Saturday, 24 December 2011

Chaource v Banon: a tale of two cheeses

I'd been waiting for autumn. Autumn brings long golden evenings. And on the market in Ezy I always have to wait till Autumn to get my Banon, a tight little puck of goat's cheese wrapped in its chestnut leaves, at the cheese counter. And Mont d'Or, too, cheese for eating with a spoon dipped into its liquid centre, till all that's left is the rind, redolent of the pine strips that bind it.

(And by the way, if you're eating Mont d'Or, and you love the resiny scent of the rind, don't say 'ça sent le sapin'. That refers to the pine out of which coffins are made. You say it when your rich old aunt starts coughing - though perhaps not in her hearing, not if you want to inherit - or you might perhaps say it when someone's boss starts getting suspiciously friendly....)

This autumn I decided I'd have a cheese-off between two of the great cheeses; Chaource and Banon. North and South. Fresh and aged. Cow and goat. Chalk and, er, cheese.

Chaource is from the area near Troyes, in the Champagne-Ardenne region; made of cows' milk, gently crumbly, with a light, white rind.

Banon is from the south, from the rocky pastures and garrigue of Provence. It's made of goats' milk, and dipped in eau de vie before wrapping. It's creamy, but quite hard. If you bite into a Brie, the cheese seeps and slides and the teeth marks disappear, like words written in the sand just above the low tide line; but if you bite into a Banon, the mark stays.

Now I'm never entirely sure I like Banon. I love it, but do I like it? There's something incredibly concentrated about this cheese. It's not stinky or goaty - it's just very, very concentrated. Very there. It's as if all the taste of a cheese seven or eight times bigger had been taken and put in this tiny disc of cheese.

I never bother eating Banon with bread. It doesn't need it. I just take a thin segment, and eat it, very, very slowly.

Chaource is completely different. Actually it does have rather a nice goatiness to it, which is odd since 'no goats were harmed in the creation of this cheese' - but it's immensely fresh tasting, innocent, it's almost a spring-time cheese. You could eat it with cheese - it belongs to the same family of taste as ricotta, fresh without being really creamy. It's incredibly easy to eat far too much of it. The tall cylinder of a typical Chaource is deceptively large; in fact we get through one in a couple of days.

I'd expected to find Chaource lightweight compared to Banon. But it's not without its own character - and there are days when I need this lovely cheese to bring a little sunshine into my life.

Chaource is like a Vivaldi concerto. Banon is like the Liebestod.

Such variety. Such huge divergences. Any wonder that when someone asks me 'What is your favourite cheese', I'm lost for words...

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

The pie chart... but not as we know it

In England we call them pie charts.

We're good at pies. "Who ate all the pies?" is a regular football chant, though I hear that at Norwich some fans now chant "Who ate all the boeuf bourguignon?" since Delia Smith is a director. We make Melton Mowbray pork pies (one of our few specialities carrying PGI status), we make Pukka Pies (available in all good chip shops), steak and kidney pies. Pies are England.

But the French don't do pies. And they don't do pie charts.

The French version is called a camembert.

Why not a Brie, I don't know...

Friday, 15 July 2011

Industrial cheese - what's wrong with it

There's cheese and there's cheese. In particular, there's real cheese, and industrial cheese.

Of course industrial cheese is cheaper. But I was surprised to find how much cheaper and nastier it can be, and how much tinkering goes on to produce regularised products for supermarket shelves.

For a start, the small cheese producer works with the milk that is produced each day. For Morbier, milk from morning and evening milkings was always kept separate, divided by a small layer of ash to keep the morning milk clean - that's the grey line in the middle that is characteristic of this cheese. The milk then generally goes straight into the cheesemaking process, as it is - it's the quality of the milk that dictates the taste and texture of the cheese. And that milk comes from a small area, possibly from a defined breed of cow, possibly only from summer pastures. All these factors dictate its character.

The industrial producer on the other hand can take milk from anywhere by the tankerload. The milk is heat treated, usually pasteurised, and can then be separated out into milk and cream. That enables the producer to select a particular fat content (as shown in a page about the Fromagerie de la Brie). It also irons out the character of the cheese, tending to make it less individual.

Some factories use chemical additives to prevent the milk going off - sodium nitrate and hydrogen peroxide are known to be used in some cheeses (though I am not clear whether these are allowed in France; chapter and verse from anyone knowledgeable would be welcome). Other chemicals are added to enable the production of low fat cheese; and artificial colourings are used to keep the colour of the cheese consistent. Artificial flavourings may also be used. So industrial cheese isn't just a larger scale version of artisanal or fermier cheese - it's an artificial product, no different from Cheesy Wotsits or Pot Noodles really.

Pasteurisation has been a particular battleground in France since the Camembert battle between modern industrial producers and the old guard. The old guard won that one - the authorities decided that to get its AOC, Camembert had to be made with raw milk.

Now then; price comparison. A good artisan or fermier cheese will cost somewhere between 2 and 5 times as much as an industrial cheese (that top end is for real rarities, and the occasional more expensive goat's cheese or very old Mimolette). It won't be as good. Is it worth making the economy?

How much do we spend on cheese every week? Fifteen euros perhaps, at most? So if we saved half of that, it would be seven euros a week. 364 euros a year. The cost of a decent long weekend away.

Actually, I think real cheese is worth that much. Although, perhaps, not to cook with; for that I do use industrial cheese.

Artisanal versus Fermier

I've often seen the labels 'artisanal' and 'fermier' on French cheeses, and I suppose like many English consumers thought vaguely that they guaranteed 'authentic' production, and never given it much more thought. In fact, the two labels mean very different things.

'Fermier' is made of milk from a single farm, and the cheese has to be made on the same farm. Obviously, no farmer-cheesemaker is ever going to produce a huge quantity of cheese, so these are cheeses made on a small scale, and if you're after the taste of the terroir, fermier cheeses surely deliver.

'Artisanal' is generally made by small units, up to 10 employees, but the milk can be bought in from any dairy farm. Most often, artisanal producers use cheese from local farms, and sometimes work closely with local farmers. So the link with the terroir is not broken, but it's a bit looser than with fermier cheeses.

The stinky cheese trick

I love a strong cheese, but the problem is that sometimes, with time they develop to become just too strong, almost burning your tongue. Then, a lot of people are tempted to throw them away.

However, there's a little trick I've been taught by my Ugly Frog (that is, my significant other, who still has to turn into a prince). Simply use an equivalent amount of butter - and miraculously, the strength of the cheese seems to disappear while the other flavours remain.

I have a number of recipes for potted cheese which take a strong cheese such as Stilton and mix it with butter, and I've always thought they were just there to make a more spreadable cheese. But now I'm wondering if they are English ways of achieving the same result - moderating the raw power of an older cheese while retaining the most of the flavour?

Friday, 8 July 2011

Why I'm writing this blog

One of my other loves in life, besides cheese (and cats, and Iain Banks, and baroque music) is beer. And a while back, I found myself in a pub in Norwich (a fine city, if you didn't already know), talking about beer, and then talking about food, and one thing led to another. Whether pasta should be al dente or cooked all the way. Favourite tapas and whether patatas bravas need one or two spoonfuls of paprika. Kettle crisps versus pork scratchings. Norfolk dapple - a mature local cheese, ripe and crumbly. And then...

"French cheese," I said. "I miss it when I'm over here."

"Norfolk Dapple is just as good as French cheese."

"Well... yes... but there's only one of it."


"There's only one Norfolk Dapple." (This could so easily have led to a football chant... I'm glad it didn't.)

"Oh yes," one of my friends put in enthusiastically. "There are so many kinds of French cheese... Camembert, Brie, Roquefort, Chaumes, Gruyere, Emmenthal, er...."

That was six - and one of them was actually Swiss, but I wasn't quibbling. But, I said, there were many more.

"Go on then, how many can you name?"

I do like a challenge. So off the top of my head:
Roquefort, Issau-Iraty, Pavé de l'Aa, Maroilles, Saint-Nectaire, Vacherin Mont d'Or, Feuille de Dreux, Selles-sur-Cher, Comté, Cantal, Salers, Fourme d'Ambert, Brie de Meaux, Brie de Melun (ha, didn't know there were two kinds, did you?) - Livarot, Pont l'Eveque, Munster, Mimolette, Vieux Lille, Morbier, Neufchatel, Crottin de Chavignol, Chabichou, Picodon, Brocciu...

Now it was getting harder.

The-one-a-local-farm-makes-with-raisins-pressed-into-the-cheese doesn't really count. Epoisses. Caprice des Dieux, but arguably that doesn't count because it's a commercial brand, not a local cheese. Tomme de Savoie, Reblochon, Rocamadour.... Okay, I was running down now, and I was forgetting which cheeses I'd had already. But that was 29 cheeses. And I had a new pint of Crouch Vale Brewers' Gold sitting in front of me demanding my urgent attention. So that was enough.

I wondered, though; despite the fact that the British know the simple equation,


how many French cheeses can most Brits identify? I was surprised how few it was. Even quite foodie friends managed relatively few, with the exception of a couple of people who have families in France - and you could actually tell where their family lived, without asking, by the cheeses that were on their list. (Germany famously has its Weisswurstequator, a line diving the Bratwurst-eating north from the Weisswurst-eating south. I think there's a similar méridien de chèvre in France - cow's milk cheese to the north, goat's milk cheese to the south).

The same few cheeses came up again and again; Camembert, Brie, Roquefort. And despite the fact that 90% of all Brits think French cheese is 'stinky', not a single one of the really stinky suspects - Epoisses, Vieux Lille, Livarot - was mentioned.

And no one had even heard of Selles sur Cher, which is one of my favourites (partly because of the shadowy little grocer's shop on the outskirts of Blois where we bought it on holiday, one cheese every morning, from the tiny glass-topped box in front of the cash till where the cheeses were marshalled in line, six in each rank, and you could see exactly how many had sold so far that day).

It wasn't till a couple of weeks later that I realised I was getting dangerously obsessed with the whole question of cheese. And that I wasn't at all worried about that fact.

So I've decided to treat myself to an expedition into the wilds of French cheese. Tasting it, visiting French cheesemakers and farmers, and finding out what's really going on (culturally, biologically, taste-wise) when the Stinking Bishop hits the fan.

246 different kinds of cheese

Famously, de Gaulle asked: Comment voulez-vous gouverner un pays qui a deux cent quarante-six variétés de fromage? (How can you rule a country hat has 246 kinds of cheese?)

France isn't the only country to make cheese. But it's the only country that seems to have made a religion out of it.

Cheese is part of the national consciousness. Like wine, cheese is all about terroir - locality, the particular characteristics that go to make up the identity of a place. Like wine, it celebrates both the values of France - the hexagone, to which Paris and the French language as laid down by the Académie Française are central - and the values of the locality, which include the interwoven linguistic strands of Occitan, Breton, Basque, and Picard, which are limestone or granite or chalk or silt, the hedged patchwork of bocage or the huge open fields of Beauce.

Look at the cheese and you can almost see the landscape. The Provençal cheese, Banon, is wrapped in chestnut leaves; one of our local cheeses, Feuille de Dreux, has a single chestnut leaf laid on top of the cheese. Mont d'Or, on the other hand, is wrapped in spruce bark which gives it a resiny fragrance cutting through the rich creaminess of the cheese, redolent of the high pastures where the milk is produced. This is not cheese with pretty cows on the wrapper produced in a big factory from tankers of milk-from-anywhere; nor is it the bright idea of a young cheesemaker or a tasting panel or an advertising agency, like the much despised Lymeswold; it is cheese that's earthed, grounded, inseparable from its terroir.

And like wine, cheese has its regulations; Appellations d'Origine Contrôlée which stipulate not only where the cheese comes from, but how it is made. For instance Epoisses curd must be roughly cut, not broken. For Roquefort, the sheep which give the milk must be pastured in a designated area of Aveyron, and if they are given fodder or grain, at least three-quarters of it must come from that same area; the milk must not be filtered, or heated above 34 degrees centrigrade; and the salting process must use only dry salt, not brine (a requirement which the cheese shares with Epoisses).

Also like wine, cheese can be 'slow food' - just as a good Bordeaux needs to be kept in the cellar for years to mature, a good Vieille Mimolette will be matured for eighteen months till it's translucent and almost without moisture, so each slice is like a pane of parchment. Cabecou, like many other goat's milk cheeses, comes with a choice of fresh or aged - the aged version with a decidedly different taste given by the mould that grows on its crust.

I'm not at all sure de Gaulle doesn't need updating. When I look at the cheese stalls at our local market in Ezy sur Eure, I think 246 is actually too low a number. Since Roquefort gained its AOC in 1925, another 40 cheeses have received this accolade - and that's only the premier cru of cheeses. There are many more local cheeses, like Feuille de Dreux, that don't have AOC but are part and parcel of French life, at least in their particular area.

A country with 246 types of cheese cannot be governed, perhaps; but it can be tasted. Which is what I'm now setting out to do.