by Eric Paul
Saturday, July 14th 2012 marked the 223rd anniversary of the storming of the Bastille, King Louis XVI’s infamous prison, whose destruction symbolized the beginning of the French Revolution. Although The Cheese Traveler was busy mongering our great local cheese selection at the Delmar Saturday Market, we couldn’t help thinking about this most important of French national holidays. All of our local, New York cheeses are descended from European cheeses, and since October of last year, we have exclusively sold local cheeses at Capital District farmers’ markets. But for our new shop at 540 Delaware, we will expand our line to include small, artisanal cheeses from France and beyond. We have been thinking a lot about the French cheeses we will sell when we open our shop. Eric has been compiling his list of cheeses for his opening orders, while we have been waiting – not so patiently, grrrr! – for materials to arrive so we can continue our renovations.
As is commonly known, cheese is an integral part of French culture. The history of cheese production goes back to Ossau Iraty, which was being made in the Basque country dating back to pre-history. By the time the Romans came to France, cheesemaking had been in development for centuries – some of these ancient practices still continue today – Salers/Cantal, Beaufort, Fourme d’Ambert, Lagoiule, and Roquefort. During the Medieval times, many of the cheeses we know today were being made by monks in the monasteries – Brie de Meux, Epoisse, Comté (along with other less well known cheeses like Marroilles, Blue de Gex, and more).i Patrick Rance, who wrote the most authoritative book on French cheeses, drew his effort to catalog them to a close at over 750 French cheeses, acknowledging that there were more that were undocumented.ii The passage of time has brought additions and subtractions to Mr. Rance’s list.
In remembering Bastille Day and the French Revolution, cheese may have had a part in the political and economic conditions of rapid industrialization and high taxes that led to the revolution. Industrialization brought vast wealth to the monarchy and noble, owning class. Additionally, France was participating in and funding the American Revolution, which caused the monarchy to levy high taxes to pay for the war effort and France’s growing debt. This contributed to the strife leading up to the French Revolution.iii At the time, cheeses were being made in both the monasteries and by landowners in the countryside. However, landowners, who were essentially tenant farmers, were required to pay taxes, while the monasteries were not. Tax could be paid by means of cheese: not only the infamous Reblochon de Savoie, a cheese invented by cheesemakers who would perform a second milking after the tax collector had left to produce cheese for themselves, thus, avoid paying taxes, but also Tete de Moine, which prior to its identity as a classic cheese from Switzerland was made in the Jura region of France by monks at the Bellelay Abbey. Their cheese was originally called Bellelay. The monks of Bellelay Abbey taught the landowners how to make the cheeses but also required them to tithe the church in the form of wheels of cheese.iv It was with controversy that late in the ancien régime a tithe was extended beyond grain crops and vineyards to include the produce of orchards and farm animals. The peasantry was willing to accept the previous tithing but “the triple tithe” on sheep — lambs, wool, and cheese was what broke their back..v Such taxes contributed to class tension between the landowners and the ecclesiastical classes. For testimony of the importance of cheese to the French, one merely has to look to the history of the Revolution to find that the cheeses that were made in the monasteries were spared while the monasteries were destroyed.vi
For French cheeses, Eric is looking to the honed skills of France’s best affineurs or cheese ripeners/maturers. These are masters of their crafts who have completed training and worked for decades often for their small family businesses to develop their skills at selecting cheeses from fermier – or farmhouse – and artisanal – made by hand in small batches in small quantities (it is not artisan merely because producers call it so!) – producers and bringing them to their special aging facilities so that they can mature them to perfection. By working with affineurs in France we will bring small production, perfectly ripened cheeses to Albany. These are both the selection and quality that you only find at select cheese shops and should you travel to France.
We are excited to feature those beautiful, hand selected, carefully aged cheeses by Rodolphe Le Meunier, the winner of the Meilleur Ouvrier de France and International Caseus Award (World Champion Cheese Affineur in 2007). Eric has worked with Rodolphe at the last two Cheesemonger Invitationals. He has carefully cultivated this relationship and is excited to have Rodolphe’s cheese and hand-churned butter in Albany.
Over the last few years, Rodolphe has worked with his goat’s milk cheese producers to make pasteurized versions of classic French, small format, goat’s milk cheeses, typical of the Poitou and Loire Valley. These cheeses come in various formats – discs (Galet de Cher), donuts (Courone de Touraine), crottins, pyramids (Pyramides de Touraine), and logs (Ste Maure de Touraine AOP). These are among the finest goat cheeses available anywhere – gorgeous texture with clean but complex flavors. We can’t wait to share them with you. These are how the Loire valley goat’s milk cheeses should be!
Rodolphe also selects soft-ripened, bloomy rind cheeses from producers in small quantities. These creamy beauties are typically sold by the pallet indiscriminately (Brillat Savarin), but Rodolphe carefully scrutinizes each wheel and selects smaller quantities so that they are higher quality and in better condition to make the voyage to the U.S. Thus, these are the most perfect bloomy rind cheeses from France that you can find not only in Albany but on par with the best of these French cheeses anywhere in the U.S.
While the cheeses mentioned above are French classics, we are also excited about the less well known cheeses that we shall get from Rodolphe. We plan on carrying too many to list here but we’ll describe a few of them. There are beautiful cheeses from Auvergnes, which were admired in the writings of Olivier de Serres in the 1600: “the cheeses from Auvergne are renowned all over France, from coast to coast.”vii Accordingly we shall sell a rare, fermier (or farmhouse) Saint Nectaire with a well formed natural rind (not the rubbery, factory produced ones with the salmon colored washed rind); Fourme au Moelleux, a blue cheese, washed in a sweet white wine; Puit d’Astier, a giant, 16 pound, sheep’s milk cheese that is shaped like a donut. There are other gorgeous cheeses from Vendée – La Jeune Autise, a goat’s milk, washed-rind morbier style cheese; Tome de Fontenay, another aged goat’s milk tome that is coated in herbs both of which Eric enjoyed at their oozing best after they were heated under a raclette machine last month– oh my God!
In addition to Rodolphe Le Meunier, Eric will work with other affineurs – Joseph Paccard, Jean D’Alos, and maître fromager (master of cheese) and affineur Pascal Bellevaire. Joseph Paccard specializes in selecting and maturing delicious traditionally made, raw milk, alpine cheeses from Savoie and Jura – we’ll open the store with Tomme Fermier La Manigodine, made in the tradition of Reblochon de Savioe; Persille de Tignes, a savory raw goat’s milk cheese with a stunning gray, natural rind; and a gorgeous, Tomme de Savoie Fermier. As we grow we will bring in more cheeses from Joseph Paccard. Similarly with D’Alos and Bellevaire the selections will be limited at first. We shall most likely open the store with two beauties from Bellevaire, which Eric became familiar with at Formaggio Kitchen – Vendéen Bichone, a deliciously full flavored, semi-soft cow’s milk cheese from the Vendée region of Brittany; and Trois Lait, a creamy, washed-rind, semi-soft, mixed milk cheese made from goat, sheep, and cow’s milk from the Couserans valley in the Pyrénées. We can’t wait to grow so that we can bring in the exotic goat’s milk blue from the Vendée region of Brittany – Bleu du Bocage.
The Cheese Traveler is committed to this level of production and quality of cheese in order to bring those cheeses that are made in the countryside rather than the factory to Albany. These cheeses are small production and are similar to what you would find should you travel to France. To taste them is to travel to the French countryside; to experience and come to learn the qualities of the locale, the traditions of the cheesemakers and affineurs, and the heritage of the cheeses. It is with similar scrutiny that Eric will select cheeses from other countries to join the fine American farmhouse and artisan cheeses produced regionally and across the U.S. Thus, we have revealed the other meaning of the name – The Cheese Traveler. For while we have loved our trips to France, and would encourage everyone to travel to France and other places, we also know that we can have a little bit of France in the smallest production cheeses and artisan foods. Such traditional artisan foods get closest to the land (the terroir as in good wine production) and cultural traditions of their home countries. And by sharing these taste experiences with our companions here at home in the U.S., we are able to share in their fascinating flavors and rich stories.