Exclusive Armitage, or: The parable of the two obscure cheeses

[This is the last piece of what I started writing yesterday as a riff on nunc dimittis.]

Trying to be self-critical, as best one can, is always a bit disturbing. It was a bit freaky to realize I am not always as open as I’d like to be to change — my own, or Mr. Armitage’s. So I’m going to abandon the story of Simeon now and write my own parable with reference to my favorite cheeses in the entire world. Given my childhood this choice, and my passion for cheese, are entirely unsurprising. Cheese has already been widely understood as a helpful metaphor for understanding change. Indeed, cheese may have no component of literal meaning and be entirely metaphorical in significance. If that’s true it would be great because then all that milkfat could be understood as metaphorical as well. No, really, it’s just that I like going on and on and on about cheese.

The parable is called: Which cheese is Mr. Armitage?

***

My favorite, favorite cheese is called tête de moine (photo above). If you follow the link you’ll get a history of its production, but the most important thing about it for our purposes is probably the odd fact that it has to be cut in a particular way in order for its best flavor to unfold. It can be sliced like any other cheese, but for the flavor that makes it my favorite cheese, it must be scraped, indeed almost planed away in extremely thin strips that pile up on themselves as they are turned and look a bit like the petals of carnations (see photo). The rind stays on during this process in order to make the scraping process easier, but it flakes away during the scraping. Historically the cheese was never exported very far, and people did the scraping rather laboriously, with a knife. In 1982, however, the manufacturer invented an apparatus (the girolle, see photo, a sort of circular plane) for accomplishing the scraping and hence the oxidation of the cheese more easily, a result that apparently strongly expanded its distribution.

In 1997, tête de moine was hard to get in much of Germany, particularly in the northern part. You couldn’t buy it in very many grocery stores or even from every cheesemonger. Before the end of the 1990s, not many people had a girolle, and indeed if you bought tête de moine from a cheesemonger you either asked the merchant to scrape and package up the rosettes for you, or else, if you wanted to have a party, you borrowed the girolle against a deposit because it was so uncommon for the average household in Germany to have one. Having never been to the Swiss Jura, I’d never have run into it otherwise. Its slightly broader distribution meant that I was offered it by my hostess at a party in Göttingen in 1997. The first time I tasted it was so astounding that I can remember exactly who had it on her table (my friend Dorothea), on exactly which occasion (edited for reasons of discretion), and exactly where I was seated when I ate it (at a table in the very crowded living room of Dorothea’s apartment, of which I can also tell you the street address, though as far as I know — we’ve lost touch — she no longer lives there). I also remember most of the people who were there. And that I couldn’t stop eating it. Dorothea’s teenage daughter was turning the rosettes. I couldn’t take my eyes off her. She was beautiful, but I wanted to put as many pieces of that cheese in my mouth as ever I could.

Like many cheeses made with unpasteurized milk, tête de moine has an intense, almost raw flavor. It smells a little like barnyard, I find. It is stunning: nutty, creamy, and just a little astringent all at once, and when you put it in your mouth the fringes of the rosette melt in your mouth like you imagine the petal of a flower would, if a flower were made of cheese. Apparently, I wasn’t the only one who loved it. Toward the end of the 1990s, the girolle became a trend houseware in much of Germany. The price dropped. I gave one as a wedding gift to a couple that had already received two of them. Tête de moine cheese was still fairly expensive, but I started seeing it more and more.

***

Non sequitur: Claude Monet (Richard Armitage) celebrates the sale of three paintings with what his friend Manet calls “a spectacular cheese” in The Impressionists, episode 2. Source: Richard Armitage Central Gallery. Hard to know here whether Monet is more excited about the sale of his paintings or the cheese. My money’s on the cheese — doesn’t he look happy about it? Sadly, Mr. Armitage is rarely photographed with cheese. I feel like this is a missed marketing opportunity both for Armitage and for cheese.

***

It turns out that there are even two stores in the city I live in now where you can buy tête du moine — and the obligatory girolle. I don’t know many Americans who’ve eaten it, though. They don’t know what it is, there isn’t enough of it — it is an AOC product — they don’t have the equipment, they can be induced to try it if I put all of the pieces together for them, but they don’t care. Eating tête du moine is not only a sensual pleasure for me — consuming it, indeed the mere fact that I know how it is to be consumed, offers evidence that I haven’t yet descended to the low level of American acculturation since moving back here. Knowing what it is and how to serve it makes me feel like I’ve got something special that no one else knows about.

My second favorite cheese is one that you are more likely to be familiar with, at least by sight, even if you haven’t eaten it: Mozzarella di bufala (photo at right). Ideally, this cheese is made of buffalo milk, and served as soon as possible after manufacture, although in the last decades a preservation method that involves storing the prepared cheese in brine that is then distributed in vacuum-packed plastic envelopes has allowed the cheese to move beyond the borders of Italy. When made from buffalo milk and eaten fresh, this is one of the most astounding tastes on the planet. The cheese tastes just like the milk used to make it. The predominant flavor is that of the butterfat from the milk, though you might not know how to recognize this taste if you didn’t grow up in dairyland, and it’s that peculiar fresh butterfat taste that means you want to it the cheese when it is as fresh as possible. Most consumers find it creamy, oozing an intense milky taste, perhaps a little bland or a little bit bitter, with a dense but pliant texture on the tongue.

Unfortunately, little buffalo milk is produced for cheesemaking on Planet Earth, and even if there were more available, the labor and preservation costs involved in producing this kind of mozzarella make its cost prohibitive for the vast majority of consumers. If you know it, or its cut-rate cousin, fior di latte, which is made from cow’s milk, it’s most likely because you’ve eaten a Caprese salad at some point (photo at left). The growing popularity of the Caprese salad as a trend food of the 1990s led to a much higher demand for high-moisture mozzarellas, particularly in Europe, where a plastic envelope with a 250g piece of cow’s milk mozzarella can be had for as little as 0.39 euros. The Caprese salad is one of the most deceptively simple meals that home cooks butcher. Made right: with a good quality cheese, the ripest possible tomatoes, freshly ground black pepper, a few granules of sea salt, a generous supply of fresh basil leaves, and high quality olive oil and aged balsamico, it is a poem. But all of those ingredients are also available in highly inferior versions: cheep, over-ripened cheese, cardboard tomatoes, dusty pepper from a shaker, iodized salt, and cheap oil and vinegar. The result has been that although the original conception of the cheese (and thus the salad) was a pinnacle of culinary achievement and simplicity, its actual expression in restaurants the world over is usually barely more than a simulacrum of what it could be. The popularity of the Caprese salad did to high moisture mozzarella what McDonald’s did to the hamburger. The result has been that I never order Caprese in a restaurant any more, and I almost never make it when I’m living in the U.S. I know what it is supposed to taste like, and I consider myself too good for its cheap imitations. Mozzarella di bufala is a cheese, and the Caprese salad is a dish, that have been killed, massacred, flattened in quality by their own popularity.

***

I’m sure it’s not hard to see what I’m getting at here. Are we afraid that with The Hobbit, Armitage risks changing from tête de moine to mozzarella di bufala and its cheap knockoffs? Again, I think, we’re all conscious that the pinnacle or nadir (depending on how you view it) of selfish worry about the consequences of The Hobbit for Mr. Armitage is what it will do to us. But this question has at least two easily visible facets: one is the quality of the cheese itself, and the other is the meaning of consuming it. Our fears, I think, mask themselves as a “quality of the cheese” problem — but I think it’s rather a question of “meaning of consumption.”

It would be easy to say that increasing popularity was what ruined buffalo mozzarella and made it hardly worth eating unless you’re in a particular location on the planet, near where it’s produced. It was a rare pleasure before it became popular and its popularity killed it. Too much of it was made at too low of a cost and quality. I really don’t think this is what is going to happen with Armitage. There’s only one of him, and our varying opinions about the significance of some or other of his roles notwithstanding, he’s too smart to sell himself cheap. He’s not going to change what he’s doing merely for the purpose of mass appeal — I remain fully confident that we’re going to continue to get fantastic quality from him every time he steps in front of a camera. If that weren’t the case, I feel, we wouldn’t have followed him this far already.

The real issue is our own feelings about the fandom and its exclusivity. This is a sort of side effect of capitalism, where supply and demand regulate perception of something’s importance. Something that’s widely available is less important than something that’s hard to find. If everybody loves something, it can’t be very good. If it’s easy to get at, it can’t be of very high quality. All along we’ve been able to see Armitage as a rarefied pleasure — someone whose work required his fans to obtain a region-free DVD player to enjoy, or to develop ways to locate snippets of files and illegal soft copies of things. If people didn’t get it — if they put the cheese in their mouth and wanted to spit it out — we could always console ourselves with the stance that they didn’t really understand him, that what he was doing was not something that was likely to be appreciated by hoi polloi. Paradoxically, misunderstanding or uncomprehension could even support our notion of the high quality of his work, insofar as true artists are commonly misunderstood. Armitage fans were well educated; they appreciated the huge subtlety of what he was doing. Anyone who didn’t appreciate his art was saying not something about his art, but about their lack of refinement.

Obviously, there were challenges to this position when Armitage did pieces like Strike Back, which, despite his best efforts, didn’t work very hard at masquerading at being high in tone. But I think the potential success of The Hobbit really draws this into question for the first time. He’s not going to be our exclusive pleasure any more. Maybe not everyone will love him, but we won’t be able to justify the failure of people to understand what’s so great about him any more via our own high-toned self images. We’ll be exposing him to the wider world and its standards, and those will be the standards on which his work is praised or criticized. What was a rarefied taste for us, something that supported our self-concepts, will be entering the mainstream, and criticisms of it will no longer support our sense of our own taste, but alternately lead to questions about the relevance of our taste in Armitage — or its quality as a whole.

***

[I currently plan to make my usual Monday post about Spooks, in this case 9.6, sometime tomorrow after I see it, but my normally busy Monday is likely to be unpredictable tomorrow. Please keep talking among yourselves — take over the asylum, as fitzg would say — in case I’m not around. I do promise to be back. I can’t stay away from the cheese, Mr. Armitage, or all of you, for very long.]

~ by Servetus on October 24, 2010.

44 Responses to “Exclusive Armitage, or: The parable of the two obscure cheeses”

  1. @servetus…
    “Sadly, Mr. Armitage is rarely photographed with cheese. I feel like this is a missed marketing opportunity both for Armitage and for cheese.”

    I can’t get past this because I am laughing too hard…you have struck my funnybone and hit the motherlode!

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    • Glad to make you laugh, because like Armitage I am “so not funny.”

      Armitage and cheese — two great things that go great together. 🙂

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  2. I intended to stay away from commenting any more, as I commented so much about your last post. But to talk about my favourite dish, cheese and even the two in my opinion most delicious. To compare them in such an excellent way can only be done by you, Servetus. Thank you, though I am hungry now and would like some cheese ;o)

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  3. Wonderful comparisons! Oooh Cheeese! Mr. A and oozy, creamy cheeses! Even better than chocolate 😀 Just as good, anyway…

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  4. I’m off to find tete de moine and a girolle!

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  5. I confess I love cheese. Fancy cheese, ordinary; expensive cheese, cheap cheese. Old-fashioned hoop cheese. Cheese in a can. So I guess I have an appreciation for the high, low and middle-brow RA offerings?
    I do agree; Mr. Armitage and cheese are made for each other. My mother loved cheese; and I always thought if she’d ever gotten to meet Mr. A, she would have loved him, too. Like mother, like daughter, she says with a cheesy grin.

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    • I like almost every cheese I have ever encountered, myself, including cheese in a can, which most people from where I hail do not thing is cheese.

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      • Ah, I can see your point there. I would imagine Wisconsinites would be quite particular about their cheese. I had a strange hankering for cheese in a can over the weekend and bought two cans (variety being the spice of life) and some faux reduced fat Wheat Thins. I found out Lucky Cat likes cheese in a can. I squirted it out on my finger and he eagerly lapped it up. I cannot fathom there are people who don’t like any cheese at all . . . or chocolate. How can you NOT like chocolate?? The mind boggles.

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  6. I’m going to refrain from cheesy remarks, but I really enjoy your ability to bring two subjects together in new and startling ways of examing the ever-fascinating Richard Armitage.

    You pose the classic dichotomy: does exclusivity always mean good, and availability, poor quality? When an actor/artist toils away in relative obscurity, is his worth greater for his fans than when he is discovered and adulated by the masses, even though they have always claimed that they wish nothing more than for him to be admired by the world at large? Is Monet’s art cheapened by being reproduced on shopping bags and tea trays rather than residing in art galleries where it has to be sought out by those “in the know”?

    Perhaps any answer to these questions depends on what you’re looking for when you admire an actor. If the actor in question grabs you attention on screen whatever role he plays and however he looks in that role, then I would imagine that you’d like to see him expand his repertoire and for new audiences to appreciate good art. If the same actor has had a real struggle to achieve recognition of his talents, but has worked hard on polishing his skills and challenging himself, whilst retaining a leve-headed approach to the fickle business he finds himself in, then I’m sure the people who were there from the beginning will continue to appreciate the flowering of his talent.

    My favourite example is Michael Caine. He could have played the cheeky London chappie for the rest of his career, but has taken/been given the opportunity to act in many diverse roles and is still delivering after a long career. He’s always worked hard, both because he enjoys his craft and because, like Richard, he has known lean years and hates to turn down work. He might not be considered film royalty, but I’m sure he is satisfied with what he has achieved in his career.

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    • Exactly. What does it say about me that a part of me wants to be the person who always knows which cheese is most exclusive? Nothing about him at all — to whom I wish the greatest possible success.

      To some extent I think I was channelling here a lot of my rage about academia, which often implements categories like this.

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  7. I once had the pleasure to eat real buffalo mozzarella on a farm in Italy where they make it. It is nothing like the “plastic cheese” they sell in supermarkets. But I don’t think starring in The Hobbit will turn RA into plastic cheese. That comparison would be more apt if he had landed a part in a soap and would be on our screens in hastily filmed daily episodes.

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    • I agree with you. Mr. Armitage is not going to become bad cheese. It was more about me and my attitude toward mass-produced cheese. Indeed, lots of people enjoy fior di latte, and Caprese salads made with ingredients that are less than optimal. I’m the one who’s turning my nose up at that stuff.

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    • Although weren’t you asking a while back if we’d be happier seeing him in a soap? 🙂

      Armitage every day at 5 p.m. What a prospect.

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  8. Ah, Milly, you are, of course, preaching to the choir as far as I am concerned.

    Unless Mr. A starts phoning in his performances–and somehow, I just don’t see that happening, as he has worked and struggled too hard for too long to take any of it for granted–I don’t foresee myself ever losing interest in him as a performer and what appears to be a darned likable human being. I appreciate his groundedness, his sense of humour, his modesty, his work ethic, his intelligence and insight, his love for his family and fondness for spoiling his parents. I believe he is a good guy on top of all that amazing talent, charisma and dazzling masculine beauty. And I want this good guy to finish first.

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    • Angie, I had to get Michael Caine in somehow! 😉

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    • @angie, Amen, dear Angie!

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    • Me, too, on the finishing first. That somebody can be so talented and so modest and basically kind is really a marvel these days and should be rewarded by the universe.

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      • He is a rare breed, that fellow. When you look at the behavior of a lot of “celebrities” these days–oh, goodness, don’t even get me started on the reality “stars” who have no discernible talent and yet feel they are so entitled–Richard is truly, sincerely, a breath of fresh air. He gives me–hope.

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  9. Michael Caine IS film royalty!

    A favourite (among other) role is The Man Who Would Be King. Among other roles. Indeed, I would love for Mr. A the sort of career Mr. C has had. The best of all worlds, and tremendous respect for actors who never cease learning and practising a wonderful craft.

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  10. I’m delurking (again) just to say that since Friday the smile hasn’t come off my face. I’m already in love with Thorin Oakenshield!

    And here is something that I discovered a few days ago and makes me giggle a lot (esp. from 1:00). It’s not about cheese, but about The Impressionists:

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    • These goofs illustrate one of the things I enjoyed about The Impressionists, the camaraderie of the group of young artists sharing and laughing together despite the challenges and the tragedies. Richard in full laughing mode is a sight we haven’t seen a great deal on screen. I love the way his face lights up and the deep guffaws and giggles.

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    • Wow, Arfan, that’s twice in two months. 🙂

      I’m still really, really excited, too. When I’m down I think about it and end up grinning.

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  11. Arfan, thank you for that segment; it bears repeating!

    If the inmates are allowed to run the asylum for a wee bit, off the grid: BBC’s new Sherlock worth a look. Benedict Cumberbatch (quelle nom!!) interesting. Not as is RA, but another of those British actors, very well trained, and definitely not Brad Pitt. Not RA, (nose doesn’t cut it for me) but worth the comparisons.

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  12. I’m watching Michael Caine now on the Today show (US) talking about his new book 🙂

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  13. Live the Sherlock Holmes show. Def worth checking out! So well written, directed and acted. It is the whole package.

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  14. Meant to say love not live. 🙂

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  15. Mmmmmm…the power of cheese.

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  16. Cheese, in all it’s guises. The taste; the cheesy, but fun RH series; SMILE, please! 😀

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  17. Glad to discover y’all are such cheese fans!

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  18. D’accord, as far as the cheese is concerned — about Mr. Armitage I would hardly know. But a little smart-ass (you know me) remark on Caprese: As my sister told me, no one in Italy would use Balsamico for it. Tomatoes are regarded to contain enough acid.

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    • I must, of course, take note, when other religious writers from early modern Europe show up on my blog.

      I think part of the issue is that if the tomato isn’t ripe, it needs a little acidic boost from somewhere else. I did, however, eat a Caprese salad in Rome that involved balsamico. It was probably aimed at German tourists. 🙂

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  19. […] as you know, Servetus really, really likes cheese and she made a point of eating a little extra today, along with her current favorite diary product: […]

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  20. […] posted this image a long time ago, when I was comparing Armitage to cheese, but it makes me smile again every time I see it. *** Richard Armitage as Claude Monet in episode 2 […]

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  21. I am oh, so very late to this post, but I have to echo the very first comment: “Sadly, Mr. Armitage is rarely photographed with cheese. I feel like this is a missed marketing opportunity both for Armitage and for cheese.” I snorted so loudly that I probably startled the neighbors. Perfect, perfect. And now I need to try this “monk’s head” cheese. It sounds delicious…

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    • I know — the Wisconsin cheese board should really recruit him. And then he would have tons of fans in Wisconsin … 🙂

      Try the tête de moine — but keep in mind that it’s best in the shaved version (like you would shave chocolate to put on a fancy dessert) — thin slices just aren’t the same.

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      • I understand… I think I might have had it once before, and yes, it was extraordinary. I definitely would love to have it again… I think the WI cheese board should bring him to WI. It’s a short road trip for me. 😀

        Like

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