Sometime in the second half of last century Charles de Gaulle testily
demanded: “How can anyone be expected to govern a country with 325
cheeses?” As the years wore on, the wisdom changed a bit to say that
you could eat a different cheese every day of the year. Several years
into this century, the number of cheeses is up over 500 and still
growing. Suffice it say
that cheese is big in France. And it’s good!
A cheese course is de rigueur in any French
meal worth its salt, and is generally served after the main course,
before or in lieu of dessert. There’s nothing more astounding and
frightening than one’s first encounter with le chariot de fromages,
the cheese trolley. The server rolls up a large cart covered with dozens
of different types of cheese. Upon arrival, he or she looks at you
expectantly then proceeds to rattle off the names of these dozens of
cheeses, using a helpful pointing of finger so that you don’t get
confused. Your job, should you accept it, is to select three or four (or
as many as you’d like) which are then served to you on a small plate.
How to choose? It’s truly a matter of
personal preference, with no judgment about the quality of your choice.
So go on, try what you want. Some thoughts to help in choosing: try
varied textures and tastes, a blue, a tome and a softer goat. You can
also start by choosing one cheese that catches your fancy, then ask the
server to recommend another few. That’s always safe, and a tribute to
the server at the same time.
You might be tempted to pass on the cheese
course, but if there is any way you can, try to at least sample a few.
It truly is a lovely and tasty ritual that adds depth and dimension to
the French dining experience. If you’re counting calories, why are you
eating in France?
Back to the 500 + fromages…there are
cow, sheep and goat cheeses. There are fresh, medium and fully aged
cheeses. There are artisan, farmer and industrial cheeses. There are
truly local cheeses from the barn next door, the obscure high end
specialties, and the universally known Camembert, Brie and Roquefort.
And there are 36 AOC cheeses, meaning they are sufficiently important to
be designated an important part of French food heritage.
With all these choices, it’s all mind-boggling. What
to do? We decided to get a book -- DK Publishing’s French Cheeses: The Visual Guide. With lots of pictures and maps, it’s great for
sorting through the cheese jungle. We’ve also found a good website, www.fromages.com.
Besides selling and delivering fresh French cheese most anywhere in the
world, the site has all sorts of useful information, news, and
suggestions about how to serve and enjoy les fromages. The secret
is not worrying about it, and just diving in. You’ll rarely be
disappointed, and you might just become a fromage aficionado.