In France, the celebrated French love affair with cheese will in due course infuse the atmosphere of an expatriate’s everyday life. As a matter of fact, a French cheese tray is a permanent fixture in home meal gatherings and restaurants. It is usually served after the main course and before dessert.
The author John Baxter, reveals a well-known narrative in his book “The Perfect Meal:” once, the legendary French general, Charles de Gaulle, while rejecting the idea of France being ruled solely by the communist party, made the following statement: “How can any one party govern a nation that has two hundred and forty-six different kinds of cheeses?” In reality, food and nutrition data chronicle that the variety of French cheeses seem to run between 350 and 400. Still, some of my dear French friends love to say that: “There are 365 type cheeses in France: one for each day of the year!”
Whenever I visit a new region in France, I make a point to try one of their local cheeses. Apparently the commanding general and emperor of France, Napoléon Bonaparte, followed the same practice. In Burgundy, after learning to bypass the robust whiff of local cheeses, I fell in love with Époisses a cheese referred as the “king of all cheeses” and one of Napoléon’s favorites. Historically, these cheeses were often produced in monasteries. Hence, it was our “friends,” the Cistercian monks of Citeaux who started the Époisses’ production in the 16th century and later handed the recipe to local families. Thenceforth, between Dijon and Auxerre at the village of Époise, this recipe has been followed whilst creating a most delightful orange/yellow rind cheese washed in marc de Bourgogne and that has a delicious ivory creamy center with rich and uniform taste. It sells inside a charming wooden box and it goes well with Burgundy’s red wines.
In the Loire valley, I tasted an exquisite goat cheese called Valençay. By tradition, the cheeses of the Loire Valley use ash as a coating. The bluish-gray rind on the Valençay is no exception. This cheese used to be molded in a perfectly shaped pyramid. However, a local anecdote describes that when Napoléon returned from his unsuccessful campaigns in Egypt, he stopped at the chateaux of Valençay. When he was served this cheese, he was overcome with indignation by its pyramid silhouette, and so, he chopped off the tip of the pyramid. As result, the cheese has kept this cut-off-tip shape ever since. Still, Napoléon continued to love this cheese as I do because its taste is slightly citric and it pairs superbly with Valençay Blanc (white) wine also from the Loire region. Another favorite cheese endorsed by Napoléon and Charles de Gaulle is the Mimolette from Lille area, Nord-Pas-de-Calais. This is a very interesting looking cheese. It has the form of a ripe cantaloupe with a wrinkly crust on the outside and a bright ripe orange color in the inside. Its distinct taste is similar to the Dutch Edam. A familiar historical account conveys that in the 17th century, Louis XIV, the Sun King, loved the taste of Edam yet he could not tolerate that it was produced in the Netherlands. Thus, he banned Edam from France and besieged his loyal cheese artisans to create the Mimolette. Since then, this new creation has a distinctively stouter appetizing taste plus it looks dashing on a cheese tray while pairing remarkably well with a Bordeaux red.
One of my favorite’s weekend retreats year-round is the region of Franche-Comté. On the ancient salt-trade route, I have routinely visited the quaint Nans-sous-Sainte-Anne village in the department of Doubs. This rural community clings to the widely forested woodlands in the Jura Mountains, a mountain range spreading predominantly from France to Switzerland whilst infiltrating Germany at a lower altitude. The village is idyllic and reserved for countryside lovers while generously offering health-boosting attributes like fresh air, tranquility and beauty just as the visitor’s senses are stimulated to a renewed vitality. Reasonably priced, private and comfortable loft style apartments can be found at “La Maison Rose” at 11 rue du Château. These facilities present panoramic views of the hillside and cliffs. Another charming place in town is the “Residence de Vaux,” at 29 Grande Rue, an elegant bed & breakfast with period’s rooms and fresh baked breakfast. Both are excellent based locations to explore the region’s attractions such as: the source of the River Lison (about 20 minutes from the city center) where you will find the cavern of its emerging birth even as the river cascades through a deep wooded gorge. Well-marked hiking routes provide for a spectacular experience. On the other side of the village, up in the cliffs lies another equally beautiful source of water: the River Verneau with its own waterfalls and nature trails. Also along the cliffs is a fixed climbing route, the Via Ferrata, a rather popular route with climbers. At Nans-sous-Sainte-Anne there is also opportunity during spring, summer and autumn for: horseback riding, canoeing, cycling, climbing, fishing, hiking, hang and para-gliding. In the winter not very far from the city center, one can cross-country ski and for downhill skiing leisure pursuits, the ski trails of Métabief are less than one hour away. Other cultural centers nearby is the vilage of Arbois home of renown scientist Louis Pasteur. You can visit his home and museum where the early experiments of pasteurization were performed on the wines of his own vineyard. Another interesting town is Ornans, where the river Loue runs through it and it is also the home of the French realist painter Gustave Courbet. His riverside home in Ornans is a delightful place to visit. Also, Nans (for short) is within a few hours from Geneva, Lausanne, Strasburg and even the Black Forest in Germany.
Once my friends invited me to a Franche-Comté fondue party in Nans-sous-Sainte-Anne. Subsequently, my visit to the Jura Mountains became a deliberate commission bolstering my quest to learn about French cheeses. For many centuries the Jura Massif’s cheese dairies known as fromageries or fruitières have produced one of the most popular cheeses in France: Comté. You can easily plan a visit to these fromageries and fruitières in the region. In Nans’ city center, there is such a facility where you can view the production of Comté (usually early in the morning). The cheese is produced exclusively from the milk of Montbéliarde and French Simmental breeds of cattle, grazing at no less than 400 meters of altitude. The Comté is a related to the Swiss Gruyère and is predictably aromatic with an array of subtle tastes such as the “fruitè” Comté which is more elastic to “salé” Comté more brittle. After production, these cheeses are taken to climate-controlled maturing cellars to age for at least 4 to 18 months. Certainly, this intricate process create a delicious cheese loved by chefs and gourmands all over the world. Comté also pairs perfectly with a vine from the Massif du Jura: the regional Vin Jaune (yellow wine). This wine made from Savagnin grapes has a distinct nutty bouquet, with hints of almonds, citrus, salt and even anise and like the Comté cheese it is also aged in cellars in the Jura region.
Another superb unpasteurized cheese from the Haute-Doubs, Franche-Comté region is: Mont d’Or. This cheese was created in the 18th century to make use of the Autumn-Winter milk. As such, Mont d’Or cheeses are usually produced from the 15th of August to 15th of March and sold during September 10th to May 10th. This type of cheese is also exclusively obtained from grass and hay-fed Montbéliarde cows grazing at no less than 700 meters above sea level. Hence, when spending time in the region, a visitor will be able to observe these marvelous animals going through town and making their ascent into the hills… and it is beautiful! Mont d’Or, quickly climbed to my list of beloved cheeses due to its creamy texture, Epicea pine tree scent and its yellow undulated rind, sold in a round wood resinous box. It can be baked with cloves of garlic thus creating a superb first course. Once again, I recommend pairing this fine cheese with the Vin Jaune of Jura and equally established products of the region.
Traveling throughout distinctive provinces in France and learning about local cheeses can be a pleasurable task. Since an impeccable French meal with all of its many courses cannot be complete without the cheese platter, it is a worthwhile activity to discover how a traditional cheese tray should be displayed. The tray should present and assortment of types of cheeses, consistencies, color, aroma, milk origin (cow, goat, ewe), and firmness. Depending on the season it should also include side options such as: dried fruits, fresh fruits like figs and grapes, nuts, sliced baguette, honey, dried meats, smoked sausages, Dijon mustard and local sauces. Last but not least, pairing your handiwork with favorite regional wines… voilà… a splendid cheese presentation will take center stage and delight your guests!