Quelle Fromage!

14 Oct

It’s hard to think about France without thinking about cheese. And if you’ve ever walked by the cheese department at any French grocery store or market, well then it’s ESPECIALLY hard not to think about cheese, as the intense and sometimes uncomfortable smell overwhelms your nostrils. Stinky, fatty but oh-so-delicious, cheese is an integral part of many different international kitchens. But in my opinion no one does it quite like the French.

With limited laws on pasturing dairy products and a national palate that embraces intense flavours, the assortment and complexity of cheeses found in France in incomparable. Even their seemingly less refined grocery stores like Monoprix have a cheese section that would trump any artisanal foodie hot-spot in North America.

Monoprix Cheese: Image courtesy of offtrackplanet.com

But in France you can’t have cheese without bread. And you can’t have cheese and bread without wine. And there are different breads and wines that go with different cheeses. And this is why I was bloated, drunk and slightly ill after our cheese tasting lesson.

We began with the history of cheese in France. Fun facts included titbits on how monks were the ideal cheese makers as they had patience, lots of free time and space, and weren’t off fighting wars. This explains why many French cheeses seem to be sanctified with saintly names. Then again, cheese is like a religion there, so I’m not surprised either way.

Cheese has been traditionally offered in France after dinner and right before dessert as a sort of snack between courses. Another fun fact is that way back in the day, women weren’t permitted to eat cheese as the thought was that the flavours and aromas were too strong for these delicate little flowers, so they were given macaroons and cream instead. Still delicious mind you, but not as fun as cheese. Thankfully times have changed.

There are 5 phases to making cheese:

  1. Curdling: a trade secret
  2. Draining: using a cloth or a perforated strainer
  3. Moulding: Each cheese has a particular shape that helps you decipher the type
  4. Salting: used for flavour but also sanitizing and accelerating processes. This can be done with a sprinkling of salt or by soaking the cheese in brine
  5. Aging: done by adding fermentation elements and then stored in cellars

Different methods are employed depending on the type of cheese and the classification it falls under.

There are 8 families of cheese:

1. Fromage Frais (Fresh Cheese, soft white texture)

  • Chèvre frais
  • Demi-sel
  • Petit Suisse
  • Fromage blanc
  • Fromage frais arômatisé

Fromage Blanc

 2. Pâte Molle à Croûte Fleurie (Soft cheese with a flexible crust or rind)

  • Chaource
  • Saint Marcellin
  • Camembert
  • Brie
  • Carré de l’Est
  • Neufchâtel
  • Coulommiers

*Note : the powdery crust is called the “bloom”

Camembert: Image courtesy of wikipedia.org

3. Pâte Molle à Croûte Lavée (soft cheese with rinsed crust or rind. Aged differently than flexible crust cheeses. 2-4 months as opposed to a couple weeks for a stronger taste)

  • Maroilles
  • Langres
  • Epoisses
  • Livarot
  • Mont d’Or
  • Boulette d’Avesnes
  • Pont l ‘Évêque
  • Munster

Livarot: Image courtesy of aftouch-cuisine.com

 4. Pâte Persillée (The Blues. Mould is added to the curd and the cheese is pierced with skewers to give that tell-tale look)

  • Bleu de Gex
  • Bleu d’Auvergne
  • Fourme d’Ambert
  • Bleu de Besse
  • Roquefort
  • Bleu des Causses

Bleu d’Auvergne: Image courtesy of articles.sfgate.com

 5. Pâte Pressée non Cuite (made in the mountains. Pressed but not cooked or heated)
  • Cantal
  • Ossau Iraty
  • Morbier
  • Fromage des Pyrénées
  • Saint Nectaire
  • Tomme de Savoie
  • Saint Paulin
  • Reblochon
  • Mimolette

Saint Paulin: Image courtesy of wikipedia.org

 6. Pâte Pressée Cuite (mountain cheese. Pressed and cooked. Heated while curdling)

  • Gruyère
  • Beaufort
  • Comte
  • Emmental

Emmental: Image courtesy of wikipedia.org

 7. Fromage Fondus (soft mild cheese. Not very complex and usually with so much added to it that it’s not really considered cheese anymore by snooty French standards)

  • Fromage fondu au poivre
  • Fromage fondu aux noix
  • Fromages apéritifs
  • Fromage à tartiner

Fromage fondu au poivre: Image courtesy of leluec.perso.neuf.fr

 8. Fromage Chèvre (goat cheese. Mostly found in wine regions like Loire Valley)

  • Valençay
  • Picodon
  • Sainte Maure
  • Crottin de Chavignol
  • Selles-sur-Cher
  • Pouligny Saint Pierre
  • Chabichou

Chabichou: Image courtesy of artisanalcheese.com

When serving cheese it’s important to display a variety of textures and flavours depending on the theme you’re trying to achieve. Your goal is to satisfy all tastes and too provide nothing too strong, as it might be somewhat offensive to your guests.

 Plate 1: Soft Cheeses

  1. Camembert
  2. Brie
  3. Munster
  4. Livarot
  5. Roquefort
  6. A goat cheese of your choosing

 Plate 2: Fromage Chèvre

  1. Chabichous
  2. Selles-sur-cher
  3. Valençay
  4. Pouligny-Sant-Pierre

*Note: Goats cheese is extremely controlled in France to ensure the highest quality and that there is no contamination or sneaky scam-like behaviour. Read the label carefully – there should be an indication that you’re buying authentic French goats cheese. There will also be a thin white or light blue crust if made properly. The cheese will be some sort of geometric shape and will be slightly firm. Make sure your goats cheese board has a good variety of age, shape, strength and creaminess.

Plate 3: One cheese only

Ex. Brie, or Mont d’Or

*Note: Choose a soft cheese, which will be appreciated by everyone. Make sure the cheese is in season and is of the highest quality as it will be the only focus of tasting.

Don’t forget the Bread:

If you’re not used to eating a lot of bread, get over it before heading to France. No meal is served without it, the French consume it like it’s the air they breathe, and this is especially true for cheese tasting. If you’re looking for an easy side, just serve sliced baguette. However, if you’re willing to make an extra effort to have an assortment of breads, you will not be disappointed. Rye and earthier breads with nuts and raisins go really well with chèvre and fromage frais. Try rustic bread for creamier cheeses, but stick with something simple for the strong varieties.

…And the Wine:

It’s not only a cultural must, but it actually helps with the tasting process and often makes each bite just that much more enjoyable. Not to mention the little buzz you get helps numb the realisation that each nibble is like 1000 calories.

If you want to play it safe, a crisp white wine goes well with most cheeses. For a more intense tasting experience try a Bordeaux or Burgundy with very strong cheeses like  one of the Blues or Epoisses, the super stinker shown below…

Butter AND cheese?!

When I first heard that this is sometimes done in France, I almost died. Partly because I feared for the state of my arteries, but also because it sounds just too decedent for words. And it is! But it’s also extremely delicious and surprisingly fitting especially when sampling rather strong cheeses that need that like something to cut the edge. This is mostly a Normandy tradition so if people are looking at you like you’re insane as you slather layers of butter on your bread before coating it with a hefty chunk of camembert, just tell them that you’re from the North-West of France and they should get off your back.

Some important tips:

1. When serving cheese, never cut from the point if it’s in a rectangular shape. Simply cut length-wise to ensure everyone gets a similar piece of the cheese with minimal crust.

2. Use only a knife and bread to eat the cheese. NEVER use a fork as this is most frowned upon. Each guest will get his or her own knife to use for all the cheeses and will only use the knife to cut the selected piece and then place it on the bread. The bread and your fingers are the main utensils for sampling cheese so prepare yourself for a serious carb load.

3. There are no second servings of cheese. What is displayed is what you get. Don’t ask for seconds and don’t expect your host to bring numerous servings to the table. On the same note, this is the only course not considered rude to decline in French culture. So, if you’re feeling like you don’t really want more calories and carbs after a heavy cream and pastry filled meal, don’t fret. You can pass on the cheese to save room for no doubt more cream and pastry in the upcoming dessert course.

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One Response to “Quelle Fromage!”

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Dinner for One « Shortt and Sweet - 21/10/2011

    […] little me not knowing that the next day would be the infamous cheese tasting lesson as discussed in Quelle Fromage! Désolé […]

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