Le fromage de la France

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Before we leave France some brief, unscholarly reflections on one of France’s greatest passions: cheese. Charles de Gaulle is quoted complaining of the difficulties of governing a country with 246 varieties of cheese. I wonder how he came up with that number. It may be approximate the number of identifiable types of cheese manufactured at an industrial scale but cheese production in rural France seems a much more fine-grained activity and the results extraordinarily diverse.

At the tiny Saturday market in Ax-les-Thermes yesterday there where 3-4 traders selling cheese. Each had more than a dozen varieties. Most were unlabelled, unwrapped and seemingly unique. Before they are cut many of the wheels (of various sizes and shapes) don’t really look like food at all. They are covered in mouldy rind that might be white, brown, grey, red or green. They might be covered in seeds, spices or ash. They might be wrapped in leaves or strips of bark.

Once cut the interior might be pale yellow, ivory or white. It might be crumbly, creamy, smooth or bubbly. It might be shot through with mould or ash. The taste might be sharp or mild. It might be pungent or unimposing.

A lot of the cheese is made from raw milk and seems very much alive. The cows, sheep or goats might do half the job by making the milk but the microbiology seems to be where much of the diversity arises. While I like Bega cheddar, Australian cheese seems very sterile (literally) by comparison. A French cheese platter looks very earthy with many unusual tastes and surprises.

It’s also worth noting the food handling is much more casual in Europe. Pieces of cheese, bread, pastries or meats might all be well-handled as they are being weighed and wrapped. Herd immunity must be quite strong.

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