Monday, January 01, 2007

Cheese junkies


Well…it’s official. France is a nation of junk food guzzlers and has been for hundreds of years – at least according to Ofcom in the UK (Office of Communications). They want to ban the television advertising of junk food at times when children might be watching. They mean well, bless ‘em…but by using the Food Standards Association’s tables listing fat and salt content, they come up with cheese as one of the chief culprits. What am I going to do now?

General de Gaulle famously said that nobody could govern a country that had two-hundred and fifty-eight different cheeses. Actually, there are about a thousand if you count the locally-made ones and it is one of my life’s ambitions to taste all of them. Here are just a few to whet your appetite – although they are merely the thin edge of the wedge...

Camembert is undoubtedly the most famous French cheese. The story goes that, in the eighteenth century, a dairymaid called Marie Harel helped hide a priest who was running from the terrors of the Revolution and to thank her, the priest gave her his secret recipe for cheese. Marie began to make the round creamy cheese we know today and when her grandson offered some to Napoleon III who was visiting the area, it really took off. In 1890, a certain Ridel invented a wooden box to facilitate transport and inadvertently created a new hobby: tyrosemiophilia. This may sound like a weird sexual fetish but it is simply the collecting of cheese labels and there is a national club to prove it. I don’t personally know any tyrosemiophiles but I am sure they are very nice people.



Somewhere on the desolate craggy rock-strewn plateaus known as les causses, in southern France, roquefort cheese was born. Legend has it that a young shepherd, bored and probably desperate, spotted a shepherdess in the distance. Leaving his lunch of bread and curd cheese in a cave and recklessly abandoning his flock, he chased after her. She must have played hard to get because he didn’t come back until two months later and feeling a bit peckish (and who wouldn’t be?) he went to find his lunch. The bread had gone mouldy and so had the cheese but he ate it anyway, because he was that sort of bloke. Surprisingly, it was delicious: the king of cheeses had made its debut. Charlemagne was a great fan of roquefort as was Rabelais and Voltaire. Casanova claimed it “restored love and brought to maturity a budding passion”, if you see what he means…

We have our own blue cheese here in the Vercors, known as Bleu de Vercors-Sassenage, made from cow’s milk. There is a festival dedicated to it every summer. Unfortunately, my children refuse to eat it ever since we stopped off at a local farm to buy a piece and were served by a disgruntled farmer who’d obviously been mending his tractor when we interrupted him. They wouldn’t touch it, even after I’d scraped off the axle grease.

The majority of goats’ milk cheese – of which there are over a hundred varieties - is found south of the Loire where the rugged landscape and the relative lack of vegetation makes it difficult to keep cows. Goats, of course, will climb anywhere and eat anything. One of the most famous goats’ cheeses is the Crottin de Chavignol. The word ‘crottin’ means horse dung but this has more to do with the shape and colour than the taste – although it does pong a bit. From Provence comes the Banon – a small, round cheese wrapped in chestnut leaves and tied with raffia – and from the region Rhône-Alpes, the Picodon (meaning ‘small’). The cheeses come in various shapes with picturesque names such as palet (puck), pyramide, bûche (log) and bonde (plug) and they are all delicious.

Of course, if you like cheese, the Alps is the place to be. What can be better on a winter’s evening than a fondue savoyarde: melted cheese, wine, cognac and spices bubbling in a pot into which you dip pieces of bread? Or raclette – melted cheese poured on to potatoes and cold meats – or tartiflette, a dish of potatoes, smoked bacon, onions, cream and cheese? Of course, these meals are designed for hardy outdoor types who need that sort of sustenance after a day’s log-chopping or goat herding and not pasty lily-livered bookworms like me. No wonder I’ve put on weight.

I also like British cheese but the French think I’m joking when I admit this. For them, there is only one British cheese: a bright orange, tasteless piece of rubber called Chester. Most people don’t realise that Chester is a French cheese made in the Tarn and that no self-respecting British sandwich would give it the time of day. They prefer to see it as proof of the insipidity of our food. Perhaps this is a cunning strategy designed to safeguard their reputation but even if it is, it’s no big deal or - as the French say - “Il n’y a pas de quoi faire un fromage…”

4 comments:

blueVicar said...

Yum! What a great profile of cheeses! I sincerely hope that you achieve your goal of tasting every single cheese in France...such a glorious ambition. Hopefully you've had your only one served with axle grease! What's wrong with kids these days????

Thank you for such a tasty nibble...

Meilleurs voeux!!

angela said...

Hi,
Tartiflette!! Love it but today's day 1 of the diet.
thanks for calling by.
I love your blog or what I've seen of it. In a rush now but will be back.
Angela

Gigi said...

Well, I'm caught between achieving my goal of tasting every cheese and achieving my goal of losing weight. This is day one of the diet - I got my goals mixed up yesterday and went for the cheese instead! Thanks for stopping by...

French Cheese Lover said...

I would like to insert my "five cents" to the topic! :) There is a wonderful article I recently read about French cheeses. I just loved it, check for yourself!