A Journey Through the Land of Cheese

French cheeses: so many flavours, so many tastes and so many origins, from all around France. In order to get to know them better, there’s no better way than to take a trip through ‘France, the land of a thousand cheeses’. If you’re willing to set out on the journey, you’ll discover a rich palate of flavours and local specialities, the fruit of centuries of local tradition. Each new discovery along the way will bring with it delicious new tastes for you to enjoy and share with friends and family.

Nostalgia for Normandy

North of Rouen, not far from the Pays de Bray, you should stop off at Buchy, where the farmers’ market is in full swing in the village’s Medieval hall. Seek out one of the producers of artisan Neuchâtel, whose heart-shaped form is the stuff of French legend. It could well be that it owes its shape to the handiwork of love-struck maidens, who are said to have given the cheeses as gifts to English soldiers during the Hundred Years War. Moving on, head south to the Pays d’Auge, where cheeses like Camembert, Pont-l’Evêque, Livarot and Pavé d’Auge combine soft textures with potent aromas.

The cow that wears glasses

It wouldn’t be too far from the truth to credit the origins of Normandy’s Camembert to those wonderful cows with their patchwork hides of ivory, red and brown and their black-circled eyes rather than Marie Harel, the woman who is usually recognised as the cheese’s inventor. These cows spend their entire lives out on the rich pastures, even in the depths of winter. As a result, their milk is extremely rich and the cream thickens naturally in the cool temperature of the dairy.

Heading north from the Île-de-France

Although their origins lie close to the sophisticated city of Paris, the cheeses of the Parisian basin have a strong personality all of their own – a personality that expresses itself to an even greater degree as you travel north. If you don’t believe me, check out a Maroilles, a Rollot or a Gris de Lille – they’ll set you straight!

Even the classic wheel of Brie, all creamy and white, seems to take on richer nuances when you meet it on its own home turf.

Cheeses from the sticks

Soft-rind cheeses make way for washed-rind cheeses. Apart from the relatively subtle Mimolette, France’s northern cheeses have rich, strong aromas: Mariolles, Rollot, Boulette d’Avesnes and Gris de Lille.

Alsace and Franche-Comté

Alsace doesn’t have much in the way of variety when it comes to cheeses, but the cheese that it does have is worth its weight in gold. Munster, both young and aged, is made all along the wine route of Alsace – and what better match for it than a local Gewurztraminer? While it’s not necessarily the first match that might come to mind, the pairing will take you aback with its rich unctuousness.

As you travel further south you’ll reach Franche-Comté, a cheese-lover’s paradise. Here you’ll find a unique range of diverse cheeses: Carré de l’Est, Morbier, Vacherin-Mont-d’Or, Comté, Bleu de Gex Haut-Jura and Cancoillotte.

Don’t miss!

A visit to the region’s fruit-growers: you can visit fruit-growers right around the Comté appellation. You’ll find all the information you need on the website of the Comité Interprofessionnel du Fromage de Comté, http://www.comte.com.

While you’re in Alsace-Lorraine, make tracks for the Fête du Munster, which takes place on 12 and 13 September: you’ll hear traditional local music, taste the local food, watch competitions, get to see the local cows, some of which will be milked in the market square – and you can watch demonstrations of cheesemaking too. If you visit in May instead, you’ll be able to enjoy the town’s Jazz Festival.

Bourgogne, halfway between goat and cow

A land famed for both its ancient culture and its good living, Burgundy has many Benedictine and Cistercian abbeys. The heritage left by the monks that once lived there is one of rich sensory pleasure: world-famous cow’s milk cheeses whose washed-rind aromas lead you on a path that runs from the Côte d’Or to the Morvan: Epoisses, Abbaye-de-Cîteaux, Soumaintrain, Pierre-qui-Vire… These should be washed down, of course, with a well-chilled Chablis or Meursault. Further south, the climate becomes drier, so you’ll tend to find goat’s cheeses rather than those made with cow’s milk: Charolais, Mâconnais (otherwise known as Chevreton de Mâcon), Montrachet and Bouton de Culotte.

The king of cheeses (yet another claimant to the crown)

Epoisses is another contender for the crown of King Cheese, alongside Roquefort and Camembert. The recipe for this washed-rind cheese was originally devised by Cistercian monks, but these days it’s made by the region’s dairy farmers. The cheese is aged slowly and washed repeatedly in Marc de Bourgogne, a spirit distilled from the region’s grapes. Its famous orange colour is a by-product of this process and is entirely natural – as is its strong personality.

The Loire and Poitou-Charentes

As you head towards the Loire, your voyage of discovery becomes a gentle stroll. Sologne, Touraine and Berry are all areas with soils based on sand or sand and clay, areas where the climate is gentle and the beautiful countryside has been carefully managed. There are areas dedicated to the raising of herds of goats, and the subtlety and gentle character of the countryside is reflected in its cheeses: Chavignol, Valençay, Selles-sur-Cher and Pouligny-Saint-Pierre. They can all be enjoyed young or old – or at any stage in between. And, as you might expect, they’re at their best when teamed with the local wines: a white Sancerre or a Pouilly-Fumé.

Goat’s cheese is still the order of the day as you travel towards Poitou-Charentes, a countryside rich in open grasslands and chalky plateaux. This is home to, among others, Chabichou du Poitou. Tradition suggests that the local taste for cheese originated around the time the French king, Charles le Martel, defeated the Saracen hordes at Poitiers in the 8th century.

Find your soft spot

It is well worth getting to know Mottin (another cheese that ages well), another native of the Charentais. This little cow’s milk cheese has a gently aromatic rind, an incredibly creamy texture and a lively freshness on the palate. It’s produced in the same area as the world-famous butters of Échiré, Surgères and La Viette.

Rhône-Alpes: from Lyon to the high pastures

If you find yourself in Lyon, you simply must head straight for the Halles (the covered market) and a stall called ‘la mère Richard’, which supplies the three-Michelin-starred restaurant of Paul Bocuse. This is the place to taste the creamy Saint-Marcellin, in the little refreshment stand at the centre of the market – you might even want to sip a little glass of the local white, Condrieu, while you’re at it. The cheese is best eaten very ripe, so ripe that it will start to creep out towards the edge of your plate, but ripe as it gets, it never loses its gentle creaminess. It’s also well worth trying the stall’s blue cheeses: Bleu de Bresse, Fourme de Montbrison, Bleu du Vercors Sassenage and Picodon.

Meanwhile, high up on the slopes of the Alps, hard cheeses have long been part of life – they play a vital part in helping to sustain Alpine families over the long, hard winters. The Savoie region is a veritable cheese-lover’s paradise, with an astonishing array of cheeses: Beaufort, Abondance, Tamié, Tome des Bauges, Reblochon and Persillé des Aravis.

Looking for a present? Savoie is a great source of cheese, of course, but you can also buy a wonderful range of cheese knives from Opinel. The best come with wooden handles and stainless steel blades.

Real raclette

For a while now people have been able to buy special ‘Raclette cheese’, but the truth is that Abondance, a cheese based on two milks – early morning and early evening milk – is the real original Raclette cheese. Its gentle bitter taste makes it an ideal cheese for grilling. Try using it yourself: make your Raclette with Abondance (grilled over an open fire, if at all possible) – and don’t forget the gherkins!

Auvergne and Rouergue

If you steer yourself next towards the heart of France, you’ll hit the ‘cheese plateau’ of the Massif Central. Alexandre Vialatte, a writer and a native of the Auvergne, put it even better: ‘The Auvergne produces cheeses, ministers and volcanoes.’ Consider yourself warned. The countryside is one of striking contrasts: volcanic outcrops, lakes, mountain plateaus and rolling grasslands – it’s the ideal kind of region for producing a wide diversity of cheeses. Moulds dating back to the time of the Gauls have been found for cheeses like Cantal (hard cheese) and Fourmes (blue cheese). Head towards the market at Giat, in the Puy-de-Dôme region, on a cold, misty morning. There you’ll find that sales of Salers and Ferrandaises cows are sealed with a glass of wine and a couple of slices of cheese. On chilly mornings like these, there’s nothing better for you than a taste of Cantal, Fourme d’Ambert, Saint-Nectaire and even Gaperon. It’s all you need to set you up for the rest of the day, whether you’re a farmer or a traveller.

Visit some Alpine huts

The burons are semi-subterranean dairy farms perched on the slopes of the Plomb du Cantal. Although they are disappearing fast, some still exist. You can even visit a few of them during the warm summer months: the Grange de la Haute-Vallée or the burons of Prés-Marty and Souleyre. During your visit, you can learn all about the various stages involved in making Cantal cheese. Log on to bleucantal.free.fr.

Don’t miss!

The Auvergne’s cheese route will take you on a journey of discovery that takes in all the region’s most famous sights as well as its best cheeses.

The Pyrenees and the South-West

Track down the cheeses of the wild South-West: Cabécous aside, it’s in the Pyrenees that you’ll find your biggest haul. As ever in the mountains, the cheeses of this region are both large and age-worthy – all the better to keep you going through the long winter months. Mountains, forests and pastures give rise to cheeses like the tasty Tommes (in particular the Bethmale cheese), made from cow’s milk. But above all else, you’ll find extraordinary sheep’s milk cheeses, as well as Moulis, which can be made from the milk of goats, cows or sheep. These are cheeses that are packed with personality, cheeses that make you feel like you’re breathing in the pure air of the Pyrenean peaks, cheeses that are redolent of the sumptuous gastronomic traditions of the Basque country. When you’re eating them, you’ve really hit a high spot.

Don’t miss!

The international food photography festival at Oloron-Sainte-Marie: the competition for the best food photo prize is fought out between teams of chefs and photographers and takes place every year. There’s also a food market and a gastronomic festival in the town at the same time.

Provence, Languedoc and Corsica

You can almost smell the rich aromas of the southern cheeses before you reach the region. Goats and sheep graze among the garrigue and the forests of chestnut trees, clamber over rocky outcrops and roam the wide-open semi-desert spaces of the Drôme. As they go, they gorge themselves on richly perfumed plants and herbs: thyme, lavender, summer savory and rosemary. The warm, dry climate concentrates these aromatic essences even further. You sometimes even come across these herbs and plants as a garnish or even a flavouring in some of the local cheeses, such as the Banon, which comes wrapped in chestnut leaves, or the little goat’s cheeses decorated with leaves of myrtle or fern. The mainland offers treats such as the Pélardon des Cévennes, which can be enjoyed in its youth or as it matures – the cheeses are so small you can even try the whole age range in one sitting. Once you get to Corsica, you can choose between the creamy smoothness of fresh Brocciu or the richly perfumed mature cheeses, such as Brin-d’amour, Filetta, Niolo or Bleu de Corse.

Gift idea: While you’re visiting Corsica, if you happen to take a trip to the Île-Rousse, don’t forget to buy yourself a whole candied citron. If you chop it up into small pieces, it’s delicious sprinkled over a young Brocciu.

Don’t miss!

Calvi, in mid-September: the festival of polyphonic folk singing, where you can hear choirs of polyphonic singers from around the world, including Inuit tribespeople.

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2 Responses to “A Journey Through the Land of Cheese”

  1. Wax Says:

    In North, they’re Mont-des-Cats and Ecume de Wimereux too. Even if their aromas aren’t really strong, they’re tasty !

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