In a fit of pique and pre-emptive depression after the Brexit vote, I decided there was only one way to cope. As an Anglo-Australian woman living in France, I needed cheese. Thankfully, it was the Friday market, and my favourite cheeseman would be there.
I have a bit of a special relationship with my cheeseman and his sidekick – let’s call her the young cheeselady – or at least I like to think I have a special relationship. I see him at least once a week and he recognises a fellow cheese lover. Every Tuesday – and frequently Friday – I waltz up and ask the same question “what’s good today”. And they respond “everything is good”. With a laugh. They’re both honest about their likes and dislikes, and they have a fine memory for what I’ve tried and what I’ve not. It has become one of my favourite weekly rituals – the waltzing, the asking, the tasting, the eventual purchasing of pretty much every cheese they suggest, generally in larger quantities than I really need.
When one thinks of French cheese, brie is generally the first thing that comes to mind. But there is so much more, particularly in the Alps where Beaufort and fondue is about all anyone things of. Instead, there is a wide range of soft and hard cheeses, from cow, sheep, and goat’s milk, most of it raw.
As I stood before the cheese counter yesterday, I found myself suddenly uninspired. I selected a local tomme de chèvre, a creamy St Felicien, a buttery Morbier, and truly vile St Nectaire. Perhaps “trop fait” would be a more diplomatic term. When I tasted it at the market, I grimaced and mumbled that it was strong. But I purchased it anyway because I like a challenge. And I refuse to be defeated by a cheese.
After that introduction, it is worth starting with that one. The smell, as soon as I open the fridge, is overpowering. It only gets stronger as the St Nectaire sits on the shelf, warming before lunch. I slice a side off the wedge and remove the rind. Sometimes I eat the rind on the cheese but in the case of these Alpine varieties it is neither obligatory nor generally recommended. It is hard to describe the smell. Sometimes when cheese is a little over, it has almost a mouldy smell as if it has lost its flavour. Other times, you get that sour, acrid scent that burns into the back of your nose. As I write this, I am waving the cheese to my nose in an effort to narrow down the stink. It is almost rotten, like the durian of the cheese world. Like old gym socks left in the bottom of the washing basket, only to be discovered 3 months after a particularly sweaty soccer match. Played in the mud. it smells like a sweaty saddle pulled off the back of dying horse. I am rarely defeated but this is too much. I pair the cheese with a slice of ripe summer heirloom tomato and bread, which helps it go down. Perhaps in the end, the bark is worse than the bite.
Generally, when I find the cheese not particularly to my liking, I hide it in a quiche or tartiflette, where melted its flavour is more tolerable. Or if the cheese is especially boring, I might also use it to cook. But in this case, I am not quite sure what to do with the odorous offender.
But perhaps I simply had a particularly bad example of the St Nectaire, which may well be quite pleasant. The cheese itself comes from the Auvergne region in central France. The smell – sometimes more pungent than others – is described as straw and mushrooms, the fragrance derived from an ageing process in an old cellar. A classic ‘farmers’ cheese, it should be buttery and soft, with a slightly sour taste. The cheese has a long and rich history, having been apparently served to and admired by King Louis XIV. Anyway, if you see it, give it a go, but perhaps have a couple of glasses of wine first if you can smell it from across the room.
The second cheese, the St Felicien, is the opposite. A crowd
pleaser with its creamy texture, while raw milk makes it just interesting enough to place it above brie on the adventure scale. It doesn’t have a rind like the bries or camemberts of French cheese fame and it is absolutely delicious. It melts in your mouth, spreads perfectly on fresh bread or toast, and has a far more complex flavour than I expected.
Apparently, it was originally made from goat’s milk in the 13th century but now this Rhone-Alps cheese is made from raw cow’s milk. It is related to the particularly pretty St Marcellin, which is about half the size and served in little terracotta pots at the local cheese shop to preserve the shape. Left out, the cheese will ooze over the counter as the flavour improves. If you are a soft cheese lover then keep this one on your list.
The next cheese, the Morbier, has an interesting story if not a particularly exciting taste. The Morbier is from modern-day Jura, north of Geneva and was originally a layered cheese. The dark line splitting the cheese comes from the original way it was produced. When farmers reached the end of the day, they often did not have enough curds to make a new cheese so they poured what was left in the mould and covered with ash to preserve it. In the morning, they poured a new layer of cheese on top. Today the cheese is generally made in one sitting.
The cheese itself is semi-soft with a buttery, delicate flavour. I find it almost a bit like a havarti, which is probably a sacrilege. Anyway, it is delicious if in my opinion a little unexciting. Or perhaps only in comparison to the first two.
The final cheese was what I almost treat like a comfort cheese after over two months in the Alps. A Tomme de Chèvre – indeed any Tomme – is always delicious, easy to pair, and agreeable to almost anyone. It is mildly adventurous without being too overwhelming. And I always find it satisfying. In fact, I often just slice it off and eat it alone, without bread. I find its substance satisfying. Perhaps this is what I like most about the local semi-soft cheeses. The sheep’s ones are a little more delicate while the chèvre is, for want of a better word – a bit squishier. Sometimes they have air bubbles that somehow just make it more fun. If you really want to piss off the French, this is a good cheese to play with … if you dare.
It also tastes fabulous with tomatoes, fig jam, honey, and pretty much anything else. The longer I live here, the more I can appreciate the subtle differences between them, and delight at finding a new one from the Aravis or the Bauges.