All things cheese in France

Thursday, 18 November 2010

Ah, America! Raw Milk - The Fight Heats Up

In his recent article, Who Took My Raw Milk Cheese?, David Gumpert discussed the politics and reasons behind the FDA raids on respected cheese makers in several states.  As a journalist, he is the author of The Raw Milk Revolution: Behind America’s Emerging Battle Over Food Rights (Chelsea Green, 2009) and his blog documents the on-going battle over raw milk. 

From where I sit here in France, this is a pretty sorry story for the naissant US artisanal cheese business. France as the mother of all raw milk cheeses has it's problems too!  As recently as two years ago, big agro tried to get the EU to ban raw milk Camembert using the listeria argument. Historically however, in France these listeriosis alerts have been traced back to contamination at the source of production and in almost all cases, were from cheeses produced in industrial factories using pasturised milk.   

But here, all raw milk cheeses must comply with the health standards of European regulations concerning micro-organisms and hygiene.  According to statistics, the health risks associated with consumption of raw milk products are very limited if you compare the small number of listeriosis alerts that have occurred when compared with an annual production that exceeds more than 170,000 tonnes in France according to the researchers at the INRA (Institut National de la Recherche Agronomique (France) otherwise known as the National Institute for Agricultural Research) in Clermont-Ferrand-Theix.

In an article by Pete Kennedy from the Farmer To Consumer Legal Defense Fund, FDA's Ace in the Hole, in the last thirty-eight years, there have been no reports of illness caused by the consumption of raw milk that was attributed to Listeria monocytogenes (L-mono).  One must ask why then is the FDA all of a sudden targeting small farm producers?  Reminds me of the UK in the 1970's, and the E-coli 0157 scare.  James Aldridge's wonderful artisanal cheese Tornegus was targeted by the then public health minister Tessa Jowell because of a suspected illness and his triving business was promplty destroyed.

As in the case of James Aldridge, the American farmers are being required to destroy their cheese, thus their livelihood.  The most disturbing bit here is that the FDA is only using a test to discover the presence listeria bacteria (which by the way is on your hands at this very moment) and not the one that drills down to find the specific form and quantity. I read that in the case of the Morningland Diary, 100 swabs at the dairy found no indication of presence the bacteria; however, the FDA is not publishing their results. It is like being condemned of a crime without actual proof.
If you are interested in the subject of biopolitics, I highly recommend you read the research paper by Heather Paxton at Massachusetts Institute of Technology - POST-PASTEURIAN CULTURES: The Microbiopolitics of Raw-Milk Cheese in the United States, published in CULTURAL ANTHROPOLOGY, Vol. 23, 2008.  And further reading on the raw milk issue, you might try the Research report : Food Fears and Raw-milk Cheese by Harry G. West for the Food Studies Centre, School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London, 2008.

But by all means, please judge for yourself. I have been eating raw milk cheeses here in France every day for 20 years and am still alive and kicking!  Buy your cheese, raw milk or otherwise, from a quality fromagerie who source the best quality cheeses from the best producers; keep the properly and enjoy them safely.

An update : For those of you who what to keep posted on the latest developements on this story.  Two articles in the International Herald Tribune, November 19 & 20 2010...A matter of taste versus safety and As Cheesemaking Blooms, So Can Listeria both by William Neuman and there is an interesting video on the Vermont Institute for Artisan Cheese.

Update 30 November 2010 : Senate Passes Overhaul of Food Safety Regulations

Monday, 18 October 2010

Fighting that Fat! Cheese on the front line?

The other day I was surfing the web regarding weight  because in my role as a fromologue, people constantly insist that cheese is fattening and bad for you. Since I eat a vast quantity of the stuff and other dairy products, don't do that much exercise except if you consider walking to the métro in Paris, have pretty low cholesteral and am not considered even vaguely fat, I am always looking for scientific evidence to fortify my argruments as well as my personal evidence to the contrary
So imagine my glee when I stumbled across this article regarding a study from 2004 which indicates that honest to goodness real, unadulterated diary products should not be considered necessarily fattening and, to the contrary, possess a lot of benefits especially for those who are obese. According to the articles I read following the subject, "getting enough calcium in your diet seems to stimulates the body to burn more fat and reduces the amount of new fat the body makes" per Dr. Michael Zemel, a professor of nutrition at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville and a pioneer in this emerging area of research on the relationship between calcium and weight management.

Whoa! Gotta love that, but what is going on here? Apparently, researchers found overweight people who consumed 3 servings a day of calcium-rich dairy lost more belly fat than those who followed a similar diet with less of the dairy servings. To further emphasize the point, they found that calcium supplements didn't work as well the real deal! According to the good doctor, a diet low in calcium appears to stimulate the production of fat-producing enzymes and decreases the activity of enzymes that break down fat. "The moral of the calcium story is to not dump dairy when you're it can help make your weight lost efforts easier," Zemel said.  

A note of caution however as this does not give people the license to go wild and over-indulge in dairy products hoping to generate weight loss. Helas! As we have always known, there is no gain (or loss in this case!) without some pain. In otherwords, you still have to burn more calories than you take in; eating properly and doing some exercise on top of that doesn't do any harm either. Still it's nice to know that eating all those diary products, in my case my cheese addiction, isn't killing me and could actually be helping keep those love handles under control!  Here's a link to one of the articles

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Domaines & Terroirs Updates

Back at the ranch, we have been very busy updating our site and our tours with a new home page, a sublime tour to Alsace and some short breaks in and around Paris.
- Alsace is home of Munster, fabulous wines, artisanal beers, fois gras  and la Cérémonie des Fromages by Bernard Antony at his käs-kaller in Vieux Ferette.

- Paris features several half day seminar/tours like visiting our favourite cheesemongers, creating a cheese board, and a trip to Rungis as well as two new trips - a day trip to Philippe Olivier's Fromagerie in Boulogne-sur-Mer and an overnight trip to la Cérémonie des Fromages by Bernard Antony in Vieux Ferette as well.
Have a look at Domaines & Terroirs and let us know what you think!  

"We shall not cease from exploration. And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time."  - T. S. Eliot, 1942

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

Terroirs and Nationalities

If cheese, wine and other food stuffs have terroir which defines their nature relative to the place they arise from, could one say that people's nationality is similar to terroir? I have pondered this question ever since I moved to France - Paris to be exact, then the United Kingdom - London and then back again to Paris. Were the French like a big intense Époisses, the English like a West Country Cheddar and us Americans like…Velveeta?  

Living and working in France and the UK, across Europe and in the Emirates, I came across many different cultural styles and just like terroir, began to attribute certain characteristic behaviour to each of them. I never saw the French as rude and arrogant, probably because to me, their comportment was specific to their surroundings. They were direct and straight-forward; extremely dynamic. Okay they could be contentious but they were always intensely committed to what they believed. For me, they and their motivations were totally understandable (even though speaking French) and accessible.  

When I moved to the UK, I thought, wow, now I will be able to understand everything that's going on because of course, they speak English…well this proved to be typical expat thinking and a big trap because although the language is English, it is spoken or rather delivered in an extremely different manner. A great deal of communication in the UK and specifically England is subtext and non-verbal. This attribute proved to render understanding anything that was going on there (even in a language in which I was fluent) more difficult and sometimes downright incomprehensible.  

The Emirates were even more fascinating. The working echelons, like any wine or cheese were certainly the product of their own culture but having been shipped off at 18 or 19 to the UK or the US, they acquired another terroir as it were. They were capable of displaying their own cultural terroir, Arabic culture, as well as the veneer of the acquired occidental culture, separately, intermingled or intermittently at will. To deal with this was intriguing and a very slippery slope and strained my theory of terroir and nationality a bit.  

To explain what I had learned to my colleagues in America, the terroir analogy was a bit of a stretch, so another one worked better. What does NO mean to each of these cultures? In my dealings with Germans, it quite simply meant no, not possible. To the English, no meant 'oh sorry, not certain but could be nice'. To the French, no means no - but, i.e., if you can convince me you and your argument are worthy, it could change to yes. To the Italians, no always meant 'anything is possible bella, so let's have lunch and we'll work it out'. In the Emirates, no meant absolutely nothing, no is the beginning of a negotiation. Although simplistic, this always helped bewildered and flustered American colleagues.  

I was recently asked to write an article on the subject of cultural differences between the French and Americans for The American Magazine, published in the United Kingdom. Instead of cheese references, I found another one more relevant and rather amusing. If you are interested, here is the link to the article Smile - We're all Cats and Dogs  

Monday, 16 August 2010

Bees, Honey and Terroir

In the middle of August Paris is deserted. The last of the stressed out Parisians have left for les vacances and lots of the city is closed leaving us diehard residents to flâner in a ghost town. And so a little bored this weekend, we were roaming around and happened upon this most interesting shop in a fascinatingly time warped area of the 13éme arrondissement, La Butte aux Caille. Almost like Montmartre or rue Mouffetard in the 5th but original, uncrowded and thankfully a bit too plebeian for the menace of the colonizing bobos.

Not something I would have gone in search of but here under a threatening sky, albeit plant based we discovered another form of produits de terroirs. In this tiny shop called Les Abeilles  (the Bees) fresh from les ruches (beehives) were honeys of all sorts, from mel à la tireuse (honey by the pull), named mille fleurs (mixed flower) to miel de cru (single flower vintage honey), beeswax, beeswax candles; soaps and every thing related to the practice of apiculture. The owner Monsieur Jean-Jacques Schakmundès says honey is one of the last pure products on earth, one that comes 'direct from the producer - the bee to - us, the consumer; one that undergoes no treatment, no form of transformation and no additives'. And this being France, honey is subject to strict controls, so it is as pure as if you went out in the fields and collected it yourself.

Terroirs! Well, of course, cheese has it so why not honey too! And just like wine and cheese, honey has its own vocabulary and some even have an AOP designation (Appellation d'origine protégée) as well. Honeys are described by colour, texture, taste and provenance. Each honey, just light wines, has a provenance, while the colours depend exclusively on the origin of the flowers the bees are pollinating. The rule of thumb says that the clearer and lighter the colour, the milder the honey will be; the darker more amber the colour, the more full bodied or spicy the honey will be.

We learned that the textures are different as well, some are light and creamy others are dense and stiff. And when it comes to the texture, all honeys are liquid when they come out of the hive, the textures varying from liquid to creamy and thick to firm. All of them will cystallize at their own rate according the varietal, but a crystallized honey has the same taste and therapeutic values as those that are still liquid.  And wow is it healthy!

Suffice it to say besides falling prey to an enormous slice of Pain d'épices to take home with us, after we sampled five or six of the most exotic single cru honeys, we walked out with four amazing specimens : two light, golden ones - Néflier (from the Medlar tree) and Bois de Cuir (from the Leatherwood tree) and two dark copper ones - Chêne (oak) and Sarrazin (buckwheat flower).

Here is some of the descriptors for French honey:  
Colour : blanc (white), crème clair (clear cream), ambré trés pâle (pale amber), ambré clair (clear amber), ambré (amber), roux (red), ocre pâle (pale ocre), brun soutenu (deep brown) 
Texture : fluid, creamy, thick, firm 
Taste : trés doux (very mild), doux et parfumé (mild and fragrant), trés parfumé (very fragrant), délicat (delicate), soutenu (pungent), fort (strong), corsé (spicy), légère amertune en fin bouche (lightly bitter long note)

Les Abeilles French honey : 
Acacia mild flavour is liquid, clear and does not crystallize Provenance : all regions of France  
Amandier (almond tree) is deep brown, creamy in texture and spicy with a light bitter after taste Provenance: Vaucluse
Châtaignier (Chestnut tree) is dark brown in colour and extremely liquid, it is strong and spicy with a light bitter after taste. Provenance : Cévennes 
Eucalyptus (eucalyptus) is pale ocre colour, creamy in texture and pungent in taste. Provenance : Corse, Andalousie  
Fleur d'oranger et d'autres agrumes (orange blossoms and other citrus fruits) is clear amber, very creamy and very fragrant. Provenance : Spain and Corsica (mandarin)  
Garrigue et de montagne (honey scrub and mountain flowers) depends on the provenance of the flowers. It is generally liquid in texture, very fragrant and deep red. Provenance : Languedoc  
Lavande de Provence (lavender) is cream coloured and very fragrant with a slightly granular Provenance : Drôme, Vaucluse  
Sarrasin ou blé noir (buckwheat) is deep brown in colour, spicy and thick. Provenance: Brittany  
Trèfle (clover) is a white honey with a creamy texture and very mild flavour. Provenance: all regions  

Les Abeilles
21, rue de la Butte-aux-Cailles
75013 Paris

Téléphone : +33 (0)1 45 81 43 48
Métro "Place d'Italie" ou "Corvisart

Sunday, 1 August 2010

Terroir - The Very Soul of the Earth

The other day while doing some research, I came across an old interview with someone I much admire - Marie Quatrehomme, the first woman to be awarded the coveted Meilleur Ouvrier de France (2000). She is one of the best maître or in this case Maîtresse fromagère-affineuse in Paris, a star, an expert in her field. What was interesting about this was that the interviewer asked what spurred her curiosity for cheese and her response was la gourmandise

Really? Gluttony? One of the seven deadly sin? Was this really what she meant I wondered, for this woman is purported to be one of the most modest and genteel people in the business and gluttony seemed a bit strong (watch this BBC interview to see her in action and judge for yourself). To be sure, translation is a landmine, and while today the sinful word is more often translated as la gloutonnerie, in earlier times gluttony translated as la gourmandise. So in this case I have to believe she was referring to a more subtle, refined meaning of the word gourmandise, like delight or indulgence or delicacy.  Using my version, her response to the question about what inspired her passion for cheese was :  

"Indulgence (delight). There is not one cheese I have not tasted, and I would be hard pressed to say which I prefer. What is interesting with cheese is their infinite variety. To a certain extent, each cheese is an individual: with sample that bear the same name, you can have different tastes depending on the season, the degree of ripening, even the time of day. That's indulgence, ephemeral pleasure, fleeting, but that one can repeat at will."  

She goes on to say that "People here want des fromages de terroir (local cheeses) of which the progress from cow to shop does not eluded us! It is part of a history, the geography, in short, the way of life of our country. There is not a region in France that does not produce cheese, including Brittany." All very interesting and very true. The interviewer summed up the passion Madame Quatrehomme has for the subject of her metier in this phrase - "Cheese: a delicate substance, eminently appreciable, elusive, it is somehow the soul of the earth." 

Indulgence, delight or just a pure pleasure, when it comes to cheese, it is indeed any one of these, for to share the very soul of the earth it offers us is truly worth the sin. 

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Bleu de Causses

A cheese for all seasons, Bleu de Causses was once known as the poor man’s Roquefort.  It is made in the cantons of the Aveyron Campagnac, Cornus, Millau, Peyreleau and Saint Affrique and two other communes: Tréves in the Gard and Pégairolles in Hérault,. The village of Peyrelade in the Gorges du Tarn is famous for the brand which bears it’s name. 

Originally, this cheese was made from a mixture of ewe’s, goat’s and cow’s milk, but in 1947, the governing body of the AOC required the cheese to be made strictly with cow’s milk and in a more limited area, receiving its first AOC in 1953 with further clarifications in 1979 when the collection zone for the milk and fabrication standards were decreed. It is uncooked and unpressed and generally is set out to age for 3 to 6 weeks in the natural caves of the gorges du Tarn, which are very similar to those in Roquefort, with natural "fleurines" that allow the “penicillium glaucum” to blossom and develop both the veining and the aroma. 

Summer cheeses are ivory in colour and very moist and the milk is heated to 68c to reduce development of listeria, they have a pronounced taste of summer pastures and are soft and savoury. It is truly sumptous yet subtle in texture and taste.  Those made in winter are drier and are whiter in colour, they have a stronger taste which is caused from longer aging and winter feed. Less strident than Bleu d’Auvergne which comes from further north of this region, Bleu de Causses is creamy, crumbly and milder in taste than Roquefort.  

Try it with a little salted butter on a crusty French bread.  Wines from the general region of Cahors and Madiran work well with it.  For a treat, try it with a sweet white wine from the region such as Montbazillac. 

The official website of le Bleu des Causses, AOC (in French)

Saturday, 26 June 2010

Les Grèves, Foodies in Paris and the Search for Terroir

I have lived in Paris for a long time, so transportation strikes are nothing new, as a matter of fact, the 'big one' of November 1995 greeted me as I arrived. When these 'down-trodden' public servants decide they want to work less than a 25 hour work week or retire before 55 with 80% of their salary, they have the unpleasant habit of taking their employers, us - the public, hostage by disrupting services. Strikes are just something one has to put up with if you live here otherwise you will drive yourself crazy; think of them as part of 'the charm'. 

But tonight, I am not so easily charmed as I sit here stranded waiting for a metro, ANY metro, to take me to a dinner with two of Paris' illustrious American foodies who host The Paris Supper Club, Wendy Lyn (The Paris Kitchen) and Alex Lobrano (Hungry for Paris). I fret that my trip to discover the regional terroir of the Pays Basque, famous for Ossay-Iraty & Ardi Gasna, pimente d'Espelette and pork belly at Bruno Doucet's relatively new restaurant, La Régalade - St. Honoré is not getting off to a good start. 

Suffice it to say, I left plenty early just in case and somehow, as I slipped through the sun soaked Cour du Louvre past IM Pei's Pyramide, managed to arrive at the appointed time for apéros at the tiny boutique of the soon to be open Spring restaurant. Here, as I met Wendy and Alex and the rest of the guests, the earlier annoyance melts away along with the setting sun and the effects of a lovely chilled glass of white wine.  

We had the good fortune to meet the remarkable owner of Spring, Daniel Rose, who graciously offers to give us a tour of his almost completed and long awaited new venue over the road at rue Bailleul. For me the retired but ever and always interior architectural designer, I can say the spaces are sublimely Parisien and beautifully designed, which added an extra bonus to the evening. 

So on to La Régalade - St. Honoré around the corner and the Basque country. Here all the wonderful secrets from the southwest of France are given full stage and that's what I am searching for - the terroir of notable dishes and specialties from the Pays Basque. Sadly no cheeses from the region, but a mighty fine Rocamadour fermier from the wonderful little fromagerie, Martine Dubois in the 17th arrondissement though. Not to disappoint however, terroir was to be had in the terrine maison with cornichons and sweet pickled green peppers and a slab of carmelized poitrine de porc (pork belly) from the famous producer Louis Ospital served on bed of lentils.

So strike all you like folks, I'd walk to find this fabulous representative of the mysterious Basque country, I'd just add a slab of ardi gasna or ossay iraty with some confiture noire de cerises Xixtaberri to complete the picture.  

La Régalade - St. Honoré
123, rue St.-Honoré
1st Arrondissement
+33 (0)1 42 21 92 40
Lunch and dinner, Mon–Fri

Monday, 21 June 2010


And just so we complete the family tree, if Pélardon and Rocamadour are cousins, Pérail is a not too distant 2nd cousin !  They all come from the same region in France, les Causses, but the difference being Pérail is made with ewe's (brebis) milk instead of goat's (chèvre) milkWhich of these came first is hard to say. The term Pérail appears in the XIXth century when it is cited in the Occitan dictionary by Fréderic Mistral and then by the etymologist Alibert who identified the term “péral” meaning “a drainer or colander made of stone”, as appearing in the Occitan language IXth century.

It's at the beginning of the XIVth century that the most likely ancestor of the Pérail can be found described in a document for the table service of the convent of the Notre Dame de l'Espinasse in Millau. It is surely this cheese, which  for centuries has been produced from sheep's milk left to rest in goatskin bottles called “toupines” where it curdled spontaneously, that we  now see produced today by small, artisanal producers and a few small manufacturers. Threatened with extinction, this cheese has its defenders.  The Association for the Defence and promotion of Pérail was formed in 1994 by farm producers, artisan cheese makers and milk producer to guarantee the cheese of the terroir would not pass into obscurity. Since 1996, the organization has applied to the INAO for AOC status and a first study is in process to establish the parameters required for the cheese to obtain AOC status. 

The Pérail is produced as a way of eliminating wastage in the fabrication of Roquefort. It is made from the milk from the Lacaune sheep that graze on the chalky plateaus of the Larzac in the Grand Causses at the end of the lactation period. The milk is less abundant but much richer making the Pérail very creamy. As the cheeses age on rush or rye straw, they develop a strong taste yet which is a much more subtle flavour for sheep’s cheese. This cheese is neither cooked nor pressed. It is pale yellow with a soft rind and a thick creamy texture and is best when it is runny. The aging is a minimum of eight days but the cheese can be eaten fresh within three or four days after fabrication. The runny characteristic appears after about 14 days of aging and it melts in your mouth.

Saturday, 19 June 2010


A truly wonderful cheese! Soft, creamy and not to strong in my opinion, this little goat cheese is a true representative of its region. Like its cousin, Rocamadour, it is available all year around but now is a great season for this round wonder. Originally from Languedoc-Roussillon, paraldon, pélardou or also péraudou, le pélardon is the envoy of the Cévennes, the Pélardon have been known since Pliny the Elder wrote about the « Péraldou » cheese with the strong taste. 

In 1756, the naturalist, Abbé Boissier de Sauvage documented in his Dictionnaire languedocien-françois, “this small, round and flat cheese from the Cévennes which has a sharp and peppery taste which is rubbed with the leaves of the viburnum tree”. The famous Occitan poet, Frédéric Mistral honoured the cheese with a place in his comprehensive dictionary of the Occitan language, Lou Tresor dóu Félibrige (1878–1886). It is now produced in the departments of the Aude, Gard, Hérault, Lozère and Tam from milk of the Alpine,Saanen and Rove breeds of goats. The cheese includes the Pélardon des Cévennes, Pélardon d’Anduze and Pélardon d’Altier. 

All the small goat's chesses in this region were and still are called pelardon. It is a soft pate raw goat’s milk cheese made in spring, summer and fall. The pate is uncooked and unpressed. The cheese rind is barely formed, soft and wrinkled and as it matures it develops a natural mould. The taste of the Pélardon des Cévennes is fruity with a fine balance between acidity and saltiness; this gives the cheese a full, rich milky flavour that lingers on the palate. The maturing period of the pelardon is two to three weeks in a well-aerated cellar.

Tuesday, 8 June 2010

A country of cheese eaters

Only the Greeks surpass the French in the consumption of cheese according to an article at l’ The French eat on average 24.6 kilos of cheese while the Greeks eat around 27.4 kg a year and mostly feta! The diversity of production in France is enough to seduce both the knowledgeable connoisseur and the amateur. In a survey conducted at the beginning of the year, 96% of the French questioned said they eat cheese regularly. 

With over a thousand types of cheese available to eat in France, it’s Emmental at the head of the list, with Comté not far behind and cheese made from cow’s milk largely dominates the list. With 80% of French cheeses having an AOC or AOP label,according to the article sales of these cheeses represented about 2.9 billion euros in sales last year, even with a drop of about 1.7% in export! That’s a lot of cheese...

Tuesday, 1 June 2010

Cancer-fighting fat and French cheese

Following blogs can sometimes lead to some interesting places. Recently, I glided into the website Eatwild (, which professes to be ‘your source for safe, healthy, natural and nutritious grass-fed beef, lamb, goats, bison, poultry, pork, dairy and other wild edibles’ and came across a discussion about why French cheeses are healthier for you than others, in particular, American. Now I consume a LOT of cheese! I admit that it comes from Great Britain Ireland, Spain, Italy and Greece, yet it mostly comes France, so this was interesting.  

Apparently, unlike most American dairies that raise their cows in confinement and on grain based diets (I even read on milk chocolate and stale gummy bears!), French diaries and those of GB and Ireland)generally raise their cows in pastures (one good side effect of all that rain!), which results in naturally high levels of CLA. Here in France, they have even banned growth hormones as well.  

Okay, so CLA? What is that? Apparently, CLA or "conjugated linoleic acid" is a newly discovered good fat that has shown signs in animal studies to be a potent cancer fighter. Seemingly very small amounts of the stuff has blocked ‘all three stages of cancer: 1) initiation, 2) promotion, and 3) metastasis’, where most anti-cancer agents block only one. While human CLA research is still pretty new, a few studies suggest that there are similar benefits in people and ‘a recent survey determined that women with the most CLA in their diets had a 60 percent reduction in the risk of breast cancer’. How interesting is this?  

Since natural CLA is far better than that stuff that comes in pill form as it has no known negative side effects, that which comes from grass pastures and the higher the altitude the better apparently, is good stuff. The most abundant source of natural CLA is the meat and dairy products of grassfed animals. Apparently in some new studies, the kind of CLA found in butter and animal fat is the most potent cancer-fighter and milk products from 100 percent grass-fed cows are as much as seven times higher in cancer-fighting CLA than ordinary milk and far lower in cancer-promoting linoleic acid. (Cancer Letters 1997;116:121-130) And according to other surveys, CLA levels in French cheese ranged from 5.3 to 15.8 mg/g of fat versus American cheese from conventional dairies, which had only half this amount ranging from 2.9 to 7.1. Yahoo! So let’s go eat some more French cheese!

Thursday, 15 April 2010

Terroir: Is a camembert a camembert if it isn’t made in Normandy?

People always ask me about this word and what it really has to do with cheese. Terroir is often translated as the ‘taste of the land’ and is a real and yet ephemeral blend of the land, the tradition and the character of any regional product. Cheese is a true expression of the concept of terroir, perhaps even more so, in my opinion, than wine.  

Everything within a region, from the animals, climate, vegetation, water and soil, has an effect on the milk which is the nascence of all artisanal cheeses. Combine these factors with the production techniques specific to each cheese, the traditions transmitted down through generations and the quality of the final affinage, and only then can one finally begin to understand the meaning of terroir. So while one can follow the recipe for making a certain cheese, the end product will be an expression of the terroir it represents. Hence, a camembert-like cheese made in Vermont or California might be similar to a Camembert de Normandie, it will recall its roots and therefore be unique.

Monday, 5 April 2010

Cheese Production Designations

People often ask me what the various classifications of cheese are when looking at cheeses in France. In the case of non-industrial cheeses, what's the difference between an artisanal cheese and a fermier? Or for instance in the case of Comté and other mountain cheeses, coopérative versus fruitière.  Here is a list of the most common distictions:

Fermier  Someone who makes cheese either in a farmhouse, chalet d’alpapge, buron or other mountain hut, using raw milk from animals raised on their farm following traditional methods. 
Artisanal An individual producer using milk from animals raised on their farm or that of bought in the region.
Coopératives or Fruitières A single dairy that makes cheese using milk provided by members of a cooperative.

Friday, 19 March 2010

Bleu de Termignon by David Lebovitz

I couldn't have written about it better than this!  Check out David Lebovitz's post on this great and unusual cheese.  His blog is really worth following if you love food and France

Monday, 25 January 2010

Ô! Vacherin Mont d’Or - Vacherin du Haut-Doubs

A photo found on the web of Vacherin Mont d'Or on display in thewindow of la Cave à Fromage cheese shop in South Kensington. Taken 07 February 2009 in London by Fanny Bickel.


The Story of Two Countries and One Magnificent Cheese

Ô! This mythical and confusing cheese - Vacherin Mont d'Or or Vacherin Haut-Doubs! One can hardly be a fromologue living in the UK and France and not write about this wonderful cheese, which is sadly not available in either the Swiss pasteurised or the French non-pasteurised version in the United States. However, it is one of the summum of cheeses for the cheese aficionado to seek out.

The origins of this cheese are hotly disputed between the Swiss and the French with legends, history and myths supporting the claims. Just how long it has been made in the mountains surround Mont d'Or in eastern department of Franche-Comté in France and the Jura in Switzerland is also in doubt. For the record, a legend in Switzerland says that the recipe for Vacherin came to Charbonnières in 1871 when a certain General Bourbaki was retreating through the forests of the Jura deep in winter. The French used their herd of cows guided by their cowherd, Roguin, to forge a path through heavy snow. Apparently, Monsieur Rouguin was the keeper of the secret recipe for Vacherin Mont d'Or and for some reason, decided to stay in the Jura and produce this cheese.

The Swiss would not be the Swiss if they did not add, that although 'charming', this story has been put in doubt due to delivery records from around 1845 clearly detailing the delivery of said cheeses in the area, a good 26 years before the good General's disgraceful retreat.

They also assert that Vacherin is the descendant of Chevrotin, a goat cheese made in the region and that when the farmers ran out of goat's milk, they used cow's milk and the name changed naturally from Chevrotin (chèvre being French for goat) to Vacherin (vache being French for cow). The cheese is made in the Savoy region of France since the 17th century and has its very own spruce palette similar to the belt and box of the Mont d'Or.

However, these assertions that this cheese has only been made since the 1800's and implications that the French 'copied' the Swiss cheese are a bit disingenuous because the cheese has been made in the region of Franche Comté in northeastern France for as long as those people can remember. Upon further research, the first written traces of the cheese are from the 18th century accounts, i.e., 1700's, when it was described to be at the table of Louis XV who apparently love the cheese for its finesse and unctuosity.

Since it is only in recent history that this area of production has become clearly divided by country boundaries, all of these assertions are probably can be accepted as truth and fiction. Whatever the real history, a story of legal stage management is to blame for the confusion caused with its patrons and raising hackles when discussed in French or Swiss circles. To clarify the situation surrounding this cheese, in the 1970's, the Swiss succeeded in gaining the legal right to call the cheese made within their borders Vacherin Mont d'Or. This was well before the French figured out their neighbour's attention to such detail allowed them to control the name and restrict the use of what was a generic name.

Of course not to be put off by this legal out manoeuvring, the French applied for and received an Appelation d'Origine or AOC (Designation of Origin) for their cheese in 1981, which restricts the location and fabrication techniques of the cheese. They then sought a further protection within the EU against industrial imitation by gaining an Appelation d'Origine Protégé or AOP (Protected Designation of Origin) in 1996.

The areas stipulated in the French AOC for production of this cheese must be within the area of the Haut Doubs in the Franche-Comté, which includes the cantons of Mouthe, Morteau, Pontarlier, parts of Levier, Maîche, Montbenoît and Russey. The official name for the French version of this cheese is Vacherin du Haut-Doubs (the area in France where it is made), but you will see it referred to in France as Mont d'Or, uh, we should say Vacherin du Haut-Doubs. The AOC permits both artisanal and coopérative production of this cheese.

The Swiss produce the cheese year-round in the high mountainous area just east of the Franche-Comté, in the cantons of western Vaud, Neufchatel and Jura.

Basics: The primary difference in these cheeses is the French make theirs from raw cow's milk and the Swiss generally use pasteurized. The French version is seasonal being made from milk that comes from two races of cows called Monbéliarde and Pid Rouge de l'Est (French Simmental), who spend their summers eating mountain grasses and hay in the 700 meter altitude pastures of the Massif Mont D'Or. No grain, silage or other fermented fodder can be added to the feed. In all, the cheese is typically 45 to 50 percent milk fat (in dry matter) and takes only 7 litres of milk to make 1 kilo of Mont d'Or. History has it that when there was not enough milk to make Comté because the quantity of milk diminishes once the cows are back in their stables, farmers came up with the idea to make a smaller cheese which they named Fromage de bois (of wood), or de crème (of cream) or even de boite (boxed). Today the cheese is indeed made by the same 20 fruitières who make Comté during the spring and summer.

How & when: The cheese is made in both places utilizing the same techniques with their respective milk type, i.e., unpasteurised for the French and pasteurized for the Swiss. First the curds are pressed into cloth-lined moulds to begin to shape them. Once the curd has set, they are taken out and encircled with a band or belt made from spruce sapwood called une sangle d'épicéa. (This of course is another story in itself, but one that points to a true working partnership between the farmer, cheese maker and the regional sanglier, in this case a belt maker, not a wild boar.) The belt is scrupulously sanitized and bleached to control any unfriendly bacteria infecting the curd, but its raison d'être is to help further develop the shape and to impart another bit of terroirs in the form of a liquorice-like resinous flavour. The wheel is then bathed in a salt brine bath and left to age for a minimum of 21 days on wooden racks at around 13-14 centigrade. The young aging cheeses are turned frequently and rewashed with salt brine that as with most cheeses protects the developing curd and imparts flavour.

Vacherin Mont d'Or - Haut Doub is made from the period of the 15th of August through the 15th of March and available from the 10th of September to the 10th of May, depending on your local cheese monger in the UK or France. With the most sought after being the summer milk versions which of course come right at the beginning of the season. It is normally available in its spruce box formats in as either a small box of 4 inches or 12 centimetres in diameter and about 480 to 600 grams and a medium box at 700 to 800g, the favourite French size as it is usually enough for four. I have also seen and sold a large boîte of about 20 cm or about 7 ½ inches which weighed in at about 900g. All of these round boxed versions are about 9 centimetres or 3 ½ to 4 inches deep. You can also find at cheese mongers the slightly firmer version in large 'roue' or wheel used to cut into wedges for customers, which is about 30 centimetres or 12 inches in diameter and 4 cm or 1 ½ inches thick.

Terroirs - taste & smell: A well made Mont d'Or of either variety has a firm undulating cream coloured, bloomy pâte (supposedly recalling of the folds of the Mont d'Or Mountains) and should have an extremely unctuous or runny centre. The smell is dominated by the spruce 'sangle' or belt which gives the cheese a unique smell of wood, and then you should smell mushrooms and potatoes. The taste is of mountain milk, resin and liquorice of the spruce. And if this is not enough to send one to firmly on ones way to gourmet heaven, I have also experienced, albeit at Christmas time, these cheeses blanketed with either thin slices or finely diced black truffles!

How to eat: The simplest and most traditional way to eat one of these wonders of French or Swiss terroir, is with spoons from either the spruce box or a beautiful bowl. That being said, in the mountains this cheese is used a little like fondue. In other words, the spruce box is wrapped in aluminium foil and heated in the oven, either nu (as is) or with a clove of garlic tucked into the centre or a little bit of crisp, white Jura wine poured into a trou (hole) made in the middle, or why not both together, then served with roasted or boiled potatoes to dip into it. Truly decadent! It is also often a traditional French Christmas eve dinner guest.

Links: For further reading pleasure, the official site of the Vacherin du Haut-Daubs/Mont d'Or although in French has videos of the production worth watching: and the official sit for Vacherin Mont d'Or is in all four Swiss languages, including English:

Tuesday, 12 January 2010

Indulge in the creamy, easygoing Strathdon Blue

An interesting article by Janet Fletcher who writes the column The Cheese Course at SFGate or the San Francisco Chronicle.

Sunday, 10 January 2010

Rocamadour - the sublime goat cheese from les Causses, France

Cabécou de Rocamadour/Rocamadour

Originally called Cabécou in Occitan, which means “little goat”, this cheese may have its origins from the time the Saracens invaded the region. This is the famous goat cheese of the celebrated village of la Vierge Noire (the Black Virgin). Rocamadour. A medieval settlement erected directly on a cliff, in the rich countryside of Causses du Quercy. It is one of the oldest traditional products made in Quercy, the Lot region. In historical text from the 15th century, this cheese is described as having monetary value and used to pay taxes and as part of the métayage system used by serfs, as tenant farmers to pay to their Seigneur.

This region’s has chalky soil, marked by history and human activity, and is favourable for the raising of goats. The curds are placed in moulds by hand; it has a fine rind, a tender and creamy interior and is only 100g. This most wonderful cheese has a distinct animal perfume with subtle creamy and buttery flavours, with a slightly sweet hazel-nut perfumed aftertaste. It can be eaten throughout its ageing, which strengthens the tastes, eat it fresh, or when it has become creamy, aged when it has dried out or baked on a salad or on a slice of bread. Recommended wine:  White wine: Lirac (Clairette, Grenache Blanc grapes) Light and fruity red wine: Beaujolais (Gamay Noir grape) But the best is a glass of Cahors will reveal its subtle aromas.