Loire Valley: Cheese 24/7

Chambord
Not too shabby: Chateau Chambord

A few months ago I had occasion to visit France (any excuse will do, really, so I will not get into the wherefore and the why). Our destination was a small chateau in the Loire Valley which now serves as a pleasant bed & breakfast with a very friendly and thoroughly philosophical host. We spent three days there and used our time to explore from the castle of Chambord in the east to Nantes in the west.

The Loire is the country’s longest river, and its valley is known as the garden of France. The rolling hills with deep soils are perfect for agriculture and the small towns and the many, many chateaux add enough charm to the region to drown out the annoyance of having to share the very best of these chateaux with hordes of tourists and innumerable French school classes who are forced to learn about Francois I, the king who was in no small measure responsible for the way the valley looks today. He went on an ill-advised conquest to Italy and came back inspired by the Italian Renaissance – the rest, as they say, is history, but there is more to it, of course.

Chenonceaux
Chenonceau

Before architects and artisans, largely imported from Italy, turned the Loire Valley in this incomparable chateau-a-rama, the landscape was dotted with medieval fortifications, because at one point, this was the frontier. Depending on how far back you want to go, the enemy at the gate may have been the dastardly English or the Saracens, the invaders from the Middle East and North Africa. They were routed so thoroughly, as history is told, that they left many of their worldly belongings behind – among them, their goats. This may very well be a mere legend, but in the absence of a better story, we’ll go with this: so many goats were left behind in the Loire Valley that the re-conquering French were left pulling out their hair: what to do with all the goats and all that goatmilk? Obviously, as the French do in most crisis situations, they considered cheese as a solution, and voilà, the region’s reputation as a prodigious producer of goat cheese was born. Even though the Loire Valley provides ample grazing opportunities for cows, there just isn’t anything in the way of cow’s cheese that can compete with Sainte-Maure de Touraine, Selles-sur-Cher, Pouligny-Saint-Pierre, Crottin de Chavignol and Valençay, the quintet of Loire Valley goat cheeses the area is famous for.

Limousin Cow
Friendly neighborhood cow

On one particularly pleasant evening (we had already gone for a walk along the Cher, a tributary of the Loire; ordered some very tasty savory crepes from a food truck – yes, a food truck in rural France – and chatted with some very friendly Limousin cows), a roadside sign caught Christine’s eye. She suggested we follow it, and where I understood ‘distributeur 24 h/24 h” to be a cheese distributor where trucks bound for all of France were carrying cheese to the six corners of the Hexagone around the clock, she knew exactly what this was.

Of course, someone had to come up with the perfect solution for that all-too-often occurring disaster: there is a sudden great need for goat cheese, but none can be found anywhere in the pantry – the cave, as the French would call it – quel horreur! Enter the distributeur 24 h/ 24 h: the cheese vending machine!

Distributeur 24
24/7 cheese

After following the signs around several tight turns and lazy bends in the road, we arrived at the farm owned and run by a couple whose picture adorned a board near the open gate to their property, Sandra and Rémi Mabilleau. They were shown holding some friendly furry goats below a statement of great poetic and philosophical force: “One can’t buy happiness – but one can buy cheese, which is virtually the same thing.”

Mabiquette
Cheese is happiness…

And then, not far from that sign, there it was: the vending machine. A log of fresh goat cheese coated in ash from door number 5 set us back a mere 4 euros. Once we arrived in our modest room in the small chateau we immediately tucked into a snow-white piece of goat dairy candy, which tasted as fresh as the cheese was white. As my taste buds were getting overwhelmed with the crisp, tangy, creamy revelation that unfolded itself in my mouth, I had visions of domestic tranquility being restored in the middle of the night after a derailed family gathering, a depression narrowly averted, a relationship salvaged in this small corner of the universe – because not far away, with round-the-clock reliability, a log of happiness-inducing, peace-making, splendid goat cheese could be had for only 4 euros, and some deft pushing of vending machine buttons.

Chevre
snow-white goat cheese
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Norwegian Cheese: best in the world?!

Norway Landscape
Norway in the Fall

Over the past few months I have traveled through Norway quite a bit. It is a country of perdendicular cliffs, deep fjords, beautiful old wooden churches, tacticurn people and yes, cheese. Not in the way that France or Italy are cheese countries. There, food trumps pretty much everything else in importance; many a heated debate or meandering discussion is devoted to the merits of this tomato versus that one, to the perfect way to roast a chicken or the preferred age of a soft cheese. In Norway, people seem too level-headed to let quandaries like these take over the afternoon, and I imagine Jørn Hafslund to be just such a Norwegian when he decided to make a cheese that was, well, just good. His tiny farm outside of Bergen with about a dozen cows was a labor of love, his was not a long pedigree of cheesemakers and I suspect that he may not have submitted his cheese to the World Cheese Awards competition if it hadn’t been held in Bergen last year. As it was, he presented his Fanaost and won first price. When I met the man who made the best cheese in the world, he was still not all that comfortable with his new found fame. “It iss nais, of kors. But also ferry stressful” he responded when I asked him about it. He could only muster a bit of a smile when my picture also had his son in it – sharing fame apparently helps to deal with it.

Ostegarden
Father and Son World Champions

Officially, the cheese is classified as a Gouda, which makes it a semi-hard, cooked cheese; yellow with an inedible rind. The flavor develops over time and this is why the age is rather crucial: a young Fanaost is a nice cheese, but not the gold medalist. That honor was bestowed on the Lagret Fanaost, matured for at least six months. Jørn has found an interesting way to cope with the skyrocketing demand: he is rationing the cheese he is willing to sell. I received a piece that was slightly more than 100 grams and could not get more. And even in Norway, where everything is expensive, I had a mild case of stickershock when I learned this slice of gold cheese would set me back about $10.

Rationed lagret
Lagret Fanaost – strictly rationed

Yes. Of course. The cheese was absolutely delicious, what would you think? Was it the best in the world? Who knows? An international jury said so and it has changed Jørn’s life. I found it to be surprisingly sweet, but with the saltiness that comes with maturity balancing perfectly. I would readily shell out another ten bucks if I could be granted permission to purchase another 100 grams, even if I am not sure I would travel all the way to his farm.

Fanaost
Cheesy Gold

There is Norwegian cheese to be had in a simpler and very surprising fashion. Fly through Oslo and you will find an amazing anomaly in the world of airport cheese stores. No person in their right mind and with a heart for cheese would purchase the colorful round cheeses they sell at Schiphol airport or the cute variety packs with an Eiffel Tower on them at Charles de Gaulle. At Oslo’s Gardermoen airport, the unsuspecting traveler can take his pick from among some 20 kinds of artisan cheeses, many made with raw milk, from small cheesemakers all over Norway. I picked up a Norwegian blue there on my way out the other week, and my now very high expectations were met: creamy blue, with the exact right saltiness and none of the sharpness that I don’t always enjoy.

A final flavor that is worth mentioning came my way as I traveled a high plateau just south of the Sognefjord, purchased in a countrystore that thought they would never find anyone in their right mind that would pay 160 Kroner for a heart-shaped piece of cheese. I must admit that I got it because I just thought it looked funny, not because I had particularly high hopes. It was Nøkkelost, a cheese with a slightly complicated etymology. What I found inside the yellow, heart shaped package was a straw-colored semi-hard cheese with cloves and cumin seeds mixed in, very flavorful. It allowed me to take another step in my recovery from an unpleasant encounter with cumin cheese in my youth.

As to the etymology of said cheese: Nøkkel means key, and the crossed keys are in the coat of arms of Leyden; Norwegians developed a taste for the cumin cheese from Leyden sometime in the mid-18 century but insist that today’s Nøkkelost is something quite different. Mine came from Inger Rosenfeld’s farm, who names his cheese after a half-blind cow, Melissa, he got for his 50th birthday and who became a mascot of sorts. She is on every cheese Inger sells, complete with eyepatch.

Nokkelost
Nøkkelost from Den Blinde Ku

The King of Cheeses, the Cheese of Kings

Children and Brie
Future cheese connoisseurs

The story goes that Charlemagne, that most magnificent of kings, liked Brie so much that he told the bishop who introduced him to the cheese to send two cartloads of  the fromage to Aix-la-Chapelle (now Aachen, Germany) so that the king of kings would always have some to nibble on. And, so the story goes, many other people in exalted positions with crowns on their head were of the same opinion in the centuries to come – a great marketing story if nothing else.

The Sanctum Sanctorum of Brie is in a basement of a small farm in the middle of Jouarre, a town in the département Seine-et-Marne (the modern incarnation of the ancient Brie region), a little under an hour east of Paris. It looks nothing like you would expect it to look. Stéphane Ganot and his sister Isabelle who run the 120-year-old family business are the high priest and priestess in the temple and again, they look like mere humans, not too tall, not too short, not too thick, not too thin. Sounds underwhelming, doesn’t it? And yet I felt, at the end of a long day on which it rained off and on, after visiting a champagne cellar, an old Picardie mill, a Viollet-le-Duc castle and a terrible roadside café, that we had arrived at the epicenter of cheese in France. The Fromagerie Ganot is where local farmers bring their ordinary brie tourtes (Brie de Meaux, Brie de Melun, Brie de Nangis, Brie de Provins) and Stéphane and Isabelle elevate them, with a lot of care, know-how, patience and modern technology to little mold-covered pieces of heaven.

In the Brie Museum
Old form for Brie de Meaux

Stéphane and Isabelle aren’t making any Brie. They collect Brie from neighboring farmers and make that Brie better. They are affineurs. They keep the cheese at the exact right temperature, the exact right moisture, turn it exactly when it needs to be turned and in that way, they tease the very most out of the potential that the farmer puts in. Compared to the actual cheese making, affinage takes time and, if you believe brother and sister Ganot, is half science and half art. And they share their art in small doses and only at certain times. Getting a spot on their tour feels a bit like winning the cheese lottery. Because as enthusiastic as they present their trade and their cheese, they don’t have all the time in the world, because they have tourtes to turn.

Stephane Ganot
Stephane leading through the small museum

in the attic of one of the buildings on the farm, they carefully explain, with a slide show and in a small museum, some of the finer details of their trade. The land in the Seine-et-Marne region is getting more expensive every year, they say, and as a result there is less and less land for the cows to graze on. So they’re not exactly in a booming business, also because Brie is probably the most ripped-off cheese in the world: it did not get an AOC (now AOP) protection until 1980, by which time this cheese had already been copied around the world from Brazil to Wisconsin and from Japan to California.

The Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée designations stipulate things like the geographical region in which the product must be produced, the methods of production, the ingredients etc., etc. Since the EU took over the regulation of foodstuffs, they’re called AOPs, Appellation d’Origine Protégée. In Kathe Lison’s book The Whole Fromage, she explains with great insight how sometimes, these rules end up leaving out cheese makers who just have a slightly different way of making their cheese – long traditions and generations of know-how notwithstanding. In the case of brie, there are two kinds that have an AOC protection – Brie de Melun and Brie de Meaux, and there are others that go without – not that this perturbs the Ganots: the other Bries are handled with just as much love and expertise.

Isabelle Ganot
Love and expertise: in the Ganot cave

So is the Brie Noir, also without an AOC, and a bit of an oddball in the Brie palette: the name normally evokes visions of ivory colored, creamy, flavorful goodness, and Brie Noir is a decided departure from that: it is grey-brown, chewy and has a very strong flavor. It is best enjoyed as an ingredient in other dishes, and during the tasting we enjoyed it was served in the form of thin shavings. Lo and behold, the shavings are a much better way to eat this cheese (basically a Brie that has been allowed to ripen, ripen and ripen some more – up to 10 months, where 4 weeks is normal for regular Brie) that in bite-size chunks: the latter just become a chewy chore with a flavor too intense to enjoy.

With the farm land in the old Brie region becoming ever more expensive, Korean, Japanese and Brazilian counterfeits being produced in ever larger quantities, is there hope? Yes, darn it, yes! Because the French give a damn. They want Brie from Brie. They want to be sure that the milk is raw, that the process to get to the perfect cheese involves people, not machines. And, most importantly: they pass on the passion. the majority of the participants of the Brie-tour were kids. Kids who asked questions, who touched the things they were allowed to touch, and who expertly sampled the cheeses. And kids who will grow up to be the kind of adults Brie needs: the staunch defenders of the real deal. After our tour we were able to spend a small fortune on an enormous chunk of Brie de Meaux (the cheeses are larger than the Brie de Melun and the flavor is somewhat milder) a jar of local honey, some Brie de Melun and a few Petits Cœurs, small hearts, made of a combination of crème fraîche and cream (yes indeed, think OMG) which lasted us the remainder of the week in Brittany which, for all of its other tremendous qualities, is not a particularly cheesy part of France.

Brie de Melun
Brie de Melun
Brie de Meaux
Brie de Meaux, still under wraps