Say Cheese!

In Europe, Food, France, World Cuisine on March 4, 2012 at 6:32 pm

The display at our local cheese shop. The picture shows one-fourth of what they have on offer.

My friends think that since I am in France, my evenings are spent having wine and cheese. The French think I am awfully cool to have adapted to French cheese. I don’t understand either. I have cheese once in a while, mostly during holidays with my in-laws and frankly, coming from India, getting used to a bit of milk was hardly my biggest problem.

But both contentions have a basis in clichés as well as facts about French cheese. Most people remember Charles de Gaulle asking, “How can you govern a country which has over 300 types of cheese?”. Now personally, I don’t see what the problem is and as far as excuses go Mr. De Gaulle, that must have been on the list of the most lousy ones. However, the quote is well-remembered because it expresses not only the variety of cheese in France but also shows how important the origins of cheese is in France. It is said that the French can tell you which part of the country you are from depending on which kind of cheese is produced there. Some say, they are better at figuring out geography based on cheese production than by official  names of regions and departments 😉

Buying Cheese is no easy task. You need to analyse, evaluate, discuss....

Most of the cheese has a protected designation of origin or a protected geographical origin much like wines and they are classified under four categories: farm cheese, artisanal cheese, co-operative cheese and industrial cheese. Industrial cheese or factory made cheese is what you find in supermarkets and are definitely not the most prized but if you are in a habit of having cheese every so often, it is the most affordable.

But why would the French find it cool instead of taking it for granted that their cheese would be appreciated? Probably because not everyone does. A lot of people find it too strong or too smelly. They made it to the top of this list of the 10 most stinky cheese. Again, when most of my problem with Western food, yes including the world-renowned French food, is its blandness, the definition of too strong can be relative. Also as far as smell is concerned, there again, I think it is a matter of personal taste. A lot can depend on what you are used to and then there is the question of acquired taste.

When I was studying in Delhi, I remember some friends from the North-east of India complaining that they can never cook in the common kitchen because all the non north-east inhabitants complained of the smell. Bengalis in north India complain that it is difficult to rent a house somewhere because no one wants to rent out houses to Bengalis who are always cooking fish which as most people from North India (where fish rarely makes it into the diet), will tell you, stinks. I love fish and I love north-eastern food and I don’t understand what the fuss is all about. What I do understand is that what smells wonderful to me can smell like a stinking garbage-can to someone else. Unfortunate but that’s how it is. So if someone says that people who like French cheese like stinky smells, that is not true. We don’t like anything that smells stinky, we just don’t find them stinky. DEAL WITH IT!

Selles-sur-Cher. Its mold is on the outside which can be eaten or not, depending on your taste, and the inside is soft goat cheese which absolutely melts in the mouth! Yummm!

The other thing that might evoke an Eeek or a Yuck is the mould on the cheese. Now, ever since we were kids, we have been told that food items with mold on them is food gone bad and have to be thrown away. That it is unsafe to eat. So when you see cheese with mould on it, your reaction is obviously, “WTF? Yikes! Throw it away!“. Try not to do that in front of your French cheese-vendor or your french friends and acquaintances or you might find a sudden drop in the number of your friends on your friend-list on Facebook 😉

Some of the most prized cheese in France has mold on them. Of course, it can be mold like in a rind around the cheese, in which case you can just not eat it or it can have mold through-out the cheese, in which case, you have only two choices: eat it or leave it. The entire series of “blue cheese” like Roquefort, Gex, Sost etc. have mold through-out that gives them their distinctive flavour. And before you turn up your nose, ask your cheese-maker how the cheese is made and he will explain to you the complicated process to get the mold to be just right. Ah, so you can’t just put the cheese out to rot and hope for the best? 😉

The Roquefort in all its moldy glory!

The cliché is that Americans can’t stand French cheese. But it’s not just the Americans. Australia and New Zealand had banned Roquefort for almost 10 years before lifting the ban in 2005. However, their worry had more to do with the cheese being made with unpasteurised goat milk rather than the blue mould in the end product.

(Disclaimer: Do not try the following at home. And if you do, at least don’t blame your upset stomach on me!)

I was probably lucky to have had an “unsafe childhood”, when it comes to food. My grandmother, who had seen enough hard times and been through enough misery to understand the value of what one had, refused to throw anything unless there was no other way around. Toothpaste tubes would be cut down to take out the smallest bit of toothpaste left in it, small packages would be reduced to small paper strips to be used to light gas-burners when another one is already lit, thereby not having to waste match-sticks etc. And when it came to food, it was the same thing. The sides of the bread would be cut-off before eating if the sides had been developing fungus. Same thing with vegetables. Her policy was, why throw it away when most of it is still good? I guess I grew up having very different ideas of safe and unsafe food. And frankly, I have survived pretty decently I can tell you.

The extent to which cheese and its origins are important in France is evident from the following anecdote. Before I narrate the incident you should know that there are two kinds of Brie (a kind of soft cheese made from cow’s milk) which have official recognition in France: “Brie de Meaux” and “Brie de Melun”, the former being more popular.

Last year, the Brie de Meaux was replaced on the dining table of the Ministry of Finance by the Brie de Melun. Why? A case of mistaken identities you say? You don’t know the French nor their obsession with cheese very well, do you? It is said to have been replaced on the orders of the Secretary of State of Employment, apparently citing that he refused to give publicity to his arch-rival, Jean-François Copé, the mayor of Meaux.  Ah yes, of course, what better way to malign your political rival?

In any case, the end result was that the “La Confrérie du Brie de Meaux” or the Brotherhood of the Brie de Meaux (er..yes..) made a public demand to Christine Lagarde, who was the Minister of Economy and Finance at that point to restore the Brie de Meaux on the dining table of the Ministry of Finance! They said that they found it unfortunate that a question as serious as gastronomy is being subject to childish political battles! Er..ahem!

In any case, now you know that you must be careful talking cheese with a Frenchman. As for me, all this talk of cheese is just making me hungry and craving for cheese. I better run before the Sunday market closes!

  1. Brilliant post. It will be July before we get back to France. My first time being blown away by the French regional cheese was some years ago in a city called Saintes. One cheese vendor had over 100 cheeses. He proudly told me that they all came from within a couple of miles of his village.
    I can’t wait to be back there sitting in the shade, drinking a €3 rosé and sampling regional cheeses with the finest bread on earth.
    Happy Days,

    • Thanks! I am glad you liked my post! And I wish you lots of wonderful cheese on your visit to France!

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