Learning about cheese. From the very beginning!
When I first dreamed up The Chain Gang I drove around France for a few weeks trying to decide which region was the most interesting. I visited La Rochelle, then drove 40 Km down the coast to Rochefort. At the Office du Tourisme I asked about their world-famous cheese.
I was a bit surprised that the lady behind the desk didn’t know more about local producers of this famous cheese, and even more surprised when she claimed she’d never heard of cheese being produced near Rochefort.
We eventually managed to work out that the cheese in question was Roquefort, a mere 500 Km away in the Massif Central. I’d like to think we’ve moved on, and now I’ve become a huge cheese expert. OK, that’s not actually true, but the point is that we see a lot of regional cheeses on Chain Gang tours, some are quite interesting, and some are amazing. And still none of them is Roquefort.
Researching our newest trip, in Alsace, you can’t help but notice the mighty Munster cheese – definitely nearer the amazing end of the spectrum – and it got me to thinking of all the special local cheese we enjoy. So I thought I’d produce a brief guide to the most famous of the regional cheeses from our tours.
Bordeaux & Provence
OK, let’s get the easy ones out of the way first, Bordeaux and Provence. Neither of them produce much in the way of cheese, and that’s that. Ironically one of the best cheese ‘chariots’ we’re offered is at La Taverne restaurant in Uzes on our Provence tour. But it’s full of wonderful cheeses from everywhere else.
Let’s kick-off with a winner – the mighty Époisses de Bourgogne from – you guessed it – Burgundy. Wikipedia describes it as pungent.
I’d go along with that. It has a distinctive orange colour on account of being ‘smear ripened’.
A lot of the soft cheeses on our list are periodically washed in a salt solution, or brine, which makes them amenable to certain classes of bacteria – Camembert, for example. Some cheeses are additionally smeared with bacteria cultures, often involving matured versions of the same cheese, to encourage bacterial growth.
Époisses is washed with marc de Bourgogne, the spirit distilled from the skins leftover from the wine-making process. It was awarded AOC status in 1991, is unpasteurised, and was a favourite of Napoléon. And me.
Tuscany & Umbria
Another of my favourites, pecorino. There are a few (but only a few) types of Pecorino, and we’re specifically interested in Pecorino Toscano, which despite its name is made not only in Tuscany but also in some parts of Umbria and Lazio (which we briefly trundle into on our Umbrian tour.
Pecorino cheese is a hard cheese made from sheep milk, and Pecorino Toscano has enjoyed AOC status since 1996. But if its provenance you’re after, this cheese, and the process of making it, was described by Pliny the Elder in his encyclopædic Naturalis Historia. Published in 79 AD! Now that’s a cheese with history!
It can be eaten within 20 days, but as you can see here it can also be matured for up to 4 months. That’s how I like it, and this photo shows Pecorino cheese being matured in Montepulciano, courtesy of Chris Yates.
The cheese most commonly associated with the UK is cheddar, of course. It isn’t unique to Devon, but there is some very special cheddar made in Devon, and I’m particularly thinking of Quickes Cheeses.
On our Devon tour, in Tavistock we typically have a picnic (once in a churchyard, memorably interrupted by a funeral!), and we buy cheese in maybe the best cheese shop I’ve ever seen. I always look for a Quickes cheddar – and also my favourite cheddar of all, the Black Bomber, but it ain’t from Devon.
Nor is Yarg, it’s from neighbouring Cornwall, and notable for being wrapped in nettle leaves. But when we’re in Tavistock, Cornwall is about 4 miles away, so that counts, doesn’t it? It’s a semi-hard cheese made with milk from Friesan cows, and wrapped in nettle leaves before maturing, so the rind is edible, if slightly mouldy.
Frankly there isn’t that much to be said for Yarg, in my opinion, but I like it because its wrapped in nettle leaves, and that’s cool.
When you’re in Dordogne, and you ask if there are any local cheeses, their eyes light up with pride as they propose the famous, appellation-protected cabécou called Rocamadour.
I can only imagine they’ve never tasted any other type of cheese. It’s a goat cheese, it’s small, and you can eat the rind, and therefore lends itself to picnics and salads. Apart from that, it’s just a goat cheese, man. But they’re proud of it around Rocamadour, no question about that.
The Loire Valley
Another region that doesn’t quite have the cheese pedigree you might think. But if you’ve seen a decent cheese ‘chariot’ in a French restaurant, you might have seen the goat cheese that looks like a small log with a stick through it? Bingo! That’s Saint Maure. We can definitely claim this as a Chain Gang cheese, it’s produced between Chinon and Loches, we cycle right through it’s appellation.
Unpasteurised, like all the best cheeses, and made from goat milk. Saint-Maure de Touraine enjoys AOC status, as distinct from the mass-produced and readily available Saint-Maure. The way to tell the difference is that the straw in the AOC cheese carries an AOC marker, and a producer number. What’s the reason for the straw? It’s just there to keep the rolled cheese together.
Where is Saint-Maure on the ordinary – amazing spectrum? The straw gives it novelty value, and that’s about it.
But there is one more cheese worth knowing about, and again you might well have seen it on a decent cheese platter in the shape of a pyramid with the top chopped off. The Loire produces lots of goat cheese – there are just 48 cheeses in France protected by AOC status, and six of them are from the Loire Valley, all of them goats cheese. The pick of the bunch is Valençay. And why the distinctive shape? Supposedly because Napoléon lopped the top off a Valençay because it reminded him of the Egyptian pyramids, where he’d just been defeated. Who cares if it’s true? It’s a great story – the French love Napoléon, anything with a Napoléon angle gets a lift in France.
Normandy is the region above all others where cheese really matters.
They have 4 appellation cheeses, Camembert, France’s best-selling cheese (by miles), Pont L’Eveque, Livarot and Neufchatel. Four years ago, with the London 2012 Olympics on the horizon, I tried to organise the Normandy cheeses into a medal podium. I managed to overlook the oldest AOC cheese in Normandy, Neufchatel. Don’t worry, you can safely overlook it too.
If you want to read how I ranked the other three, have a look here.
Alternatively, for a more balanced and well-informed view, click here.
And what’s missing?
Roquefort, obviously, styled by some in France as the King of cheeses. Me? I’d give that label to Comté, also missing from our list. It’s so nearly in both Burgundy and Alsace, but it ain’t! It’s from Franche Comté in the East of France, neighbouring both Burgundy and Alsace.
Made from cow milk from just two species (Montbéliarde or French Simmental, or cross breeds of the two), Comté cannot be pasteurised. You’ll get a better clue about this cheese if I tell you it used to be known as Gruyère de Comté, but don’t confuse this with the mass-produced Swiss Gruyère available in every French supermarket.
This, for me, is the King of French cheeses. Almost as good as Cheddar!