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French Cheese


Busboy
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OK, this may be a dumb question but I spent too much of the weekend discussing this with my wife not to ask it. Please bear with me while I set it up.

French cheese is better than American cheese (but I'll bet our pasturized, process cheese food beats their's hands down) because it is made with raw milk and is "alive." Our government forbids the importation of unpasteurized cheeses unless they are at least 60 days old.

Now, when I drop by the local fromagerie for, say, some Epoisses or Pont l'Eveque -- what I believe are formally know as "stinky" cheeses -- I usually find them less ripe than I prefer, and I let them for a week or so until they get nice and runny.

So, since I like cheeses that are old, anyway, will eating French cheeses in France actually be better than eating them here and, if so, why? IS there something besides aging at work here?

Not trying to kick up a ruckus or anything, and am certainly willing to take the sueriority fo French cheeses on French soil of faith, but my inner Brillat-Savarin wants to know.

PS If anyone hasn't read it, the NYT article on Epoisses -- read while I had a gooey disk of the importable stuff in the fridge -- that got my mind racing, is here:

www.nytimes.com/2003/05/28/dining/28STIN.html

I'm on the pavement

Thinking about the government.

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Fat Guy wrote a great piece on French cheese in the US a while back. You should try to source that article, as it was a whole lot better than what I'm about to do.

1. Like most perishable goods, cheese is best eaten as close to the place of manufacture as possible. Long distance transport at uncertain temperatures can really harm a good cheese.

2. Eating French cheese is like drinking Burgundy -- the name is only the descriptor; it is the producer that counts. Most of the cheese that hits US shores is of the more industrial variety, and not made by the great small producers.

3. As you note, the US forbids importation of cheese made with raw milk if the cheese is not aged for a certain minimum of time (refer to FG's article for the exact rule). Most, if not all, soft French cheeses fall in that category, so just about all of the cheese you get in the US has been made specifically for the US market.

A quick story. The first time I went to Paris on business I stayed at a nice hotel off the Rue de Bac. Feeling flush, I went to Barthelemy and bought quite a bit of cheese. Needless to say, my eyes were a whole lot bigger than my stomach (all appearance to the contrary notwithstanding), and I stored the cheese in my in-room minibar. By the next morning, the smell in that little fridge was so overpowering that I apologized to the hotel. They had none of it. When I returned from the office, I had some bread and fruit waiting for me with a cheese knife!

A long way to say that French cheese really stinks in France, but not so much in the US. :biggrin:

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Well, you triggered one of my favorite issues, and I rarely have a chance to expound on it. The saddest things about French cheese is its non-availability in the US. At least not the cheese I like, such as runny and smelly. At CDG, I always buy one last Reblochon, on the firm side, so it will be ready when I reach home in CT; I buy a Reblochon because it doesn't stink much, but it still is not the best, a good Reblochon has to be a Reblochon fermier, an artisan's cheese, rather than a mass produced thing. Where else but in France can you get a fresh goat cheese, mild, rich, creamy, tender... I can't help but wax poetic.

In New York, Zabar's or Balducci's have the best available within reach, but it still isn't the same. My family (everyone lives in Paris) makes fun of me because I even have cheese for breakfast, I am so deprived in America! In Paris, even in not terribly elegant neighborhoods there are cheese shops whose owners are "maitre-fromager" and they can show you how to choose a good cheese and give you advice after asking you a thousand questions about your food and wine preferences: a valuable friend to have indeed.

I can just see and taste that baguette with a chunk of Cantal stuffed in its soft part, between the crusty crust, fresh out of the boulanger's oven! A slice or two of Poilane lathered with Epoisses.

My friendly MD who watches my cholesterol level like a hawk, told me that it takes approximately 2 weeks after I return from France for my levels to go back to their slightly elevated selves; so I never get a blood test before that period has passed. He knows... and understands! A year ago, I met him in Paris and showed him my favorite haunts... now he only insists I exercize. :wink:

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All that makes sense, thanks. After reading your responses I wonder if the aging thing has just become shorthand for a number of issues.

At any rate, we are going to France in 2 weeks and my wife circled every cheese shop in Particia Wells' "Food Lovers Guide to Paris" on a map, so we'll be able to find a bite wherever we go in the city, and taste the difference ourselves.

Years ago I used to buy St. Jovin (I think) from a shop shop here in DC and bring it to work with a baguette for lunch -- where my rommate complained to my boss about the smell. One day they stopped carrying it, and when I asked why, the owner rolled her eyes and announced that the government wouldn't let her bring it in any more.

So, one of my first goals in Paris is to find a square of St. Jovin, and find out that it's even better than I remember.

Edited by Busboy (log)

I'm on the pavement

Thinking about the government.

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At any rate, we are going to France in 2 weeks and my wife circled every cheese shop in Particia Wells' "Food Lovers Guide to Paris" on a map, so we'll be able to find a bite wherever we go in the city, and taste the diffeence ourselves.

Here is a perfect day:

Go to Barthelemey and ask for whatever you want -- just tell them that you plan to eat it within an hour or so (they will feel the cheese to find the one that is in prime condition). Then head to Poilane for bread (great rolls also) and perhaps an apple tart or two. Or perhaps some macaroons at Gerard Mulot.

Then head to the Luxembourg gardens to feast!

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You mean, spend a day enjoying Paris rather than standing in line for hours with cranky tourists for a brief glimpse of the Mona Lisa, standing in line for hours with cranky tourists to go to the top of Eifel Tower and standing in line with cranky tourists to see Notre Dame?

I'll see if that's allowed.

Edited by Busboy (log)

I'm on the pavement

Thinking about the government.

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In New York, Zabar's or Balducci's have the best available within reach, but it still isn't the same.

Danielle I harte to be the barer of bad news but Balducci's in Greenwich Village is no more.

I stopped by their replacement Citarella last weekend and purchased some nice ripe epoisses (Berthaut) and Gorganzola dolce (Dipalos is better) and a St. Marcellin that was prime.

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Busboy, the ability to select a certain cheese in several stages of taste and texture is the difference between cheese buying in France and the USA. I like pungent cheeses such as Muenster (and even in France it is not a "no-brainer" to get one exactly the way one wants it), but in general I seem to be in Danielle's camp as I prefer unctuous, somewhat mild cheese (Reblochon, the three greats of Normandie:Camembert, Pont L'Eveque and the stronger Liverot) and classic goat cheeses aged"a point" or in the middle. I always look to include cheese from the region (usually the Alpes-Maritimes where I am mostly when I am in France) and like to buy them directly from the farmers at the market; so if you are outside of Paris, you should try to do that. Otherwise, the rare times I am in a cheese shop in Paris, I look for one or two cheeses I either have never heard of or are made in small quantity. Don't be shy about asking for tastes and saying no to any one that doesn't hit you. I envy you and Mogsob and would love nothing better than spending a couple of days in Paris scoping out cheese sellers.

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I am going to Normandy and looking forward to eating the local proct, though my wife says driving to Pont l'Eveque just see the cows is a little ridiculous. What cheese goes with calvados, I wonder? I don;t see how we can possibly eat all the cheese that we'll probably buy.

We'll also be heading down south, so I assume that goat cheeses will be in order. Any thoughts?

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Thinking about the government.

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Busboy, I am tempted to suggest something other than a Calvados with cheese as it is too high in alcolhol content, after all it's a type of brandy ; in Normandy, I would be tempted to try a local cider if you like the idea of an apple taste with your Camembert or other strong Normand cheese. I tend to like red burgundies with such cheeses; however, I am not a connaisseur, so I would like to hear about personal experiences in matching cheeses and wines. Why don't you promise your wife a taste of Pont-L'Eveque cheese after you see the cows: she is bound to find seeing them less ridiculous!...she does have a great sense of humor.

If you are heading south toward the west (Perigord), there is a great website for cheeses. Do you read French? It may still be interesting to look at if you don't, as it looks like a most complete list of goat cheeses, by type and characteristics.:

http://www.gastronomie-en-perigord.info/pr...duits/fchev.htm

Once there, look under "Denomination et AOC" in the left column: then you'll see a lot of pictures to help you identify them.

Scamhi, I do mourn Balducci's departure, but I wanted to give it credit in passing.

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Okay but what I'm confused about is the question of where, really, is the sleaze . . .

We all know Epoisses is the big example that's always trotted out (along with Brie and Camembert) of raw-milk cheese you can't get in the US. The Times just did a whole feature story based on that premise, right? I mean, there isn't much of a story there if you remove the forbidden-fruit aspect, right?

But as you go through the story you find all these little tidbits of information like, "The final touch in producing a great Époisses is the periodic washing of the rind of each cheese, eight or nine times during the ripening period, which lasts at least 28 days but can go as long as eight weeks."

Math recap:

1 week = 7 days

2 weeks = 14 days

3 weeks = 21 days

4 weeks = 28 days

5 weeks = 35 days

6 weeks = 42 days

7 weeks = 49 days

8 weeks = 56 days

FDA rule = 60 days

9 weeks = 63 days

Okay, so if Epoisses made by hardcore traditional methods is totally acceptable when aged 8 weeks (56 days) what's the big deal about the 60-day FDA regulation? Likewise, Louisa provides us with the info from the Berthaut site indicating that the Epoisses from this producer would be pretty close to 60 days old under any circumstances.

So I read this whole article presumably about this cheese I can't get, and then I walk into Zabar's and pick one up? What's up with that?

Then there are comments in the article like, "Époisses that old is not generally available so I bought one to take with me back to my hotel, reflecting as I did so that at 90 days of age, it was well within the F.D.A.'s requirement for raw-milk cheeses." This sort of calls for elaboration, no? I mean, this seems to indicate that the best Epoisses is older than 60 days anyway ("Mr. Gaugry offered me a taste of his personal best, a cheese that was almost three months old"). Okay, so where's the story here?

Then we have the paragraph about how "The legal Époisses nearest the United States is in Montreal . . . " which really doesn't make sense in light of the above.

Somebody help me out here. Does the whole story boil down to "You can't buy immature, underripe, Epoisses in the US, but you can buy really good mature Epoisses no problem" ???

From Quoting a post in Cheese Sleaze IICheese Sleaze II.

There's rarely a simple answer. Several reasons have been cited here. Cheese doesn't travel all that well. Temperature and storage conditions are often very important, if not critical. The best cheeses are infrequently made in the large factories. The best chevres I've ever had came not from one of Paris' finest affineurs, but from following a handpainting sign and driving up an unpaved road to find a ramshackle cave or garage with a few dozen cheeses.

Danielle got to the Calvados question before I did, but the best beverage to have with a Livarot or Pont l'Eveque may be a good cidre bouchée. With luck, both the hard cider and the cheese will be "fermier," that is, produced on a farm by an artisan and the labels will not be found in the US, although I'm not even sure how many fermier cheeses are still being made in Normandy. Certainly the EU is taking steps to put those little goat cheese makers out of business and there's far less really raw milk (lait cru) cheese being made in France today than there used to be twenty years ago.

One factor that hasn't been mentioned is that Americans seem to demand a consistent product (at least middlemen seem to think so) and that calls for intervention in a natural process.

Robert Buxbaum

WorldTable

Recent WorldTable posts include: comments about reporting on Michelin stars in The NY Times, the NJ proposal to ban foie gras, Michael Ruhlman's comments in blogs about the NJ proposal and Bill Buford's New Yorker article on the Food Network.

My mailbox is full. You may contact me via worldtable.com.

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I was actually being a little tongue-in-cheek with the calvados comment, though I probably down a glass or two. Also hunting for lamb pre-salle, which I guess is more Brittany than Normandy, though we'll be down at Mt. St. Michel on the border between the two regions.

The cider suggestion is a good one, though, and we will keep that under advisement, and we will keep eyes peeled for hand-lettered signs.

We'll be in the Vacluse rather than Perigord, but we hope to spend a couple of days wandering aimlessly through the backcountry, another artisanal opportunity as well.

Danielle, I know wine/cheese matches been hotly debated in these pages, but I wouldn't worry about being a conisseur. Drink what you like. I once had a bunch of guys at a local store's Saturday tasting tell me that it was "impossible" to drink red wine with an omlette. I thought they were being unbearably pretentious, so I bought a zin and left. Sue me.

At my house, by the time the cheese comes around we're likely drinking the dregs from 5 or six different wines, mixing and matching as we go. If someone finds a combination they like, they're not likely to remember in the morning.

Sauterne or Barsac with farmhouse cheddar and a fresh peach, though...that's summer.

I'm on the pavement

Thinking about the government.

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I was actually being a little tongue-in-cheek with the calvados comment, though I probably down a glass or two.

It's an old Norman tradition to down a glass of calvados for breakfast. :rolleyes: In the sixties we stopped for a morning cup of coffee in a rural area of Normandy. The shelves in this cafe bar were close to bare with the exception of a couple of bags of potato chips and nuts. There wasn't a croissant, roll or baguette to be seen, so I was surprised when the woman who served us asked if there was anything else I wanted. I asked what else she had and she replied "Calvados, cognac et rhum."

Robert Buxbaum

WorldTable

Recent WorldTable posts include: comments about reporting on Michelin stars in The NY Times, the NJ proposal to ban foie gras, Michael Ruhlman's comments in blogs about the NJ proposal and Bill Buford's New Yorker article on the Food Network.

My mailbox is full. You may contact me via worldtable.com.

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All over France, one sees people drinking alcohol in bars at 8, 9 am in the morning.

Just what I need, a whole nation of enablers. Fortunately, my mother will be travelling with me much of the trip. Though I am half committed to having pastis and Gauloise for breakfast one morning in Provence.

Maybe after prowling le marchee for some artisanal chevre.

I'm on the pavement

Thinking about the government.

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OK, this may be a dumb question but I spent too much of the weekend discussing this with my wife not to ask it.  Please bear with me while I set it up.

French cheese is better than American cheese (but I'll bet our pasturized, process cheese food beats their's hands down) because it is made with raw milk and is "alive."  Our government forbids the importation of unpasteurized cheeses unless they are at least 60 days old.

Now, when I drop by the local fromagerie for, say, some Epoisses or Pont l'Eveque -- what I believe are formally know as "stinky" cheeses -- I usually find them less ripe than I prefer, and I let them for a week or so until they get nice and runny. 

So, since I like cheeses that are old, anyway, will eating French cheeses in France actually be better than eating them here and, if so, why?  IS there something besides aging at work here?

Not trying to kick up a ruckus or anything, and am certainly willing to take the sueriority fo French cheeses on French soil of faith, but my inner Brillat-Savarin wants to know.

PS If anyone hasn't read it, the NYT article on Epoisses -- read while I had a gooey disk of the importable stuff in the fridge -- that got my mind racing, is here:

www.nytimes.com/2003/05/28/dining/28STIN.html

You've got to know, though, that not all raw milk cheeses, and in fact quite a pretty number, are better than Cheeses made in the United states with Pasteurized product.

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Busboy, if you visit Carpentras, there is a very nice cheese shop that has some of the local production. It is in the main shopping square of the town, on the right "leg" as you face into the square. Nearby is also a renown confiserie, the name of which I forget (It begins with "C", maybe Calvet or something) that specializes in chocolate-covered flavored almond paste among others (The raspberry was very good). Those two shops make a stop worthwhile if you are close by, unless you're a nut like me and are an hour or two away.

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Baruch -- the classic wine parings are port/stilton, sauternes/roquefort, muenster/gewurtztraminer, gorgonzola/amarone, chevere/sancerre, camebert/montrachet. Open for debate, I presume, but these are the time-honored ones.

Busboy -- well, if it makes you feel better, there is nothing I like better on a lazy Sunday in Paris than to go to a good brasserie and have an omlette with a pichet of house red wine. If you were serious about your tourist post -- skip the Eiffel Tower and go to the top of the Pompidou center for a better view with no line. Avoid the lines at the Louvre by entering off the rue de Rivoli instead of the pyramid and seek out the other Leonardos (especially his John the Baptist) instead.

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Robert, are you thinking of Confiserie Bono? They also make the best "fruits confits" I have ever tasted (they have a website and also sell their treasures on line) and jams and preserves (not available for shipping outside France), besides chocolates.

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Let's lay out the potential reasons cheese in France might seem to taste better than cheese in the US:

- Raw-milk cheeses illegal in US. We've debunked most of that reasoning. Certainly it wouldn't apply to Reblochon. You can get lait cru Reblochon at Zabar's, I saw it there the other day when I bought lait cru Epoisses from Berthaut. It's aged more than 60 days, so it's entirely legal here. So while this rule can be blamed for the absence of some of the best young cheeses, it can't be blamed for everything.

- Shipping. Maybe. But this stuff is mostly coming by air, right? Whether or not shipping is the explanation in fact, it is certainly a limitation that can be overcome in theory.

- Competence at the retail level. I find this to be the most compelling explanation: good cheese shops in France store and ripen their cheeses properly, so you can get them at their best. Whatever you buy at Zabar's, it may be the identical underlying product, but it is simply placed on the shelf in the refrigerated section for sale -- there's no attempt to nurture and improve it.

- Apples and oranges. Comparing the best Paris cheese shops to American supermarkets isn't reasonable. The hypermarche cheese selections in France aren't so brilliant -- they're better than what we have here, but the apples-to-apples contrast isn't so dramatic. Remember, they eat a ton of pasteruized cheese in France, and a ton of poor-quality cheese regardless of the pasteurization issue.

- Perception. The nostalgia/romance factor can't be overlooked.

- Availability of product. It's entirely possible that the French just aren't exporting their best cheese, simply because they consume it all in-country. This may have nothing at all to do with any regulations or inherent limitations.

- France is in France. Most products are better in their native places, for countless reasons. To focus on French cheeses may be a category error. How are the Spanish cheeses in France, for example, compared to the Spanish cheeses in New York?

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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Robert -- We will be in Vacqueyras, which is just up the road from Carpentras, so we'll hunt down your cheese shop if we're not already grossly overstocked from the markets, and the confiserie regardless. Thanks for the tips.

mogsob -- Am currently locked in debate over a potential Louvre visit. I could easily skip it entirely if it weren't for a special exhibition on Leonardo's drawings that opened this month. Good tips, though, especially dodging the Tower. I find ascending tall structures is a great way to keep the kids happy for half a day, but doing so without long lines is even better. And vis-a-vis the omlettes, my son keeps saying "I'm going to be just like grandpa and eat omlettes every day, because that's the only French I can speak." This better not be true after the unfortunately intense bonding experience we had over a recent French exam, but, but I expect a brasserie and some omlettes will be a great way to get through the jet lag and adjust to the Parisian environment en famille.

Since we're going to be within walking distance of three great wine villages in the South -- Vacqueyras, Gigondas and Beaumes du Venise, not to mention a half hour from Chateau Neuf-du-Pape, we'll do a little research on classic wine and cheese parings not covered above. If it's a tough job, but we'll give it our best.

Fat Guy -- All good points. especially the "set and setting" as doc Tim Leary used to put it. To your point about comparing, say, Spanish cheeses I would suggest -- as long as we're asking the tough questions -- what about the difference with hard cheeses, like a gruyere?

And finally, isn't that Epoisses addictive? We're cleaning out the fridge before we go, and I'm about 2/3 tempted to melt my last chunk on top of the grilled burgers we'll be eating tonight, just to make sure it doesn't go to waste. Of course, I could just keep eating it a spoonfull at a time every time I go into the fridge...

I'm on the pavement

Thinking about the government.

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Baruch -- the classic wine parings are port/stilton, sauternes/roquefort, muenster/gewurtztraminer, gorgonzola/amarone, chevere/sancerre, camebert/montrachet.  Open for debate, I presume, but these are the time-honored ones.

Busboy --  If you were serious about your tourist post -- skip the Eiffel Tower and go to the top of the Pompidou center for a better view with no line.

merci beaucoup! & with an époisses?? a burgundy??

& busboy, @the jules verne 2nd level tour eiffel, the chocolate truffles were "almost" as good as the view :biggrin:

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