There’s an expression in French to “en faire tout un fromage.” Essentially, it’s means you’ve made “a whole cheese of something” or that is, you’ve made a big deal of next to nothing. But this week I’m going to make a whole stinkin’ cheese about about French fromage because it’s my absolute favorite part of french cuisine!
Three years ago, I walked into my first French cheese shop and was mesmerized by the case filled with tiny sculptures of the most obscure shapes, gloriously moldy rinds, and multi colored morsels that simply blew me away. This wasn’t just the brie in aisle 9, but this – this was art. I wanted to try them all and yet had no idea where to start, especially as my French wasn’t too spiffy at the time. So in an act of faith, I asked the question got me started on it all: “Can you give me a soft cheese?” The fromager looked at me like I had six oh so very naive American heads, he had a case of almost hundred varieties of cheeses in his case and all I was giving him was “soft cheese” to work with!? I walked out that day with a dishearteningly average brie, and since then I’ve been on a mission to decode French fromage. During my time in Dijon, I lived for my family to bring out that oh so sacred cheese plate each night after dinner. In my free time I was absolutely obsessed, trying to manger my way through every cheese and region of France (no joke I had quite the cheese checklist agenda), which of course proved quite the daunting task. After all there are literally hundreds that even french expert Pierre Anrouët’s classic championing Guide du Fromage could never classify (in the 90’s the British cheese crusader Patrick Rance took a stab at 700 to give you a rough estimation!). Now, don’t worry – we won’t try and cover all of them or even guess the actual number today, because no matter how many have tried to round them all up, french cheese is in a constant state of flux and remains wonderfully unfathomably unaccountable. There are simply too many villages and regional variations to get them all down. So where are we ever to begin!? This week we’re breaking down French cheese into it’s essentials: what’s the big deal after all about a bunch of moldy, stinky cheese?
Here’s 4 basic tenets that help frisk down French cheese and just why I love making “tout un fromage” over it!
France vs. USA: Before we slice to deep though, let’s keep some key cultural distinctions in mind:
A. This ain’t no appetizer operation. Cheese in France constitutes its own course, that is typically served after dinner & before dessert. The “cheese plate” may come out every night at the family dinner table, or for special occasions (it depends on the family – I was lucky enough to live with a family that brough out the ritual plate every night!). And there’s never a cheese or dessert ultimatum: you can eat your fromage and desert if you like! In restaurants, the cheese course is treated with similar reverence. Here’s a photo to give you a look at the good ole days of true table cheese cart service: the worst part – I only could pick four!
B. Crackers Smackers. Remember, our big rant in The Search for a Good Baguette? Keep in mind that cheese’s true lover is always bread. Trying to handle a Roquefort on a Stonywheat base just might be a little difficult…
On y va!
1. A Bite of History: If there’s one food that in my opinion most characteristically express the soul of France in one bite, it’s le fromage. French cheese is history, culture, and first and foremost a proud expression of the unique land of each region. We’re talking centuries dating back to pre-Gallo Roman époque here people, a tradition steeped in cultural pride, once the work of the monks of the Benedictine Abbeys, and overall century old methods of craft and technique of regional and village traditions that are proudly protected by the AOC. For example, in La Sainte Maure de Touraine, you’ll still find the medieval reed straw inserted through the tiny goat’s log that was originally used by producers to to repair broken cheese or consolidate them in 2015! AOC protected cheeses are named by the province/town it originated in and continue to preserve years old of quality production. Call me a romantic, but cheese for me has always been the most delicious escape into the past, and the best roadmap to all the regions of France!
St. Maure de Touraine (Note: we’d just removed the reeds here, but usually they’ll be deep brown in color)
All cheeses local to Provence always recognizable by their signature herb garnishes!
2. Cheese is About Land People: “Terroir” is a word that, like “umami” carries a serious snob stigma with it today, especially when you’re rolling with the wine crowd. However, for all its hype, the term means a lot once we break it down because the taste of cheese starts with its terroir .“Terroir” is tricky in translation as at most basic level it means “dirt,” but in regards to cheese it’s easiest to understand the term as an expression of the land’s character. What’s land got to do with cheese..? The local plants and components of the land that the animal eats affects their milk. All these elements of the land later impact cheese’s final aromatic profiles later through ripening. Basically, good cheese depends heavily on what the animals are eating and when. Androuët famous called cheese “the soul of the soil.” And to quote my favorite line Kathe Lison’s, The Whole Fromage, “they’re not just cheese, they’re living morsels of la campagne itself.” Terroir, for me, has always made a big difference in a cheese’s ability to project the smells, textures and flavors of its land: it sounds esoteric, but when it comes to FRENCH cheese it’s particularly important, as France is one of the most geographically diverse countries out there! Keep in mind, cheese is SEASONAL – it’s going to depend on what seasons the goats are grazing and when after ripening stages you should be looking for the freshest goat on the market (aka NOT January! Try May and April for happy kids instead!) When we bite into cheese, we want our taste buds to literally travel back and experience the sea salt of the Normandy coastline and we’re LOOKING FOR that unique “barnyard” smell – all the components of the land are what give cheese, and French cheese in particular, this extremely rich and unique character.
Banon, Goat wrapped in chestnut leaves, Banon, Provence: Now ça, is a truly stunning bite of la campange même!
3. Cheese is ALIVE!: Sometimes we forget that cheese is alive. Cheeses breathe; they evolve, gain complexity in ripening; they peak. Affineurs in simple terms, are “cheese whispers” who have mastered the art of aging and ripening cheese to an art impeccable. They understand their individual cheeses and promote the best of them, knowing just when pluck the rounds at their peak stage of perfection for the case. In France, these affineurs go centuries back and speak every cheese language out there. Moreover, what I’ve always loved about French cheese in particular is that cheese in this country, like art itself, continues to expand its parameters without institutional regulation.
However scary it may seem to American counterparts, mold isn’t always a lethal sign in France, instead prolonged aging and growth of bacteria actually helps encourage a richer and complex flavor that often truly adds that final “kick” pasteurization cuts all the fun out of. In other words: don’t shy away, moldy cheese is full of uniquely curated flavor!
Speaking of Keeping Tradition Alive…Check out Jeanne’s Family’s Continuing Tradition of a “Garde Manger”: outside storage used for cold foods dating back to the good ole days of pre-refrigeration, and now the proud designated storage spot of her family’s cheese!
“Le Garde Fromage” Chez Jeanne
4. Perils of Pasteurization: Now don’t get too disheartened here, but here’s the stinky truth about french cheese in the US: we’re sending back the the motherland herself. For the hard facts are that no matter what savvy monger’s may convince you of today, the USA’s pasteurization laws will prevent you from ever experiencing époisse in all its unpasteurized fully flavorful glory. The lowdown: Pasteurization, basically consists of heating raw milk at a very high temperature to “zap” out all forms of future harmful bacteria in raw milk. Raw milk and pure ingredients with no artificial additives, is the key to beautifully crafted artisanal cheese. However here’s the problem: when we pasteurize raw milk, we’re essentially “zapping” out all that beauteous expression of terroir. The US government bans all raw milk cheese imported or domestic, if they’re aged less than 60 days (key 60 day problem here- you’re still safe on exported aged cheese like per-say an aged comté or gouda!). Point in case, the beautiful raw goats milk cheese of Loire Valley chevres or a real raw milk Camembert won’t be the real deal ever at any American cheese counter. Epoisse is going to lack it’s essential pleasantly pungent “kick,” and I often find pasteurized partners dishearteningly mediocre. Today because of pasteurization laws, market pressure continues to compromise much of the artisanal cheese heritage in France as producers begin to adapt 100 year old methods and pasteurize for larger export.
Just some colorful favorites from Provence to inspire your next visit back the motherland of dairy dreamland!
Roundup, The Hallmark ABC’s of Great Cheese:
- Purity of ingredients (raw milk nothing artificial)
- Expression of terroir – memorable aromas, textures and flavors
- Great cheese live and breath, evolve and grow
La Solution!? So what to do? Ever Since returning home to the US with a cheese addiction, I’ve been on the quest to recreate a dairy dream and search out my french classics in imported classics. Unfortunately though, after having had my fair share of ever middle of the road époisse, I learned the hard way that there’s no creating the real deal. In other words, yes I am a “pasteurization snob” and don’t believe imported french cheese do any real justice to their foreign counterparts. In actuality, I encourage people to buy local, American artisanal cheese in season, made by local producers. American producers today have made some amazing spins off french classic models that honestly will do your palette much better justice than many french imports today.
My List of Must Try Classics A Goûter When in France
*Roquefort: (Sheep, Auvergne) One of the oldest blue cheeses in the world (despite England’s claims), after you taste Roquefort there’s no going back. Roquefort is arguably the strongest blue chese you’ll ever taste and a love or hate relationship. Classic pairing is always a sweet dessert wine like Sauternes
*Vacherin du Haut Doubts (Mont D’Or): (Cow, Franche Comté) This is my own personal “holy grail” of French raw milk cheese. Packaged in special spruce casing, this ooey gooey delight is best served when heated for a few minutes to get it nice and runny and then let your baguette at it, no spoons or forks necessary! A truly festive favorite, look for Mont D’or from late October through mid March. Red mandatory!
*Brillat Savarin,: (Cow,Normandy) My first bite of a this luscious buttery triple cream ( made with 75 % or more butterfat) turned me into the cheese fanatic I am today. Seriously, if you’re looking for a cheese to blow your mind, Brillat Savarin creates smooth, silky, and buttery texture unknown to man that is absolutely emblematic of everything to love about french cheese! Paris well always with Champange, letting the bubbly cut through and balance out its rich fat/creamy texture
*For all who love sweet creamy deliciousness, other hallmark favorites include: *Chaource, Sainte Félicien or Sainte Marcellin
*Ossau-Iraty Pardou Arriou: (Sheep, Pyrnées) Nothing beats a Basque Pyrenees sheeps milk, and this is possibly every cheese monger’s go to favorite for a good reason. Sheep’s milk is more concentrated is has a higher percentage of solids and thus particularly well suited for cheese making! Texture is queen here people. Think toasted hazelnuts, and buttery flavor, I always love this best with a good cider!
*Camembert de Normandie: (Cow, Normandy) Now you may have noticed Jeanne’s not exactly riding the stinky cheese train homage in this post, but for a staple favorite of luscious creamy mushroom overtones, her go to is an infallible Camembert
*Epoisse de Bourgogne: (Cow, Burgundy) Close to my Burgundian heart, this is the epitome of stinky cheese and my personal favorite. You’re never find the real deal in the US, but in France a good époisse is rich and creamy beneath a bloomy rind washed in a strong Poamce (brandy)
*Mimolette: (Cow, Lille) Orange, cantaloupe shaped this is one of the intriguing cheeses you’ll have to try just because it’s one of the brightest of the bunch. Mimolette is similar to gouda with in my opinion, more sweet caramel overtones. It’s no hallmark of the big busters, but just one of those
*Sainte Maure de Touraine or Valency: (Goat, Loire Valley) Two Loire valley goat staples that never disappoint. You can always recognize an AOC protected authentic Sainte Maure by the wooden stick found in the inside, a method used to hold the cheese together since its medieval origins! Always begin a board with a light goats & serve best with any white.
ENFIN The New York Solution: A Murray’s Selection
*Here’s a few of my favorite approved French recreations I’ve loved down at Murray’s this year. At Murray’s they have a unique import system and actually ripen the cheese upon arrival in their own NYC caves, which I wholeheartedly endorse!
254 Bleecker St. (Btwn 6th & 7th)
*Tips: Just keep in mind, the monger is your friend! The cheese counter can be intimidating, but also just be honest with your monger: ask for his seasonal selections, make sure you taste EVERYTHING before any decisions (never be afraid to go H.A.M and try as many as you’d like before making your final roundup!), and always make sure you get a good feel of your cheeses before letting your monger select (always check and see what they’ve got locked away in their cave if you’re not happy with the cases’ selection!).
*Murray’s Cavemaster Reserve Greensward: The best NYC recreation and delightful spin on Mont D’Or. Five stars and a must try!
*Murray’s Cavemaster Petite Brian: Aged for 10 years, this does do justice to the beauty of Pyrnées sheep milk!
*I really encourage you to actually not search for French cheese as often imports don’t do it justice. Instead ask your cheesemonger and let him fill you in on what some of the great American producers are doing out there!