Back in my American childhood, cheese was either Swiss or Parmesan. Occasionally Cheddar, an American one... and not a particularly sharp one at that. Those were about all my largely Germanesque ancestors had passed down in their cheese genes. (There was no such thing as “string cheese” back then, and I’m still not sure why there is now, other than to encourage calcium-needy children to eat cheese by turning it into a plaything.)
So when I moved to France almost fresh out of college, a huge learning experience was awaiting me.
|Roqueforts in back, goat cheeses in front|
The tale behind “How Roquefort Came To Be” involves some random shepherd leaving his feckless ewe’s milk cheese behind in a cave in southwest France while he ran off after a lovely maiden. Months later he passed by that way again, took refuge in that same cave and discovered his forgotten cheese had become veined with blue. (At this point, a doctor might tell you that was nature’s version of penicillin: penicillium roqueforti.) Being hungry, he overcame his instinct for preservation, tasted it, and... voilà! Whether true or not, that’s the story they've told in the region since the 11th century. Maybe even before, but just not in writing.
Now that cheese has somewhat come into its own in certain American culinary circles, I’m being asked what goes into a Proper Cheese Board. (It’s assumed I should know, after all these years in France.)
|Left to right: two roqueforts, bleu des Causse,|
bleu d'Auvergne, forme d'Ambert
|Morbier, from Franche-Comté|
with ash in the middle
So I decided to put it to a vote when I went to get my hair cut today. I asked the hairdresser - and the three ladies waiting to be made beautiful. All four women were in agreement: five cheeses to a cheese board. A blue cheese was a must, and a goat’s cheese. Then a pâte molle, a pâte pressé.... and then any other one you like.
|Camembert King Charles VII|
A few other details:
|Basque cheese with piment d'espelette|
- If you’ve put your cheeses in the refrigerator, always, always get them out at least half an hour in advance. For instance, when you start your meal. Otherwise their flavor won’t come shining through.
- You can serve a side salad at the same time as the cheese tray, provided it’s only a salad of lettuce and not a mixed salad. And provided the salad dressing is just a vinaigrette. The idea is to cleanse the palate a bit.
|St. Nectaire, from Auvergne|
- On the serving board, set out a different knife for each cheese, as mixing tastes is a strict Gallic no-no, at least while using the communal knives. If the French authorities find out you’ve let a goat cheese intermingle with a brie or a roquefort, they may revoke your visa.
|Clockwise from top: forme d'Ambert, basque au piment d'espelette,|
chèvre aux herbes, chèvre châtaigne, trou du cru, brie, emmenthal
Now that you know all this, I’d like to suggest you just go out and have fun with it. I won’t report you to the Cheese Police. I promise. Besides, General de Gaulle himself lamented, “How can you rule a country with 258 different cheeses?”
|Statue of De Gaulle outside the Grand Palais|
P.S. DeGaulle was well below the actual number of cheeses that exist. If you think you know your cheese and want to test your knowledge, or just learn more, here’s an internet game for you:
Note: “Pongy” is an adjective I learned from my British friends, and I like the way it sounds. It means “something that smells particularly pungent”, which pretty much covers some of the... er... riper cheeses I’ve met.
|Even in this small shop of products from Auvergne,|
there are a dozen or so cheeses of the region to choose from.