Smack Slab in the Middle
French General Charles de Gaulle famously said, “Only peril can bring the French together. One can’t impose unity out of the blue on a country that has 265 different kinds of cheese.”
Indeed, this “motherland” of traditional cheese production has bequeathed a vast array of styles that have served as inspiration for countless cheesemakers around the world. Each region has specialties that are unique and treasured in the Europe and around the world.
This month, we explore the treasures of Central France. From the diminutive goat cheeses of western France’s Loire, Poitou and Touraine, to the aromatic Époisses de Bourgogne; from the famous wine region, Burgundy, to the rustic mountain cheeses of Franche-Comté and Savoie, there is a staggering breadth of fromage that hail from the heart of France.
The western area of Central France is goat country. Regional cheeses are made almost exclusively of goat’s milk and are available in a dizzying assortment of shapes, from miniature hearts and bells, to truncated pyramids and small rounds or logs. The shape, achieved by careful hand-ladling of curd into plastic molds, is often unique to an area or cheesemaker.
The snowy-white interior of the cheese serves as a contrast to the various techniques used to create a rind. Traditional rind coatings are varied and add to the intrigue and beauty of the cheese. Among the most famous cheeses, you will find the following:
Selles-sur-Cher (sell-sir-SHAIR), a hockey puck-shaped cheese, is coated with a flavorless wood ash, which creates a stark black contrast to the interior paste. The ash dries out the exterior of the cheese and encourages a subtle ripening of the interior paste.
Valençay (val-auhn-SAY) is a cheese with a fascinating history. Originally pyramid shaped, the cheese morphed in form after Napoleon’s disastrous Egyptian campaign, when the point was removed so as not “offend” the Emperor on his frequent visits to the region. The cheese itself is delightful, with an edible wrinkled exterior of beige and sometimes blue molds.
Sainte-Maure de Touraine (SAHNT-MORE de ter-RAN) is a wonderful, log-shaped cheese that can be enjoyed fresh or ripened. Traditionally, the cheese has a straw through the center, which helps preserve the shape of the delicate curd during handling. As the cheese ripens, it becomes more robust and even flinty in flavor, a perfect foil for the region’s crisp, mineral-heavy wines. Look for a stellar local version of this cheese from Juniper Grove Farm from Redmond.
Savor these delightful goat cheeses with fresh fruit and bread. They are enjoyed for breakfast, lunch, appetizers and dessert in France. There is no wrong time to serve them. Opt for dry, minerally white wines to complement the tangy cheeses.
Just to the east of the goat-centric Loire River Valley lies the famous Burgundy region. The rocky, fertile terrain produces the famous Burgundian wines and is home to an assertively aromatic classic cheese, Époisses de Bourgogne (ay-PWAHZ de boor-GON-yuh). Made since the 16th century, production had all but died out after WWII. In the late ’50s, renowned producer M. Berthaut began producing the cheese again, using a traditional recipe.
The small rounds of cheese sport a bright orange rind, a hallmark of the washed-rind style. Newly formed wheels of cheese are bathed three times a week in ‘Marc de Bourgogne’, a local pomace brandy, encouraging the growth of beneficial bacteria that contribute to the color, flavor and texture of the cheese.
Ready to eat, the cheese should fill its wooden container and look moist and plump. The distinctive aroma is powerful and barnyardy (yet not unpleasant) with a distinct earthiness. The rind is edible if desired and masks a straw-colored interior that should bulge, not run. Serve with big, red wines in the Burgundian style or a sweet dessert wine as a counterpoint to the intensity of the cheese.
Heading east from Burgundy, the terrain becomes steep and mountainous, the gateway to the Alps. The Franche-Comté and the Savoie regions are home to hearty cattle that are the wellspring of the French Gruyère-style cheese: Comté (recently discussed in the “Mountain Cheeses” segment) and several other notables.
Morbier (MOR-byay) is a deliciously rustic cheese, simultaneously meaty, nutty, fruity and all-around delicious. The distinctive look of the cheese makes it easy to spot in the cheese case, appealing on the plate and adds a bit of history and lore.
The cheese was originally produced as an adjunct to large-wheel production of Comté. At the end of the day, Comté producers would inevitably have a bit of extra curd but not enough to produce a 70-pound wheel. They would press this curd into the bottom of a smaller form and use ash from their cheesemaking cauldrons to rub on top of the curd to protect it during the night. In the morning, the cheesemaker would add another layer of curd on top of the ash, forming a wheel with a horizontal layer of ash. Today, most of the Morbier made does not adhere to this evening/morning production, but it retains the ash layer as a nod to tradition.
Tomme de Savoie (TUM de sah-VWAH) hails from the picturesque terrain of the Haute-Savoie, with towering Alpine peaks and lush valleys. The cheese is the ultimate peasant food; it has a pastoral quality that shines through in the finest versions. Look for the small rounds of cheese made from raw milk and labeled ‘fabriqué en Savoie’—made in Savoie—to savor the authentic product.
Simultaneously beefy, nutty and exhibiting a pleasant saltiness, the cheese is actually made with partially skimmed milk but with abundant flavor not found in other “light” cheeses. This is an easy-to-love cheese that deserves more attention and acclaim.
Morbier and Tomme de Savoie share a rustic simplicity that is particularly enjoyable with light-bodied red wines and accompanied by salami, olives and crusty bread.
The breadth of cheese styles available from Central France is absolutely stunning. It’s easy to enjoy several varieties on a plate, comparing and contrasting their unique attributes and savoring the true artistry that graces French cheese!
Christine Hyatt is a Cheese Educator and food writer. She currently serves as the Vice President of the American Cheese Society and welcomes cheesy questions at email@example.com.