Did you know there are more than 1,300 different varieties of cheese in France?
I recently received a tempting tasting basket from Cheeses of Europe. The Cheeses of Europe marketing campaign, orchestrated by CNIEL (the umbrella organization for France’s dairy industry) and funded in part by the European Union, was designed to create awareness for the variety of European cheeses available in the U.S. market and to share ideas that assist U.S. consumers incorporating those cheeses into their diets, recipes and lifestyles.
I was fortunate enough to spend an hour via telephone with Charles Duque, managing editor of the French dairy board. As we spoke, he provided a wealth of information that I want to share with all of you.
Here are some helpful tips to remember when you’re hosting your own cheese tasting party. Don’t be afraid to step outside of your comfort zone when it comes to trying new types of cheese. If you’re overwhelmed by the dozens of different varieties when you go into a cheese shop, don’t worry. The cheesemonger will assist you. Everyone has their own preferences as to soft versus hard and mild versus pungent. Ask for sample tastes and begin to build your own personalized cheese board.
When shopping, look for cheeses that are “in-store” wrapped versus those that are “shrink-wrapped.” In-store wrapping shows the individual blocks of cheese have been recently cut from a larger wheel of cheese, which equals freshness.
On a cheese board, the French typically serve an odd number of cheeses, such as three, five or seven varieties. It’s also helpful to provide a range of styles (goat, sheep, cow), textures and colors. Offer fresh and dried fruits, a selection of nuts, crackers, pieces of bread, olives, honey and jams alongside the cheeses.
Always begin with the mildest cheese and continue through the different types until you reach the strongest. Remove your selections from the refrigerator up to an hour ahead of serving. This allows the flavors to develop and will provide an authentic representation of the cheese.
I’ve also included several recipes featuring the cheeses I sampled. These recipes and many more can be found on cheesesofeurope.com.
The origin of this mild but decadent triple-crème cheese lies in the Burgundy region of Île-de-France, France. It was named for the gastronome Jean Brillat-Savarin, who is famous for this quote, “Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you who you are.” If that’s true, my name is Lolly Cheese Lover. This cheese contains 75% butterfat, resulting in an incredibly buttery, smooth and mild flavor. It is soft-ripened and aged from 1 to 2 weeks or up to 2 months. Brillat-Savarin has an edible white, flowery rind. Spread this creamy cheese on bread or crackers and enjoy with Champagne for a perfect first course. The Champagne bubbles will cleanse your palate. Brillat-Savarin can be served with either savory accompaniments (such as an olive tapenade) or sweet toppings (for example, raspberry jam). For an elegant finishing touch, top with truffle shavings. To transform this delicacy into a dessert cheese, add a light drizzle of honey.
TRIPLE CRÉME DE LA CRÉME
• French butter
• 2 slices of brioche loaf
• 1/4-pound wedge triple crème (like Brillat Savarin)
• 6 fresh strawberries
• 1 sprig fresh basil
• 1 tablespoon balsamic glaze
Butter front and back of both pieces of bread. In a large skillet, lightly toast the first sides on low heat, then flip. To one side, add slices of triple crème cheese and allow it to melt. Before serving, add fresh strawberry slices and basil, and top with a drizzle of balsamic glaze. Cover and press down with the second piece of toasted brioche and serve.
Brie, the king of cheeses, is one of the best-known cheeses of France. Its origin is in Île-de-France, France. It’s aged at least four weeks. Its soft, creamy texture, mellow flavor and rich aroma make it a crowd-pleaser on bread and crackers or melted in an omelet. Yes, the rind is edible! The soft rind adds an interesting texture with each bite. Don’t neglect to eat the rind along with the creamy interior paste. Enjoy Brie with light, fruity red wines such as a Beaujolais or crisp whites.
TART WITH BRIE AND FRESH HERBS
• 1 puff pastry
• 1/2 bunch of chives
• 11 ounces brie
• 3 eggs
• 1 1/4 cups of cream
• 6 ounces of semi-skimmed milk
• 2 tablespoons shelled walnuts
• Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Start by preheating the oven to 350 degrees F. Roll out the puff pastry and place it into a tart pan. Use a fork to prick the bottom and the edges. Set the crust aside while you prepare the filling.
Wash and chop the chives. Remove rind from brie and cut the cheese into strips. In a large bowl, crack in the eggs and whisk until homogenous. Add the cream, milk and salt and pepper to taste. Mix well.
Arrange the slices of Brie on the pastry, add walnuts, chives and pour over the egg mixture.
Bake for 40 minutes. Serve hot, accompanied by mesclun mix salad.
Camembert has its origin in Normandy outside of Paris. Camembert has a distinct taste as a result of the winds blowing across the English Channel. The salty sea winds blow across the grass the cows eat, which accents the milk, which flavors the cheese! The flavor profile for this cheese is an earthy taste of wild mushrooms and slightly salty. The texture melts into the ultimate grilled cheese sandwich. Dusted with a white mold and swathed by very light brown stripes, Camembert is the quintessential French cheese. This buttery cheese is typically a bit stronger in flavor than brie. Camembert pairs well with a light, fruity red or sweet white wine or a light cider.
POTATO AND CAULIFLOWER GRATIN WITH CAMEMBERT
• 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
• 1/2 yellow onion, finely chopped
• 1 garlic clove, minced
• 1 cup chopped cauliflower
• 1 cup whole milk
• 4 ounces Camembert cheese with rind, cubed
• Sea salt and pepper to taste
• 1 tablespoon chopped parsley
• 1 1/2 pounds baking potatoes, peeled and thinly sliced
• 4 ounces bacon, diced
Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.
Heat olive oil in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Add the onions and sauté until translucent, then add garlic and sauté for one minute more. Add the chopped cauliflower and continue stirring about 5 to 6 minutes.
Pour in the milk and bring to a simmer for 10 minutes. Then add the Camembert cubes and continue stirring until melted. Season with salt and pepper, add chopped parsley and remove from heat.
While the cheese sauce cools, layer potato slices into an 11-inch gratin dish. Pour cheese mixture over potatoes and even it out with a spoon. Evenly distribute the bacon bits over the gratin.
Cover with foil and bake for 45 minutes until potatoes are tender.
Uncover and raise temperature to 400 degrees F. and cook an additional 15 to 20 minutes until golden brown on top.
Mimolette originated in Pas-de-Calais, France. Mimolette is a hard cheese with brilliant orange coloring that makes it the focus of any cheeseboard. Think of it as Cheddar with a French accent. The coloring is derived from a natural dye known as annatto. The cheese is aged in caves up to 24 months. It is formed into the shape of a ball about 8 inches in diameter. The rind is very unique with a crusty, brownish color that is pitted and pockmarked almost like a cantaloupe rind. Where do the pits originate? Remember that the cheese is aged in caves. Inside these caves, there are cheese mites that burrow into the rind to allow the right amount of air into the cheese. Make sure you trim the rind from this cheese before eating! The sharp, nutty, fruity taste of Mimolette includes sweet hints of butterscotch. For a luxurious homemade macaroni and cheese, use grated Mimolette. Try Mimolette with a rustic red wine or a Belgian triple, bock, porter or stout.
CARROT VELOUTE WITH MIMOLETTE
(Served hot or cold)
• 1 1/3 tablespoons salted butter
• 3 1/3 pounds of orange and purple carrots
• 2 red onions, thinly sliced
• 3 cups of water
• 1/2 cup organic apple juice
• Juice of one orange
• 3 sprigs of chives
• 3 1/3 tablespoons grated Mimolette
• Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Wash and peel the carrots. Cut them into 1/2 inch slices.
Peel the onions and slice thinly.
In a Dutch oven, melt the butter and sauté the carrots and onions for approximately 5 minutes.
Pour the water over the vegetables, season and allow to simmer for 45 minutes. Remove the carrots and onions from the cooking liquid and add them to a blender. Add some of the cooking water, the apple juice, and the juice of one orange. Blend until smooth.
Pour the puréed soup back into the Dutch oven, adding some of the cooking liquid to adjust the consistency and allow it to warm through. Adjust the seasoning as needed.
Serve the soup in bowls, finishing with chopped chives and grated Mimolette.
Blue cheese has the reputation of diners either loving or hating the flavor. There doesn’t seem to be an in between.
Rich, crumbly and moist, Roquefort is known as the king of the blues and originated in Midi-Pyrénées, France. The cheese is aged in the caves of Mont Combalou for 3 months to 9 months and features a balanced, savory, salty flavor that’s amazing on its own or as an accent in salads.
For a perfect ending to a summer meal, serve Roquefort with nuts and figs, especially with a sweet dessert wine. It pairs wonderfully with rosemary flavored crackers. Here’s a tip: If you think you don’t care for blue cheese, add a drop of honey to the bite you’re about to taste. The sweetness of the honey will tame the pungency of the cheese.
If you’re wondering, I honestly cannot choose a favorite from the cheeses I received. They are each delicious in their own unique way. If you’d like to learn more about the Cheeses of Europe, check out this website: cheesesofeurope.com. You’ll find a wealth of information and recipes.
Laura Tolbert, also known as Fleur de Lolly, has been sharing recipes, table decor ideas and advice for fellow foodies and novices on her blog, fleurdelolly.blogspot.com, for more than eight years. She won the Duke’s Mayonnaise 100th Anniversary nationwide recipe contest for her Alabama White BBQ Sauce. You can contact her at facebook.com/fleurde.lolly.5, on Instagram, and at firstname.lastname@example.org.