All the stuff you never knew you needed to know about life in rural France.....and all the stuff the books and magazines won't tell you.

Friday, 5 March 2010

Say cheese

Herve (cheese)Image via Wikipedia
It is the way things disappear, without even as much warning as the Cheshire Cat.

You go into the supermarket intent on buying cheese, only to find that the franchise on the cheese counter has changed and the cheese you wanted and have bought there since the last time the franchise changed is unavailable. You cast a sour eye over the new offerings and resign yourself to looking for your favourite in another supermarket - yet another complication in grouping the trips to town.

As it is, with more and more cheeses now being made from pasteurised milk, I find that some of my old favourites have lost their special flavour anyway. Life is becoming more and more bland.

And before anyone tells me to buy cheese on the market stall - forget it. Their products are remarkable only for the cheek of the stallholder in proposing such prices.

I have never been unduly enchanted by the small town French market  here , though the main Saturday market in the big town is worth the occasional effort  - here - for fish, and for all sorts of bargains in the ethnic section, from chinese veg to brassieres in sizes that would contain three Carla Brunis at once, but getting good cheese seems to be more and more of a struggle.

I grew up on English cheese, in a period when the grocer sold mini truckles of Cheddar for Christmas, to be cut carefully in wedges and the cheesecloth laid back reverently over the remains.
Working in London, I could buy cheese in Berwick street market that had been turfed out by Harrods and Fortnum and Mason as being past their self imposed sell by dates - wonderful stuff, magnificent Stilton and whole raw milk rounds of Brie that I can still taste if I cast my mind back to it - at prices which encouraged the eyes bigger than the belly syndrome, leading to a rash of cheese and wine evenings with friends.

Holidaying in France, cheese had been disappointing, ready cut portions straight from the refrigerator, except a meal at Chartier in Paris, where, in that tourist dive, they served a ripe Munster with caraway seeds which showed me a whole new style of cheese, one which, on moving to France, I followed up.

I was lucky. Refrigeration of dairy products was not as developed as it later became, so there was a chance that your cheese would ripen naturally and not be stopped off by storage at low temperature.
You could take it to excess. Madeleine recalled a trip to the Jura with her father who decided on the return to buy three or four Munster cheeses. They were placed in the boot and the car rattled its' way back hundreds of kilometres in the blazing summer heat. Those were the days when cheese was cheese and the automobile was distinctly low tech, so the cheese began to ripen at alarming speed, infecting the interior of the car for weeks, and the family was force fed Munster which put her off it for years.

A friend who has recently sold his holiday home in France always used to take back raw milk Camembert, which while working, he would put into a bun as a sort of sandwich. He bought several, and stacked them in order, being a methodical guy, unaware however that his secretary had a habit of dusting and tidying shelves with no respect whatsoever for cheese dating.
He made his usual sandwich one day, ate a few mouthfuls, then was called away. On return, his sandwich had opened and he could clearly see maggots crawling through his cheese. Maggots whose colleagues he had no doubt eaten already. Gagging, he grabbed the cognac bottle and took a good swig..and another.
On his return to France he was recounting this tale to Madeleine, and she and her husband creased with laughter.
'What was so funny?'
'Well, in French 'tuer le ver', to kill the worm, is to have the first drink of the morning. Trust the English to take it literally!'

I have never managed to taste the Petit Gris from Lille, reputed to be banned from taxis by local bylaw, but was delighted to find Maroilles, pungent and tasty, and wonderful cooked as a tart.
The family from Belgium would bring down Brussels cheese and Herve when passing the summer with us...the Brussels cheese was held not to be as good a traveller as the Herve, but it can only have lost by a short head as even when wrapped in greaseproof, in plastic and sealed in a tin, the boys would find themselves accused of having taken their shoes off long before they crossed the Loire.

There is a specialist cheese shop in the big town which claims to ripen cheese perfectly, but the prices are appalling and on the one occasion I bought a Langres there I was not impressed. Mark you, at those prices I take a lot of impressing.

I notice too, that people seem to be eating less cheese generally. You go to lunch or supper with French friends and where there used to be a selection of cheeses that had clearly been got at by the family and a couple of fresh bits, there now seems to be a whole new selection, bought for the occasion.
Didier's wife explained
'Well, it's expensive now...goodness only knows why when the farmers are kicking up about low milk prices...and it just doesn't seem so good. Perhaps we're just getting old...'

Perhaps, morelike, we remember when cheese tasted of something.

The Association Fromages de Terroirs is attempting to put its' finger in the dyke, publishing a calendar of scantily clad 'les girls'  here to encourage people to eat traditional French cheese as opposed to the lumps of plastic packed plastic available on the supermarket shelves.

I think it's facing an uphill battle.

So am I, as I start the trek to find a new source of Fournols and Fleur d'Aunis.
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