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Cheese is an integral part of the French lifestyle, and the Gauls like to flaunt about having a different cheese for every day of the year. In a humorous tone, the late French President Charles de Gaulle once said that it was “really difficult to govern a country with hundreds of different kinds of cheeses.”
France continues to be one of the world’s leading producers and exporters of cheese. Not surprisingly, this product, so coveted within and outside the country, is an important element of the its renowned gastronomy. There is a huge variety of cheeses made with cow, sheep or goat’s milk, semi-cured, fresh, blue, hard or soft, but some stand out for their quality and perfect craftsmanship and are protected by the strict French Designation of Origin (AOC) and the stringent laws of the European Union’s Protected Designation of Origin (DOP).
Cheese lovers are probably acquainted with Roquefort, Camembert, Emmental or Brie, just to mention some of the most popular, but lesser known cheeses can be just as outstanding. We present three of the most highly prized by international gourmands: Morbier, Reblochon and Valençay, aromatic, delicious and pleasing to the palate.
Morbier cheese comes from the eponymous region that gives it its name, an area of exceptional beauty located in the Jura, in France’s Franche-Comté region. The origins of Morbier carry a curious history. It is said that the farmers who made the popular Comté cheese would leave the excess milk curd in the bottom of the buckets while they made new batches.
Meanwhile, the paste formed from the curd and milk was covered with ash for sanitation and to keep away insects. The resulting product, used by the farmers for personal consumption, usually the leftovers, had a dark band in the middle due to the ashes that once protected it.
Today, Morbier is still made with the characteristic layer of ash that gives it a uniquely smoky and pungent flavor. According to the regulations of the Protected Designation of Origin, this cheese should be strictly made from raw cow’s milk, unpasteurized and only partially skimmed, adding only rennet, milk enzymes and salt. A Morbier, accompanied with a good Pinot Gris from Alsace or a great Beaujolais, is a perfect combination and an example of the best French gastronomy.
Valençay cheeses had the appearance of a perfect pyramid until they was discovered by Napoleon Bonaparte. The history of this French cheese, which originated in Valençay, a region of the province of Berry, is shrouded in legend. It is said that on his journey back to France, the great General, humiliated after his failed attempt to conquer Egypt, stopped at Castle Valençay, where its owner and friend, the statesman Charles Maurice de Talleyrand, offered him a light snack consisting of fruit and the typical cheese of the area: the Valençay.
Enraged by the disastrous memories evoked by the shape of the cheese, Napoleon drew his sword, and with a clever move cut off the top of the pyramid. From that moment this glorious cheese comes in the form of a pyramid that has lost its apex. Valençay is a very tasty soft cheese made from raw goat’s milk. The drained curd is set in a mold, covered with coal ash and placed in a well-ventilated room with 80 percent humidity. The affinage, or refinement, lasts three weeks, after which the surface is covered with a natural mold. The aroma is not typical of a goat cheese but has notes of earth, smoke and citrus.
Although it has a smooth flavor, the aftertaste is intense and acid, almost lemony, and its flavor is intensified as it matures. It can be served with bread or toast, at lunch or dinner, or on a cheese board. A good Valençay becomes even better with a Fumé Blanc, a white wine made with California grapes.
This mountain cheese produced in the region of Haute-Savoie, in the Rhône-Alpes, has very distinctive attributes: freshness, youth and delicacy. The name derives from the French verb reblocher—which means milking again—because it is made with milk from the second milking of Abondance, Montbeliard and Tarine cows. The origin of the Reblochon dates back to the time when farmers had to pay an unfair milk tax.
The amount paid varied according to how many liters of milk were extracted from the animal every day, and to avoid paying excessive tariffs, the farmers milked their cows twice a day. Indeed, this cheese is made with the milk of the second milking, which was obtained at night (lait de rebloche). This well-balanced cheese has a thin crust and varies in color, from yellowish-orange to velvety pink. Its fresh scent comes from the soft white mold that covers it, and the paste is rich, moist and fluffy. Its flavor is soft, fruity and creamy, with excellent nuances of walnuts and hazelnuts. It makes a good dessert, but it is also used to prepare several dishes.
A classic of the Savoyard cuisine is the Tartiflette, a gratin of potatoes, onions, bacon and Reblochon cheese. This plate should be accompanied by a Crépy Roussette Gamay de Chautagne, a renowned red wine from the area. ■