Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Pâte Molle à Croûte Fleurie

We are beginning our three-week voyage through a sea of French cheeses, with specialists in every type of cheese coming to give lectures on what they know best. Today it was Christophe Le Faucheur talking about bloomy-rind cow's-milk cheeses, particularly Camembert and Brie. These cheeses have been made for centuries, but there isn't much documented history in this category, according to M. Le Faucheur. The first mention of a Brie-like cheese dates back to possibly apocryphal records from 764CE or so when Charlemagne happened to taste one when he stopped for a meal at a monastery somewhere. He didn't like the look of the rind, so he removed it, whereupon the bishop who was hosting him advised him that it was the best part, and that he should eat it. Apparently Charlemagne was charmed by the cheese, and requested that several crates of it be sent regularly to him. At the beginning of the 13th century, Blanche de Navarre, Comtesse de Champagne, reminded French royalty how nice these cheeses are by sending 200 wheels of it to then-king Philippe Auguste, who doled it out carefully to attract women he was courting. Brie became known as "the king's cheese" and it was easy to keep the kings supplied with the stuff, since the region it's produced in is near Paris and the cheeses could be easily transported down the Marne as well as overland. Louis XVI was particularly fond of Brie de Meaux, which is now one of the AOP-designated cheeses of France, along with Brie de Melun. There are also the non-AOP versions Brie Noir (Brie de Meaux that has been aged for 18 months), Brie de Provins, Brie de Nangis, and Brie de Coulommiers.

The history of Camembert also goes back to the 8th century, though not under that name, just as "fromage d'Auge." A definitive yet still hotly-debated origin for today's Camembert dates to 1791 when a woman named Marie Harel sheltered a refractory Catholic priest - one who wouldn't swear loyalty to the newly-Revolutionized French government - who came from the Brie-producing area, and who shared the secret of its production with her. Her daughter, also named Marie Harel, continued to make the cheese, and it was her grandson Victor Paynel who (it is said) served a Camembert to Napoleon III while that luminary was on a train trip at the inauguration of the French national railroad and thus introduced the cheese, via the new fast shipping methods, to Paris and the rest of France. Whatever the truth of the matter, cheese producers in and around the Camembert region were some of the first to start actually setting down rules for the production of this cheese, and the first "vrai Camembert de Normandie" syndicate was formed in 1909 (although AOC status wasn't granted until 1983). While at first the cheeses were shipped without protection on pallets of straw, the invention of the wooden boxes made transport of this soft cheese much easier, as well as allowing for the opportunity to add colorful labels. A box of Camembert was a standard part of the French soldier's rations in World War I and because of this - as well as a ferociously aggressive marketing campaign by the syndicate - Camembert quickly became one of the best-known and most-consumed cheeses in France. It's currently number 2 in sales.

We talked about technical stuff I won't bore you with here, and about difficulties like "poil du chat ("cat's hair") that can develop on poorly-made cheeses, and we talked about the fact that even though cheeses like Camembert are ubiquitous (both the real AOC version and a million or so other cheeses that are allowed to use the name, just not with the "de Normandie" part) there's still a real regional variation in French cheeses. Some other bloomy-rind cheeses I'd never heard of include Le Petit Trôo from Montoire in the Vendôme, and a cheese from near Orléans called Frinault invented by a man of the same name in 1872, and one called Mottin Charentais (which has a goat's-milk version called Trottin Charentais) from the Atlantic coastal area. None of these three cheeses are really well known or distributed outside their area of manufacture. M. Le Faucheur gave us some examples of Brie-style cheeses from other countries, like the English Somerset Brie and something called Vermont Farmhouse Brie from the USA. When he said that he couldn't find very many other examples of bloomy-rind cheese in the States, I said that there were a lot of small producers but, as in France, many times those cheeses are only available locally, and that I hadn't heard of the ones he listed, not being from Massachusetts or Louisiana. Since he was only discussing cow's-milk cheeses in this category, I couldn't talk about Pat's cheese or the many other goat- and sheep's-milk varieties (as well as cow) that people are making over there. There's still a fairly widely-held belief that Americans don't appreciate or like good cheese, I think, and it's true that even with the growing popularity of small-scale producers selling at local farmer's markets on up to excellent cheeses made in large quantities, many people are more familiar with cheddar mac'n'cheese or other dishes where cheese is an ingredient than with treating cheese as a final course to a meal, by itself. But we're learning.

We tasted some cheese at the end of the class, one of the "vrai" Camemberts sold under the Auchan (large supermarket chain) label, and a non-AOP version that frankly was much better. A heart of Neufchâtel was tangy and creamy-crumbly, and the cylinder of Chaource (top photo) had a paste that was so light it looked and felt like it had been whipped, with an almost chèvre-like edge. The Brie de Meaux was a bit rubbery and bland to me, but the Brie de Melun (below) was well developed in flavor. A brief nibble of the rind and paste from each, and I set the rest aside on my paper plate, sighing a bit at the unfairness of it all ...

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