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Green Jersey Travel Blog: The cheeses of France
Published on: 21st May 2020
By Charlie Bladon
The cheeses of France
General de Gaulle once commented that it was difficult to govern a country that had 246 varieties of cheese, and anyone who has travelled through France will know that each region has its own, distinct, 'cheese identity'. Often this is a reflection of the landscape and natural conditions, which the French term as 'terroir'. With such a wide variety of terrain throughout the cuontry, it is hardly surprising that there are so many different types, each of which have their die-hard afficionados.
In Normandy, they tend to be soft and sometimes smelly, but what better way to round off a meal than with a slice of ripe camembert or brie? The lushness of the landscape and the prevalence of dairy farming combine to prouce an unctuous, rich, round bundle of pure pleasure which pairs marvellously with a crusty bageutte as a simple but delicious lunchtime picnic. Butter is not required, such is the creamyness of the cheese.
In upland areas you will tend to find harder cheeses; sometimes these are relatively young but on occasion months and months have been spent allowing the flavour and texture to develop - 'affine' is the word the French use for this process. The reason for the long curing process is so that the product could survive the long winters when in olden days villages and farmhouses would be cut off for months on end by snow. Some will resemble a very good, mature cheddar, although slightly more golden in colour, but with that same tang which adds so much to the experience. The Massif Central is a prime area with Cantal cheeses being particularly well known. You will see a myriad of farmhouses offering sales at the door. Often on tour we stop and buy some and take it with us on our journey, a tangible and tasty reminder of the beauty of the region, gradually reducing in size as we carefully slice off small section each lunchtime, accompanied perhaps by a heritage tomato bought at a village market which has a sharpness to it which compliments the cheese wonderfully. The Pyrenees too has some wonderful varieties, such as Ossau-Iraty, made in a tiny area on the foothills of the mountains south east of Pau.
Just as the British have their wonderful stilton, the French have a couple of world famous blues. Roquefort is known as the king of French cheese. It is not cheap but is a perfect blend of taste and texture, having lain in caves underneath the eponymous village for months to mature. You can smell it in the air as you climb the steady hill to the village in the small goat farming area south of Millau where other types of agriculture are impossible due to the rocky landscape and hot climate meaning only rough grass perfect for grazing goats and sheep grows with any degree of certainty. It is said to be an aphrodisiac! Bleu d'Auvergne is another, slightly more crumbly blue cheese variety with a milder taste - it is very good, but I'm a Roquefort fan!
Our advice to our travellers is to try the local produce. After a meal you will sometimes see a huge cheese 'chariot' being wheeled around the restuarant. By all means have some of your favourites, but make a point to ask the waiter what is local. Having travelled through France for 30 years I have never regretted doing so, and on your return home, when you see a familiar name on the supermarket shelves, you can relive your holiday once more, picturing exactly where it came from.
Charlie Bladon: 21st May 2020 14:15:00