France is well known for producing cheeses famous throughout the world, such as Brie, Camembert and Roquefort – to name but three.
It is estimated that over 500 different cheeses are made in France with a diversity of flavours, shapes, textures and tastes that are quite incredible.
A great deal of credit for the proliferation and the ongoing artisanal production of so many varieties of cheeses can be accredited both to the AOC label (Appelation d’Origine ControlÃ©e) which has ensured that traditions and production processes are not only protected, but that they also follow a strict set of guidelines. This is often viewed as yet another form of French protectionism, I’ll drink to that, but it also ensures that a cheese that carries an AOC label is produced in a traditional way, with milk that comes from local sources and made in the region that the AOC says it comes from.
Another reason for the ongoing production and consumption of so many varieties of cheeses is the French culture of gastronomy that is instilled from a very young age, where children are introduced to a wide variety of different foods and educated as to their origin, “terroir” and “patrimoine” – I have deliberately left these expressions unexplained in order that the reader discovers what they really mean as explaining them would be both confusing and very long. This would give an opportunity for at least two other posts on the subject of food and gastronomy…
In this post, I’d like to introduce you to some cheeses from the Midi-Pyrenees region of south west France – basically from Toulouse and outlying regions, The Pyrenees and the 8 departments that make up the region. This is not an exhaustive list, just a few favourites and some of the perhaps lesser known varieties of excellent cheese produced here – and in no particular order.
Monts de Lacaune – Montagne Noire / Tarn – this is a cheese made from cow’s milk but with varieties made from goat’s, sheep’s, cow’s / sheep’s and Goat’s / sheep’s milk. A semi hard cheese with a taste ranging from medium to very strong, according to the age of the cheese – Excellent young with a light red wine and a solid, full-bodied red such as a Fitou or a Fronton when it has been aged.
Roquefort – Aveyron, made in the village of Roquefort-sur-Soulzon and aged in traditional limestone caves. Well I guess most know this soft, crumbly, blue cheese with its distinctive, blue-green veining with a strong pronounced taste made from sheep’s milk. Excellent with fresh fruit such as pears, figs or apples – best eaten with a sweet white wine – Blanc Moelleux.
Rocamadour – From the village of the same name in the Lot department – small creamy white disks made from goat’s milk, generally eaten when soft but can be eaten aged where they become harder and drier – best eaten with a dry white wine and can be eaten with a black-cherry conserve much as similar cheeses are eaten in the Pyrenees. Excellent grilled whole on bread “pain de campagne” accompanied with a green salad and walnuts.
Bethmale – From the Cousserons area around Saint Girons in the Pyrenees, a semi-hard cheese, with a medium flavour and buttery flavour, best eaten with a light red wine.
Moulis – another cheese from the village of the same name just outside Saint Girons, semi-hard with a very strong flavour best accompanied by a full-bodied, fruity red wine such as a CorbiÃ¨res.
Castillonais – From the same region as Bethmale – a mixed Goat’s / sheep’s milk semi hard cheese with a delicate taste of woodland leaves and wild mushrooms – serve with a light red wine such as a Bourgogne or a Beaujolais.
Bleu des Causses – From the Lot department, a milder blue than the Roquefort, with a less pronounced taste, made from cow’s milk. delicious served with a sweet white wine.
Le Cathare – dusted with wood ash, with the distinctive cross of the Midi-Pyrenees region, this light and delicate goat’s cheese is best served with a dry white wine from Gaillac.
Anneau de Vic Bilh – A creamy, mild goat’s cheese, dusted with wood ash with a hole in the middle and a delicate taste that is a fine balance of saltiness and bitterness – serve with a dry white wine.
Crottins du Tarn – from the Tarn department a soft, mild-tasting goat’s milk cheese, good for spreading or grilling on fresh bread and served with a green salad, dressed with walnut-oil vinaigrette accompanied by a dry white wine from Gaillac.
Le Cocagne – from the region around Albi in the Tarn, a semi-soft, medium-strong, sheep’s milk cheese with a yellow, almost buttery texture that is best accompanied by a dry, white Gaillac.
PÃ©rail de BrÃ©bis – from the Aveyron department near Roquefort a white sheep’s milk cheese with a strong taste that can be accompanied by a light red from the Languedoc, a dry white or a RosÃ© de Provence.
Tomme des Gavachs – A strong, semi hard, cow’s milk cheese from Les Monts de Lacause in the Tarn best served with a full-bodied red such as a CÃ´tes du Tarn or a Fronton.
St FÃ©lix de Lauragais – in the haute Garonne department – produces a variety of soft and semi-soft, delicately flavoured goat’s cheeses of the CabÃ©cou variety. Although not strictly an AOC, the cheeses are excellent, some rolled in crushed hazelnuts, chives, sultanas, ground black pepper or cranberries, they really are delicious and well worth a mention here.
As I mentioned earlier, this is just a selection of a few of the cheeses available in the region – they are all delicious with their own particular tastes, best served with the wine from the region in which they are made but which can also be served with other wines.
If you are ever in the region, you must try them, but do try and go to where they are made and buy direct – not only will you get the authentic product, but you will also be supporting local artisans and crafts people.
Bon appÃ©tit – bien sÃ»r!