Wednesday, May 22, 2013

It's the Cheese, Gromit!

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
     Of course I had progressed over my misspent youth to include Blue cheese in my dairy diet... or even Bleu (as some producers called it if they wanted to charge more).  But when I tasted my first real roquefort, it was an eye-opener!  Creamy, slightly tangier and certainly more salty than any blue-veined cheese I’d ever had before.
     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
     Well, you always have to have One Blue.  And in France alone, there are several blue cheeses other than roquefort to choose from.  (Fifteen, if you trust Wikipedia.)  One is fourme d’Ambert, which is round, drier and from the central Auvergne mountains, but made from cow’s milk.   There are also many different ones called bleu, all of different hues and veined with more or less penicillin.  The most well-known are bleu d’Auvergne and bleu des Causses, both of which are less creamy than roquefort, which remains the only blue cheese made from ewe’s milk.
Morbier, from Franche-Comté
with ash in the middle
     How many other cheeses do you need for a Proper Cheese Board?  Opinions vary.  The minimum is three, and that’s usually all you’d be expected to ask to taste in a restaurant if you’re polite.  But as there are four general types of cheese - aged, soft, firm and blue - another correct answer could be four, one of each.
     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
     Pâte molle means “soft center” (like chocolates) and indicates that the cheese has not be cooked.  Usually these are the Stinky Cheeses:  brie, camembert, munster, pont l’évêque, livarot, reblochon, maroilles... but also some goat cheeses.   Pâte pressée means the cheese has been pressed to remove the whey (cantal, saint-nectaire, port-salut, valençay, morbier...), and then some with a pâte pressée are heat-treated in addition (emmenthal, comté, gruyère...).

So much for creating the cheese board.  Now for eating it.  The trick is to enjoy them from the mildest to the strongest, so that none is overpowered by its pongier relative.  And that’s where things get dicey.  Best to just learn as you go, or get some discerning Frenchman to steer you in the right direction.  It takes a long time, this learning process, but it’s a delicious one.

A few other details:
Basque cheese with piment d'espelette
     - Basques make mostly pressed cheeses, all with totally unpronounceable names:  askorria, ossau-iraty, idiazabal...  They’re often ewe’s cheese and mild tasting.  Good for beginners.  The Basques often serve them with a black cherry preserve, or with a powdering of the spicy paprika of the region, 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
     - You don’t have to scrape the crust off.  It’s all edible, although the crust is usually stronger in flavor than the rest of the cheese and eating it just may separate the men from the boys for the pongier varieties.  A true Frenchman rarely, if ever, removes the crust.  (Sometimes I’ll cut off the hard, dry corners though, especially if the cheese has been in my fridge for a few days.)
     - 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.


  1. My first husband used to kneel in front of the dairy case and fervently declare, "Oh how I love cheeses!"

  2. great idea for a cheese Gromit ! thanks for sharing!
    Cake Stand & Cheese Board