For the French, cheese is a symbol of Frenchness. They’ve been eating great cheeses for a long time here, some of the most famous were being made thousands of years ago. In this episode we consider some off the most famous cheeses as well as some of the stinkiest, weirdest and most dangerous cheeses that France produces. One of them is officially the smelliest cheese in the world, one has creatures living inside (which apparently adds flavour), one was loved by a King so much it contributed to him losing his head – yes that’s you Louis XVI. A slice of French cheese is a slice of French history!
We explore some of the fantastic legends, stories and fun facts in this fun and fascinating homage to French fromage.
And in the Q&A section we answer a question from a lady in Melbourne who says she read that France has banned UFOs! Is it true – or not? Find out more in this fun episode…
Brit Janine Marsh author of three international best-selling books about life in France and Frenchman Olivier Jauffrit of radio Paris Chanson share everything France and more through this podcast…
French Festivals! Tune in for the next episode when we’ll be talking about fantastic festive French celebrations. Strawberry tarts bigger than a bus, omelettes that would fill a whole room… and more fun stuff!
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Transcript for Welcome to cheese land podcast below or on Buzzsprout
Janine: Bonjour and welcome to the Good Life France podcast – everything you want to know about France and more. I’m Janine Marsh, I’m an author and travel writer and though I was born in London, UK, I now live in a tiny village in the far north of France with 60 animals including a rescue dove.
Olivier: Bonjour, and I’m Olivier, a Frenchman living in the UK. Yes, I left my native country as well, like you did Janine, but I’ve done it differently. To start with, I am NOT a DIY person. At all. So no old house refurbishment for me. Also, I like animals, but I am perfectly happy with one at a time. So, I only have one cat, but as you know when you have a cat, you also get the occasional mouse, bird, rat, frog… That’s why we only have one. It’s more than enough.
So that’s us! Now. Let’s crack on with today’s topic please Janine, what are we going to be talking about?
Janine: Cheese. That is what we will talk about. Fromage in French. Because when you talk of France as we do on this podcast, you just have to talk cheese because the French love their cheeses – and everyone else loves them too! I never much cared for cheese before I moved to France but you can hardly eat a chunk of cheese without someone telling you a story about it and when food comes with such a fascinating history it’s hard not to get caught up.
Olivier: Yes it’s true, we French we can’t get enough of our fromage. I mean I like a little bit of English cheddar too for sure, but nothing beats the smell of a good old fashioned fromage from France!
Janine: We will be talking about the smell of some cheeses as we dive into histories and more of the stinkiest, weirdest and oldest cheeses of France… this is our homage to fromage.
Janine: When you think of France – maybe you get an image of your head of a man carrying a baguette, perhaps wearing a stripey Breton T-Shirt and maybe wearing a beret. But for me, now that I live here my image of a typical French person revolves around food, sniffing wine and say “mmm …… “, yes maybe carrying a baguette or more like eating the end of it on the way home, taking ages to pick just the right cake in a cabinet full of cakes, and discussing which cheese to buy with the help of an affineur in a cheese shop, a fromagerie. Oli before we get any further into cheeseland, can you just explain what an affineur is please as I don’t really think that most countries have the same thing, I was never aware of it before France anyway…
Olivier: An affineur is a cheese maturing specialist! Basically, they get the cheese from the maker and they care for it, ripen and age it – they refine it until it is perfect for eating. So there are shops all over France run by affineurs who buy the cheese in and like you lay wine down until it’s at its best, they nurture the cheese until its ready to go on the shelf in the shop!
They are some famous affineurs in France, they’re cheese celebrities, like the Hollywood Stars of the cheese world, Philippe Olivier who is from the north of France for instance, is a legend.
Maybe we should have like a Hollywood Walk of Fame for Cheeses and instead of handprints, we can just squish a wedge or a round of cheese in, with their name. Then, of course, we’ll organise the equivalent of the Oscars – for cheese. I can picture it really well: Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to The Good Life France Cheese reward ceremony. This year’s nominees are…
Janine: So cheese, to the French is a symbol of Frenchness really. And it’s more than that because cheeses are a regional symbol and they are a symbol against mechanisation of food because the best and most loved cheeses are often made by hand, artisan products, although in the supermarket there are also loads of corporate-made cheeses too – whole aisles full of different cheeses… I was in a little restaurant in Le Touquet near where I live and I ordered moules cooked in white wine and Reblochon cheese. It was delicious. And there was a lady on the table next to mine and she heard me say “I’ve never tried Reblochon before in a sauce – it’s really nice”. She was a French lady and explained the story of Reblochon to me. It comes from Haute Savoie and comes from the word ‘reblocher’, literally: ‘to pinch a cow’s udder again’. In the 14th century, the French farmers were taxed according to how much milk their herds produced. The clever farmers thought if we only partially milk the cows when the tax assessors are here, wait until they go and then milk them again – we’ll save money. So that’s what they did and the second milking was more full and rich and they used to make Reblochon cheese.
Olivier: It’s true we French love our cheese legends, I think my favourite is “Le Banon” from Provence which is wrapped in chestnut leaves, it’s a really old cheese and it’s said that the roman Emperor Antoine Le Pieux (Antoninus Pious) died of gluttony from eating it!
Janine: Cheese flavours everything in France and it comes in all shapes and sizes, covered in ash, herbs, flowers, straw, leaves and all sorts of things. One of the cheesiest cheese dishes ever is local for northern France – it’s called Le Welsh…Some say that the Welsh archers of Agincourt fame made it popular, hmm I don’t think so! Anyway it’s a bit like Welsh rarebit – a cheese and ham toasted sandwich, and it’s basically cheese sizzling away in a dish, well basically it’s a bowl of melted cheese on top of a piece of bread and sometimes they use Maroilles, which is our first cheese reveal!
Maroilles was made by monks more than 1300 years ago in the town of Maroilles in the far north of France, the monks used it to pay their taxes with. It’s very very smelly. And it comes in many forms including round here at least, the famous Boulette d’Avesnes nicknamed the ‘suppositoire du diable’ – the devil’s suppository, thanks to its pointed shape and intense red colour which comes from the paprika it’s covered in, as well as pepper, tarragon, cloves and parsley – YUM!! It’s been made for at least 500 years and in the old days it was left to mature on windowsills for a month to dry – that must have been nice for the neighbours!
I first ate in Lille in Nord. I’d been cycling in the city to see the sites with friends and we were really hungry and wanted real food afterwards! We went to the Guingette de la Marine, which is one of those authentic little places that pepper the region, there were wooden swings hanging from the ceiling in front of the bar, and old man with a hat sat there nursing his pastis and moaning about politicians. There was an old hurdy gurdy organ in the corner, fabulous French music played – the sort you play on your radio station Oli, classic and vintage, and there was a big blackboard menu. On it was a dish called flamiche Maroilles. I asked my French friends what it was – a sort of cheese pie they said, with Maroilles and they nodded to each other knowingly. They said it was very strong, very pungent but less so when cooked as it would be in the cheese pie. Well You could smell it before the waitress came from the kitchen… strong, earthy, powerful. It was ferried across the room with reverence, it felt like everyone was watching its progress and I could almost swear that I got a nod or two from other diners – a sort of secret acknowledgement of my excellent good taste.
I felt like everyone was watching me as I tucked in. It was hot, liquid, sticky, strong, full bodied, fermented and fruity and very very smelly with a just hint of sweetness and – absolutely delicious. For me it was love at first bite!
Olivier: Another strangely named cheese is crottin de Chavignol from near Sancerre in the Loire Valley. Crottin is an old French word for sheep dropping! Fancy tasting it people?
Janine: LOL – I love that French food isn’t all haute cuisine, it’s earthy too, I love to think of some shepherd hundreds of years ago coming up with this recipe and thinking hmmm – where I have seen something like this before?!
Olivier: Crottin de chavignol are little dropping shaped cheeses from goat milk! Delicious – creamy and nutty, especially good with a glass of Sancerre…
Janine: Back to my neck of the words now and how about a slice of cheese that really packs a punch. Vieux Boulogne, Old Boulogne or as the locals call it Old Stinky. It was tested by scientists in the UK who were attempting to categorise the smelliest cheeses in the world, and it was awarded first place. They used an “electronic nose” sensor but I could have guessed the outcome as I have smelled it myself from about 100 metres away from where it was being sold! A creamy, cow’s milk that’s pungent, powerful and pugnacious – you never forget your first time. Enjoy it with a glass of local beer and a picnic on the cliff tops of the beautiful and uncrowded Opal Coast of northern France.
Olivier: We’ve talked about Camembert before on this podcast but we can’t do a cheese episode without mentioning France’s most popular cheese – Camembert! Legend has it that it was first made in 1791 by Marie Harel, a farmer from Normandy after she was given advice by a priest from Brie – where another famous French cheese is made – the Brie of course! Brie was invented by monks more than 1200 years ago and it was a favourite of the great Emperor Charlemagne who visited the priory where it was made in the year 774. He liked it so much he had it regularly delivered to his castle. 1000 years later another King loved it so much it cost him dear. Louis 16 was under house arrest during the time of the French Revolution and was about to escape but he couldn’t resist feasting on Brie and red wine – and missed his chance… In French we say “La gourmandise te perdra” – greed will be your downfall. Makes sense now.
Janine: And in fact this cheese is known as the King of Cheeses! In the early 1800s a series of diplomatic meetings were held in Europe called the Congress of Vienna. During a break the diplomats held a cheese contest – suggested by the French delegation of course! More than sixty varieties of cheese were presented, including English stilton, Dutch Limberger, Italian Strachino and Swiss Gruyere. The French Duke de Talleyrand waited until the end, and had Brie brought in. everyone had to vote, and Brie was declared the winner ‘Le Roi des Fromages’ (King Of Cheeses). I love that – you know all these old geezers because I doubt there were any women involved in the meeting then, all really serious, taking themselves more seriously than anything and then having a cheese eating contest!
Olivier: Now what do you think the oldest cheese in France is?
Janine: I know this – it’s Cantal right?
Olivier: Yes it is! It’s so old that the Romans knew about this cheese, Pliny the Elder mentioned it in his writings. It’s a cows milk cheese made in Auvergne and named after the Cantal Mountains. And it’s the only French cheese made like an English cheddar! And this is a big cheese, a round of Cantal can weigh up to 100 pounds! It’s very nice with a little glass of fresh red, like a Beaujolais. The cheese tastes of the flowers and the herbs of the mountains. If you go to the region and find a farm where they make it the tradition way, get some butter to go with a baguette and your cheese – they scrape the cream off the whey from the cheese and if it’s a real artisan maker they put the cream in a bucket and just churn it with their bare hands. It’s amazing to see, to smell, to taste…
Janine: The weirdest cheese I’ve ever heard of is casu Marzu. I was in Corsica last year, on a brilliant cruise with CroisiEurope – which I thoroughly recommend by the way, and we were walking through a gorgeous town called Porto Vecchio and the guide was telling me about the local specialities and he mentioned what he called “wormy cheese” though he said you can’t buy it any more as it’s illegal to sell it though he said he knew of someone who still made it. Anyway it’s not wormy cheese – it’s maggoty cheese. It originates from the island of Sardinia which is very close to Corsica. It holds the Guinness Book of Records for world’s most dangerous cheese. Basically it’s a sheep cheese and flies lay eggs on the cheese and then they hatch and the maggots turn the cheese into a soft creamy cheese. The guide assured me that when you open the cheese up it’s full of maggots and people eat the whole lot. But some people get rid of the worms, they store the cheese in Brandy and then spread it on toast. The guide didn’t think it was weird, but a tradition! Some people say that it can get up and walk thanks to the critters inside…
Would you eat that Oli?
Olivier: NO! I mean I was not even that French, and that into cheese when I was actually living in France a long time ago, so imagine now. That’s a solid no for me.
Janine: me neither. I’d rather eat worms! Although some do say it’s an aphrodisiac. I got to tell you it would have the complete opposite effect for me!
Olivier: They say that to force you to try it. But I am not fooled…
What about Mimolette though – I’d eat that and that has bugs on it too. Mimolette is also known as Boule de Lille after its city of origin, or Vieux Hollande because it’s a bit like Edam cheese from Holland. It has a long history and was commissioned by the French King Louis 14th. Or that’s what they say… some people think it has always been made in France but was rebranded to suit the times but no one knows for sure. Legend has it that in the 1600’s the King decreed that the importation of foreign products to France was to be actively avoided, he wanted French goods to take their place so he put restrictions on imports included Edam which was very popular and everyone was very upset. So the King demanded that a French alternative be found, and if there wasn’t one – make one.
So, the cheese makers of Lille came up with a cow’s milk cheese in a ball shape weighing around 2kg with an orange rind created by introducing a natural dye called Anatto (this was used to differentiate it from Edam). But they didn’t stop there – those clever cheese makers found a way to add extra flavour by introducing little cheese mites, microscopic organisms, which create holes in the surface. They’re brushed off from time to time in the cheese making process, but some remain.
Janine: I remember reading about mimolette being banned in some countries like America where they put tons of Mimolette in quarantine! And there was a “Save the Mimolette” Facebook page at one point! Vive la Mimolette I say!
Olivier: Ok let’s talk about a nice cheese! Mont d’Or – it’s one of just a handful of cheeses you eat with a spoon! In France it is seen as the best of the raw milk cheeses and when you taste it for the first time – you’ll understand why.
It’s made in Franche-Comté (east of France) and ripened in wood cases which gives it a slightly woody taste. It was a favourite fromage of King Louis 15th. It is only made between mid-August and mid-March, and only eleven factories in the French Jura region are licensed to produce it. It’s a protected cheese and there’s nothing else quite like it.
If you get a really ripe Mont d’Or you can eat it straight out of the pot – dip in a chunk of fresh baguette and scoop it up, or slather it on with a spoon! It has got a delicious nutty, earthy taste.
Or you can bake it too – that’s a really popular way to eat it in France as it brings out even more flavour.
Janine: I love Mont d’Or, it’s so French it should be wearing a beret and carrying a baguette. I like it baked with a little garlic and herbs! Mmm. There’s a lovely recipe on my website www.thegoodlifefrance.com – and heaps more cheese recipes.
Now time for some fun French cheese facts!
Olivier: Oh yes, I love fun facts. Every year in France there are a load of cheese competitions for the best affineur, the best cheese maker, the best cheeses, goats cheese. That’s the Concours National des Fromages, the Salon du fromage and the Mondiale du fromage – the world cup of cheese making. At this contest the candidates from around the world have to make and mature the cheese, then cut and sculpture it for presentation on a cheese platter. The current champion is Virginie Dubois-Dhorne of Arras, near where you live Janine. She matures the cheese in caves under Arras’ citadel built by Louis 14th’s military engineer Vauban in the 17th century.
Janine: I’ve seen loads of people pose for photos in France and say “fromage” and try to smile but it doesn’t work – by the way I mean non-French people do this because fromage is French for cheese which we say in English when posing and want to have a big smile. If you say fromage, you won’t be left smiling but looking slightly demented with your lips puckered in a sort of goat face way. Nope the French say “marmoset”! Except they say it in French which is ‘oustitii’ – if you’re listening – give it a go, it pulls your smile right out!
Olivier: Ouistitiiiiii – We do say cheese in English a lot as well for photographs 😉
Olivier: President Charles de Gaulle famously said: How can you govern a country which has two hundred and forty-six varieties of cheese?” Well old Charlie was a bit off the mark with that number because there are so many more than that. In fact nobody knows how many varieties of cheeses there are – more than a thousand, maybe 1300, maybe more! Just think if you are a cheese head – you could eat a different cheese every day of the year for three years!
Janine: Did you just call President de Gaulle Charlie?!
Olivier: Yes, like best friends lol!
Janine: Haha. Well a different cheese for every day of the week – for three years. What a challenge that would be. I might think about that but only if I don’t have to eat the maggot cheese from Corsica!
Olivier: Okay, I feel full now… Enough cheese because now it’s time for the Question and answer session…So what’s today’s question Janine.
Janine: Well it’s an interesting one and an unusual one too! This one is from Diane Jarvis of sunny Melbourne, Australia and she says that she read that there is a law in France that UFOs are banned! What do you think Oli – true or false
Olivier: Only if they don’t like cheese… Well, I know that in fact this is true! So aliens if you are listening, which maybe they are because you know France is the most popular tourist destination in the world and beyond, remember? – beware do not park your spaceship in France!
Janine: Haha, and yes for anyone who didn’t listen to our travel in France podcast, the episode before this one, Olivier did actually claim that France is the most popular destination in the world – and beyond!
Yes! You’re sort of right! In fact it is in Chateauneuf-du-Pape in Provence that this is the law! This lovely wine making village, which used to be the summer retreat for the Popes when they lived in Avignon instead of Rome, has a law which bans UFOs from landing in the town, flying over it or taking off from it!
Olivier: like the Aliens will be aware of that law… of course they will. It must be written somewhere on that famous guide: “how to become a French human”.
Janine: Yup weird isn’t it! But apparently when the film War of the Worlds scared the heck out of everyone in the early 1950s, a whole load of people all around the world including France claimed to have seen spaceships and aliens. Now the Mayor of Chateauneuf-du-Pape had a brainwave to get some free publicity for the town so he passed a law in October 1953 banning UFOs! Apparently the law hasn’t been broken – to our knowledge at least!
Olivier: Tune in for the next episode when we’ll be talking about fun and fantastic festive French celebrations – strawberry tarts bigger than a bus, omelettes that would fill a whole room and more fun stuff!
Janine: Take a look at our free magazine The Good Life France which you can find at magazine.thegoodlifefrance.com it’s brimming with beautiful photos an fabulous features!
Oli: And you can find me at parischanson.fr, it’s a radio station playing the most beautiful French songs of the 40s, 50s and 60s 24 hours a day. It’s the home of Edith Piaf, Charles Trenet, Charles Aznavour, Maurice Chevalier, Serge Gainsbourg and many more.
Janine: It’s au revoir from me
Oli: And goodbye from me
Janine: speak to you soon.