Believe it or not, I spent my first few months in Paris buying only three types of cheese: chèvre (goat cheese), Brie de Meaux (which I now know is a town near Paris) and comté (similar to Gruyère). Why? Well, I like these cheeses a lot, but I wasn’t trying to satisfy a craving. No, mes amis, they were quite simply the only cheeses I knew. And in the heat of the shopping moment, as the fromager looked at me questioningly, and the line of elderly women (why is it always elderly women who do their shopping in the morning?) shuffled impatiently behind me, those were the only words I could manage to blurt out.
Happily, my dad recently gave me this GREAT book: French Cheeses, which is a guide to cheese, arranged alphabetically by variety, complete with photographs, maps and instructive info on cheese-making.
Food geek that I am, I read the book and took notes. And on my next visit to the cheese counter, I was (kind of) prepared.
Instead of Brie de Meaux, I got a wedge of its saltier, stronger sibling, Brie de Melun (photo above, left).
The round, leaf-wrapped cheese is called “banon” (photo above, top), a soft, almost runny cow’s milk cheese from Provence. After two weeks of aging, the small cheeses are dipped in eau-de-vie, and wrapped in chestnut leaves.
Finally, there is the “fromage de Laguiole,”(photo above, right) which hails from Aveyron (remember our Thanksgiving feast there?). This is a firm cheese, with a sharp, salty flavor similar to cheddar.
All three of these cheeses are labelled AOC, which stands for Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée. This label is given to French wines, dairy and farm products (including meat) that are made within a specified region of France, following age-old, established methods of production.
Maybe you already knew about AOC, but did you also know that some cheeses are seasonal? For example, banon is a cow’s milk cheese year-round, but it’s made from goat’s milk in the summer months. There are also many small farm-produced chèvres, or goat cheeses (which alone have so many varieties they take up about 40 pages of my book). It seems almost every region of France produces a “chèvre de coin” or goat cheese of their corner of the world. I’m looking forward to trying some soon — their season runs from spring to autumn. Watch out Monsieur Fromager!