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Cheesed Off

A stiff new tariff on fromage bleu has Roquefort fans seeing red

Illustration GRAHAM ROUTHIMUE


Sonoma, California

They arrive at the Sonoma Valley Cheese Conference, in the heart of California’s wine country, dressed in the clothes of artisans: the world’s best cheesemakers in faded blue jeans, the top dairy farmers in flannel. They sip local Rieslings and taste wheels, wedges and rounds of cheeses too various and abundant to list, though we can’t resist a sampling: Fiscalini Farmstead Cheese’s cheddar, Délice de la Vallée’s triple-cream, Carr Valley’s mixed-milk Mobay, and on and on.

But there’s something rotten in Northern California. Between panel discussions on American cheddar and “cheese blogging,” there’s talk of politics — namely the eleventh-hour imposition by President Bush of a devastating 300 percent tariff on Roquefort, the wildly popular sheep’s milk blue cheese made in Combalou caves in the South of France. The tariff has not yet gone into effect, but if it does it will likely raise Roquefort’s price to more than $60 a pound, effectively banishing the stuff from America’s larders. This was Bush’s retribution for a European Union ban on hormone-fed American beef, and it has fromage-aholics singing the blues. “It was either put a tariff on Roquefort or pardon Scooter Libby,” quips Clark Wolf, author of American Cheeses, during a book signing at the main pavilion, surmising that Roquefort is a victim of its own popularity. “You can’t put a tariff on something nobody wants.”

So if President Obama lets the tariff stand, what’s a stateside moldy-cheese maven to do? “Some other sheep’s milk blues are good, like Persillé de Malzieu,” says Rob Kaufelt, owner of New York City’s Murray’s Cheese, digging a knife into a pungent Gorgonzola. “It’s hard to get, but we carry it anyway.”

Domestic substitutes are also an option. “Roquefort is a good cheese,” says Mariano Gonzalez, Fiscalini Farmstead’s cheesemaker. “But we have equals here in the States,” like Ewe’s Blue, sold by Old Chatham Sheepherding Co. or Carr Valley Cheese’s Ba Ba Blue. But die-hards won’t be so easily mollified. “Cheese connoisseurs come to the counter and ask for Roquefort — period,” says Juliana Uruburu, cheese program director at the Pasta Shop in Oakland, CA. “But this is temporary. Roquefort will be back. The world is not the same without it.” — JEANETTE HURT

London

TOASTMASTER GENERAL

In a brightly lit studio cluttered with tools, sparks fly from Thomas Thwaites’ anvil as he pounds a red-hot lump of iron into flat, narrow strips. He pauses a moment to survey the admittedly lo-firesults — especially crude when compared with the intricate jewelry projects of his fellow Royal College of Art students — and smiles. He’s not trying to make jewelry; he’s trying to make toast.

Last February, the 27-year-old London native hatched an audacious plan to build a toaster — from scratch. He would collect his own raw materials straight from the earth, refine them, mold them and assemble them into a rough facsimile of a common toaster available for £3.99 in Argos stores around the U.K. Since then, Thwaites, who is funding the project out of pocket, has been a busy man. When he’s not harvesting coke from an abandoned mine in Gloustershire, smelting iron in a secondhand microwave, or figuring out how to turn potato starch into plastic, he’s plotting travels all over Europe, from a nickel mine in Finland to a copper seam in Portugal. He’ll display the end result — “a toaster pastiche,” he calls it — at the Royal College of Art’s summer show this month.

“I suppose the idea came from a quote I remembered from Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series,” Thwaites explains. That passage centers on a character who, while marooned on a planet of Stone Age aliens, attempts to dazzle the natives with the wonders of modernity only to discover that he has no idea how to make even the simplest gadgets.

Despite its humorousness, Thwaites’ project has some fairly deep implications, touching on subjects like ecology, globalization and economies of scale.

Mumbai

Slumdog Days

“I hope no one is afraid of heights,” jokes Rakesh, the slender, smiling guide on Reality Tours and Travel’s two-and-a-half-hour guided tour of Dharavi, a section of Mumbai the company describes as “the biggest slum in Asia.” The popular tours, which cost $10, are an outgrowth of the worldwide success of the Oscar-winning film Slumdog Millionaire.

Rakesh leads his group — including two backpacking students from Boston, newlyweds from San Francisco and a French couple in their forties — into a two-story tin shed and up a dark staircase. Emerging into the brilliant sunlight on the roof, the group gazes out over Dharavi’s sprawling labyrinth of shanties and tin sheds.

“This is just so overwhelming,” says Patricia, from Boston, taking a deep breath.

It’s not the vertigo (though that’s a factor) but the sheer scale of this dizzying warren, which despite being home to a million residents, covers only a single square mile. They walk past tiny homes, through dark, narrow lanes full of dogs, goats, peddlers and toddlers. The aromas of melting polyurethane, spices and charred food mingle with the sounds of Bollywood blaring from countless radios.

Only a handful ever make it out of Dharavi, and so far, at least, no resident has made it onto Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?. But the lives here seem better than that of Slumdog’s main character, Jamal. There are no beggars to be seen and little of the menace felt in the movie.

Perhaps the most startling detail Rakesh offers is that Dharavi is just one of 2,000 similar settlements in Mumbai. “There are no tours for the others,” Rakesh says. “Just Dharavi.” — RACHEL LOPEZ

“You hear so many environmentalists arguing for sustainability and self-sufficiency,” he notes. “But that’s a ridiculous idea. We probably haven’t been self-sufficient as a species for a millennium. There is no one person on earth who truly knows how to make a toaster.”

For now, Thwaites is the closest we’ve got. As his iron cools, he aligns the strips. Eventually they will fit together to make one of the toaster’s bread slots. Now if only he had a pot of beans. — MATT THOMPSON

New York City

Cashing Out

In early January, a parade of pin-striped Wall Streeters streamed into the Museum of American Finance for a gala honoring Paul Volcker with the John C. Whitehead Award.  
The evening began with a cocktail hour, a welcome chance to take the edge off of a day that saw the Dow fall 125 points.

After a dinner of tilapia, the honoree spoke about the crisis. By 9:30, everyone was in their Town Cars, heading home. “It wasn’t much of a partying crowd,” said Jeanne Driscoll, the museum’s development director.

It was a giving crowd though. Paying up to $50,000 per table, employees of Merrill Lynch, JP Morgan, Goldman Sachs, etc., poured some $470,000 into MoAF’s coffers — a portion of which was promptly directed toward a hastily assembled new exhibit, “Tracking the Credit Crisis: A Timeline.” There are no $35,000 commodes or $87,000 rugs on display — just a stark chronicle of events, laid over a plunging graph.

A month later, a young banker arrives in the lobby with a young lady on his arm, in search of some context about an industry that, in flusher days, rarely allowed the chance for reflection. “It’s a changing time,” he mutters. “So it’s interesting to know the history.” Then, citing instructions from his employer, Credit Suisse, to avoid the press, he slinks away.

As for next year, Driscoll is concerned about future donations. Two top 2008 contributors, Merrill Lynch and Lehman Brothers, are themselves history. Others took bailout money and may not be feeling too generous. Driscoll promises another John C. Whitehead Award in January 2010, but the hard part, with so much blame to go around, will be finding an honoree. — ADAM K. RAYMOND

Sydney

PASSION FRUIT

“What is that?” asks apprentice chef Hanz Gucco in the cramped pastry kitchen of the Marque restaurant in Surry Hills. The object before him is one of the trendiest culinary delicacies of the moment, despite resembling nothing so much as a big brown and green slug. It’s called an Australian finger lime, and it isn’t the fruit’s nubbly exterior that has Sydney foodies in a swoon. It’s what it contains.

“Cut it,” snaps chef Mark Best, a formidable figure with a bald pate, who except for his white chef coat might pass for a retired boxer. Nonetheless, his pedigree includes stints in the kitchens of culinary legends Alain Passard and Raymond Blanc, and he’s on his way to becoming one himself.

The apprentice carefully slices the lime into rounds as a group of his colleagues jostle for a view. The result is a pile of tiny discs — attractive, sure, but nothing earth-moving. “This bears further investigation,” says Best, as he slides a utility knife slowly down the belly of another lime and gently squeezes the sides. “Ah,” he breathes, as hundreds of blushing pink pearls spill out onto the table in an explosion of color — more jewels than fruit.

Grown in a small area of the Byron Bay hinterland on the north coast of New South Wales, finger limes are currently in season — and all the rage. They’re being exported to France and Spain, where they’ve graced the menu at the famed El Bulli. Their nickname, “lime caviar,” is no exaggeration.

“These little polyps have a life of their own,” Best enthuses a few days later, as he creates a dessert featuring the ingredient, slashing a plate with white chocolate and yogurt ganache and arranging a sphere of goat’s cheese marshmallow. “Every mouthful has a beautiful burst of acid.” He adds rounds of air-dried lemon and green tomato, a dollop of kaffir lime sherbet and a garnish of deep-fried curry leaf. Then he scatters tiny glowing buds of fingerlime over the dish, and turns the plate to admire the results.

“They’re also very nice in gin,” he says with a smile. — MYFFY RIGBY

One Response to “Cheesed Off”

  1. Christina Rebuffet-Broadus Says:
    June 11th, 2009 at 4:59 pm

    In regards to “Cheesed Off” I do hope that President Obama will revoke to the Roquefort tarrif. Living in France, it hardly affects me, but even with all the blue chesses that France has to offer, there really is only one Roquefort. It can only be produced in a 1.5 mile strip of cheese caves–that's how unique Roquefort is.

    Bush abused his power by denying Americans a quality gastronomic product because Europe refuses America's doped up beef. After all, isn't it natural to protect the quality of food on one's market?

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