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VOL. XXII NOVEMBER, 1917 No. 4
The Pedigreed Cheeses of France
Aristocratic Camembert, Golden Brie, Green-Veined Roquefort, and Sympathetic Coulommiers —
A French Cheese for Every Day in the Year
By Blanche McManus
THE cheese test registers close-up the real differences between peoples. The reason: Cheese is the most ancient form of prepared and preserved food of the human race. A figurative legend claims that the world's first apple of wisdom, which was divided between Man I and Woman I, was not a fruit, but a round, hard, white ball made of the milk of wild goats — the precursor of the many members of the great cheese family we know, the proper recognitions of whose claims forms the subtle test of discriminating knowledge of our neighbors and their ways.
Brought down to date the most brilliant example among the nations of cheese fervents is that of the plucky little fighting "Coq Gaulois" — France, and naturally, for it is the home of the most famous race of pedigreed cheeses. For this reason we accept so many of the traditions and customs of the enigmatic French without asking for explanation. Why they live in cold houses, but won't drink ice-water; why, in summer, they mostly live outside their houses and yet have not verandas; why they have the most artistic furniture in the world and never a comfortable easy chair; why they do their correspondence in a public café and consider a visible pocket fountain pen a badge of debasing commercialism; why they kiss each other so much and mean it so little; why their cuisine sets the pace and fashion for the world and yet they ignore ice-boxes and finger-bowls; why when they produce the finest and most varied lot of cheeses of any country in the world they rarely eat them except for the accompaniment of dejeuner.
Here, then, you have the cheese test automatically applied, conclusively sh6wing that France is a nation which "walks by itself."
We rank cheese as we do bread and butter — most useful, but do not allow it to assume superfluous airs; rather it is a stopgap to be fitted in anywhere — for midnight suppers, for both four o'clock and eight o'clock breakfasts, luncheons, dinners, teas, picnics. We harness it to salad, wed it to jelly, dissipate it in "rabbits," squeeze it into sandwiches — and so does all the rest of the world, except the French.
The French take no such liberties and simply shrug their shoulders at the foreigner's lack of appreciation of the temperamental qualities of cheese.
There are four divining rods set upon the French table by which the true measure of the bon vivant, the aspiring connoisseur in food, can be guaged: — wines, sauces, salads and cheeses. By the expert combining, and the precedence accorded to these chief accessories of a repast, do the French pass upon the standing of the gourmet, who aspires to be catalogued in the "Gastronomical Who's Who." Cheese is more apt to give away a bluff than any other of the elements because its French etiquette is so simple.
It is permissible for cheese to be eaten during just two hours of the twenty-four; never before noon and only until two in the afternoon. Within this time limit, one's reputation is safe, be the consumption only a modest triangle, slice or spoonful, according to species, eanten always with a bit of bread crust, — the biscuit or cracker, plain or toasted, being entirely unknown. The French never dream of buttering bread as do Americans, or spreading cheese upon it after the English fashion. The most correct finish to the operation of eating cheese in France is with a pear, from which custom comes the French bon mot, mysteriously transpossed it is true, — "entre la poire et le fromage." Also cheese never absents itself from the midday dejeuner.
Not only is the hour for eating cheese fixed but the season as well. The cheese calendar follows a well-laid down régime; yellow varieties for autmnn and spring, green for winter, white for summer, a symphony which unfolds like a fashion-plate. And this with reason, for the French set the world's modes in exquisite, coagulated milk products as they do for expressive language, chic dress and fine wines.
The three great branches of pedigreed French cheeses whose fame and good name have girdled the universal dining-table, and which play the star roles on all our menus, are the ecru-tinted Camembert, the golden-hued Brie and the green-veined Roquefort. A long and varied list of understudies follow in the train, and there is a multitude of more modest relatives of the family which easily run the list of the French cheese blue-book up to a hundred or more varieties. There is not a hidden dimple in the smiling landscape of la belle France but that can boast of its own particular local brand of cheese.
Camembert, whose cradle is the little commune of the same name in the Department of the Orne, is the most popular, most widely eaten and most largely produced of all French cheeses. If not alone for its excellence, its popularity has impressed itself indelibly upon our retinas by memory of the little round wooden boxes and their labels, which bear pictures of the plump Normandy cow and the equally plump Normandy milkmaid.
This oldest and most picturesque of the old French provinces is the home of the Frenchman's pet cheese, and, curiously, while it is not the most expensive, it costs the most to put up and handle, its "accessory" costs often rising to fifty centimes (ten cents) the cheese for labelling, boxing and coating. All high-class Camembert cost from fifty to two hundred per cent more than "near" Camembert, which assures thc real thing being something quite different from merely what is called "type-camembert," when it is spelt with a small c.
In French cheese technique, solidified milk products are divided into two classes — fromages fermentes, or raw cheeses, belonging to the cold class; fromages cuits, or cooked cheeses, of the hot class. The cold cheeses are of milk with the cream left in, called by the French fat cheeses; the hot cheeses are those of skimmed milk and belong to the thin, or maigre, class.
Camembert is a cold, fat member of the French cheese family, made entirely of the milk of the famous dun-and-white neighboring Jersey breed.
A genuine Norman Camembert farm is managed down to its smallest detail by the sturdy, blond Norman type, who wears a short blue linen smock and big wooden sabots and carries a cattle-stick, or baton normand, slung on his wrist by its plaited leather thong — a custom, by the way, which has set the latest fashion for the military wrist umbrella. He superintends the out-of-doors end of the enterprise; his wife and daughters, in big aprons enveloping a neat black dress, and wearing the white coiffes of the countryside: attending to the interior management of the dairy. The children take the cows out to the pasture, each attached to a chain which is staked into the ground, the radius of the chain's circle rationing the cow according to the proscribed need for the quantity of milk required daily. All this has been figured out mathematically and so each day a new circle is browsed clean. To see the apple-green, gently-rolling Norman countryside, guiltless of fences, stamped with mystical Druid-like circles, of which a sad-eyed cow is the hub, suggests a new sort of puzzle map.
Milking is largely done in the fields, for with the soft, damp climate the animals are often left out of doors continually, night and day. The Norman farm-houses are usually huddled together in the villages, farm laborers of all ranks going to their work in the fields, returning only to the farmhouse on the completion of the day's work.
In high, two-wheeled carts, drawn by big-hoofed Norman horses, trapped cut with colored worsted tassels dangling before their eyes and blue-dyed sheepskins draped over their high collars, the milk is carried to the local fromagerie in big tins much like the milk cans the world over.
To bring about the coagulation it is here caseine by the addition of presure, an acid matter from the stomachs of new born calves, which causes the fresh milk to congeal and ferment. The demand for this article being so great, an artificially prepared chemical substitute is now largely used, producing, it is said, the same results, but not if you are in the know.
Camemberts are packed in their little, round, wooden boxes, while still verte: that is — fresh, the mellowing process developing naturally in the course of time. The expert tester can tell by the sensibility of his finger tip as he prods their wrinkled skins just the degree of ripeness which the cheeses may have attained, and accordingly what their value in the market may be. There are many substitutes, near or far relations of Camembert, coming from contiguous regions, but none which quite takes its place. Genuine Camembert, it may be stated, has more than doubled in price since 1913 and is now quoted at approximately twenty-four dollars the hundred, which obviously means that what you buy for the equivalent of fifteen cents at the Paris corner grocery is not the real thing at all.
The land of the big, flat Brie cheeses, which look like mammoth gold dollars, lies to the east of Paris, between the grand old cathedral town of Meaux and the royal splendors of historic Pontaine-bleu, its little farms reaching up almost to the gates of Paris, flat and uniform, too, as the cross-hatched surfaces of its cheeses. The Brie stage is not set so picturesquely as that of Camembert, if the landscape, or paysage, be in question, but is a country of quaint, walled farms and mediaeval donjons. There is nothing otherwise more thrilling than a vast checker-board of fields of pink clover, carrots and parsnips, the ownership of which is marked only by small white stones set at each corner. These fields serve as the cattle feeding grounds, for the lush evergreen pastures which give their flavor to Camembert are lacking.
Near each little red-topped farm house may be seen a low, rambling, barn-like building with a smoke-stack protuberance, the cheese usines, or factories, where the Brie is made, and, it must be confessed, in a more primitive fashion than their rivals of the little wooden boxes. The mottes of solidified milk, after being patted into the shape of big medallions, are laid on individual straw mats of crude weave and then laid out on tables of rough planks to mature. This gives the strong, wrinkly skin which encloses, finally, the most velvety of all the vast French cheese family.
Brie is also a fat, cold cheese made from cows' milk with the cream left in; more cream is contained therein than in any other. The total output is somewhat less than that of Camembert and is divided into two chief classes, the brie latier and the moyen moule. It comes to the Paris wholesale cheese market at Les Halles in big, lumbering country carts over the long, straight, tree-lined roads that stretch out, with Paris as their hub, like a great spiderweb over a dewy meadow, the straw mats being the only packing, and the stock still showing the cross-hatched impression as a chief mark of quality. How hygienic the method may be is another story, as the loads are open to all the winds and dusts that blow.
These two famous brands of French cheeses have had their exciting shares of war fortunes; Camembert, alone, as the French say, has made a "fortune of gold." Just before the outbreak the government added cheese to the fighting rations of the soldiers at the front, which shows the good standing that this nourishing dairy food enjoys. Camembert, being obtainable in large quantities and easily transportable, has been daily shipped by thousands of crates to the army front, but its real good fortune may be said to have come from the fact that the principal base of the British Expeditionary Force in France, of two millions or more men, draws enormous quantities of supplies from this particular section.
The fortune that war brought to Brie cheese was that of immortality. It was over the little clover, carrot and parsnip feeding ranges of the little red cows of the Brie country that history wrote its great page during the Battle of the Marne. It is in the soft folds of this pleasant river valley that is minted the golden coinage of this lucky cheese, whose name is forever twined with the laurels of this almost supernatural victory. And the big souvenir of the war in the land of Brie to-day is a certain farmhouse of one of the biggest cheese manufacturers where Prince Eitel, the Kaiser's second son, gaily played on its piano at the moment the flood of invasion reached its crest at the little nearby village of Lassigny, scarce a score of miles from Paris. By way of recuperating the losses of the Brie cheese-makers of that memorable summer, we here in France are paying a price for this delightful cheese, which really melts in one's mouth, a price which is rising to a new height each week. This melting quality makes of Brie the ideal spring and autumn cheese, while Camembert, according to its hardness or ripeness, can hold its own the year round.
Not a far relation is the Coulommiers, and if it is double-creme (which is taken to mean that additional cream has been added to the natural pate, or body), there is a succulence to it — though frankly it is more of a dessert cheese than one of the digestive quality — which gives it almost a supreme rank to many critical palates. There is a little restaurant in Paris, on the "Boul Mich," which draws its supply from some unique hidden source, which it has kept secret for years. Needless to say, this double distilled cheese can not be found on the ordinary market stalls; at least, I have not been able to run it down in a dozen years. It is, as compared with other cheeses, as cheese to chalk, but rather more putty-like in consistency.
It takes the delicately attuned palate of the gastronomic connoisseur to appreciate the most reputed of the three types of French cheeses and to get the savor, to the fullest extent, of its peculiar salty flavor. It is for this that the savant puts Roquefort only on the winter menu. In the Chamber of Deputies the other day it was referred to as the King of Cheeses. This appropos of a discussion as to how its good name could best be protected from falsificated brands. Tallyrand in his day called it also primus inter pares.
Far from war's great spitting canons and bursting bombs lies the habitat of Roquefort, the best pedigreed of all cheeses. Grey, silent and solitary, it is folded away on the high central plateau in the very heart of France in the Department of thc Aveyron, little known and rock-bound like the mountains which surround it; far off, too, from the well-beaten trails of tourists who have blazed so thoroughly their ways through the lands of Brie and Camembert. The trails over its rolling hillsides of chalky rock are principally those tiny tangled threads of paths made by the feet of the many flocks of sheep, guarded by brown-cloaked shepherds and their sole companions, their faithful sheep-dogs.
It is from sheep's milk exclusively that this aristocratic finis to the bon vivant's repast is made, and its individual flavor is due to the peculiar herbs on which the sheep browse. The little town of Roquefort, nestled in one of the white seams of this lonely plateau, gives its name to the cheese of the neighborhood. It has a population almost exclusively of those of the cheese industry, and from this insignificant little townlet is sent out to the world a yearly supply of about six millions of francs worth of this green-and-white, mottled cheese.
The fabrication of Roquefort, whether in little or en grande, is regarded as a trade secret, guarded jealously, its science handed down through successive members of a family from parents to children. Nor are visitors to the dairies or the curing vaults encouraged. The general lines of its handling are as follows: The milk of the brebis, or sheep, is coagulated, as are all the fat-cold cheeses, with the acid of presure and then allowed to ferment. This fermentation of sheep's mi!k, different from that of cow's, produces the bacilli of the imposing name of penicellium glaucum, which are simply millions of infinitesimal mushrooms which form the green veinings that give the peculiar marbling to the pure white pate. During their period of ripening, Roquefort is entombed for months in underground, deep caves which honeycomb the chalky white hillsides roundabout. Here the strange, penetrating humidity of the crumbling white walls and roofs and soil induce the cheeses, once shaped in their form of thick disks, to grow long, hoary beards, like floating veiles of some rare form of stalactite. These beards are "shaved" periodically and it is said that the skilful barbering at correct intervals has much to do with the manifest superiority of Roquefort over the "near-Roqueforts" of Corsica, which product, it is regretfully stated, gets its distribution through the world largely on the reputation of the genuine article, not a little of it, in the pate being actually sent to Roquefort and restarted on its travels from there.
Roquefort, the fromage de luxe, has received the dubious compliment of many substitutes, the most formidable being the the fromage bleu made in the foothills of thc mountain background of Mediterranean France just to the northward of the Riviera, the playground of princes. This "blue cheese" is cheap both in price and taste. Much of the real Roquefort is controlled by a close corporation, or trust, the bulk of the product going out to the world wrapped in an envelope bearing an "all-over" design of the monogram or the trademark of one or another of the wellknown "societes," or shippers. To falsify the marque, or label, is, under French law, counterfeiting. This is protecting an industry, not harassing it.
If Roquefort is the king of cheeses, it has two famous vassals, though manifest low-bred types; one that of Laguiole, the other of neighboring Cantal. They are known as the fromage du pauvre — poor man's cheese, something akin, one fancies, to what we call mouse-trap cheese. Of the former it is claimed that any but a connoisseur would call it the same as Roquefort, but the latter is manifestly a hard pate, almost petrified. Ripening with it appears to mean hardening; certainly that is one of its notable characteristics.
France, too, makes enormous quantities of what is generally known as Swiss cheese — at any rate what is best described as the big cheese with the big holes. In the Alps of Savoie, under the shadow of Mont Blanc (which is itself French and not Swiss) and in the old province of the Franche Comté in the mountains of the Jura, bordering upon the northern Swiss frontier, are found the big industries which are devoted to the fabrication of this specious cheese so often wrongly called Swiss. The French themselves do not pretend that it is — certainly no expert would attempt to pass it off as Emmenthal or Gruyére of origin.
In the genuine Gruyére country the cheese, so called, is usually the product of the small milk-farmer who pastures his cows in summer (and makes his cheeses on the spot) in the high Alps of the Bernese Oberland. The "holey" cheese of the French mountains is essentially an industrially manufactured cheese though, indeed, in no way inferior to that of the Mountain Republic. To be sure, there is a little echo of jealousy from makers of other French cheeses, to the effect that the makers, even in France, are Swiss by birth, but this is more a political big drum than anything else, and assuredly the cheese is French.
It is certain that this "type" Gruyére has not the finesse which commends it to the good liver as the closing chapter of the classic French menu; rather it is the topping off of a simple repast consisting of a plat-du-jour, a vegetable and bread at discretion.
Other essentially luncheon cheeses are those which the French group under the family name of fromage à la creme, mostly made for daily consumption and therefore cannot be, or at least are not, exported from the country. The gem of the collection is the before mentioned double-creme, the pearl, white Coulommiers, a side issue of the Brie industry.
The daintiest of all is the coeur à la creme, evanescent as it is delicious, appearing first in the spring time and fading away with the summer. It is the most romantic and sentimental of cheeses as its name indicates.
There are also innumerable frankly minor cheeses, as demisel, or half-salted, and a whole family of goats' milk cheeses. The latter are considered a great epicurean, if not fashionable, delicacy. To get them, at their best and in their greatest profusion, one must journey south, along the shores of the Mediterranean, in the Maritime Alps and in the Pyrenees, the backgrounds of the Riviera, and the Silver Shore of Biarritz and the Basque Country. All along this southern rim of France wander the pastoral, shaggy flocks of brown, black and white goats, descendants of their desert ancestors. The goats' milk cheese one gets in some lonely Provencial mas, or farmhouse, is doubtless made after the formula of hundreds of years gone by, but in spite of this you may even become tres amateur in spite of the fact that to eat them is much like biting into a pungent putty. Some are kept buried in the ground for indefinite periods, others rolled into balls and enclosed in a coverlid of plaster, others merely bound in fig or grape leaves. Some are in batons, some in rolls and some in balls.
And this is not all. One might, indeed, keep calling the cheese roll indefinitely; but those mentioned seem sufficiently representative to define the place which the pedigreed cheeses of France find on the table in the land of good cooks, though it is claimed, and not unreasonably, it would seem, that there is actually a different one for every day in the year.