I'm a big fan of cheese. But until recently, I'd only eaten fairly normal cheese: cheddar, gouda, and some supermarket brie. I’d experimented with some chèvre from a farmer’s market and imported Havarti with dill from a European deli. Loving them all, I sought out more of this deliciousness. I wanted the good stuff: raw cheese.
Raw cheese is made from raw milk, which is different from the pasteurized milk we drink cold from the carton. Pasteurization is when milk is briefly heated to a very high temperature to kill off harmful bacteria, which is good if you plan on keeping your milk for longer than a week. However, pasteurization destroys enzymes that lend a lot of flavor, as well as the potentially harmful bacteria.
Selling raw milk is illegal in about half of the states. Even where it is legal, you can’t buy it at a grocery store. Raw cheese is nationally illegal because the FDA says that it could potentially harbor deadly pathogens and, you know, kill people. Most connoisseurs say raw cheese should be legal because the benefit of added nutrients in raw cheese—that are destroyed during pasteurization—outweighs the risks of contamination, which are small if the cheese is made correctly.
I’m all about potential pathogens and flavor, but am I really a connoisseur of cheese if I’ve only had the safe stuff? However, I wasn’t sure how to obtain the real thing and I certainly wasn’t going to find it in America. I decided I had to go straight to the epicenter of raw goodness. So I flew to Paris.
Paris is cheese heaven. Fromageries (cheese shops) are scattered liberally throughout the city. They are unmistakable in their odor, smelling overwhelmingly of stinky cheese. Even though most supermarkets in Paris sell cheese—some of them even sell raw cheese—the cheese markets sell the best cheese. The fromager will give expert buying advice, who is both a purveyor of fine cheeses, and an expert.
David Lebovitz, a chef turned bestselling food writer, recommends Fromagerie Beillevaire on his website, where he writes about food, especially Parisian food. The owner Pascal Beillevaire started in the cheese business over thirty years ago in Machecoul, France. He has since opened Fromagerie Beillevaire shops all over France.
Many cheeses found in fromageries, such as Beillevaire, come from small-scale producers who make their cheeses by hand (Lebovitz has an excellent and in-depth description about the making of a typical French cheese on his website). Only a few are scattered throughout Paris. I went to the one in Montparnasse in the fourteenth arrondissement. Dotted with patisseries, charcuteries, and boulangeries—with their smells that lure you to them, the walk in Montparnasse from the Pernety metro stop was quick and charming. I arrived at Fromagerie Beillevaire (labeled Maître Fromager, or Master Cheesemonger, on the awning) to find cheeses lining the shelves, as well as some jams, cheese accessories and butters. The variety was overwhelming and the smell was intoxicating, very earthy and sometimes delicate and sweet, depending on the cheese.
Luckily, I brought a wish list so I wouldn’t drown in the endless selection: Brie de Meaux, Livarot, Fourme d’Ambert, and Mont d’Or. All are cow’s milk (Part II and Part III of this series will look at goat and sheep’s milk cheese). I arrived at this list by trawling the web for information about cheeses. I knew I wanted to try a soft cheese, a blue cheese, and a semi-hard cheese. Each one of these cheeses was anecdotally some food blogger’s “must try” cheese, chosen because they fit within my required types of cheese.
After asking for my dream cheeses, the fromager deftly cut me a small section of each, wrapped them up neatly, and tallied up my total. I poked around the shop a bit as he helped another customer. The cheeses came in such variety: little parcels already wrapped up in paper, rounds nestled in thin wooden boxes, massive wheels just waiting to be cut into. I wondered who would have the time to taste all of these cheeses, much less become an expert in all of them. I wondered if the next time I visited a fromagerie if I would be brave enough to ask for a taste the fromager’s personal favorites. The smell of all that cheese made me hungry, so it was time to go. With my cheese in hand, I walked a little bit down the street to get some pain tradition (just a loaf of bread). Then I was ready to eat.
The four cheeses I purchased were all made from cow milk, and all certified by the AOC, which is a certification granted to French cheeses, wines, and butters, among other agricultural products. The label means it’s a high quality product and abides by all the AOC’s rules and regulations.
The first cheese was Brie de Meaux, a famous Brie. It comes from the Brie region of France, and more specifically from a town called Meaux. It’s been around since the eighth century at least, when Charles the Great clinched its greatness. Talleyrand also named it “the king of cheeses” in 1815. It’s a soft and creamy cheese, slightly tangy and greatly enhanced by topping a nice hunk of bread. If you are uncertain about committing to raw cheese, try this cheese first. It’s very delicate, mild in flavor and smells sort of sweet.
A step up from Brie comes Mont d’Or. It’s a soft cheese like Brie and oozes out of the rind when cut at room temperature. The rind looks a bit scary, but it’s perfectly edible. Rind eating etiquette dictates that you can eat it if you want or leave it if you don’t. Mont d’Or does not smell the best but it makes up for it in taste. It’s feistier and sharper than your average Brie. It will kick you in the tongue in a good way. This is a seasonal cheese, only produced from mid August to mid March and sold only between mid September and mid May. If you’re in the area during Mont d’Or season, eat it while you can.
Next was Livarot, which is not for the faint of heart. It’s funky and, personally, it’s almost too much. Oh, does it smell! I’m not the only one who feels this way. Livarot is both loved and hated for its odor, described as smelling like a barnyard. It’s an acquired taste that I have not yet acquired. It’s a bit spicy and strong in flavor. It’s semi-soft and a light orange in color, with the rind being a slightly darker orange. The short cylinders of cheese are wrapped in strands of dried reedmace, making rings, which lend it the nickname “The Colonel” as they resemble the stripes on a colonel’s uniform. Until my palate matures, I’ll leave this cheese to the experts.
Lastly, I tried a wonderfully mild blue cheese, Fourme d’Ambert. It’s smoky, salty, and fairly mild for a blue cheese— a relief after being almost knocked out by the Livarot. Fourme d’Ambert is a very old cheese, dating back to ancient Roman times and a favorite ever since. It’s so beloved that a sculpture of the cheese adorns the medieval La Chaulme chapel in Auvergne, France, the region where it’s produced. Injecting penicillium mold cultures into the cheese as it ages makes blue cheese. Then, a process called “needling” creates little tunnels to feed the mold spores oxygen, enabling them to grow, resulting in the blue veins you can see in a slice of blue cheese. This particular cheese is injected with penicillium roqueforti, a strain that is used in the making of other famous blue cheeses, such as Roquefort, Stilton and Danish blue. Fourme d’Ambert is another cheese I would recommend to those who seek something flavorful but not too scary.
The verdict is in. Raw cheese is better than pasteurized. With so much variety of flavor, once you try the real stuff, you can’t go back to dull supermarket fare. If you can’t make it to Paris, seek out local farmers markets, shops and boutiques. The good stuff is out there, you just have to find it. Once you do, it’s all uphill from there.
Read Part II of Cheese Hunt (Sheep’s milk cheese) here.