The Normandy Cheese Olympics

Of our French tours, the distinctiveness and quality of the local cuisine varies widely. Whatever locals might tell you, the Loire Valley and Bordeaux are generic ‘French’ – delicious when done well, but you can get it anywhere.

The Dordogne is very distinctive, based as it is almost entirely on duck and goose with some walnuts, truffles and strawberries thrown in for variety.

Tuber Melanosporum, that's a Périgord Truffle to you
Tuber Melanosporum, that’s a Périgord Truffle to you

The best local cuisines (of our French tours so far) are undoubtedly Provence and Burgundy. Burgundy has an amazing variety of traditional dishes, oeufs meurette, jambon perseillé, coq-au-vin, escargot, boeuf bourguignonne (all Burgundy dishes, not ‘French’!) which are done better in-situ than anywhere else.

Provence is more varied, much healthier (they actually use fruit and vegetables in their cooking!) and more reliant on olive oil and provençale herbs, notably thyme and rosemary.

So, what of our latest tour, Normandy? It’s another cracker! Although outside France Normandy means William The Conqueror and Operation Overlord, within France it means cheeses, sea-food, beef, dairy dishes and apple orchards. Normandy has a great culinary tradition and we will be exploring it all on our new tour in 2012.

Camembert cheese
Camembert cheese
The most famous cheese is Camembert, traditionally made with milk from the pure-bred Norman cow. I always think of Camembert as a boring cheese, basically something to eat before dessert if you don’t like cheese. In Normandy, as you may have guessed, this isn’t true.

AOC Camembert is made from unpasteurised milk, by law. First the cheese is made by adding mesophilic bacteria and rennet to the milk, and stored in disc-shaped molds. These are turned regularly for 48 hours, but at that point the cheese tastes of nothing, this is where it starts.. The key part is the spraying with the Penicillium camemberti mould, the same mould used in the manufacture of Brie. The cheese must then mature for a minimum of 3 weeks.

Camembert is made in distinctive small discs 4 – 5 inches across (10 – 12 cm), in contrast to the much larger wheels of Brie. The difference in taste between these two cheeses is largey because of this greater rind to cheese ratio.

Nice as proper Camembert is, it’s far from France’s best cheese. In fact, to borrow from John Lennon, it’s not even the best cheese in Normandy. One of the things I’m looking forward to is introducing people to Livarot and Pont L’Eveque.

My favourite is Livarot, known as Colonel on account of the distinctive stripes of dried reed wrapped around the small discs of cheese.

Livarot, the 'Colonel'
Livarot, the ‘Colonel’

It’s an AOC cheese (Appellation d’Origin Controllee – if you want to make a Livarot you must come from the region and follow strict rules), is matured far longer than traditional camembert, and luckily for us is best between May and September. This year we have two Normandy tours planned, July 28th – August 4th, and August 25th – September 1st, so the Livarot will be tasting beautifully.



Livarot cheese
Livarot cheese
I ought to give an honourable mention to the 3rd AOC cheese, Pont L’Eveque, probably the oldest of the Normandy cheeses. Made in square rather than circular molds, while not as pungent as the Livarot it certainly out-smells the Camembert, earning it the silver medal in my very own Normandy Cheese Olympics.

So there you have it:
1. The Colonel
2. Pont-L’Eveque
3. Camembert

We’re fortunate that one cheese-making factory is still open to visitors – just one in the whole of Normandy – in Livarot, and we’ll be able to see and taste all three of these lovely cheeses on the 2nd day off our Normandy tour.

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