Cheese! (he said)8 Jul 2011
The Wikipedia entry on French cheese runs to dozens of pages. Heather has a 781 page book, The Cheese Lover’s Companion, on her iPad. A lot of people before me have talked about French cheese, so I won’t pretend to add anything new or unique to the discussion. However…
French cheese is really good. I mean it’s REALLY, really, good. And the variety is almost infinite. You can of course find hard cheese, soft cheese, mild cheese, smelly cheese, plus cheeses with a whole rainbow of molds, not just the blue mold we’re used to in the US. There’s white mold, gray mold, black mold, and yellow/orange mold. There are cheeses with very delicate, subtle flavors, and there’s cheese that looks (and smells) like something the cat horked up. As Heather points out, only in France could someone forget their cheese in the cellar, come back six months later to find it covered in mold, and think, “oh, that looks delicious, I think I’ll try it!”
One wonders why in the United States, with all the dairy production, and all the different climates, and all the different cows, we’ve managed to give the world… cheddar. Oh sure, we have mild cheddar, and sharp cheddar, and I guess cheddar actually came from England originally, so we really don’t have any cheese we can truly call our own after all, although I think well-aged Vermont cheddar is pretty tasty. And I guess we invented both Velveeta and String Cheese, which sort of makes my point in a round-about, not completely crystal-clear way.*
Yes, we can buy French cheese at home (but only the pasteurized, ie., not as good, kind), and there are cheeses from other countries that are pretty tasty (Parmigiano, Asiago, Muenster), but it seems like there should be special regional cheeses in the US. Many states are experimenting with wine production in the US, why not some specialty cheeses?
Early in my France travels I was content to use the throw-a-dart method of buying cheese, and just bought whatever looked good. It was too difficult to a) remember and b) keep track of all the different cheeses anyway, and I rarely had any big failures with this method, so all was well. This summer, though, with a full ten weeks at my disposal, I set out to modify my cheese acquisition strategy to a more rigorous, empirically verified method. I avoided the pre-wrapped cheese in the grocery stores and instead made the most of open-air markets and cheese specialty shops, where I could get un petit goût (a little taste) before buying. This has paid enormous dividends, for in the past month we have truly hit the jackpot, fromage-wise. I have successfully narrowed the vast universe of French cheese to four main favorites, Brebis, Vieux Cantal, Salers, and Époisses de Bourgogne (your favorites might vary!)
Brebis is made from sheep’s milk, and has a firm yet soft and creamy texture. The flavor is medium strength, and the rind is natural, and is meant to be eaten along with the center. Brebis simply translates to female sheep, so there are numerous different types and styles and flavors of this kind of cheese.
Cantal is made from cow’s milk in the Cantal Mountains, near Toulouse, and the cheese is sold under different names after different lengths of aging. Vieux (old) Cantal has been aged at least six months, which gives the rind a moldy, savory firmness, and which makes the cheese itself almost sandy or grainy in texture. During long aging, the various chemicals in the cheese start to crystalize, which is what makes this interesting transformation. If you’ve ever eaten very sharp Cheddar, you’ll recognize the consistency. The taste is of little spikes of different flavors, which combined yield an overall tangy-nutty sensation.
Salers is made from raw cow milk, and is semi-hard in texture. It takes its name from a town 2,900 feet up in the Cantal Mountains that has been making the cheese for 2000 years, and is considered an elite form of Cantal. The AOC requirements are rigorous; it must be made only from May through October in stone huts called burons, when the special breed of Salers cows graze in the high mountain pastures. Outside of the summer months the milk goes into regular Cantal manufacture. The taste is out of this world – very complex, savory, and nutty. With aging (3-18 months), the natural rind thickens to about a quarter inch of moldy, pitted, decayed deliciousness. It’s almost like you can taste the “terroir”, a word usually associated with wine, but in this case, you can taste just a hint of blue skies and green pastures. Really!
Époisses de Bourgogne, from cow milk, has been called the “king of cheeses” by famous gastronomic types, although fans of Roquefort will tend to argue the point. It was invented 500 years ago by Cistercian monks in the middle of Bourgogne (Burgundy). It is very, um, aromatic. The texture is creamy, becoming more fluid as it ages. The cheese sticks all over the inside your mouth, so you get to savor it for a good while. The rind is washed during ripening by a brandy called “Marc de Bourgogne”, which somehow promotes the desirable, orange bacteria to flourish on the surface. In the store it looks like a small, orange wheel of Brie. I find it interesting that while the smell is almost overpowering, the taste is very delicate and savory.
I’m not sure what your chances are of finding these cheeses outside of France. A couple years ago my very favorite wife managed to find a small wheel of Époisses in a specialty cheese store right in our hometown in Virginia. That is more the exception than the rule, though. My recommendation, if you like cheese, is to get your passport up to date and make the trip over here to enjoy the best cheese in the world!
* Ok, yes, we also invented the “Jacks” (Colby, Monterrey, Pepper, etc.), not a major contribution to the universe of dairy products, IMHO.