As anyone who knows me will attest, my favorite food next to cheese is beer. Or preferably these two marvels of fermentation served together. Unfortunately (or perhaps from a health standpoint fortunately!) I am not of the Homer Simpson camp of cheap lager guzzling. I would much prefer one (okay maybe two!) glasses of excellent craft beer than a six-pack of Bud or the equivalent. Much to my chagrin, great beer in the south of France was impossible to find, while the cheese selection was fantastic. Excluding the northern departments of Pays du Callis which from a beer lovers perspective should be included as part of Belgium anyway, beer drinkers in France must suffer the bland, mass produced lager which only redeeming quality I would say is that it is often cheaper than a glass of Coca-Cola. Travelers to France might contend that the strong golden ale Leffe is in plentiful supply, so what’s the fuss? Well, in terms of flavor and quality, I lump this minion of bad hangovers produced by the industry giant In-Bev, in the same camp as the Euro-lagers. Stick to the excellent bottled mineral waters if you want something bubbly or try the local grape juice. I’ve heard the French have been making it for some time and are quite good at it.
Part I: Cheese in Provence
We managed to survive without beer quite happily while visiting Provence, while the local cheese was outstanding. As mentioned in our posting on Cavaillon, do try to stop at the fantastic Fromagerie des Alpes if you are visiting the area. Weekly markets are another great place to find cheese, but be sure to seek out markets that are frequented by the locals and are not just for the tourists (the cheese at the market in Roussillon for example was not nearly as impressive as the selections in the market of Forcalquier). Here are a few cheeses I would highly recommend seeking out:
Banon I fancy myself as a “cheese expert” i.e. I have tasted every fermented curd known to man, but sampling Banon, the soft, pungent AOC protected goat cheese wrapped in chestnut leaves, in it’s home territory was revelatory. We bought two different ages at from a cheese vendor in Forcalquier, one aged 10 days (which the cheesemonger proclaimed was “a Poine” or perfectly ripe) and another aged for 15 days. What difference does five days make? I found it to be so smelly (akin to the English cheese “Stinking Bishop”) that it was difficult to enjoy the creamy, luscious paste. Audrey, on the other hand, loved it. I guess I’m not as much of a conniseur as I thought! The younger Banon was not for beginners either, but a bit tamer. Both were great with a Dupont Cider from Normandy and chunk of country bread, but unsurprisingly, terrible with red wine.
Tomme du Brebis There are dozens of aged sheep milk cheeses available in the region ranging from light, spongy-textured wheels with a mildly sour flavor to hard, sharp cheeses that were similar to an aged pecorino. I didn’t recognize any “famous” AOC cheeses, which made it all the more interesting to sample. Our favorite pairing was a small dab of locally made sour cherry jam.
Salers or Cantal While not strictly from the region you will find these aged mountain cheeses (from the Auvergne and Savoy regions respectively) throughout Provence. Salers and its similar and more common cousin Cantal are what I would call the French version of farmhouse Cheddar. The texture is cheddar-ish, but both have a tangier, earthier flavor than their English counterpart. Seek out the aged versions and pair with a good bottle of red Cote du Luberon.
Blue Cheese – While Provence is not known for blue cheese, the mountainous areas to the north and west are famous for it. Roquefort, the rich, spicy king of sheep milk blue cheeses will be on offer throughout Provence and for good reason. It’s simply divine. But be sure to search out other, more unusual blue cheeses while you are here, like Blue du Sassenage (a salty, buttery cows milk blue cheese) or Blue du Basque (a fudgey, mild sheep milk blue). A good regional pairing would be melon from Cavaillon or the lavender honey ubiquitous to Provence.
Stay tuned for part 2, same onigiri time, same arancini channel.