Cheese: The Big Ingredient

It comes in hundreds of varieties and is an ideal companion to bread and wine. Little wonder, says Christopher Hirst, that cheese is an indispensible part of French cuisine
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As everyone knows, Charles de Gaulle remarked on the impossibility of "governing a country that produces 246 varieties of cheese" (Oxford Dictionary of Political Quotations), though the general might have said "325 cheeses" (Dorling Kindersley's guide to French cheeses) or, according to various web-sites, "over 200", "258" or "263" varieties of cheese. In fact, France produces over 500 cheeses, ranging from Apérobic, approximately the size of your first thumb joint, to Emmenthal, which you could substitute for a cartwheel in an emergency.

As everyone knows, Charles de Gaulle remarked on the impossibility of "governing a country that produces 246 varieties of cheese" (Oxford Dictionary of Political Quotations), though the general might have said "325 cheeses" (Dorling Kindersley's guide to French cheeses) or, according to various web-sites, "over 200", "258" or "263" varieties of cheese. In fact, France produces over 500 cheeses, ranging from Apérobic, approximately the size of your first thumb joint, to Emmenthal, which you could substitute for a cartwheel in an emergency.

But what people don't know is the name of De Gaulle's favourite among this fragrant cornucopia. His fromage de choix was the gnarled, orange-coloured veteran known as aged Mimolette. Napoleon preferred Epoisses from Burgundy, while Charlemagne was a Roquefort man. After initially disdaining this blue-veined masterpiece when the monks of St Gall offered it to him in the 9th century, Charlemagne fell for Roquefort so wholeheartedly that every year he received two whole cheeses. Roquefort's reputation had, however, been long established by the time it received imperial approval. In the 2nd century AD, Pliny wrote that it "carried off the prize at Rome".

In all its manifold forms and flavours, cheese is central to French life in a way that is unparalleled in any other country. Possibly this is because cheese marries so happily with the other great French foodstuffs, bread and wine. (Coincidentally, the manufacture of all three comestibles involves the use of yeasts and bacteria.) A more likely reason is that, cheese enabled a widely dispersed peasant economy to utilise surplus dairy production. The result was a vast palette of rural cheeses, ranging from the spicy Boulette d'Avesnes, a speciality of the Pas de Calais that is volcanic in both shape and flavour, to the oozy Brie of the Ile de France, from sharp Pyrenean goat cheeses to the whiffy Munster of Alsace.

The isolated alpine province of Savoie offers a perfect example of how milk is converted into a product that happily improves for 18 months or more. Each kilogram of Beaufort, a large, hard, nutty-flavoured cheese, requires 12 litres of milk. A 45kg round of the cheese utilises all the milk produced by a herd of 45 cows in a day. The Tarine cows that produce the milk for Beaufort spend their summers eating the grass and flowers of alpine meadows. In winter they come down into the valleys, where their fodder is fresh, not silage. The result, according to London cheesemonger Patricia Michelson, is a cheese with a "rich, savoury fruitiness and grainy, chewy texture - just a small piece fills you up and makes you feel happy".

After Beaufort and Comté, Roquefort is France's best-selling cheese. Each year, 3.3 million cheeses are aged in the legendary caves of Roquefort-sur-Soulzon in south-west France. The ewe's milk for Roquefort comes from as far afield as Corsica, but the distinctive quality of this crumbly, salty miracle of flavour is imparted by the caves. Not only does their complex geology ensure a constant temperature and steady flow of moist air, but the caves are also the only place in the world where you can find the mould Penicillium roqueforti. Though mould is not customarily regarded as a tremendous bonus in most environments, this one is carefully nurtured on special loaves. Carried on the damp breeze, its spores penetrate the pierced young cheeses. Within three months, they are mottled with the familiar blue-grey holes.

Though some French cheeses disappoint - chalky, factory-made Brie, waxy St Paulin, bland St Rémy - there are wonderful discoveries to be made. I urge you to try Epoisses - its golden rind is produced by marination in the local marc spirit. Despite Napoleon's imperial seal of approval, Epoisses died out between 1945 and 1956. Saline-sweet in flavour, it is a glorious, richly satisfying cheese. The mountain villages to the east of Burgundy produce the seasonal speciality known as Vacherin Mont d'Or. Made only between August and March, this rich, oozy, cow's milk cheese is contained with a band of spruce wood which imbues it with a subtle nuttiness. If you want to have just one cheese in your cheese course, this is it.

French cheese offers cooks a wealth of possibilities. Plutocrats might consider bisecting a large slice of Brie horizontally and layering the bottom side with thin sliced truffle. Add a drizzle of olive oil and salt and pepper, then replace the top layer of Brie and wrap in clingfilm for three or four days. The result is a cheese course from heaven. A fondue with Emmenthal, Gruyere, kirsch and wine is one of the world's most satisfying winter dishes (rub the cooking bowl with garlic first). And all Americans who still view the French as "cheese-eating surrender monkeys", should remember that steak in Roquefort sauce is General "Stormin' Norman" Schwarzkopf's favourite dish.

FRENCH FOODIE

Eric Demelle, Affineur

Eric Demelle is an affineur - that's a cheese maturer for those not in the know - who trained for 10 years under a Maître Fromager in Toulouse. A chance meeting with Patricia Michelson, who owns the award-winning cheese shop La Fromagerie (30 Highbury Park, London N5 Tel: 020 7359 7440), brought him to the UK where, as cheese manager, he is a vital member of staff.

The cheeses - bought directly from farmhouse producers - are matured on straw mats in La Fromagerie's three cellars, which must be maintained at a temperature of 11C and a humidity level of 80 to 90 per cent. Demelle keeps an expert eye on their progress and checks the maturing cheeses twice daily.

However, he shamefacedly admits that fromage was not always his consuming passion. As a teenager he wanted to work with shoes because he liked leather, but was so fed up with school that when he heard that the Maître Fromager was looking for an apprentice, he left at 16 to learn the craft of enriching the flavours and aromas of cheese.

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