I'd like to make a few inspirational posts about cheese, inspired by my participation in the 3rd Summer University meeting of the French branch of Slow Food in Clermont Ferrand last Friday.
If you love French cheese, and can't get hold of it locally at prices you can afford, I suggest you stop here and DO NOT READ ON.
The good news is that one of the best cheeses I have ever eaten in the whole of France is sold, by mail order too, by my friend Laurent.
Let me start with some pictures taken at one of the best cheese shops in the Auvergne, if not France, that I visited with my friend and neighbour Laurent when we went to drop off some of his 'Fourme Fermier' at a cheese shop in Clermont Ferrand.
Making the delivery at Fromagerie Nivesse
Owner and founder of Fromagerie Nivesse
A word on prices:
The prices you see in these pictures are either per 'piece' (for example, a small goat's cheese) or per kilo.
These are retail prices at a very well known cheese shop in France, and are in Euros.
So, they're not as high as you would pay at a good cheese shop in Paris, but they are considerably more than you would pay in the local market in the area a particular cheese comes from.
For anyone thinking about prices and what they could be retailing at direct, do remember that these are retail prices, not wholesale prices (which generally are the prices farm producers sell at direct from their farms, or at markets).
Secondly, given that the dollar and the British pound are at record lows against the Euro, they do make these prices perhaps seem expensive to anyone thinking in US$ or UK£.
Lastly of course, these are French prices for the French market. Anyone thinking of producing and selling cheese would need to do their own local market research.
A word on 'fermier' (farm cheese):
ONLY cheeses made at the farm with the milk from the farms cows can be called 'fermier' (farm).
Raw milk (lait cru) does not seem to add much value in the eyes of most consumers (as opposed to lait pasturise - pasteurised milk).
What discerning consumers really want is 'fermier' cheese, and seem less bothered about the cheese being made from non-pasteurised milk.
This is interesting for anyone considering going into cheese production in a country that has stringent rules on pasteurised milk.
That said, among eco-gastro types, there is a big debate about raw milk over pasteurised milk. Some swear that the best tasting cheese has to be 'lait cru' and 'fermier'. (I'll come back to that in another post.)
A word on raw milk (lait cru) and pasteurised milk:
Generally pasteurised milk is milk that has been heated to about 72 degrees Celsius for about 12-15 seconds. Most 'fermier' cheese is 'lait cru' but NOT ALL.
In other words, 'fermier' DOES NOT EQUAL 'lait cru'. In most cases, yes, but not all.
There are about a million different bacteria in a litre of milk. Pasteurising reduces that number by 95% to about 50,000.
How many cheeses are there in France?
About the best book I have seen in English about French cheeses, published in 1996, features over 350 French cheeses and estimated there to be about 500 individual French cheeses.
A 2002 study put the figure at 1000.
Since 2002, many younger farmers - like Laurent - are getting into cheese production, so that number is now probably, and this is a guess, somewhere in the region of 1,100 or more.
Don't forget, an individual farm cheese, that is not part of an AOC, and is not already an existing cheese, is a new cheese.
Cheeses originated from the need to be able to preserve excess milk produced in the summer months for use as additional protein during winter.
A typical French subsistence farmer in the 19th century and earlier would not generally have enough hay to support his milking herd throughout winter, and thus at least one dairy cow - generally the one with the lowest yield or other medical problems - would be slaughtered. Beef could be sold or preserved.
Some cheeses were farm cheeses in the strictest sense of the word - produced by the farmer's wife for eating by the household in winter. Other cheeses were also sold, depending on the quality.
It should be remembered that in France today, just as 'fermier' does NOT equal 'lait cru' NOR does the label necessarily confer quality.
Most French cheese is produced by dairies who buy in milk and produce cheese in an industrial way. Now 'industriel' can mean a small dairy taking perhaps 10 million litres of milk a year from the best herds with the best milk. Equally, it can mean mass produced supermarket cheese of the lowest possible quality.
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