Friday, November 10, 2006

the Zen of fromage

On Thursday evening, I had the chance to sit in on a culinary lecture held at the Cordon Bleu academy on the seventh floor of our building. The lecture has held in one of the academy's studio kitchens; at times the proceedings felt like a cooking show. My 50-something English conversation student, J-P, works at the Cordon Bleu; he's the one who invited me up to attend.

I don't know the name of the French chef who lectured, but he did a good job of taking us through the 5000- to 7000-year history of cheese, giving us a tour of various types of French cheeses, and showing us some of the basics in cheese-making. After about two hours of this, everyone was getting antsy because the real reason we were all there was la dégustation, the tasting.

Full marks to Madame Hong, the French-to-Korean interpreter; I've always known that her French speaking skills were pretty good compared to most other Koreans' ability, but I was shocked to hear that her French-to-Korean interpretation skills were spot-on: she caught every nuance of what the chef was saying and-- to my ear, at least-- rendered the chef's words more than faithfully into Korean. I've gained a new respect for the woman.

So it was a treat for me to be plunged into an environment where almost no English was spoken. I learned a good bit of French cooking vocabulary, and was fascinated by the section of the lecture devoted to how to place cheeses on a plate-- it seems that a proper serving of cheese requires an almost monastic attentiveness to ritual: there's a logic to where cheeses are placed depending on (1) type of cheese and, believe it or not, (2) strength of odor. J-P was sitting next to me for part of the lecture, so I had to ask him whether most French people get that obsessive about their cheese, and his answer was a thoroughly New York-style shrug: "It depends on your mood and whatever the moment calls for," he said. That's what I thought. Heh.

I was lucky to get two plates of cheese to sample from (an extra plate happened past J-P, and he grabbed it for us), and I gobbled the samples without shame. I don't drink alcohol, so I had to turn down the offer of wine, but the cheeses were just fine when placed on buttered slices of baguette and other French breads, and punctuated with raisins and walnuts.

If the human heart were designed to withstand it, I wouldn't mind living the rest of my life on a diet of French bread and cheese. But as things are, this is a luxury I can permit myself only once in a while. J-P told me, however, that I was welcome to raid the Cordon Bleu stocks whenever I wanted, an offer that floored me. I was offered extra baguettes right there, on the spot, but I turned them down. This isn't the sort of offer you greedily leap at-- it's something to enjoy only now and again. French food is as much attitude as it is technique; at its best, the Cordon Bleu is teaching the value of savoring the moment: don't just eat your cheese; appreciate it.

Post scriptum: the only real downer for the evening was a cluster of three Korean guys who wouldn't shut up the entire lecture. Most annoying. Many men in Korean society are spoiled rotten, and it often shows in how they behave in public, drunk or sober. This isn't true of all Korean guys, of course,* but the culture as a whole places a premium on the care of sons, and many sons are permitted to act like assholes instead of being disciplined. Perhaps that's one reason why military service is important in Korea: it serves to counteract the ill effects of too much bad mothering.

That minor problem aside, the evening was great. The audience gave the chef a nice round of applause at the end, and I ended up stuffed with cheese. I won't be surprised if I start lactating tonight.

*To be fair, American movie theaters often seem to be a forum for loud assholes, too. Bad parenting isn't uniquely Korean.


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