We love a cheese plate in our household – different kinds, from different places, served with fruit, chutneys, and the obligatory glass of wine or port. The cheese plate pretty much can’t be beaten.
That’s what we thought.
But imagine our delight on our recent visit to France with the treat (and not just a one-off treat in the five days we were there) of a “chariot de fromage” – wheeled towards us across the restaurant, we couldn’t help but clap with delight at the sight of a huge wagon creaking under the weight of fine French fromage. Unpasteurised Camemberts and Bries, oozing from their rinds, served at exactly the right temperature, lying next to a marbled array of blue offerings, assorted goat’s cheese, all alongside figs and freshly baked walnut bread.
The smell is divine: rich, ripe, ready-to-eat cheese in the country renowned for its offerings to the world of dairy delights. But since we’re in the Loire Valley – whose goat’s cheese, or chèvre, are the standard bearers of the category – it’s these that dominate the trolley.
The Loire River marks the northern part of the Saracen advance as they moved through Spain and into France – and it’s them we have to thank for the goat’s cheese the Loire is now famed for, for it was they who brought with them their goats (far easier to transport and easier to get accustomed to different landscapes), and their methods of cheese-making.
French fromagers have been lovingly crafting goat’s cheese for years, and the fruits of their labours are on this trolley in abundance. Logs, pyramids, buttons, they’re all there, too many to choose from.
A well-known one is Valencay, with its “cut-off” pyramid. As the rumour goes, the cheese was originally pointy. That was until Napoleon, returning from his disastrous campaigns in Egypt, stopped at the castle at Valencay on his return. The memory inspired by the pyramid-shaped cheese was such that the leader swiped the top off with his sword.
Next to the statuesque Valencay comes the log-shaped Saint Maure du Touraine, from the Touraine region (surprise surprise!), with its characteristic mouldy ash coating. Saint Maure has a distinct flavour, but more noticeable is its crumbly, hard texture – a product of it being aged. The pyramid-shaped Pouligny St Pierre – often called the Pyramid – has a grassy, nutty taste and smooth, crumbly texture.
But possibly most famous, and maybe the most popular goat’s cheese is the Crottin de Chavignol. It’s been produced since the 16thcentury in the village of Chavignol, near Sancerre (home of good white wine, and might be worth mentioning here that it turns out it’s not the stereotypical red that is ideal with cheese, but often a good white, especially one of the Loire’s fine offerings).
Chavignol has a natural rind, which can look pale ivory on some, to almost black on others. Shaped in a small cylinder, it is made exclusively from whole goat’s milk, moulded, then taken out of moulds after 12-24 hours, salted, dried and ripened for at least 10 days. With its deliciously mild taste, it’s apparently often used on a salad, but is equally perfect on a cheese board.
There’s more, far more, on the “chariot”, than we can possibly choose. Until our eyes land on the Pie d’Angloys, that is.
Yes, we’re being philistines, looking away from the chèvre when we’re in its heartland. But the shiny, soft, oozing, camembert-like temptation is too much. It’s decadent, sinfully-rich, and unbelievably tasty.
As the chariot is wheeled away, we have to admit to being broken by its might. The collection of cheese seems hardly depleted, as they move on to the next eager fromage fan, unlike us, left mere shadows of our former greedy selves.
Needless to say, two nights later in a different restaurant, we’re again working our way through the chariot de fromage. It would be rude not to, surely……