine with non-alcoholic cider, as I did once, so that I could make if for my class), and I like to eat it with raw or blanched veggies, to cut down on the amount of bread I take in with it.

  8. LOL/MDR, CHM. How's that for jargon?

    Nadège, I don't care, really, what Courtine or Curnonsky or La Reynière thinks, either. But I'm glad to know what they have written. Just as I'm glad to be familiar with the main French cookbooks, since much of what we consider good food and good methodology for preparing it originated in France. I also like Jamie Oliver and Rick Stein and James Martin and Julia Child and on and on. But I have to go back to the original French recipes to see what all the fuss is about.

    I've never had indigestion from either fondue or raclette, and Judy you are right that it certainly isn't a competition. It is fun, though, to see what silly stuff even serious writers can come up with.

  9. They aren't called 'critics' for nothin'.

  10. Critics have bias and I don't always trust them. Some of them remind mind of lobbyists. Have you ever seen "Mondovino"? I read in the LA Times recently that the gentleman who made the movie, updated it. I found it very informative even though I am not a wine drinker or "connaisseuse". Food is like art, it is always a question of taste. (It took me so long to find out what MDR meant, whenever I saw the initials, I thought it meant "m...e alors!"(MDR, LOL). Silly!

  11. Cheryl, and I know that you know that it is true. Thanks for the comment.

  12. Martine, I'm not sure how easy it is to find Appenzeller cheese here in Saint-Aignan. I looked it up and see that it is Swiss. I'll have to ask the cheese vendors at the markets in Saint-Aignan and Noyers-sur-Cher about it.


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