At the Tuesday market in Caylus, which stall has the longest queue? No contest: the cheese stall. It’s especially long in summer when the holidaymakers and second homers swell the population. But even in winter you can count on a long wait before you get served. People carry away carrier bags groaning with cheeses of varying smelliness. How did cheese come to play such an important part in the French diet?
France prides itself on the number and variety of cheeses it produces. Charles de Gaulle was credited with the saying, ‘How can you govern a country with 246 varieties of cheese?’ – a reference to French regional diversity. The number of cheeses varies according to the source of the quote and it’s also been attributed to François Mitterrand and Winston Churchill.
I hate to say this but the British Cheese Board (love the pun) claims that there are ‘over 700 named British cheeses’. National rivalry aside, I haven’t been able to find a definitive answer to the number of cheeses in France, apart from around 400. And it depends on how you categorise individual cheeses.
What about consumption, then? According to website Le Produits Laitiers, France has the highest cheese consumption per head (2010 figures):
France 23.7 kg
Germany 20.7 kg
Switzerland 18.6 kg
Austria 18.3 kg
Brits consume about 10 kg each per year. People in Asian countries eat very little cheese or dairy produce at all.
Origins of cheese
It’s impossible to tell exactly when humans started making cheese but it must date from the origins of farming and the domestication of animals, between 7,000 and 9,000 years ago. The earliest evidence of dairy farming, but not cheese-making, is from the Middle East.
The earliest evidence of cheese-making dates to around 5,500 BC. Archaeologists unearthed perforated pottery fragments in Poland. Tests showed that they had milk residues attached. Experts concluded that this can only have arisen because of cheese-making.
Our ancestors were lactose intolerant. The gene that enables us to break down lactose started to spread only once dairy farming got underway. Someone discovered that if you separate the curds from the whey you get a soft cheese, which contains much less lactose than milk. So, making cheese might have been a way of converting milk into a more digestible and easily-preserved form.
The Neolithic cheeses were probably more akin to cottage cheese than to Camembert. It has taken thousands of years of experimentation (and accident) to arrive at the wide variety we enjoy today.
The Romans developed the art of cheese-making and brought it to their conquered territories as their empire grew. This is probably when it became established in France. The Latin formaticum was used to describe hard cheese (pressed in a mould). This became formage in medieval French and, finally, fromage. During the Middle Ages, monasteries became centres of cheese-making and it remained an artisanal activity until the 19th century. Factory production really took off after World War II.
Today, like wine and other foods, some French cheeses are protected by the Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) label. This certifies that the cheese is produced within a certain geographic area according to defined, rigorous standards. Roquefort was the first cheese to receive AOC status in 1925, followed by 55 others. Cheeses are classified into eight families, e.g. blue cheeses, goat’s cheeses.
We know several people, including French, who don’t like cheese but the SF and I are very partial to it: the smellier the better. My favourites are Epoisses, from the Bourgogne, and Maroilles (Nord-Pas-de-Calais). But I also like the Auvergne cheeses: Cantal, Laguiole, Fourme d’Ambert, Saint-Nectaire.
Which is your favourite French cheese?
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