“Comment voulez-vous gouverner un pays qui a deux cent quarante-six variétés de fromage ?" " How can you govern a country which has two hundred and forty six varieties of cheese ?"
Celebrated French President and national hero Charles de Gaulle said that during his Presidency to express his frustration faced with the job of governing the politically turbulent French people.
He may have been right about the French, but he was wrong on the number. There are in fact more than 350 distinct varieties of cheese in France, and more than just as many versions of them.
There used to be even more, but stringent European Union regulations on the use of unpasteurised milk and the sanitary issues involving production have driven many smaller producers out of business.
French cheeses are mainly made from the milk of cows, sheep and goats.
Didier Galland knows pretty much all about cheese, having devoted 30 years of his life to it. He has a wonderful shop in Lyon’s Croix-Rousse district, but his knowledge is far from just being that of a cheese shop owner.
He spent twelve years learning about the fabrication of cheese as a cheese-maker, and went on what is called here a ‘Tour de France,’ that is to say a sort of extended apprenticeship visiting ten different regions of France in order to learn how the different cheeses are made.
He began his involvement in cheese in 1979 and became a ‘Master Cheese-maker’ in 1985.
French cheeses are very much regionally based, and are almost all named after the town, region or person which produces them.
Here’s a view of just some of the 160 kinds of cheese Didier sells. He is behind the counter, as discreet as he likes to be in photographs.
“Sells” is not really the adequate word for what he does. Didier actually completes the refining process of many of his cheeses in his cellars and cold-rooms before putting them on sale. These cellars are specially designed to help cheeses mature.
“I only buy farm-made cheeses” he says. “Many of them arrive before they are fully mature, and I finish the maturing process here on the premises. This means that I can decide when a cheese is ready to be brought into the shop for sale.”
This means that his regular connoisseur clients can have their cheese just how they want it. More, or less, mature. It also means that the client can choose his or her cheese from cold conditions or room temperature conditions, that which changes the maturation period and thus the taste of the cheese itself.
This is a soft cheese from St. Marcellin, covered in wine grape skins taken from wine after its fermentation begins.
It was a pleasure to listen to him describe how cheese is made here. He speaks with the evident passion of someone who knows and loves cheese.
“There are six basic processes involved in the making of cheese. First you add rennet to start the process of coagulation.”
Rennet is a natural enzyme complex which coagulates milk. This coagulation method is mainly used only in European countries.
“Then, as the milk coagulates, you drain off the excess whey which is a natural result of milk’s coagulation. How much you drain off depends on how hard you want your cheese to be. This process takes around six days, depending on the cheese you are producing. After that you put the resulting mixture into the cheese moulds.”
French cheeses all have specific shapes and sizes. Some are circular, some are triangular, others are square and some are even conical.
“All cheeses are then more or less salted. This helps to bring out the taste. This is done after they have been taken out of the moulds. Then the cheese is left to drain, or ‘breath,’ which means that any unwanted liquid left in it is evacuated. “
Here's a harder cheese, made from whole goat's milk.
“Cheeses then have to be turned ‘on their heads’ for a while in order that they take on an even distribution of texture.”
That’s how cheese is made, basically, but there remains one more process, arguably the most important. Quality cheeses then go through a process of ‘Affinage,’ or maturing. This process involves storing the cheese for what could be up to two years. The taste of cheeses changes with age, so this is a vital element in the ‘personality’ of a cheese. This is what Didier does in his shop, and it's why his cheeses are unique.
Conditions of humidity and temperatures are crucial during this time.
There must be something in this photo to tempt you!
As we talk, his salesgirl, the polite and discreet Julie, is serving what must be said to be a demanding client, to say the least. Didier take over and revels in the challenge.
He deals with the lady’s questions, using the “Taste it for yourself” method. I get to taste too - two different versions of a ‘Compte’ cheese, one of which is two years old. Wonderful. The lady leaves the shop happy with her purchase.
Fruit on cheese? Why not? Be daring. This looks delicious.
We discuss the fact that there are less and less quality cheese shops. He didn’t need to be asked for his opinion on that, and his frustration at the situation was evident.
“Sales of standardised industrial cheeses have been creeping up since the 1970’s. They are made in factories and use whatever milk they can get their hands on, whereas farm-made cheeses are more personalised. The prices of industrial cheeses are difficult to compete with. There is another, intermediary, category of cheese, that made by co-operatives. They are still regional cheeses, but use the milk from all over a region to make their cheese.”
I know what he means. I know a couple of older ladies, sisters in their 60’s who live not far from Lyon, and their family have been local cheese producers for generations on their farm, using traditional methods. But what with supermarket cheeses and, even worse, European regulation, their cheese became illegal years back.
Tens of cheeses anyone?
But they still make their cheese, in blissful and perfect illegality, and they still sell it to the people of their village, including the local police, and the surrounding area, with no problem. That’s how important real cheese is here.
Didier’s daughter, Alexia, is in England right now. What does she do for a living? She sells cheese in an up-market shop in London. Cheese is important to her too.
The importance that the French attach to cheese can perhaps best be summed up by an old French saying. It goes;
"Un repas sans fromage est une belle à qui il manque un œil."
That means ;
"A meal without cheese is like a beautiful woman with one eye missing."
My favourite cheese in Didier's shop? It's difficult to choose from so many but this beautiful goat's milk cheese from Banon in the Upper-Alps region of Provence in the South of France really took my fancy. The chestnut leaf covering gives it an incredible taste.