Recipe: Cervelle de Canut (Herb-Flecked Cheese Spread)

Recipe: Cervelle de Canut (Herb-Flecked Cheese Spread)

Ann Mah
Jul 11, 2017

Au revoir, Paris! Ann Mah takes us off the tourist path on a culinary tour of France's favorite regional foods.

This herb-flecked farmer's cheese is a classic recipe from Lyon, which is considered the gastronomic capital of France. Cervelle de canut translates literally to "silk-weaver's brains." There are many wild theories behind the name — some believe it indicated the low status of the silk workers, while others claim it's in reference to the labor revolts staged by the canuts in the mid-19th century. Whatever the case, it is true that the canuts frequently enjoyed this soft, savory cheese, spread on baguette or toasted bread.

In the 19th century, Lyon was an industrial powerhouse, famous for its silk production. Silk weavers — in French, canuts — frequented the city's convivial old-fashioned bistros, which are called bouchons. The canuts began work before dawn, performing the laborious, physically taxing process of silk weaving. By mid-morning they were ready to recharge with a hearty spread of food. This meal, known as the mâchon, was traditionally eaten at the bouchon. (And in case you're wondering, yes, they ate again at midday!)

Traditionally, this recipe uses fromage blanc, but I chose to substitute Greek yogurt, as it's so widely available. Finely chopped herbs — chive, parsley, and especially tarragon — add a flavor that feels particularly French. Enjoy this cheese with sliced baguette, as an hors d'oeuvre with a glass of light red; it also makes a lovely summer lunch.

Cervelle de Canut (Herb-Flecked Cheese Spread)

Serves 4 to 6

2 cups whole or low-fat plain Greek yogurt
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley leaves
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh chives
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh tarragon leaves
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 1/2 teaspoons minced shallot
1 1/2 teaspoons red wine vinegar
1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Place the yogurt in a large bowl and whisk until creamy, about 30 seconds. Add the remaining ingredients, whisking well to incorporate. Taste and season with more salt and pepper as needed.

Line a fine-mesh strainer or colander with a double layer of cheesecloth, and set it over a bowl or plate. Pour the yogurt mixture into the lined strainer. Refrigerate to strain for 2 to 3 hours.

To serve, unmold the cervelle de canut onto a serving dish and gently remove the cheesecloth. Serve with toasted bread, baguette, or crackers.

Recipe Notes

  • Storage: Leftovers can be stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 4 days.

A Culinary Tour de France!

Join Kitchn and celebrated food writer Ann Mah as we take a tour of France's tastiest regions. On this trip, we're skipping Ile-de-France, home of the city of light, and celebrating the foods and flavors of Occitania, Côte d'Azur, Normandy, Brittany, and Alsace. We'll cook our way through an iconic dish from each region and explore how they've helped France earn its status as one of the gastronomic hubs of the world.

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