Wednesday, 7 September 2011

[Restaurant/Event - Cheese Tasting] Death by Chocolate. And Dessert. And More Desserts; Cheese & Dessert Tasting at La Fromagerie of Marylebone

Location - Marylebone, London [UK]

Culture be damned, this was not about culture, this transcends that. It's motive was indulgence. Pure, delicious indulgence. With a thinly veiled excuse of garnering knowledge and the aforementioned culture fooling nobody. Beyond myself perhaps. What am I half-heartedly huffing and puffing about this time? The reasoning behind the nth tasting event I voraciously seized opportunity of. In a bid for the continuation of recent bouts of deeply-seated guilt ridden gorgings before the lull of a couple weeks, which will then lead into further bouts of...deeply-seated guilt ridden gorgings, I attended my first Cheese Tasting event. I don't need any formative reason - there's cheese, and more cheese. There is also dessert. Multiple desserts. If there is a detractor to be found, it is not here.

And what an apt establishment for my first cheese tasting, its name generally consolidating its speciality. I had actually been meaning to go to a La Fromagerie event for a while now, and to a cheese tasting far before that, and whilst the timing and occasion was essentially on an impulse basis rather than any specific reason, the attendance was by no means a random quest. I shall explain. I have in all my life, always been an avid appreciator of the cheese in many of its forms, guises and quirks. Perhaps it is because I am part Italian, and thus part made of cheese, but suffice it to say, I have been imbued with a passion for cheese since birth. As I grew up, so did further experiences comes with cheese, with the ubiquitous selections sampled in Italy as part of meals, and even visits to artisanal producers serving to stoke an ever broadening repertoire. In Italy, as well as several other countries, cheese is almost a defining identity of its culture, much like its wines, its rich history and such, and no more is this clearer in the pride taken in the producing, and enjoyment of its crafts. Progressing in the years, so did my preferences, and receptiveness to cheeses, diverging into stronger flavours, and understanding a bit more. 

A crux was reached however in 2008, a particularly event in which dining at a Wine Bar in Sorrento for a family friends' casual pre-wedding dine-out, where a cheese platter was sampled. Now, I've had sample plates many times, i.e. with any meal in Italy, however this was immediately different in its scope by providing a grand selection. None of which I knew. Going through them though I was simply romanced by the delectable samples, and the sheer variety - goat, sheep, blues and so on. This experience was perhaps one of the few that started on my more receptive approach to much in life, though predominantly in food, and as such, has created appreciation where there was once hate. For example, only in the last few months, whereas I used to vehemently despise even the notion of blue cheese, I am now a lovestruck fool for them. What I have never done however is attempt to find depth behind what I was tasting, what varieties there were, just what was possible. An important by-product of this want to explore, was to also help clarify selections for the weekly indulgences of cheese I entertain with a friend, leaving us always slightly guilty, as I pick up crumbs of cheese from the floor, but ever satisfied. Know thy enemy, and also help to select new ones. So that is where La Fromagerie came in. Essentially, looking for "Cheese tasting", chord struck, event booked. 

This first of events was slightly different in scope in that it celebrated the release of David Lebovitz' book, and hence concentrated on several of his dessert dishes. I'm not complaining. 

Thus I arrived, made a bee-line for a room known as "heaven", shortly after which the event began.

~ Starters - Canapes ~
- Radishes with Seasalt & Anchoiade
The evening started out with a series of Canapes, the first of which comprised of this rather too healthy looking mound of radishes with a dip of anchoiade and sea salt. I did not quite see the purpose of the sea salt as the anchoiade was certainly salty enough, but as David Lebovitz would mention later, apparently salt is "in vogue" now. Right. So, firstly trying a radish on its own just to set a base, I was met with..not much, rather devoid of any taste. Dipping into the anchoiade however, and thankfully, that was rather quite pleasant. A deeply savoury, delicate dip, exquisitely creamy yet somehow was not obvious in its being made of ground anchovies. If anything it had a faint hint of oil-jarred mushrooms. Really was delectable, if a bit salty, though the relative blandness of the radish helped to offset that to an extent. Was rather annoying however as a collection of radish sprout "hats" had accumulated in my back pocket.

- Gougeres
Trying to stave off of the gougeres in all of my lacking-manhood in an attempt to not "overdo" the pastries before the main meals, these were rather special. I am surprised they were not floating off of the plate, as they almost tasted of air - they were exceedingly light. Really such a delicate little pastry, with a faint hint of cheese permeating through, which tied in rather nicely with the rather more prominent egg taste. Infact, the gougeres essentially tasted like miniature omelette pockets. This is not to discredit them, as omelette is awesome, and the flavour just contradicted what I thought they would taste like, and what they were composed of. 

- Aubergine Caviar
A particular morsel I have been meaning to sample for a while now, having seen it explode onto menus everywhere, and not quite comprehending the reasoning of it earning the "caviar" title to its name. Google did not help either, as last I remember, caviar was not a mush. Served on a petite rush slice, and overhearing a waitress stating its close relationship to Baba Ghanoush, the connection was made. Not to the naming, that still perplexes me, but now I know that it is just a less foreign entitling of a Baba Ghanoush, or Moutabbal. At once, Saudi Arabia was brought up to mind - a rather delightful, yet not overpowering hint of smokiness combined with the sweetness of the aubergine, in a creamy paste. Not overly salty, a slight pleasing tartness and the hint of bread of the aubergine were very subtle, the crunch of the rusk slice adding some satisfying crunch. 

- Pissaladiere
Pilfering a bite before the tray was brought out to the masses, the Pissaladiere is usually described as a sort of French "pizza" -style pastry in its nature. I don't see it, being that it was based on a flaky pastry, but it was absolutely exquisite. Despite the rather generous amount of sardine or anchovy fillets on display on each square, the result was anything but salty. The predominance was of a warm buttery infusion, the soft pastry really being quite decadently so. This worked in harmony with the profound sweetness of the tomatoes, with the herbs serving to make the little bites slightly reminiscent of pizza, if only in the similarity of the herb and tomato amalgamation, with the buttery notes of the pastry throwing that notion slightly off. It was particularly delectable, the anchovy/sardine did not even figure, perhaps adding a slight salty hint, but generally the sweetness drew up comparison to a quiche or a tart. I had to walk away several times. 

~ Main Course ~
- Salad Lyonnaise
Sitting down for the main part of the tasting event, I was rather startled/endeared by the seeming complete lack of savoury dishes, the salad seemingly the only token example of such. I cannot complain really, other than hoping it would be substantial enough. I need not have worried, as the veritable mountain in the picture ably demonstrates. A generous serving of green beans and and frisee on top of several new potatoes and a scattering of lardons and what I initially thought was smoked salmon, culminating with a rather larger boiled egg on top. As far as salads go, this was rather subtly amazing. Avoiding the potatoes, naturally, in all their loathsome starchiness [the hips, jeebus], the beans were quite nicely sweet, being afforded a richness and some body when combined with the boiled egg. The lardons worked particularly well, not being overtly salty, and when combined with the egg, served to remind of breakfast. And breakfast is awesome any time of the day. The highlight though was the "smoked salmon". Or Foie Gras. The slithers of slightly salty, greasiness just dragged the salad up from the ordinary, imbuing further substance into the salad, with what I presumed as well, a slight smoky hint to add interest.

With the token amount of health out of the way, made all the more decadent by generous helpings of grilled pig belly bits and fattened goose liver, I was thus prepared for the main meals. Which is to say a course of desserts. Followed by dessert. After which, coffee. With some dessert ^_^

~ Desserts ~
- Ossau and Zelu Koloria Cheeses with Fig Jam & Oat Crackers

Finally, I would arrive to the crux of the location, the zenith of its purpose, its namesake, and I rather emphatically wanted to be floored. Then two tiny fingers of cheese and a couple of measly squares of rye biscuits and a dot of jam arrived.


Nevertheless, I would have to content myself with the diabetes fix I would receive with the remaining dishes. The cheese however, was divine. This despite not being in the barrel-sized quantities I had desired. The Zelu Koloria was the first one I tried, naturally, as it was a blue cheese. At once, I was disarmed by its creamy texture and relative sweetness, with none of the overpowering saltiness of some blue cheeses. The blue veins were particular in that they were not "spicy" at all, rather they added some savouriness to the palate - it was all rather delicate, especially so for a blue cheese. There was almost a herb quality, like a faint parsley note, it was addictive. The Ossau was rather enticing as well - it was reminiscent of a parmesan, but with a softer texture, and a soft buttery hint throughout. Not as interesting as the blue cheese but still moreish. Both cheeses worked quite well with the rye cakes, and the Zelu Koloria especially so with the fig jam, which served to highlight the savoury notes of the blue.

However, the matching of the wine was, heck, fabulous. Again, especially so with the blue cheese - its slight sweetness not overwhelming the cheeses, but rather softly cutting through with its acidity, leaving the gently savoury notes of the blue cheese to shine through, whilst highlighting the subtle nuttiness of the Ossau.

- Ricotta Cheesecake made with Orange & Aniseed
- Champagne Gelee with Summer Fruits
- Peach Amaretti Crisp
- Chocolate Orbit Cake
Listed clockwise, obviously, a small plate of David Lebovitz' wares - or rather what was made by La Fromagerie according to his recipes, were demonstrated, observed, and looking frankly delicious. I started with the champagne gelee, as I figured it being a jelly and of a champagne persuasion, I would thus like it the least. It was however, surprising. It did not pummel my face with a champagne blow, but rather suffused it delicately in a rather elegant gelatine. The two fruits included were more decorative than anything, as summer does not exist in this country, and were rather sour, their tartness not adding much other than, tartness. Moving on, the ricotta cheesecake differed rightly so to the typical style of cheesecake in using ricotta cheese, which lends a grainier, crumblier type of texture, much as by dint of the cake being baked as well. Not unpleasant but I was perhaps hoping to experience the delightful milky notes of the ricotta, but what was experienced was orange. A lot of orange. Almost overwhelmingly so, but not displeasing, adding as such a freshness and lightness to the cheesecake. I did not sense any aniseed however, perhaps a blessing as I loathe it and its mother, but perhaps a shame as it may have broken up the citrus narrow-mindedness of the cake.

The chocolate cake was sampled next, and, Jeebus. This was absolutely divine. Every spoonful brought on deception - a decadently rich chocolate, not overtly sweet, dark but not bitter, with just a hint of a burnt note, which just lingered on. And on. And further more. It was the taste that would never end, and frankly, I did not want it too. Despite a rather generous slice of the cake, this did not get tiring at all, as somehow its restrained yet gloriously rich character just created a yearning for more. One diner quipped that it was too "chocolately", though, I presume they were British and would complain about water being too "wet". Almost heartbroken at the demise of the cake, I finished off with the Peach Amaretti crisp, which in essence was a crispier Peach crumble, and did not offer any more surprises than such. A light peach note perhaps, with not much of the almond flavouring of the amaretti permeating through, but, pleasant nonetheless. The sugar influx was obviously doing my talking at this point.

The supplied Moscato wine also worked rather well with the variety of desserts, especially with the orbit cake strangely, not being drowned out by the tsunami of creamy chocolate, and suffusing its light yet distinct flavour through. This however, was not yet the end the end of desserts. Word.

- Blackberry Brown Butter Financiers
- Almond Ding

Despite having just essentially turned myself into a Gingerbread man with the glucose infusion of this particular dinner, there was still more. I am never going to say no to more dessert, nevar! These were to be served with Coffee & Tea, so, a Obese Fours then, as they were certainly not petite. The Almond Ding [che?] were made by David himself in a "demonstration" at the beginning of the evening - it was in essence an almond brittle. It was also rather fabulous, being rather buttery yet not too richly so, and oddly, having more than a hint of popcorn. Alas, I could not further savour the Ding as they were rather abhorrently devoured by a Canadian man, but I took solace in the Financiers.

Completely misguided by my notion of what a financier was, these cupcakes, were, amazing. It would seem that butter was a running theme of the evening, as yet again, it also defined this cupcake. A buttery note was supported by a nicely moist cake, and rather dry-breeze blackberries, with a gentle sweetness that managed to preserve the attachment of my limbs. Despite the rich note, it was not cloying or heavy handed, with the crumbliness of the cupcake lightening up the texture. It also did its job for adding sweetness and excitement to the blasphemy that was the coffee. The less said about the filter coffee, the better. The heathens. 

~ Drinks ~
- Vin d'Orange
Starting the evening with this rather peculiar cocktail it was composed, amongst other things, of wine, orange, and..vinegar?! Yes, vinegar. It was also, delightful. Not really tasting of any of the mentioned proponents, it was a mildly sweet and very orange-laden drink, with a slight bitter note. Despite the inclusion of vodka, I also found it to be rather light, though the quickly warming body signified otherwise. It was not unlike a slightly sweeter and  less bold Campari, being effortlessly and tireless to drink. So I had two. 

- Prosecco
Breaking up the two first drinks on an empty stomach, I was offered this prosecco. No idea what it was, but it was rather delicate and light-hearted about it. Ever so slightly sweet, with a light effervescence, it was rather demure but in such rather quietly pleasing. So I then returned to the Vin d'Orange after this quiet delight with its more outlandish levels of awesome. 

- Chateau le Roc: Cotes de Frontonnais Red Wine
A moderate glass of wine, chosen primarily on the basis that the stronger acidity of a red wine would perhaps work better with the foie gras and lardons of the salad. Yes, the wine was chosen for a salad, as this dinner would not compose of the de rigeur savoury courses, not that you will hear me complaining. Well, until I shed a leg or some other limb. From what I remember, it was a medium bodied wine, not overtly dry or astringent, and a slight spicy note. It was not terribly bold, yet not bland either, but rather it was very much gentle natured. It did break up the saltiness of the salad to a nice degree as well. 

- Jurancon Costat Darrer': Camin Larredya Dessert Wine
Cannot recall too much about this wine, other than it was lightly sweet, delicately so, and rather light in body. It was slightly fruity, but not exceedingly so, and it worked amazingly with the provided cheeses. Especially with the Zelu Koloria, the moderate sweetness tied in with the cheese's creamy texture and slight sweetness, with the blue veins being highlighted with the wine. 

Solatio: Moscato D'Asti Dessert wine
A rather splendid Moscato, noticeable mostly for its lightness of character. Not overly sweet like some moscato wines can be, and not too aggressively effervescent either. The distinct muscat note was present, but it was fresh, and light, with a slight floral note as well. The moscato worked well with the desserts, in particular with the Chocolate cake of destiny, freshening the everlasting torrent of chocolate with the delicate muscat infusion. 

- Le Piantagioni Filter Coffee
The title says more than I need to. Coffee-ish flavoured water.


In an effort to break out of the grasp of the moreish Financiers left on the table, and not wishing to engage in small talk with strangers, the event had thus culminated. With disappointingly little cheese, but in retribution, a monumental number of delectable treats. This was in general a delightful experience, if not one wrought in enlightenment. This could be most probably attenuated to the fact that the scope of the evening had diversified slightly from the usual Cheese Tasting in the promotion of David Lebovitz' new book, who I had only vaguely heard about, likewise his Chez Panisse employment. Not to rue this though, as despite only the salads' presence being the only moderately health-oriented dish to the remaining coronary attacks in waiting, particular as this dinner was, it was also all rather elegantly prepared, flavoured, and devoured. Starting with the delightfully light and endearing apertif drinks to the..delightfully light and endearing canapes and on to the remaining dishes. Which were also rather subtly pleasing in their own right. If anything, that was the recurrent theme of the evening - most facets in execution were endearing and delightful in their light-heartedness.

The tasting was far from a formal event, taking in more of a social aura, with people of all sorts of backgrounds and motives attending - my table for example comprising half of media stooges involved in this David Lebovitz' book release, and the others just casually there. Then me, the cheesephile. From the intriguing Vin d'Orange to the light yet exquisite canapes, from the slightly decadent salad to the plethora of sublime desserts, and the supporting act of the well chosen drinks. Not to forget the delicate yet exquisite cheeses as well. No attention to be brought to the coffee. The event as a result, was more of a taster of a tasting evening, with not much in general much being learnt, not that much rigour was expected of the experience anyway. This can only mean that further events will serve to continue my desire to explore this world of cheese, amongst the many others. Starting from the end of this month. 

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