Roquefort â€“ both cheese and town â€“ owes its success to a natural disaster. A series of landslides in the plateau some million or so years ago left behind a chaotic heap of rocks riddled with fissures and natural caves, which were ingeniously adapted into cellars for the purpose of making cheese. These cellars lie at the tip of fleurines, or long faults that channel the air flow, creating a constant temperature and humidity year round. (At Societe des Caves â€“ the oldest and largest producer of Roquefort in town â€“ the cellars go eleven stories deep, with fleurines on every level.) To make this King of cheeses, fresh ewes milk is mixed with penicillium roqueforti spores at the dairy and the resulting curds are shaped into large rounds. Before heading to the cellar, each round is needled to create small cavities, allowing for aeration. Deep underground, the cheese is dusted with salt and left to ripen in the bare caves. And hereâ€™s where the fleurinesÂ works their magic, fostering the growth of microorganisms like the penicillium roqueforti as well as other naturally occurring flora, which slowly ferment the cheese from the inside out, raising its temperature and causing the salt to melt and penetrate down into the cheese. Once ripened, the rounds are wrapped in tin foil by cabanieres, aka â€œthe ladies who wrap the cheese,â€ and left to mature. Between affinage and maturity, the entire process can take up to twelve months, and the result, if you’ve ever tried real Roquefort, is a uniquelyÂ complex and creamy cheese. Little wonder then that Charles VI granted the inhabitants of Roquefort-sur-Soulzon the monopoly on cheese ripening and turned the cellars into a protected landmark. Thereâ€™s gold in them there fleurines. And it’s blue.
The Greek word for pie is pita, which is not to be confused with pita bread. Usually an extra word is added in front of pita, so you get tyropita, which is cheese pie; spanakopita, or spinach pie, and so forth. These savory pies are sold in individual portions in bakeries all over Athens, but the best pies in the cityÂ – and possibly the most famous – can be found at family owned Ariston,Â which has occupied the same spot behind Syntagma Square since 1910. The store’s specialty are kourou pies, which is an odd name since I am pretty sure kourou is the archaic term for a statue of a naked male youth, made with a homemade phyllo dough containing yogurt and butter. Stuffed withÂ saltyÂ feta cheese, the butter-rich dough crumbles in your mouth and makes for a scrumptious hand-heldÂ snack somewhere between a pasty and a pastry.
Lest you think Memphis is little more than barbecue, biscuits and yardbird, I’d like to turn your attention toÂ Restaurant Iris – a sterling example of what owner/chef Kelly English has coined “progressive Southern” cuisine. The beautiful thingÂ aboutÂ that phrase is how perfectly it encapsulates the essence of what chef EnglishÂ is doing: farm-to-table cooking rooted in honestÂ SouthernÂ traditions. Which means that of course the salad has a bacon component – yet it’s lardons ofÂ artisanal pork belly from Alan Benton’sÂ local smokehouse. (If you don’t know Benton’s Smoky Mountain Country Hams, I suggest you familiarize yourself with the miracle of their mail order.)Â AndÂ theÂ lettuces are a peppery local arugula, dressed with grilled scallions in a ginger-soy vinaigrette. Topped with crispy “croutons” of sweetbreads – a bit of genius – there’s nothing outwardly Southern about this dish, yet the counterpoint of tastes and textures is undeniably comfort food at its most refined. Shrimp and grits might be a classic ofÂ Southern cooking but it, too, transcends expectations in the hands of chef English: the coarse-grind Delta grits are closer to polenta, bathed in tomato broth au pistou that’s thick with the taste of the sea. A refined dice of andouille adds just enough heat to prickle the palate while six meaty Gulf shrimp top it off as regally as a crown roast. When it comes to dessert, I’m not at all surprised there’s a cheese course on offer. (It’s at this point that I berate myself for not indulging in the degustation menu.)Â As if the food were not enough, Restaurant Iris also has an ideal genteelÂ setting: an intimate Victorian house on midtown’s Overton Square. Marked by exceptionalÂ service (a waiter drove to my hotel to return anÂ accidentallyÂ left-behindÂ credit card) and stellar cocktails to boot (the Sazerac sings)Â Chef English will upendÂ everythingÂ you thought youÂ knewÂ about Southern dining. And masterfully so, I might add.
Show up in the Huertas neighborhood of Madrid at noon in search of almuerzo and you’ll be severely disappointed.Â Lunch may be the main meal of the day in Spain but, like dinner, it begins much later than American appetites are accustomed. Oh, there are loads of tapas bars, snack joints, and fast food – especially in Huertas, the most buzzing, culturally rich (and noisiest) of Madrid’s barrios – but for a proper sit-down meal you’re going to have to wait, as I reluctantly did. Starving and strolling the cobbled streets ofÂ Barrio de las Letras, the Barrio of the Letters within Huertas where many a great Spanish writer once lived, I eventually darkened the door ofÂ La Vaca Veronica at half-past one to find that I was the only person at the restaurant. An empty restaurant in Madrid, however, is less a barometer of the kitchen’s quality than a sign that you’re just really, really early, I soon discovered.Â By two o’clock every table was full and I was halfway through a gorgeous plate of mollejas, or sweetbreads, and onto my second glass of Tempranillo. For dessert I couldn’t pass up a plate of Manchego, which came with local honey and membrillo – the Spanish quince paste that’s practically a national snack.Â Suitably sated – and still just a little bit jet-lagged -Â I walked back to my hotel intent on taking part in another national custom, the siesta.