FROMAGE FORT is a venerated amalgamation of old cheese that some American sensibilities might argue is more of a Halloween prank than a Yuletide dish. It boasts flavor, frugality, and an unparalleled complexity that might ruin you for eating one kind of cheese at a time. We asked Steve Jones, Portland's unrivalled cheese expert (and owner of Cheese Bar on SE Belmont), to help us figure out what to make of such an apparent affront to our delicate palates, why we should love it as much as the French (its olfactorily fearless creators), and finally, how you can take the hunks and rinds going south in your refrigerator drawer and transform them into the pâté of the cheese world.
"It's taking decay to the next level—it's one step away from the compost pile," says Jones. "Fromage fort is French for 'strong cheese,' so you basically just save up all your bits and pieces of cheese, and you can do a number of different things with it.
"Every cheese-making culture has some form of it—it was originally peasant food anyhow, and you would never waste anything. You don't want nasty bits of blue that aren't meant to be there, or rindy junk. [In general, discard any molded soft cheeses, and feel free to scrape any surface mold off harder cheeses, such as cheddar or parmesan.—Ed.] You don't want to start with something inedible. It's a great way to use little scraps, and it lasts a really long time, like two weeks maybe."
Jones continues, "What we do [at Cheese Bar] is we pulverize garlic in a mortar and pestle or food processor, add a little white wine, and slowly integrate the cheese. I'm pretty much a purist with it—I'll maybe add a little flat-leaf parsley, possibly a little thyme. That's usually it for me. You don't need salt, obviously. I've seen it done with ginger and rosemary, and pepper's a common addition. The nice thing is it's pretty forgiving—it picks up as much wine and garlic flavor as cheese flavor.
"I started making fromage fort 15 years ago, when I started selling cheese, out of necessity—as a way to reduce waste," Jones continues. "When I worked at New Seasons it started to become so popular we started making it on its own [instead of using what was left over]. I'd use some Comté, maybe a little goat cheese... just kind of have an array of flavors—you can let the cheese scraps dictate the way you go with it. It should be fairly garlicky, and a dry wine is more forgiving. A sweet wine could be fun, but it could easily be really nasty. You don't have to stick to white wine, but red wine can give a really weird color very easily. Some cultures make it a little fiery, and are more forgiving with the quality of cheese they use. But you don't want to use base ingredients you wouldn't eat on their own—that doesn't mean great base ingredients... but good."
Want to make your own fromage fort? Jones referred us to the recipe in the Cheese Primer by Steven Jenkins (Workman Publishing, 1996), which he used when he first started making this blended treat. Make it at home with your finest odds and ends, and savor the flavor of the last breath of decay.
Mr. Jones left us with a final piece of wisdom: This dish is excellent when finished like its British cousin, Welsh rarebit (generally the same idea but made with cheddar cheeses and ground with seasonings like mustard powder and Worcestershire sauce). Spread your unique creation on good bread and broil—nothing like melty, slightly scorched cheese to reward your mouth for a successful year.