It was one of the best voice mails I’d ever gotten: “Can we come feed you some cheese?”
The call was from a representative of the Cheeses of Europe, an organization promoting French cheeses in the U.S. (similar in many ways to our dairy board). They have, I think, one of the best jobs in the world – to educate the public and the media about the wonders of French cheese. It’s a pretty easy sell because, well, who doesn’t like cheese?
It was also the first time that I really experienced the perks of being a food writer. I’m sure everyone imagines that I get to swan around and be feted by restaurateurs, but really, it’s just me and my friends going out to eat, while I surreptitiously snap photos and take notes (I always joke that the waiters must think I’m so rude to be on my phone the entire time during the meal!).
When the big day finally came, I was thrilled to meet Heather, the PR rep; along with Julien, Ben and Rachel, who all represented various cheese manufacturers from different regions of France. They set up their beautiful displays of cheeses while my editor, Mary Frances Hendrix, and I watched in awe.
Cheese is an interesting food because while it’s so accessible, it can also be quite intimidating. We probably all grew up with individually sliced American cheese, shredded cheddar and maybe on fancy occasions, Swiss (it was my favorite as a child because of the holes!). But at the cheese counter or at a restaurant, building a cheese board can be hard. I always think there’s something wonderful about selecting a handful of cheeses and enjoying them with meats and fruits on crackers. But the names aren’t always familiar, and because these cheeses are a little more expensive, I know I often feel like I don’t want to make a mistake.
There’s also the stink factor. To me, a really good cheese always has an aroma, but for others, the smell of a ripe blue or Camembert is tough to get past.
All of these concerns were the point of the Cheeses of Europe’s tour, particularly with holiday parties and meals coming up where a cheese board is a way to offer a really elegant starter to please a lot of people.
Most cheese boards feature a soft, semi-firm and firm cheese, and this is how the group presented their wares. Julien offered us a taste of a pair of Bries, which he said is a “gateway cheese” and the “least intimidating” – something to “get the palate ready.” The Brie Le Chatelain (sold as Le Petite in the U.S.) and Triple Crème Brie L’Indulgent (sold as Le Cremiux here) both had Brie’s signature delicate white rind and soft creamy exterior, which Julien promised would get even creamier as it aged. Both were sweet and smooth, with the triple cream slightly tangier but with a fuller-fat mouth feel.
Rachel challenged us next with her trio. Her tip is to always eat cheeses in order from mildest to strong, and that’s how she served us. The Delice de Bourgogne was another triple cream (the cheesemakers add extra cream back in) that had a texture like whipped butter and a slight banana flavor that Rachel advised serving with champagne.
The Pont L’Eveque is one of the oldest French cheeses, originally made by monks. Its rind is brushed with a salt solution, giving it a mushroomy flavor and a slight overcooked broccoli scent. It was still creamy though, and Rachel suggested serving it alongside crisp apple slices.
I loved the Epoisses cheese at first. It was the scent that had been filling the room. Washed in Marc du Bourgogne, which is similar to Italian grappa, it had a rich winy taste that I couldn’t get enough of – until the rind kicked in. Whew – my nostrils were suddenly flooded with a powerful ammonia. I’ve seen Epoisses since on lists of the stinkiest cheeses, but if you can avoid the rind, the cheese’s interior is rich and complex – perfect, as Rachel advised, in a sophisticated sauce for chicken.
Ben too had a lovely creamy Brie and mushroomy Camembert from Isigny Ste Mere, but what I couldn’t wait to try was the mimolette. These pressed cheeses are shaped like pumpkins and can be aged from three to 18 months in a cave with cheese mites. The younger version was like a sharp cheddar, while the older was more like Parmesan. I tasted the chewy and nutty rind, but in this case, Ben advised, most wouldn’t eat it because of the mites.
Ben also served us a fantastic French butter – which I was also excited to try since I’d just read a Vogue article about it. The French culture their cream before churning it, and the result is a butter that is so much more flavorful than our own, like eating pure cream. I could understand better now why the French love their ham and butter sandwiches!
They left us with a stack of recipe cards, cheese samples and tips too: As it turns out, French cheeses are really quite affordable.
Locally, Whole Foods, Fresh Market and Costco stock them, and they can range from $4 for a Brie up to $24.99 for the mimolette per pound.
If you’re choosing a cheese board from a local restaurant like Finch & Fifth, Craft & Vine or La Maison and you feel intimidated, ask for help. The servers and staff should be able to help demystify the cheeses and explain the flavors behind the names.
Finally, if you’re pairing wines with your French cheeses, you can’t go wrong if you pick a wine produced in the same region as your cheese. Just don’t be afraid to ask.
Another great resource of course is the Cheeses of Europe Web site (thecheesesofeurope.com), which has lovely photos of cheeses that you can click on to hear their pronunciation, learn where they came from and see wine pairing suggestions.
Or do what my friend Catherine does. She’s been known to call up Finch & Fifth, ask them to choose a few great cheeses and then pick up her cheese board all ready for a small supper party or dinner at home.
I loved our cheese experience so much that we even put together a cheese board at a recent party. We branched out even further with a Norwegian Jarlsberg among others, which my brother Piers and friend Cinthy couldn’t stop eating.
“Where did you get this? What is it?” they asked.
Like I said, who doesn’t love cheese? And sharing the experience of it, especially around the holidays, just makes it all the better.