Friday, 8 July 2011

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.

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