In search of French cheese at the source - and without guilt!
In France, cheese is a pillar of civilization. There are between 250 and 1,200 different sorts (depending on what you allow as ‘a different sort of cheese‘). It’s a regional, as well as, a national symbol of French pride!
I worry that my obsession with cheese will kill me, but cheese as it turns out, plays a pivotal role in protecting arteries. The high calcium in cheese helps your bones and helps eliminate certain harmful fatty acids. This process works even better when fiber-rich bread is present. Add a little French wine and it’s positive effects on cholesterol, and wow, you have a powerful TRIO at work for you!
Also, French cheeses are especially high in cancer-fighting CLA (Conjugated linoleic acid). According to surveys, CLA levels in French cheese ranged from 5.3 to 15.8 mg/g of fat. American cheese from conventional dairies has half this amount, with levels ranging from 2.9 to 7.1. The reason? American dairies typically raise their cows in confinement and feed them a grain-based diet. French dairies are more likely to raise their cows at pasture, resulting in naturally high levels of CLA.
Truth is, with so much of our food now dropping off conveyor belts, and facing strident hygiene demands that every last drop of milk be pasteurized in the interests of worldwide neatness, it’s good to know that some Frenchmen and farmers still value distinctiveness and aromas that produce authentic cheese they have been eating safely for generations.
There is nothing like facing a grand cheese board to make me salivate... I still get palpitations envisioning the one at Moulin de Lourmarin. But it’s good to visit the cheeses at the source, too, to get to grips with the subject properly. The farmers need all the allies they can get in the battle against industrial dairy plastic. And the bonus is, they can to be found in some of the greenest, tranquil and loveliest bits of France.
Our road trip begins in Normandy’s lush, hedged, undulating, speckled with apple trees and half-timbered farmsteads: if you were a cow, Normandy is almost certainly where you’d choose to graze away your days. Camembert’s name is in the public domain. It can be made anywhere like Finland, New Zea-land, or Ohio. But the real thing must be made using untreated milk in one of the five Norman counties --
Camembert Le Chatelain was first created in 1791 by Marie Harel. During the French Revolution, a recalcitrant priest from Brie (the village, not the cheese) arrived at the Manor of Beaumoncel in the village of Camembert and was hidden there by Marie Harel, a farmer. Following the direction of this priest, she created Camembert. The recipe was such a success that she and her children and grandchildren continued the family tradition.
It is succulent, ripe, rich and creamy. Excellent served with light reds from the Loire Valley or Champagne, But in Normandy this cheese is paired with an apple liqueur called Calvados. Apples, Camembert and Normandy are inextricable! Norman dairy farms are peppered with apple trees that protect the rich soil. In fact, some people claim to be able to taste a hint of apple beneath the creamy suppleness of fresh Camembert. My favorite Camembert over hot oysters.
Driving south to Ile-de-France, skirt Paris and head 60 miles to the east to the town of Meaux - this is the heart of Brie territory! The existence of Brie Cheese was found in the chronicles of Charlemagne. At that time, the Emperor in power, had a taste of the now-famous cheese in the city of Brie around the year 774 BC. And here's another fascinating tidbit about Brie cheese... Louis XVI’s last and dying wish was supposedly to have a final taste of Brie.
Sometimes called the “Queen of Cheeses,” Brie is a delicious dessert cheese, usually served at room temperature or even slightly warmed. It has a distinctive rich, creamy flavor which is deliciously mild and complements fruit. True Brie must be made from unpasteurized milk, and is therefore unavailable in the United States, where the US Department of Agriculture prohibits raw milk cheese under 60 days old. Brie de Meaux and Brie de Melun both have protected origin designations, and can only be made in France. These cheeses have been protected since the 1980s, and are still made in the traditional way from raw milk, usually aged approximately four weeks.
Interestingly, America’s love affair with Brie started in 1936 when the company imported this delicacy in the United States for the first time, on the ocean liner named Ile de France.
Heading south of Lyon we choose two wonderful formageries - one between Semur-en-Auxois and Chaillon-sur-Seine, here Caroline and Alain Bartkowiez will welcome you to their Ferme des Marronniers, Origny-sur-Seine, Again they use only raw milk to craft their cheese. Or on the route just south of Dijon, the Fromagerie Gaugry in Brochon this is a family-run large dairy with free visits whenever the shop is open. On Saturday mornings, there's a guided visit with cheese and wine tasting at 9am.
Some may say that Epoisses has a “sometimes-intrusive character.” This is like saying that a sledgehammer to the face might “occasionally be distracting“. Truth is a well-aged Epoisses can clear a room. The taste is more subtle and creamy than the nostrils are suggesting. This is a Burgundy cheese, washed during ripening with high-proof Marc de Bourgogne spirit. “The king of cheeses," as pronounced by the French gastronome Brillat-Savarin. But he also said: “A meal without cheese is like a beautiful woman who’s missing an eye.“ Epoisses is so stinky that it is banned on public transportation in France, a country usually tolerant of such aromas. The texture can be runny enough to eat with a spoon. Because it is so soft, it is shipped in a wooden box. Serve hot in a salad accompanied by a subtle red wine: a Gevrey-Chambertin village. Recipes can be found at //www.fromagerie-berthaut.com/