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1,000 varieties & 56 AOCs. There's a lot of cheese made and eaten in France, and it's pretty safe to say that there is no more famous French food than cheese. Cheese defines the French.
The country's love affair with this dairy product knows no boundaries. Remember what Charles de Gaulle said about trying to govern a country with 400 types of cheese? Well, today there are probably more like 1,000!
In general, our favourite French cheeses are those with an AOC designation. That's Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée (controlled designation of origin), the systems of standrads that ensures both quality and origin.
Cheese is served with most dinners, however it's always served after the meal, never before. The French are fiercely proud of their myriad of different cheeses and prefer them to be unpasteurized.
We thought we'd share this excerpt from our book, How to Cook Bouillabaisse in 37 Easy Steps: Culinary Adventures in Paris and Provence, where we visit an artisanal cheese shop in Belleville (the 20th Arrondissement) and Jérôme givs us a tour & tasting of this famous French food. By the way, that's Jérôme hand in the photo!
Dozens and dozens of cheeses are laid out on shelves of simple wooden slats. Cheese colors range from white to grey to dirty brown to bright orange. My nose twitches at the blend of aromas…
"Cheese is very important to us in France. Fifty years ago there were perhaps four hundred varieties; now there are over one thousand!
"But only fifty-six cheeses are classified with denomination. Camembert, Brie de Meaux, Roquefort, Epoisses, Chèvre, and Tomme de Savoie are just a few… "
Jérôme's display of cheeses is impressive.There are large round flat discs, big balls of various sizes, Hershey Kisses shapes, hockey pucks in wrinkled dark grey, little round pyramids with ash and dried spices on the outside, and rounds as big as a bistro table. Jérôme shows me one that looks like a moon rock and another that looks distinctly like the dust bunnies you find under the bed…
An amoeba-shaped, orange cheese in a round wooden box is Mojette, a fromage maison (that is, made by the Beillevaire dairy), shaped like and named after a bean traditionally grown in the Loire. The crusty moon rock is a Mimolette – a melon-shaped, neon orange cheese that gets its deep orange colour from annatto, a tropical dye, and its unusual pock-mocked exterior from cheese mites that are introduced during the aging process to give the cheese its distinctive flavour. With other cheeses, bacteria and molds perform a similar function.
"All of our yogurt, crème fraîche, butter and the fromage maison are made using raw milk," Jérôme explains. "At the dairy, fresh milk arrives twice each day from local farms. When it arrives, the milk is still warm from the cow, at the perfect temperature to make cheese."
Jérôme holds up little gray log, which he tells me is a Saint Maure de Touraine.
"This is called the Masterpiece of Touraine. See how it is rolled in black wood ash with its blotchy rind. It happens like this with age.
"This cheese is famous for the long piece of straw in its middle. No it's not for drinking milkshakes. The straw makes the handling easier. Let's taste." Saint Maure is a goat cheese with a lovely, musty, citrus flavor…
The wrinkled hockey puck shape is a Rocamadour from the Lot, a department in southwestern France. "Like many French cheeses, it is named from the town. Rocamadour comes from a very young goat's milk. It can be eaten after just 14 days of ageing. Like this, fresh and young, it is very good on tartines and salads."
I'm surprised by the variation of these cheeses from different regions, where the animals feed on local grasses and grains. I swear I can taste the goût de terroir, the flavor of the place.…