When thinking about traveling in France, Molly and I were a bit apprehensive about the fancy wine and cheese portion. For two people whose favorite foods are popsicles (me) and hot dogs (Molly), the delicacies that France has to offer seemed beyond our palates.
And indeed, the idea of walking into a fromagerie with my non-existent French and picking out cheeses from the beautiful giant blocks and rounds has been too intimidating to attempt. (It has been, however, 90% of my inspiration to continue studying French.) And though the wine cellars are less intimidating, the price tags in the window still kept me outside, peering in from the street.
Many people discover these wonderful French wines and cheeses through wineries, chateaux tasting rooms, classes, etc. and we looked out for these everywhere we went. But traveling, as we were, in Winter, we found that most things were closed until Spring. What we discovered though, is that the glory of French food is not only found in fancy Parisian shops or Bordeaux chateaux, but is perhaps most illuminated in the local supermarket.
I loved going to the super market in France, besides walking through vineyards, it was my favorite way to spend an afternoon and while Molly did most of the actual shopping I spent a great deal of time studying the different wines, liquors and cheeses, even taking pictures and jotting down notes so I could translate and research when we got home. (and yes, everyone stared at me.) The Intermarché in Jarnac where we shopped had two wine aisles, plus a liquor aisle and the cheese section took up a cold case going back half the depth of the market. The other half was butter and cured meats.
However, soon after arriving and finding this wonderful supermarket I had to stop and evaluate: becoming a wine and cheese enthusiastic, even one at the supermarket level, left me worried about the money component, did I really want to spend all our money on champagne and aged Gouda? (Not a great pairing by the way.) But we quickly discovered that actually cheese is really affordable: a big block of our favorite gouda was 2 euros. And just like the wine we buy at Trader Joes back at home, we were totally satisfied with bottles of wine between 3 and 7 Euros.
So I set aside a little extra money and started trying wine and liquor. Besides cognac and pineau, we tried a few different pastis as well, preferring the stronger brands and styles. We quickly learned that Molly isn’t preferential toward expensive champagne and loves the sparkling wine from Burgundy, called Crement de Bourgogne. Barb, Molly and I even did a home taste test of all the white wines from Burgundy: the crement, chardonnay, aligote and chablis. We all liked chablis the best, but the chardonnay, which isn’t oaked like it always is in California was really crisp and tasty as well.
When Molly would venture over to the wine aisle after finishing all of our shopping, she really liked the French wine club wines, which had visually descriptive labels on the back that for the most part we couldn’t decipher, but it was just nice to know they were there.
Unlike the wine aisle where there were very few unfamiliar styles, the cheese aisle was completely foreign but twice as enticing. The best part about the cheese aisle was looking at all the different styles and packaging and how the aisle was sorted by which region the cheese came from with harder cheeses on the upper shelves and the softest cheeses on the bottom shelves.
General de Gaulle once said: “How can anyone govern a nation that has 246 types of cheese?” His challenge was our splendor and indeed, the cheese aisle in the supermarket is truly a map of France.
We quickly discovered Mimolette, an aged hard cheese from Northern France that is orange in color and tastes like a rich, salty sharp cheddar. We probably ate this cheese the most during our time in France. Fun fact about Mimolette, cheese mites are intentionally placed on the outside of the newly formed cheese to add flavor and form the rind. I promise it tastes better than cheddar, don’t let the mite thing throw you.
We also ate quite a bit of extra aged hard Gouda that has little cheese crystals in it and is wonderful with cognac after dinner. Gouda is from Holland, but is still plentiful in the market with all different varieties of age and consistency. We found that the shredded cheese we were used to is pretty rare in France, but so are other burrito fixings so we hardly noticed what we were missing. The cheeses they do have in shredded form are French Gruyère** and Comté (French cousin of the Swiss Gruyère), which are unbelievable on salads, soups and in crêpes (recipe here). What seems to replace the abundance of shredded cheeses that you find in grocery stores in the U.S. are pre-cut squares of mild, melty fondue cheese.
We also spent a week trying a great variety of grocery store brand soft, stinky and famous cheeses, indulging in tasting a few each night. We liked some, thought others were OK, but overall, these soft cheeses just aren’t our thing.
Between sipping wine and stuffing our faces with cheese we did manage to learn a little about French food production. Even though French food is by no means local – they have just as much importing and industrialized farming as in the U.S. – they have managed to preserve local production of many regional specialties like butter, honey wine, cheese, nuts, etc. This is made possible through an Appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC) certification process where the government monitors the production of certain products to ensure that they’re rooted in a specific region (responsible for its characteristic flavor) and are made using traditional methods. The AOC controls the quality of its products and acts almost as a trademark – one that’s recognized by both the European Union and World Trade Organization.
Despite one’s opinions about government regulated food, what’s undeniable is that the AOC stamp contributes to the spirit of local specialties that’s so prevalent in France: Charente butter has an AOC to designate its origin as does honey from Corsica and Champagne from Champagne. Even foods outside of the AOC are still branded by region, such as Breton flour, Vichy mineral water and Flemish chicken.
Of the hundreds of varieties of French cheese, only forty are AOC certified, Roquefort cheese being the first. As an example of the AOC certification criterion, here are a few of the many rules that must be adhered to for a cheese to be called Roquefort:
- It can only be produced and aged in the caves of the town of Roquefort-sur-Soulzon using a particular bacteria that reproduces there.
- The milk used to make it must come from a sheep of 2,500 sheep producers who operate in a radius of one hundred miles of the town.
- Three quarters of what those sheep eat has to come from the grounds of that same one hundred mile radius.
- The entire process of maturation, cutting, packaging and refrigeration of the cheese must take place in the commune of Roquefort-sur-Soulzon.
These rules guarantee the consumer is getting the cheese they are paying for and protects the local Roquefort cheese makers by ensuring that their cheese cannot be replicated anywhere else. But also, when you put a nice big hunk of Roquefort cheese in your mouth and you think about the historically rich process of production, you feel really bad when you gag a little and have to spit it out.
**The manufacture of Comté has been controlled by AOC regulations since it became one of the first cheeses to receive AOC recognition in 1958. For AOC grading purposes, each cheese is awarded a score out of 20 by inspectors, according to overall appearance, quality of rind, internal appearance, texture, and taste. Any cheese scoring under 3 marks for taste, or under 12 overall is prohibited from being named Comté and is sold as French Gruyère.