I never felt like I was really an American until I went to London for the first time in 1993. It was then that I realized that while I differ vastly from most Americans politically, I’d be lying if I didn’t say I share many cultural traits with the people of my homeland. After all, I’m relatively loud, ignorant of other cultures and I really like cars (especially when they go boom). It was a wake up call that even more things than I thought were socially conditioned.
Going to Normandy, the home of Camembert, was a wake up call in a different way. I’d never gone somewhere where Americans were so welcomed and appreciated. That we were there right around June 6 certainly had a lot to do with it, but it wasn’t fakey-fakey kissing up to Americans who they need to buy their cheese, it was a real tears-in-the-eyes sense of history that had the cheesemaker, sales manager, and chef at our restaurant thank us for coming to their part of France and thank us, as Americans, for sacrificing so many lives on June 6 1944.
Our cheese tour group was eight people: Four from a U.S. cheese importer/distributor, three retail buyers and one sub-distributor. Molly Mc40 and I had arrived a day early so we were picked up by our French contacts on Saturday June 7 and went to the airport to collect the rest of the group. From there we drove many hours to Normandy. Though we were there for the cheese, our hosts insisted we make time to visit Pointe du Hoc. It was an eerie memorial. Foxholes and bunkers still remained and I couldn’t help but think that there were still bones under the large blown up pieces of concrete.
I don’t think it was indented this way, but starting the trip this way made tangible the whole “sense of place” concept that underlies the French take on traditional foods. While most of us Americans were all, “Oh yeah, that WWII thing did happen here…” it was still living and breathing 64 years later to the lifelong residents of Normandy we met.
In fact, after the tour we went to dinner at a private restaurant. We had been promised a surprise and this was it, Chez Roger, a place one could only eat if you knew the chef. In the large country home that doubled as the restaurant, it was only our group and a large group of American veterans and relatives of D-Day participants.
We ate one of the best meals of my life and got incredibly drunk on Calvados shots (apple brandy from the region) with the restaurateur. Molly Mc40 danced to Edith Piaf with the French people sitting at the bar. We toasted back and forth with the other table. The chef made people wear funny hats. It was an auspicious first night.
Miraculously unhungover, our professional cheese tour visited our first cheese factories the next day. The Isigny Ste Mere Cooperative has two plants, one where they make their fresh and soft-ripened cheeses: Fromage Frais, Camembert, Brie, Pont Leveque etc. , and another where they make Mimolette and St Paulin.
The soft-ripened Isigny factory was the only fully mechanized plant we visited. Actually, that’s not true. They did have one room, not being used on our visit, where they make hand-ladled Camembert. But otherwise it is a bigger ripened cheese factory than I thought it was possible to make good cheese in. As longtime readers know, I do have a little industrial factory fetish, and though I don’t often choose cheese from large factories, there is something mesmerizing about the precision… Watching the molds scurry across the room to get ladled the requisite five times, the steam gassing out of the release pipes, the Camemberts rotating in perfect unison. It’s all very pretty, a social realist ballet.
So no, I’m not here to bash factory-made cheese. Especially when it’s made by a cooperative that undoubtedly has helped dairy farmers stay on the land more comfortably than we can ever think of in this country. We drove all around, and while I can’t say that I saw even a majority of the co-op farms, there is just nothing like the confinement dairies one can see along I-5.** Also, they make really good cheese. Their soft-ripened cheese is not stabilized (unlike most factory bries) and it actually ripens like brie should. The ones that are illegal to sell in the US are, as you’d expect, better than anything we can get.
The one bone I’d pick with them is that, along with Lactalis, they are pushing to change the A.O.C. definition* of Camembert de Normandie to allow their microfiltered version to bear the name. Don’t get me wrong, it’s fabulous cheese. But I think if one isn’t a purist with name controls, they have the potential to lose all their meaning. Knowing that the co-op farms (with many of the farms going back generations) are still producing the milk makes me a little more sympathetic, but not 100% sympathetic.
One of the best things I tasted, btw, is pretty unavailable in the USA but I will try to get some in around the holidays. This little cheese is a Camembert washed with calvados and covered in bread crumbs. Oh man….
After that, we got back in the van to go to the Mimolette factory. For the record, don’t let the French hear you compare Mimolette to aged gouda/edam.*** It’s orange and sweetens with age but good Mimolette is meatier, denser, and more cheddary, not quite as sweet as a similar aged Dutch cheese.
After the tours, we were served way too food and cider then got in the van to drive 5 hours to what appeared to be an old castle where we ate more and drank more and eventually fell asleep
Next up was another cooperative, Sevre et Belle . In the heart of France’s goat country, S&B make cheese that a whole lot of you are probably familiar with if you buy the fancy imported stuff. Le Chevrot, St Maure Caprifueille, Le Chabichou du Poitou, and one of the best affordable Bucherons around (Buche Rondin). And they also make butter. Raw milk butter with salt crystals. Awesome, awesome butter.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. First we visited a farm with a couple hundred goats. Not only did they have goats though. As pets they had peacocks, pigs, love birds, deer(!), chickens, fish and probably anything else you could name. They all had houses someone had built for them. It was possibly the cutest thing ever. Then they fed us a huge meal in their garden.
We got to try our hand at ladling the curd into the molds and frankly, it was pathetic. The workers snickered as our curd hills collapsed and we scooped uneven shovels into, and all over, the molds. Clearly they didn’t get too many tours and once they realized almost none of us spoke French they mocked (I assume) openly.
Their cheese, while produced in fairly large quantities is one of the most dependable value-for-money imports because they pack them in boxes, not in plastic and the cheeses can breathe as they travel across the Atlantic. For years, we had problems with the Chrevot and Chabichou (in particular) drying out too much, but over the last year they’ve really figured out how to make the shipping work, and insisted that distributors buy less at one time not sit on huge inventories.
I learned that S&B also own the Fontinelle brand. I always wondered where those awesome goat tommes and “morbiers” came from.
I can’t believe I didn’t take a picture of the cheese spread they set out for us but it was huge. Every cheese they had, including in both raw and pasteurized versions, was there. Hopefully someone else in the group took a pic because we promised to exchange photos
It’s corny but true that since my early days of cheese selling, fourteen-ish years ago, I’ve always wanted to visit the Roquefort caves. It’s one of the great symbols of cheese. Natural caves, indigenous mold, accidental discovery, the wonder that someone would be the first to put something like blue cheese in their mouths… it’s all there.
It’s also a symbol for American blue cheese makers. I have heard many the (apocryphal) story about someone’s granddad going to the Roquefort caves and stealing the culture off the walls so that they could bring the secret ingredient home. Now one buys their Penicilium Roqueferti from a culture house, but the romance lives on.
Roquefort was France’s first name-controlled cheese, i.e. in such a cheese-centric culture as France, it was recognized that the name Roquefort was so special that it had to be protected from imitators. It developed in relative isolation in a valley with natural caves and “fleurine”, crevices that let the caves breathe, yet not so much that the caves would be sensitive to temperature changes from weather. They are perfect environments for cheese aging, the reason why so many people will lie to consumers about their caaaaaaaaves in today’s dynamic retail environment.
We visited the Gabriel Coulet Roquefort**** factory and cave.
Gabriel cuts an imposing figure on the Roquefort landscape:
Coulet is my favorite Roquefort. It’s aged longer than other Roqueforts and, the “Petit Cave” at least, has bluing all the way to the rind. They are also still a family business owned by the family that still lives right above the cave. Currently they’re on their 5th generation and raising a 6th.
Every wheel is cut and graded. Some of the best never leaves Roquefort. The best of what is sold to outsiders is the “Petit Cave” brand that has the orange label (and which is the one we sell). Here’s a Petit Cave Roquefort chosen because of its bluing right up to the rind
After our tour we got to go upstairs, drink champagne and sing happy birthday to one of the owner’s sons.
Our next stop on the French cheese tour was the Savoie. Probably best known for Tomme de Savoie, it’s a beautiful part of France full of Mountains and lushness and the happy cows that California mostly just pretends to have. I do think there’s a limit to our abilities to measure the happiness of dairy animals, but if cows can be said to be happy, then wandering around with a few friends in big grassy fields an awesome mountain views should qualify.
After a nausea-inducing fast ride through the mountains we arrived at La Tournette. This is the house that the Sales Manager grew up in. It’s a cheese factory now, but after the tour, he showed us where the kitchen used to be and where he lived. Nice place to grow up, eh?
Tomme de Savoie is a much asked-for cheese at our store, but one which has a problem getting here in good condition. It shouldn’t, mind you, because it is a cheese built to be able to withstand some temp and transit issues, but many distributors buy too much, and demand isn’t quite high enough (at least in the Bay Area) so I try to buy fresh stock until it seems old and then not carry it while the distributor sells off that batch. Like Cantal, Tomme de Savoie gets fishy when it’s old.
Tome des Bauges is a relatively new name-controlled cheese, similar looking to Tomme de Savoie and from the same general area but with a fattier, bigger flavor. Raw milk, made in copper vats, from local breeds of cows that pasture all summer… Good stuff. The best thing is that right now no one is distributing it here so when I special order it, I know my batch will be in good shape. It also has less makers and stricter controls than Tomme de Savoie, so hopefully there will be less variation between producers. If you feel like scrolling down and downloading a PDF, there’s an interesting case study on the action farmers and producers took to make Tome des Bauges a protected designation cheese here.
Besides Tome des Bauges, the same cheese plant also makes Gruyere de Savoie. Well, they can’t call it that anymore due to “Gruyere” name control reasons, but they are still a traditional Savoie cheese, 80-90 lb. alpine monsters of cheese shaped more like Beaufort than Comte.
These are some hot and steamy photos! All proteolytic action!
We’ll have aging cave photos later! Just hold on. Because those are the real cheese pr0n money shots!
The last two nights of our trip were the only days we spent in the same hotel. The Hotel Arbenz is half in France and half in Switzerland and it may have been my favorite place to stay. They let us watch (France fail miserably in) the Euro Cup, they let us have a birthday party for on of our group, and they didn’t seem to mind that we got really, really drunk.
The last day of my French cheese tour was all about the big cheese. We were in the Jura, home of Comte. Next to Emmenthal, Comte is one of the heaviest cheeses out there. Generally fatter than Swiss Gruyere, Comte wheels are 80-100 lbs. of dense, wide, hard-to-handle cheese.
Gruyere and Comte (often called Gruyere de Comte) are basically the same cheese, just made on different sides of the border. A similar ages, the Comte tends to be more moist, buttery and often nuttier. The Swiss Gruyere tends to be sharper, firmer and more pungent and onion-y. Both the Swiss and the French will point to these differences as symbolic of character flaws of the people across the border. But you, you don’t have to choose. You can love them both.
Comte is an awesome cheese, great for any kind of cooking and also good to snack on right off the block. If you don’t know it, and your budget will allow it, substitute it or mix it in with mozzarella in any recipe. Mmmmmmm. And with potatoes? Double mmmmmmm.
Comte is also awesome because of its name control protections. It must be made with cooperative milk. Villages all have small cheese making facilities called fruitieries where all the milk from the area goes so that they can make such big wheels of cheese. The one I visited only makes about 12-15 wheels a day. The name control also limits the amount of cheese individual fruitieres can make, keeping large scale international agri-business out of the picture so far.
After the cheeses age a week or two they are transferred to a centralized aging facility. The one I visited was in a rehabbed military fort that Napolean designed to keep the people who brine Gruyere on their side of the border. Fort Des Rousses was decommissioned when France stopped compulsory military service and is now the home of 50,000 or so wheels of Comte.
It’s a lot of Comte
First we went to the fruitiere to watch the cheese getting made.
I was lucky to quickly get out my camera and snap this picture. He you can clearly see the difference between the color of cheese from the Summer where the cows are grazing (yellow) and the winter where they are not (white). It’s all yummy, but the yellower the better (all other things being equal)
That’s a lot of Comte.
*AOC is France’s name-controlled designation. This means that if a cheese bears a certain name, that is must meet requirements for location of production, ingredients, and make process.
**They also were developing a steam-power system to run the plant, using scrap wood from the factory and surrounding farms to heat the water. Awesome.
***even if, as a non-name-controlled cheese, a fair amount of cheese sold as Mimolette may be aged Dutch Edam imported to France and aged.
*****I find badly translated websites tres endearing. “The fourth generation… knew how to conquest over the years the hart and the papillae of lovers of Roquefort from France and abroad expanding strongly sales in the world.