Luckily for me, my birthday is in January, which means midway through a dreary month it is a good excuse to plan something fun to do to cheer the dreary days. This year, they weren't so grey and dour as I was in France and it turned out to be a month of sunshine and mostly blue skies...with a touch of added frost on some mornings. All of which was very fortunate as half the house had a new roof - a pretty risky operation for a week in January when it could have been pouring with rain or snow could have been settling!
But that aside, the birthday outing was to a large market held on the edge of Bressuire, where we believed there were going to be lots of plants for sale. We found the undercover, temporary market easily, but the plant section evaded us until we discovered there was only one stall. The palpable disappointment was dispelled as we then hit upon a seriously fun French gentleman with a great sense of humour on a cheese stall close to the entrance to the marketplace.
Not all market stall holders at French markets are funny and amusing, but this chap obviously loved his French cheese and his sense of mirth was great. We were five in our party and willing to play along with his sense of comedy; I introduced him to my neighbour, who immediately became 'Lady Di'. He had the deliciously rich accent of one of the older generation of French English speakers who learned English without the benefit of audio help and probably from a French English teacher. The deeply rich tones of his accent were a delight to listen to. The cheeses samples he generously doled out to us all were a delight to taste!
French Cheese Stall
I eschewed the better known popular cheeses, the bries, the camembert and Rochefort for the two most fascinating cheeses on the stall; one a bright green, the other a brilliant red. The former was coloured by pesto and the latter by tomatoes. I had to have some for the cheese board at the celebration meal that evening...so those were the first tasted and subsequently wrapped in the lovely waxy paper that makes shopping on a market stall so lovely.
The next was a creamy yellow cheese with seaweed which was really delicious. Slightly tangy, it hit just the spot! There followed a slice of Comte, another great French cheese from the Jura Massif. In all, I chose five, which came to 35 euros, a birthday present to myself. But it was great fun choosing and it was very interesting chatting to the cheese seller. He had travelled for over three hours to come to sell at the market, bringing everything from reblochon to Beaufort, cantal to various blue cheeses. I commented that I was surprised how few people were there but learned from him that French ladies would be working in their houses on Saturday morning. More would come in the afternoon, but Sunday it would be heaving. I was glad we went Saturday morning!
As someone who loves cheese, I was a bit surprised to learn how little I knew once he started to explain the different types. There is a great website that explains all the detail, and although I knew France had a great many cheeses, he said there are over 400 and, depending on who you talk to, over a thousand! France being France, and no doubt in an effort to keep regional cheeses regional, the classification of cheese is closely regulated. For example, Comte comes only from cows grazing above 400 m in altitude along the French-Swiss border in a specific region. Lots of really good information can be found here that will give you a really good guide and insight into French cheese and its production.
I've wanted to have a go at cheese-making for some time now and was interested to discover that we have a cheese maker really close to the village.
In fact, we have two, at complete opposite ends of the scale! Our area of France is renowned for goat’s cheese and both produce it, one on an industrial scale and the other on the farm. The first is five minutes away, where we were able to go and buy at the door. Looking inside, there were racks where the cheeses were in varying stages of maturity. The youngest was the creamiest and most spreadable. The middle-aged was solid but creamy. The oldest a firm texture. A real experience to be able to see on the spot and at the farm! In complete contrast, on the way to St. Loup, there is, hidden in a valley, a large factory producing goats cheese, where I have not yet discovered if it's possible to go and have a tour...something I must find out about!
After the French cheese market, we headed back toward home via Bressuire. The village has great medieval castle walls, with a modern chateau and a medieval herb garden carefully laid out. I've only ever been to the latter in winter, but we went and explored it after the visit to the market. I'm determined to go back in summer this year. The herbs are carefully labelled, along with their uses, both culinary and medicinal and no doubt some of them would have been used to flavour cheese in times past. And from there we went into the tea shop in town, which is stocked with the most wonderful selection of epicurean gifts. Not only a delight to the eyes, as everything is so prettily displayed, but the olfactory senses are delighted too. The hot chocolate in the cafe is the richest I’ve ever tasted - pure melted chocolate we thought -and accompanied by the crispiest pastry delights, it was a real birthday treat!
And that evening, as testament to the great taste of the cheeses we selected, not a single bit was left on the plate at the end of the meal as the guests around the table sampled each and pronounced their favourites. A great, matured cheddar from a truc is a real treat, but it's wonderful to be introduced to the cheeses of the French away from the supermarket. Buying from a stall where the farmhouse made cheeses can be more expensive maybe a treat - for the French too - but the quality and the taste is just so good.