This is my new friend Pavel. He is a purveyor of fine cheeses. We became friends because we both love good cheeses and we spent an enjoyable afternoon at the farmer’s market discussing cheeses.
Fresh vegetables, cured meats and cheese are an ancient source of life. As the first churches and fortresses were being built, carved out of forests on hills cradled in the elbow of a river, the men and women of Europe ate vegetables, cheeses and cured or slow-roasted meats. Most people ate simply dried, stale bread soaked in weak beer, and soups made from the blood and guts of the animals soon to be roasted by the middle and upper classes. I do not want to romanticize the food life of the average person. It was hellish.
This summer sabbath is costing me about $50 per day, if you were to combine my apartment on the cheap side of town, my food and transport costs. That is partly because I enjoy simple foods and am happy with a bed, desk and chair. A piece of cheese, a few slices of cured Czech sausage, a glass of cheap, red wine and an apricot and a small chunk of marzipan for desert and I am a happy man. Add a good book or a close friend to that and I am nearly delirious.
Pavel and I spent a long time talking about this hunk of cheese. It was a rainy day. Business was slow, so I did not feel badly about monopolizing his time. I was enjoying the conversation about his cheese collection the way some might buy a car or a house. Pavel told me about cheese in the Czech culture. He then walked me through each of his six best cheeses. “This one is goat… aged two years and this one six months. This is an aged buffalo … imported … it chips into nearly crystalized chunks and is good with a rich, sweet red wine because it is salty. This is my creamiest. It is sheep’s milk but younger. See how the color changes in the body of the cheese?” We wandered from cheese to cheese discussing its pros and cons, it uses and its undertones. “This one, taste it. See how it finishes with a hazelnut finish after the cheese has long-left your mouth?” “Try this one, it is sweeter, cleaner. It finishes quietly because it is a young cheese.”
The word “quietly” rang in my head. Had he misused the word? Did he intend to use that particular word? He did. It was a quiet flavor. It demanded that you stop what you are doing and lean in or you will miss it. We miss a lot in life because what we are dealing with – a person, a flavor, a God – is being quiet. The flavor of that cheese (the one in the icon above) is clean, mild, but not shallow like some cheap provolone in plastic wrap in the grocery store. That cheese had, underneath it, the color green…that bright spring green of the smallest leaves and shortest, newest grasses of springtime. There was a hint of onion or garlic. Was it from what the goat was eating? Yes. It was.
Pavel was an evangelist and this image has been for me a sort of icon to the importance of simple, good living. They remind me of how important it is to pay attention, to do one thing at a time, to sit for a meal and taste – really taste- each bite with an awareness of gratitude. I am reminded that it is not crazy to take a bite of cheese and ask what flavors are there? How did the taste begin? What was the feel of it in my mouth? How did it finish? What of the bread? What of the sip of wine?
My dinner that night was long and slow. I had some bread from the local bakery, a chunk of my new goat cheese and some hard, dry-cured sausage from the local butcher, a glass of Czech wine and half of a Bavarian, cream-filled pastry- the cream yellow with butter content and laced with honey. The dinner, for the portions I ate last night, cost 75 cents for the cheese, 35 cents for the sausage, 5 cents for the bread 40 cents for the wine and 40 cents for the pastry: under $2 or about 40 Kronig. It lasted about an hour with some Mozart and a candle. It reminded me that slowing down and paying attention can bring a richness to life which money will never really be able to produce on its own.
And I have enough cheese left over for many more meals. Today, a short jaunt to the market for some local Chanterelle mushrooms ( http://www.mssf.org/cookbook/chanterelle.html ) from the forests around Prague will get me mushrooms on toast in a cheese sauce with some of the double-cream from my pilgrimage to Marks and Spencers and some tarragon. Mushrooms in a light cheese sauce on toast with wine: $1.50. The woody flavors of the mushrooms with the creamy tarragon and a days of wandering – priceless.