Swans Commentary » swans.com September 21, 2009  



French Cheese: A Cultural Metaphor?


by Graham Lea





(Swans - September 21, 2009)   The epicure and gastronome Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin (1755-1826), a passionate cheese man (and probably the inventor of the low carbohydrate diet), would have been shocked at the disappearance of a cheese course from many menus fixes in French restaurants today. His famous aphorism was that Un dessert sans fromage est une belle à qui il manque un oeil [a dessert without cheese is like a beautiful woman with only one eye]. (1) Of course cheese is usually available en supplément, but it is likely to be the proprietor's selection and not a glorious array of fine cheese offered or left at the table.

Quite simply, good French cheese has become rather expensive, so many restaurants decided to cut out the cheese course. Living costs in France have risen faster than incomes, which nonetheless still average more than those in the U.S. Nor did the export to Europe of the US financial crisis help matters. Fewer French people are eating out in restaurants (as distinct from in the contagious fast-food places). Domestically, the French 35-hour week adversely affected the economy, particularly in the service sector, although steps are underway to claw back some hours. The recent reduction of TVA (La taxe sur la valeur ajoutée -- value-added tax) in restaurants from 19.6% to 5.5%, with stringent conditions associated (wine is excluded, for example), has resulted in only four out of ten restaurants taking advantage of the reduction. (2)

Gone are the days of dairy farmers making a little cheese and taking it by donkey to the market. Nowadays, and understandably because of rather fierce European regulations, the farmers and artisan cheese makers all want a stainless steel fromagerie (and an air-conditioned four-wheel drive vehicle, in addition to their white camion). This has put up the price of cheese. Of course there are some other factors: the pestilence of the hypermarchés, and the relentless marketing of the factory cheese processors, coupled with a sad decline in discrimination.

It is not being Francophilic to state that French cheese is the best in the world. There is not even a near-competitor for quality and variety. The basic requirement is good lait cru (unpasteurised milk) from happy, well-tended animals: vaches (cows), chèvres (goats), brebis (ewes), and ânesses (asses). The grass here in the Pyrenean foothills grows very quickly, providing excellent grazing, with five hay crops a year if animals do not graze the field. The cows produce most excellent milk, with a layer of cream that varies in size by season. The variation in climate in France also helps to support a wider variety of cheese, since coolness allows less salt to be used during production, while lower acidity makes it possible for interesting moulds to develop.

Cheese production may look simple, but it has taken centuries to develop the expertise that gives the unique and delectable taste to many French cheeses. Affinage (maturing the cheese) is a very skilful business. Shortcuts in factories produce a different, inferior product. Some cooperatives produce good cheese, but this varies regionally. It is sad that many people have not had the opportunity to taste excellent cheese. Reservations in the U.S., the UK, and Nordic countries about lait cru are political, not based on microbiology, and certainly not on the taste of cheese made from unpasteurised milk. It is curious that the United States has more cases of listeriosis than any other country, although this results mostly from infected meat, with a few cases arising from cheese imports from some Latin American countries. (3)

As a result of strong international competition, the French have had to become increasingly proficient at marketing. They rested on their wine laurels too long, but the same mistake is not being made with cheese. France remains the world's leading exporter of cheese by value and quality.

There is an increasing demand for good cheese both in France and in export markets, which may help to contain rising costs. Those of us who like fermier- and artisanal- made cheese should pay tribute to the sacrifices of stalwart cheese eaters who consume the factory-made, processed product, because it keeps the price of fine cheese down.

I am told that there are many people who eat massive amounts of perhaps the world's worst cheese. It is sprinkled on meritless dough, with all manner of low-quality ingredients, in stingy quantities (by way of personalisation) and then put in a hot oven. Hurrah for the pizza! is their rallying cry. Watch out for the speeding delivery boy is my advice. And beware of Wisconsin pizza cheese, which is a bastardisation of mozzarella, and probably the blandest cheese in the world. The mafia would have been more successful had they obtained a patent on pizzas, or enforced a tribute of a few cents on every pizza sold, rather than messing with heroin or cocaine (which ruins the sense of smell, the US National Institutes of Health notes).

As for cheeseburgers, it seems that they use a new kind of plastic cheese, along with other chemically-mutilated imitations of real food. The hormones in the meat seem to be in insufficient doses to allow men to have babies (but let's keep an open mind: there may be exceptions). These hormones no doubt contribute to the cute, manly breasts and the gargantuan size of some consumers. Excessive devotion to the pizza and cheeseburgers puts Americans in seventh place in the world as cheese consumers, trailing the Greeks who are the world's top cheese eaters, followed by the French, Italians, Swiss, Germans, and Dutch. Cooking with pre-grated cheese often results in disappointment: a small amount of good, freshly-grated cheese is likely to give a far better result.

Charles de Gaulle was reputed to have asked Winston Churchill "How can you govern a country which has two hundred and forty-six varieties of cheese?" (4) Today there are certainly more than a thousand different French cheeses, but no list could be complete in these dynamic times. We shall mention just a few.

Take Le Brie for example, which originally came from the Seine-et-Marne département. Most is sold from a refrigerated cabinet in a supermarket. This may be handy for the masses, but the product offered is tasteless caoutchouc. The real thing should not be kept in a refrigerated cabinet but offered for sale when it is getting runny in the middle. It is best obtained from an affineur who can advise on which day it will achieve its best condition. Brie de Meaux has a white rind, while Brie de Melun is distinguished by a textured, more brown crust: both are protected by the appellation d'origine controllée (AOC) designation. Sometimes you come across Le Brie Noir, but mostly around Paris. As for Camembert, unless it is made from lait cru by an artisan, it should be avoided as it cannot be ripened properly. It is a deserving prizewinner for lack of taste, and falls into the category of swallowable chewing gum.

Roquefort (from ewe's milk, mostly aged in an immense artificial cave in the Aveyron) is a very well known blue cheese. A strongly-flavoured rarity, Laguiole, is made by from the milk of cows that graze in summer at up to 1500 metres on the Massif Centrale. Each cheese weighs a challenging 45 kilos. Our area produces the Tomme des Pyrénées: the cows are milked at the same farm where the cheese is made and aged. It is commonplace to find that cheeses made identically, but on adjacent farms, are distinctive in taste as a result of different approaches to affinage. I found it took many months to get to know and appreciate the subtleties of the variations. Finally, goat's cheese, and particularly the widely-available chèvre frais is offered for sale when a few days old, although some is aged. It is a wonderful accompaniment to excellent bread, or can be grilled and served with salad for lunch, for example.

If you cannot taste the cheese, it may be wise not to buy it (with a few obvious exceptions). Most cheese should be freshly cut, if you are not buying the whole cheese, and wrapped in special waxed paper. Good cheese should never be sold wrapped in plastic or foil. Sniffing is an essential part of assessing good food, especially cheese. It should not reek of ammonia, as factory cheese often does, nor be devoid of smell when brought to room temperature (chambré) before serving it.

Cheese has its etiquette, less elaborated than that for wine. Only a few foreigners cut off and discard the crust of soft cheeses: just have pity on them. People with bad manners (or none) cut off the tip of a presented segment of cheese, instead of taking a sliver, rather like a piece from a round cake. The French eat their cheese without butter but always with bread, before the dessert (unlike the British who have it after the dessert, prefer special dry biscuits with it, and like to end on a savoury note which is better for the teeth).

In 1862, Louis Pasteur and Claude Bernard did their first experiments with what became called pasteurisation, to find a way to prevent beer and wine from turning sour. Brillat-Saverin would no doubt have been dismayed that the milk used in the cheese named in his honour in the 1930s was pasteurised.




1.  Brillat-Savarin's classic work Physiologie du Goût, ou Méditations de Gastronomie Transcendante; ouvrage théorique, historique et à l'ordre du jour, dédié aux Gastronomes parisiens, par un Professeur, membre de plusieurs sociétés littéraires et savantes has been in print since 1825 [Echo Library, 2008].

It was translated by MFK Fisher: The physiology of taste, or meditations on transcendental gastronomy. Limited Editions Club (George Macy Co.), 1949 [A new printing is expected from Everyman's Library, 1 October 2009].  (back)

2.  TVA : quatre restaurateurs sur dix ont joué le jeu de la baisse des prix. Ladepeche.fr 2 September 2009.  (back)

3.  Bruce Crumley: "Big stink over 'smelly cheese'," Time, 6 May 1999.  (back)

4.  Ernest Mignon: Les mots du Général, Fayard, 1962.  (back)


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About the Author

Graham Lea is a British writer and journalist, inter alia for the BBC and The Register, where he covered the Microsoft antitrust case. For many years he was a geologist. Apart from London, he has lived in Canada, the USA, and the Netherlands before settling in la France profonde with his Dutch wife. Lea's work for Swans brings another bit of international flair to the coin français.



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Published September 21, 2009