Thursday, 26 November 2015

The experience of French cheese shopping

A lovely post on the Chocolate and Zucchini food blog which I follow takes us through the experience of buying cheese in a Paris fromagerie, and how to make the most of what's available.

I was particularly glad to see section three - 'seasonality'. (Plus a French translation for "What's good right now?")

That's an important aspect of the world of French cheese that those who haven't lived in France often miss. And thereby hangs a tale...

Every year, there's a moment in Autumn that I look forward to the way others look forward to the announcement that "Le Beaujolais nouveau est arrivé". It's the arrival of the Mont d'Or cheese in its little wooden box, puffed up in its box almost like a soufflé and with its soft slightly yellowing brown to orange crust looking almost as if it has been scattered with powdery snow.

The first time my knife sinks into the cheese. Will it be oozing and melting, or slightly firm, this time? Waiting for the first sniff of cream and lemons and slight gaminess and that tinge of pine that comes from the bark wrapping. Waiting for that unctuous feeling in the mouth, the way the cheese melts on the tongue, sticky for a moment, and then flowing, and then, too soon, gone and leaving only that piny savour behind it.

It's amazing that a cheese can be so creamy and yet so fresh. It's amazing that such a large cheese is gone so quickly...

And it's amazing that we seem already to have collected a half dozen of the little round boxes, which I have no idea at all what to do with.

Monday, 14 September 2015

Cheese in supermarkets

Normally I'd wax lyrical about the delights of buying cheese from a pungent stall on a French market, or from specialists like the delightful people at Truckle Cheese who made my day at GBBF with a superb platter and friendly chat (and really excellent chutney).

But let's be realistic; most people do most of their shopping at a supermarket. Nowadays thank goodness that needn't mean ten kinds of plastic supermarket 'cheddar' and a double Gloucester that tastes like cheddar with orange colouring added.

It could mean Waitrose, which has just won the Bel Trophy at the International Cheese Awards. That's given to the retailer getting the most awards for its own line of cheeses - Waitrose for instance won classes with its farmhouse cheddar, goat's milk gouda, and Cropwell Bishop white stilton - and also for a blue vein French cheese, Lancashire, Parmesan and Gruyere.

Why Waitrose?
  • Waitrose is willing to work with smaller producers and to bring more interesting cheeses into the line-up.
  • Waitrose has quite a 'foodie' customer base. Some other supermarkets might find that goat's cheese, for instance, doesn't sell particularly well.
  • Being cynical about the way the awards system stacks up, Waitrose therefore has a great chance of winning classes for slightly unusual cheeses while Asda, perhaps, doesn't. (I shouldn't be too cynical: to win the highly competitive Farmhouse Cheddar class is not easy for anyone. And 26 awards from 77 categories is rather striking. By comparison, M&S got a bare handful of trophies.)
  • Waitrose also has a brand that is seen as a mark of quality. A cheese producer who might be a bit sniffy about working with Asda will be happy to collaborate with Waitrose.
But it's worth noting that Waitrose wasn't the only retailer to win awards.  Asda got two - cheddar cheese retailer of the year and healthy cheese retailer of the year - while Morrisons won the cheese board retailer trophy, and the Co-Op won speciality cheese retailer.  And Tesco romped home in quite a few classes, with a really good haul of trophies for individual cheeses.

Only one major chain was conspicuously absent from the awards. Sainsbury's won nothing. It got a single silver ("Any other blue vein cheese - produced outside UK") and a very highly commended. It's not obvious what's going on there, but I think I shall be steering clear of their products.

Now then, what's wrong with the awards? Well, obviously, they do nothing for the independent retailer. It's a pity - because they do support independent producers. It's a real pity there's not a class for small shops, though it might be difficult to tuck into the existing format.

In the meantime, it's nice to see that the quality of supermarket cheese is being inspected, assessed, and, one hopes, improved.

Thursday, 30 July 2015

Why I love Neufchatel

Or rather, why I ♥ Neufchatel.
Photo by Myrabella on Wikipedia

It's the cutest cheese in any French market. It's made in little heart-shaped moulds. (Wikipedia says it's sometimes made in other shapes, but I've never seen them.) There is no other cheese you could actually buy as a romantic Valentine's Day present.

I expected it to be a creamy, oozing sort of cheese like a Brie or Camembert - it's another of the great Norman cheeses, along with Camembert, Livarot, and Pont-l'Eveque - but it's quite firm and chalky in texture. On the outside, it has a lovely soft rind, like white velvet - softer than Camembert; it's almost like the powdery texture of butterflies' wings. Wonderful.

As for the taste, it doesn't have the ammonia that spoils Camembert for me, but it has a combination of mushroomy flavour with a slightly lemony acid edge that makes it quite sharp. The heart might suggest a very sweet creamy and perhaps inoffensive cheese - but it's got a lot more character than that, though you couldn't call it a wolf in sheep's clothing. (A nanny goat in sheep's clothing, perhaps.)

It's beautifully spreadable - or rather, flattenable, because this isn't a cheese that's fluid, like a melting, oozing Brie.

And if this wasn't enough to love it, it's also one of the oldest cheeses in France, going back to at least the eleventh century, and possibly earlier. A little taste of history, in the shape of a heart.

PS, for American readers: I'm told there's a kind of cream cheese in the US called Neufchatel. It's not the same at all.

Wednesday, 22 July 2015

Brousse - ricotta with attitude!

Brousse looks a little like a ricotta - a strikingly white, quite grainy soft cheese, which comes in a little pot, just the way it was formed out of the mould.
"Brousse" by Véronique PAGNIER - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons -

And it is a ricotta - a cheese made from the lactoserum, or whey as we'd say in English, that's left behind after the first chese has been made from a batch of milk.

But as you'd expect from a French cheese, it's got a bit of attitude. That's partly because it can be made from sheep's or goat's milk as well as cow's milk - depending on the location and type of cheese. There's even a single-variety Brousse, the Brousse du Rove, coming from the Rove race of goat, and made (unusually) with the milk rather than with the whey.

The Brousse I've been enjoying isn't a farm Brousse, it's just something we picked up in the supermarket. But it has that definite goaty edge. It comes over all creamy and fresh at first, with a slight citrus edge (very gentle, like a hint of lemon meringue), but then the goatier, stronger flavour kicks in, alongside the freshness. It all makes for a cheese which is light and refreshing, not mouth-clogging like a Brie, but which develops its taste in the mouth and deserves a slow appreciation.

Like fromage blanc, Brousse is often eaten with a little sugar. I like it with forest fruits - accompanied by the fruits, not mixed up with them - or on its own.