The average French person eats a whopping 57 lbs of cheese every year, in contrast with the average American who eats around 33 lbs. Not incredibly surprising given they produce just over a thousand different varieties. Now imagine a country around the size of Texas that produces 2 million tons of cheese each year – this is France. Cheese is not only France’s largest export but also a source of immense national pride and tradition.
And if you visit France you’ll notice the cheese tastes very different from what most people are used to in the U.S.
This is due to the fact that these mouthwatering, spreadable, melt-at-room-temperature cheeses are made with raw milk – that is, they’re unpasteurized. In the U.S the FDA deemed unpasteurized dairy products unsafe for human consumption in 1949. Many French cheeses are often unaged as well. According to the FDA if a cheese is unpasteurized, it must be aged at least 60 days at a temperature no less than 35 degrees fahrenheit. Apparently after 60 days the natural salt and acids in the cheese kill off any unwanted pathogens.
Now we know that heating milk at high temperatures through pasteurization kills harmful bacteria that cause E.Coli and Listeria and give the added benefit of extending the shelf life of the cheese. However, proponents of young, raw milk cheeses point out this heat kills microorganisms that are key to healthy gut bacteria as well as those that bring out more nuanced flavors you just can’t find in their pasteurized counterparts.
Ironically 150 years after French scientist Louis Pasteur discovered heating liquid to a certain temperature would destroy pathogens, La France is still enjoying unpasteurized fresh cheeses, while pasteurization remains a hot topic for America. All this to say that unfortunately the brie available at the supermarket in the states is a far cry from the real thing.
As a result, raw milk cheeses are smelly. I’ve learned to brace myself before opening our fridge as the smell of certain cheeses can be so pungent you’d be sure your nose hairs burned off. But, oddly enough, some of the smelliest cheeses have the most delicate yet rich flavors that (luckily) don’t at all mimic their offensive scent.
When it comes to quality, in order for a producer to claim a cheese from a specific region, they must abide by rigorous standards to use its name. The Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (‘Controlled Designation of Origin’) is the highest certification given to protected region-specific products.
This is based on the concept of terroir (meaning ‘land’) is the belief that every aspect of the region where that product is produced – from the food the animal eats and where it comes from – can affect the flavor of the product. This is why only true Champagne from the Champagne region can be called as such, as well as Camembert de Normandie and so on and so forth.
I’d love to write a post about my favorite types of cheeses and typically how they’re eaten, but I’m afraid it’d be never-ending, so we’ll save that for perhaps a multi-post feature!