LE FROMAGE : Story of French cheese

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“I remember the first time I walked into a supermarket in Paris, I stopped dead in my tracks when I saw the cheese selection. There were more cheeses in one place than I had ever seen in my life, stretching out underneath the fluorescent lights. Soft and creamy goat cheeses, hard and strong sheep cheeses, tender brie and blue cheese with thick mouldy veins. There were cheeses of every shape, size and variety. I saw cheese everywhere I went on my travels in France” says Rae Oliver in his blog ‘Truly’. This description perfectly explains the vital role played by cheese in French culture and lifestyle. In fact, there are 350-400 varieties of traditional cheese in France. That means you can taste a new flavour every day!

Early days of cheese

The origin of cheese, though there are various assumptions, dates back to the days of Nile valley civilisations. In some of the Egyptian paintings they depict people filling bags made of animal skins, with milk and store (probably for fermentation). There’s another idea that cheese were first invented by the Nomadic groups in Asia as the milk, which they carried while travelling, had got stirred (churned) and fermented with the movement of the donkeys and had produced cheese. However, it is believed that France got the knowledge of producing cheese from the Romans.

Many different varieties

The cheese, which was invented as aforementioned, soon became more than a food for French people; it became a part and a parcel of the French cuisine and its culture. Every region in France set off to produce cheese with the ingredients available in their locality and to suit the climate of the region. Thus they came forth with differently flavoured cheese unique to each region of the country.

“Throughout the years each region developed its own unique variety of cheese – influenced by the climate and vegetation. For example, Camembert and Brie originate from the northern region while Emmental is only made in the French Alps. Strongly scented Roquefort cheese comes from the south and most goat cheeses are made in Western France” reports Rae Oliver. Though there are more than 350 traditional varieties of cheese and over 1000 varieties together with newly developed flavours, all of them fall into six ‘families’ of cheese;

– Fresh cheese

– Blue-veined

– Hard

– Semi-hard

– Processed cheese

– Soft-Ripened

– Chevre

Actually, depending on the type of cheese, its appearance, packaging and even the eating habits change. For an instance, soft cheese varieties like Camembert and Brie are sent to the market encased in a rind and they are sold as wheels, usually packed in a wooden or cardboard box. But hard varieties like gruyère and Gouda are encased not in a rind but in wax. Also, they are sold as cheese wedges cut from a larger wheel. Also, the cheeses like Chevre (made of goat milk), come in the shape of a log.

Strange, yet cheesy!

Generally, French people taste cheese every day as a part of the meal. Nonetheless, the strange thing is that, cheese is served at the end of the main dish, as a dessert or with dessert while there are thousands of sweet bakery items and ice cream which they love. Anyways, it is the tradition.

Another strange thing about French cheese eating habits is that they don’t eat cheese with crackers as people from other countries do. They typically taste cheese with bread, red or white wine or nuts. Or else, they would just eat it raw! Of course, they love to mix cheeses too. When you are pairing or mixing two varieties of cheese, better if the both are from the same region because then they tend to blend perfectly.

According to the statistics, more than 96 per cent of the French population eat cheese, and a typical French individual would consume up to 57 pounds of cheese per person per year!

By Induwara Athapattu