Cheesemaking in France

Making cheese is only half of cheesemaking. Next comes aging the cheese, wrapping the cheese and then loading it for markets and retail shops.

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By Barbara Jenness

Michigan State University

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Cheesemaking in France

As I boarded the plain in Detroit, then the high speed from Paris to Montpelier, through fields of sun flowers, my excitment grew. A cheesemaker going to the Languedoc area of France. I was not disappointed. Jean Poudevigne’s creamery, Le Msa Domergue, was outside of St. Martin de Londres in Montoulien. The creamery is housed in a small stone building surrounded by pastures, goats and a Foie gras farm. The creamery has faced many changes recently, going from farmstead,raising their own milk, to eliminating the goat herd and purchasing milk. Several years ago there was also a restaurant on the property but due to newer tax regulations it was closed.

The cheese being made is an AOC Pelardon. It is a small mold ripened disc weighing approximately 60 grams and measuring 2.5 inches in diameter and 1 inch tall. The mold covering is Geotrichem. This cheese attained AOC status in 2000, but it has been made for centuries in the Languedoc-Roussillom region. The milk comes from Saanen, Alpine or Rove goats. These goats must spend a minimum time on native pasture. The cheese is made from raw goats milk and is aged a minimum of 11 days before being sold. Pelardon is not available in this country due to raw milk regulations. In the United States raw milk cheeses must be age 60 days.

Much of the equipment and procedures were comparable to artisan cheesemaking anywhere.

Making cheese is only half of cheesemaking. Next comes aging the cheese, wrapping the cheese and then loading it for markets and retail shops.

Early in my visit, Jean had a surprise in store. He took me to a cheese shop owned by a friend of his. For a cheesemaker a visit to a cheese shop is always a treat, but a cheese shop in France that has to on the top of the list. The shop was just outside Montpelier. It was a small shop that carried many accouterments, olive oils, canned foie gras and probably the best selection of cheese I have ever seen. The array of goat cheese was the most impressive. I was surprised at the variety of mold that covered some of the cheese, that would not have been acceptable in a cheese shop in the united states. Many of the goat cheeses were raw milk and aged for a few days to a few weeks. They had a complete selection of Roquefort blues, some Basque cheeses, well aged gruyere, mimolet, Spanish manchego and a wide variety of Italian cheese.

At the shop, the owner made the me the most marvelous cheese sandwich….Since I could not decide I had four pieces of bread with four different cheeses….a camembert, a St Marcellin, a basque cheese and Reblochon. They were melted on thick slabs of french bread and served with a salad, a cold potato and some cured meat. The sandwich was an amazing way to show case the cheeses. Not quite your everyday grilled cheese sandwich.

One day as we headed to the creamery, Jean learned that the AOC would be meeting to “inspect” some Pelardon cheeses. This presented a rare opportunity for me to observe the AOC in action. the meeting took place in an old Catholic church about a mile from the creamery. Six people met in a small room in the church. It was my understanding that the group could be comprised of cheese makers, cheese retailers and consumers. The group was led by an inspector that worked in the dairy industry. She prepared all the samples…..two plates for each cheese, one displaying the whole cheeses and the other for cut samples. Each “judge” was provided with score sheets, a bottle of Evian water and a French baguette. The cheeses were numbered so that only the inspector knew which farms they came from.

The members of the panel checked each cheese whole for shape, mold and other characteristics. After making notes they sampled each one, again making notes on each.

I was delighted to be able to taste each cheese as it went around the table. It was in this little catholic church with a group of French cheese people that I experienced one of those Ah Ha moments in life. With the help of the inspector who spoke reasonable english, I asked the panel which one had the best rind…..after some discussion I was told that one had more geotrichum because of the area it was from, one was a new farm so the rinds were not as developed. As an american I am programed to find out which is the best. When I realized that my question was going no where. I decided to ask which cheese was the best….which one tasted the best? There answer….”Which one did you like?” It was not about the best, but about the individual cheese and the uniqueness it brought to the table. They were all Pelardons, unique and individual with there own special terrior.

Shortly after the AOC meeting I was able to stop in several grocery stores. There I had a chance to see the AOC/AOP labeling on several cheeses. In my opinion this type of system does alot to protect the small unique cheeses of a region. I make a small cheese called Effie Mills. If such a system were in place here, it would protect that style of cheese, unique to my creamery and area.
No trip to France would be complete with out a visit to Roquefort.

The drive took about an hour through the mountains and down to the plateau where Rouqefort is located.

On the way, we were delighted to be stopped by a farmer, a dog and a herd of Lacone Sheep. This breed of sheep is specific to Roquefort Blue Cheese.

Once in the city, I was surrounded by limestone buildings and the limestone cliffs.and caves of Cambalou. Within this area you find several Roqueforts…Papillon, Societe, and Coulet to name a few

The Roquefort Association, Inc. protects milk quality, husbandry of the sheep as well as the cheesemaking process. Everything is very carefully controlled to ensure the quality of Roquerfort

The town was a delightful maze of staircases to houses, shops and caves.

Jean Poudevigne headed up the steps to Societe Roquerfort caves. In the tasting area we were able to taste three types of roquerfort..princess, regular and the knight. They went from mild to strong, the middle one is the one most often imprted to the United States

We could not leave without lunch which was a classic Roquerfort Salad with pears and walnuts.

This complex, salty, piquant cheese has been around since before recorded history. The milk from the regions Lacone sheep is transported in special milk containers to minimize bouncing and rough handling of the milk. It is never pasteurized and renneted with rennet from the lacone lambs. The mold is grown with rye from the Levezou area. The cheese is salted and pierced so oxygen can feed the mold, and then aged in limeston caverns where air currents encourage the growth of Penicillium roquerforti. To me this is the ultimate artisan cheese. The production is protected at each step and the price of the cheese reflects the care and handling it receives ensuring all involved getca decent return on their investment.

In between cheesemaking and delivery, we were able to visit several French Farmers markets. Along with the outstanding array of fruits and vegetables, olives and breads. I was surprised to see live fish, turkeys and chickens. These were placed in a box for the journey to your kitchen.
Fresh radishes and cantalope along side bowls of olives and fresh bread.

This gives a new meaning to the term “chicken in a box”.

There was also a large selection of cured meats, many of which were chevre or goat. Cheese was everywhere. If you wanted a sample one was simply cut from the wheel. Strict regulations regarding sampling were not in place.

La Mas Domergue had a large display of young and well aged pelardons for sale.

Showing off the aligot which is a combination of cheese, mashed potatoes and garlic. The cheese Tomme fraiche is used to make this dish. The town of Laguiole is know for it.

I was also able to sample Aligot at the market.Pulled and stretched and place on my plate….very creamy and quite good.

A big surprise was the beer and wine for sale. You could purchase the wine in bottles, boxes or plastic jugs!

Deliveries through the week allowed me to see many retail markets and cheese counters. At one more upscale market closer to the city, the cheese monger said his customers complained of the blue mold on the pelardons. Jean took it back replaced it and to my amazement delivered it to an outlet farther out in the country. The different clientele would not mind the extra blue mold at all. The cheese was certainly still good and as a cheesemaker I often fight the opportunistic blue mold. It is hard to convince customers it is ok. Remember know your clientele.

A pasteurized cow’s milk cheese from the area of Lille. France. The rind is caused by the introduction of cheese mites for flavor. Colored with annatto seed.

Valency ash and mold covered goat cheese.

Fresh chevre rounds covered in herbs and spices

As a host Jean and Domie Poudevigne were exceptional. I can not write about all the extras they showed and shared with me. An agriculture museum near Gange was very informative on early agriculture practices, but the visit to family relatives outside Gange was even better. Sharing a special French pastry I noticed some interesting dishes. They turned out to be early clay cheese molds. A marvelous piece of cheese history that I got to hold and study.

Then the side trip to Les Matelles a medieval city. Walking through the town brings history to life. You gain an understanding of how the towns were built to provide protection for the citizens. These towns are centuries old….I thought my farmhouse of 100 years was old!

My introduction to rugby was here in France….the singing rugby men, the young boys selling tickets to raise money for the team and of course, the bull training ring where they teach the booys to run really fast!

The rugby pot luck, food, song , wine and Matisse.

Jean and Domie drove me to the Mediterranean, shared their marvelous cheese with me and fed me wonderful home meals that reflected their genuine kindness.

I left France with a sense of how much we are all alike. As cheesemakers we share a common bond but that bond is bigger….we are parents, teachers, friends and the only thing that really separates us is the language. I couldn’t help thinking that peace comes from knowing and understanding each other. What a truly wonderful experience this was I would hope to put together a group of cheesemakers, cheese mongers and consumers and go back to France so we can learn from the cheese culture there.