April 20, 2006

French cheeses: A few pieces of advice on how to buy and serve them

Stéphane, When I arrived in Chicago from Paris in January of 1970, it was a very provincial, unsophisticated ''meat and potatoes'' type of town as far as food and wines are concerned. It took me a few months to find relatively adequate sources of wines, but more than two years after moving to Evanston, IL, I still had lots of problems to find decent basic cheeses. When we had French visitors for dinner, or American guests who were well-traveled and appreciated good 4 course meals, European style, I had a hard time to find the 5 basic French cheeses that I like to present on a cheese-tray, before deserts. I was lucky if Dominick's and later Treasure Islands, the only two local chains of supermarkets that sold non-American cheese, had some not too old or over-refrigerated Brie, Roquefort, Port-Salut, Swiss Gruyère, and some kind of goat cheese, most of the time a too hard and crumbling imitation Montrachet. ''Stop & Shop'', the only ''gourmet'' food shop in the Loop, downtown Chicago, had sometimes relatively fresh French Brie or Camembert, and decent non-prepacked Roquefort, but their prices were out of my league. So I had to content myself for a long time with Danish camembert in aluminum cans, Dutch Gouda, Wisconsin sharp Cheddar, American blue cheese, or later an O.K camembert produced by a small cheese producer from Lena, Illinois: Kolb. All of them were tightly wrapped and there was no packing or expiration dates. Everything changed in the mid-eighties when Chicago was placed on the international map with the arrival of many foreign banks, trade institutions and subsidiaries of European companies. They sent executives and employees from Europe with their families to work and live over here. And many of them wanted to find locally the types of food products they were used to buy and eat in their native countries. During the same period, American people started to travel more often to Europe, became less shy about experimenting with various types of French food that their parents would have never touched, discovered the joys of drinking wine with their meals, and came back to Chicago with much more sophisticated palates. At the same time Chicago became a big international air-freight hub, and a major distribution center for imported food and wine products. Not as big as New-York but more than adequate. A local market for imported food products, along with an enormous development of French, Italian, and other Mediteranean restaurants started to expand rapidly. Wine stores, like ''The Chalet'' (which became Gold Standard, and later Binny's), Sam's and many others including smaller ''boutique'' shops like Schaeffer's in Skokie, progressively widened the scope of the wines they were selling and in the early nineties, started to have ''cheese and fancy food'' departments. Since the mid nineties and more specifically since 2002, many fancy food stores, like Fox and Obel, smaller ''boutique'' grocery shops in several neighboroods of Chicago, wine and fancy frozen food products for parties like Uncork in Chicago, chains like Trader's Joe, and especially cheese boutiques like The Cheese Stands Alone or Pastoral in Chicago started to sell a large variety of cheeses from all over the world. Even supermarkets like Jewel and Dominick's have followed that trend and propose at least 25 foreign-made cheeses. And over the last 2 years, many restaurants in Chicago started to offer cheese ''platters'', either as appetizers or as a dessert course. So nowadays, I have no problem anymore to find a very wide choice of French cheeses and it's a real delight, especially now that we find a large selection of high quality traditional and specialty breads to eat with them, like artisan-style baguette, French boule, or walnut bread. Now, to try and answer your questions about how to choose cheese at the store. I hope that you will not object my being a little bit chauvinistic in limiting myself today to French cheeses, that, of course, I use at home and that I know much better that ''foreign'' and American cheese. Even though I am totally admirative of the progress American cheese makers have accomplished in a matter of 10 years in producing very high quality cheeses with their own ''terroir'' characteristics. Some of them, especially those made from goat and ewe's milk are very, very good. Also, I will take the liberty to mix info about the different cheeses themselves and how to choose them according to their look, color, smell etc. So, allow me to give you a brief mini-refreshing course on some French cheeses, and to tell you about a few ''classics'' that I would put on a ''cheese tray'' (plateau de fromages) for a special festive occasion. The essential is to find the right store with a knowledgeable cheesemonger... As you probably remember, there are close to 450 to 500 different cheeses produced in the various regions of France. Brittany is one of the few areas, which does not produce any noticable cheese. France is also the No.1 goat cheese producer in the world with more than 85.000 tons per year, allowing dairies and farmers to offer a very wide range of around 100 different types of ''chèvre'' in all kinds of shapes, colors, textures, flavors, and various types of rinds, wraps, and coatings. From the logs, to the ''crottins'', the pyramides, the ''bouchons'' and the disc shaped goat-camemberts and from the Selles-Sur-Cher and the ''Crottin de Chavignol'' in Central France, to the Banon in Provence, the Rocamadour of the Southwest, the Valençay and the Sainte-Maure fom Touraine, the Chabichou from the Poitou, without forgetting my dear ''Pélardon'' from the Cévennes, you could spend a whole year in France without having the time to discover all the local variations of ''artisan'' chèvres. Corsica is also a special haven for very tasty ''chèvres'. The largest part of the milk used to produce them is coming from areas South of the Loire River. Many regional, even lesser known, varieties of goat cheeses are now found in fancy stores in the major big cities of the United States. It is even possible sometimes, if you are lucky, to find some of them made from unpasteurized or ''heated'' milk, and therefore not admitted to the U.S. by the FDA, in some specialty shops. I have found so far close to 25 different types of goat cheeses from France in Chicago. When you want to experiment with bona-fide quality French cheeses try to limit yourself in a first stage of discovery to the AOC (Appellation d'origine Controlée) labeled cheeses. As in the case with the AOC wines this label certifies the area and the methods of production of these specific cheeses. The first award of this label was given to Roquefort in 1925. Since that time only 40 cheeses have been labeled AOC. All the cheeses I mention here after are AOC. A good cheesemonger should help you in choosing authentically certified AOC cheeses. You also have to remember that In composing a cheese tray you have to establish a good balance between different types of textures, strength and flavor, type of milk, color, and pungency. 1. Have some uncooked pressed cheeses made from cow's milk with inedible rinds but with a slightly earthy or even aromatic and sometimes pungent taste like a semi-hard CANTAL (my favorite is the half-aged SALERS) or the relatively softer but more assertive SAINT NECTAIRE. It should have a gray-slightly purplish rind and be very rich in texture and aroma. But if its smell is too strong, do not buy it. It is over the hill. The CANTAL could show some kind of blue mold near the rind. It's OK when it is an aged one. Unfortunately, recently, some French distributors start to ship Cantal in vacuum-packed chunks, instead of sending the whole wheel. The result is that this kind of Cantal gets a mushy texture and loses some of it's earthy appeal. CANTAL and SAINT NECTAIRE are among my favorite French cheeses and come from the volcanic area of Auvergne in South Central France. I love Saint Nectaire and Cantal with walnut bread or crusty country bread. You can also buy a piece of MORBIER from the Jura Mountain, near Switzerland, which is softer, more nutty, mild, but full of aroma. Make sure that it is a real Morbier and not an industrial type made in another region than Jura. The real Morbier has a line of ashes (edible) in its middle. It should never have too strong a smell. Or you can propose a REBLOCHON, a deliciously nutty disc from the area of Aravis in the French Pre-Alps, near Annecy, which should be soft and creamy but still firm inside. Do not buy it if its center has sort of collapsed and if its rind's smell reminds you too much of banyard's refuse . Morbier and reblochon are good with a rustic country ''boule''. A good TOMME de SAVOIE if you can find a recently shipped and decently ripe one, belongs to this category. I love that cheese but it is often missing its original onctuousness and its texture, if the cheese has been improperly stored and aged can be slightly chalky. 2. Then select a good quality CAMEMBERT which is a soft and creamy cheese, without any acidity, and with an edible ''flowery'' or bloomy rind, cow's milk cheese from Normandy. This cheese has been very often copied and other regions produce faux-camemberts. But you have to make sure it is a true Camembert de Normandie. Unfortunately, the U.S. FDA prohibits the importation in the U.S. of the delicious real authentic Camemberts made of raw milk. But you can find 3 decent pasteurized Camemberts in American shops. Try to locate my 2 favorites: ''Le Chatelain'' and ''Le Rustique''. They should not be refrigerated and should be served at room temperature. Discreetly lift the light wood cover of its box and smell it. It should release a relatively sweet smell but not an ammonia type of a smell which would indicate that it is too old. Then press the center of the cheese gently. It should offer some tenderness and elasticity but not too much. If it seems to collapse under your finger it is probably going to be runny and overipe. If it is still hard, and does not have any aroma, do not buy it. It is not ripe. All camemberts nowadays have a date printed on the side or the bottom of their pretty wooden boxes. Try to find one which still has 2 to 3 weeks before the expiration date. You can also try and find a good quality BRIE DE MEAUX, another soft and relatively creamy cow's milk cheese. Like Camembert you can't find the real raw-milk Brie de Meaux anymore. Make sure when you choose it that it is cut for you from the big wheel and try to avoid buying one already wrapped whose rind's stripes are too dark. If such is the case it probably means that it has spent too much time in the refrigerated storage room of some importer in New-Jersey. Most of the time, unless you can find a cheesemonger who buys fresh whole wheels of Brie, Camembert is a safer choice, especially since it is dated. Brie and Camembert are best appreciated with a chunk of fresh crusty baguette. 3. Buy a good ROQUEFORT, a ewe's milk blue cheese from South Central France. Some of my favorite brands are GRIMAL or even better CARLES. PAPILLON is O.K. Roquefort SOCIETE is made by a huge group. Unfortunately, its quality is ever changing. It can be delicious if recently imported and cut, or terrible if it has been in a distributor's cold storage for too long. Always avoid a Roquefort which falls apart, has yellow stains or spots, and is prepacked. Roquefort is at its best when it is cut by a metal string from its original wheel. It should be served at room temperature and is delicious with a light rye or nut bead. You can also buy, for much less money, a FOURME d'AMBERT, a delicious more creamy blue cheese from Northern Auvergne, or a BLEU des CAUSSES, which has a strong saltier terroir taste. I like to eat blue cheese with a slightly toasted light rye bread. But walnut bread is also very appropriate. Do not eat the rind of blue cheeses. 4. Another must on a well-balanced cheese tray is a good goat cheese. My favorite one is the semi-hard small PELARDON from the Cévennes Mountains in Southern France. But I do not think that you will find it here. The safest bets are the flat half-cone shaped SELLES sur CHER from the lower Loire Valley that has a natural rind that you can eat or the pyramidal and mild and nutty VALENCAY, or the SAINTE MAURE from Touraine. Once again make sure they have not been on the shelf or in a fridge for weeks and that they are not as hard as a stone. Do not hesitate to smell them. They should have a fresh, slighty herbal aroma, not acidic. Chevres are good with a soft country bread baked with olive oil. Sainte Maure is good on toasted slices of white ''boule''. 5. If you really want to be bold and look knowledgeable, add a PONT L'EVEQUE or a LIVAROT,two pungent cow's milk with a washed orange to brownish rind that you do not want to eat. They come from Normandy and are appreciated by the real connoisseurs. But they are not for the timid. Needless to say, I love them when they are still in their prime and still have a rich mild texture and nutty aroma. They taste great with country bread. 6. You can also have a piece of COMTE, or BEAUFORT, two cooked pressed cheeses from the French Alps or the Jura, which in some way ressembles the Swiss Gruyere. It has a very distinctive nutty taste and is perfect with rustic white bread. A light beaujolais or, even better, a wine from the SAVOIE like an APREMONT or from JURA, like an ARBOIS. As far as deciding to eat or not to eat the rind of cheeses, it is often a matter of taste. But I would personally never try and eat the rind of any hard cheese, blue cheeses, rustic mountain and Corsican goat cheeses, strong and very pungent cheeses like EPOISSES and MAROILLES, or the delicious alsatian MUNSTER, and cheeses covered with granulated coatings like ''marc''. A last piece of advice: Try to drink middle-of- the road wines with cheeses. Serving a very expensive Bordeaux or Bourgogne would be a waste of money. The chemistries of each element have a tendency to destroy each other. Always try to find a wine from the same area of the cheese. This is your safest best. For exemple: a white or red Sancerre with a Selles Sur Cher, or any good Sauvignon blanc, with a goat cheese of any area. A Saint-Pourçain with a Saint Nectaire. etc. But of course no wines are produced in Normandy. A young Bordeaux will be perfect with a Camembert. A gamay-based light wine, like a Beaujolais or a Bourgueil will also be fine with Cantal or Reblochon. Remember to always start eating the mildest cheeses first and end up with the strongest. A strong cheese demands a more powerful wine. Try a sherry like Amontillado or a good Cahors with a blue cheese. Good luck. Alain Maes


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