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.

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