A girolle has been on my want list since I first saw one in an excellent cheese shop in Santa Fe. The device is beautifully crafted of polished wood and gleaming stainless steel. The girolle was invented by Nicolas Croiviser in 1982 for one purpose: to shave a unique cheese into flower-shaped curls. The device is an extravagance but it is clearly a must-have for a kitchen gadgeteer who already has a croquembouche mold, a sausage stuffer, and a Swedish sardine grilling basket. Recently we visited a new cheese shop, The Cultured Slice, on Pacific Coast Highway in Hermosa Beach. There was a good cheese selection, and the cheesemonger was very friendly and helpful. But what caught my eye was a brand new, shiny girolle. I yielded to temptation and bought it.
The next purchase, of course, was the cheese, tête de moine (monk’s head). Although they had one at Cultured Slice, I asked Sarah to order one from their cheese purveyor for our visit to the Bay Area. Expect to pay around $60 for a round cheese of about 2 pounds. That amount of cheese will likely serve at more than one gathering.
Last night was our big event. We planned to enjoy cheese curls before our dinner. First was the unveiling of the cheese. We admired the beautiful silvery foil wrapping and the seal on the top with an image of monks making cheese. The cheese itself was a perfect cylinder with a textured rust-colored rind. We cut off the top to reveal a smooth, sunshine-yellow paste that gave off an earthy fragrance that was much more subtle than I had come to expect from descriptions on the internet.
We found a dimple in the center of the bottom of the cheese that we used as a landmark for impaling the cheese on the center post of the girolle. With just a little pressure and gentle twisting, Sarah was able to position the cheese exactly where it should be.
With Sarah’s boys anxious to see the gizmo in action, we could not resist trying to make cheese flowers. Of course the flowers were grainy and crumbled. Wiser heads knew that the cheese had to temper by coming to room temperature, so we resisted any more activity for an hour or so. By that time the cheese curled into soft folds that could be squeezed together at the bottom to make beautiful “flowers”. The wait produced other advantages as well. The aroma of the cheese filled the room, and it was an earthy smell totally unlike what one might experience with a very ripe, smelly cheese. The curls were silky smooth and melted in your mouth with a taste of hazelnuts and beurre noisette – not at all like the description on Amazon of “stinky, smelly”. We had some freshly baked levain bread from Rich Table as accompaniment along with a glass of wine and some cornichons that we cut with my latest gadget, a multi-bladed knife from France specially made to cut cornichons and gherkins. That was a gift from Sarah and Evan, who had two of them. Doesn’t every kitchen have – and need – a cornichon knife?
Tête de moine cheese was produced by monks of the abbey Bellelay at least as far back as 1192. There are several explanations about how tête de moine acquired its name, but the most interesting legends are about the use of the cheese as currency and as a sort of tribute to pay the rent at the abbey. Today, the abbey has been rebuilt and repurposed. The monks are no longer around, but the cheese continues to be made in several dairies nearby, using raw whole cow’s milk. It is shaped into cylinders about one kilogram in size and aged for at least two months. Then it is wrapped in foil and topped with the recognizable label to ensure that it is authentic. Traditionally, it was available only in the winter months, but these days you should be able to find it any time at a well-stocked cheese shop.