“How can you govern a country with 246 varieties of cheese?” Charles de Gaulle quoted as saying in the Les Mots du General by Ernest Mignon.
This prompts another question; the same one that was on my mind as I boarded the plane to Provence this summer: “Is it possible to taste all 246 varieties of French cheese on a single trip?”
My affinity for cheese started at a young age, as is the case with many of my northern European compatriots. A staple for breakfast, lunch and sometimes even dinner, on top of a slice of dark bread, cheese was as much a comfort food for me as I imagine it is for the French.
The variety on offer where I come from, however, bears no comparison – my repertoire at that time was limited to bland, semi hard cow’s cheeses and a creamy spreadable cheese containing little pink morsels that looked like spam but were marketed as ham – and it was only in my late teens that I discovered such umami packed flavour as that associated with goat’s cheese, roquefort, comte and reblochon – all of them now firm favourites.
Over the years, I actively sought out more obscure French cheeses and became increasingly fascinated with the great and ever increasing variety I discovered. Some people argue there are as many as 400 distinct types of French cheeses, with many sub-varieties within each type, but no-one really knows the exact number, which only adds to the intrigue.
Out of Marseille
The only sensible way to explore Provence is by car, so upon landing in Marseille we rented one then played “paper-scissor-stone” to decide whether to go directly to the villa we’d booked to drop our bags or (and this was my suggestion) head straight into the countryside in search of some idyllic, French charm. I won – so off we went.
The French countryside is one of the most seductive places on earth and the area in southeastern France is particularly enchanting with the breeze from the Mediterranean rolling inland over hilly terrain. We made a lunch stop at a small terrace cafe overlooking the city of Marseille and were soon tucking into a cheese platter with Epoisses de Bourgogne, a pungent unpasteurised cow’s milk cheese from Epoisses in Cote-d’Or; Saint Paulin, a mild, creamy, semi soft cheese made from pasteurised cow’s milk; a mild Camembert and a Sainte-Maure de Touraine, which is unpasteurized cheese made from full fat goat’s milk and recognisable by the straw that runs through the middle in order to guarantee the authenticity of its EU PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) certification. Alongside this fat feast were fresh figs, pear slices, almonds, walnuts and honey, together with sprigs of lavender and enough baguette to feed an army.
Cheese has been produced in France for thousands of years and is today one of the country’s trademarks. French cheese can be divided into several groups depending on their texture (soft, pressed or crumbling), the type of milk used (cow’s, goat’s, sheep’s), preparation (pasteurised, unpasteurised) and production. In France, true farmhouse cheese is produced with a particular farm’s milk, while artisanal cheese is produced in relatively small quantities using milk from one or a few farms. Co-operative cheese is produced using milk from local producers in larger quantities, and finally Industiel is a factory made cheese with milk sourced locally or regionally.
The French take their cheese production so seriously that as many as 56 cheeses are classified, protected and regulated under French law, the majority of which are classified as appellation d’origine controlee (AOC). Roquefort cheese, for example, has carried this certificate since 1925. The European Union has also bestowed its prestigious PDO certificate on a number of French cheeses. The certificates mean that the milk used in the production of the cheeses must come from a specific area, and the method is under strict control to ensure consistency.
To pasteurise or not to pasteurise?
One of the best things about visiting France on a cheese exploration trip is the sheer variety of cheese sold there. Of all the cheeses made in France, only around 35% are exported. Some productions are just too small and the cheese may not even make it outside the province in which it is made, other cheeses never make it as a large-scale export product because they are made from unpasteurised milk. For example, only unpasteurised milk cheeses that are aged more than 60 days are allowed for sale in the USA.
Having practically grown up on a farm, I’m deaf to warnings about unpasteurised milk. The milk may indeed contain pathogenic microorganisms that can make the most delicious cheese fest into a living nightmare before one can even say E.coli. However, raw milk from healthy, grazing cows also contains important bacteria that aids the ageing of the cheese and lends it richness and flavour. And that’s where the secret to a lot of France’s most celebrated cheeses lie.
Over the next couple of days we ate our way through Marseille and its environs, one cheese at a time. In the end, we didn’t manage to taste all 246 varieties, but we did savour both pasteurised and unpasteurised cheeses, as well as cheeses made from cow’s, sheep’s and goat’s milk and even a combination of the three. We also tasted cheeses that had aged for years and cheeses that were made only a few days earlier. We ate them with sauces, on breads and by themselves.
Needless to say… we loved them all.
Prepare for a smooth Cheese Tasting Trip
Enjoying the best of France is much easier with a little preparation. Here are some tips and links to make your trip as smooth as some of the cheeses you’ll try.
- The Marseille official tourism site is full of useful information about the historic city and its attractions. http://www.marseille.fr/sitevdm/jsp/site/Portal.jsp?page_id=687
- Europcar has a branch at Marseille-Provence Airport for added convenience. http://www.europcar.com/car-rental-FRANCE-MARSEILLE.html
- Domaines & Terroirs arrange culinary tours all over France. http://www.domaines-terroirs.com/
- L’Epuisette is one of the most popular restaurants in Marseille and a must when visiting the city. Cheese is not their specialty, but expect excellent seafood. http://www.l-epuisette.fr/site/en/