French Cheese Confidential – Cantal

French cheese cantalCantal (15) is one of the three départements that make up the Auvergne (the other two are Allier (03) and Puy de Dôme (63)). It’s one of my favourite parts of France. We had a great holiday near St Flour when Rors was a toddler, and the other two about 9 and 11 or so. We were staying in the most spartan gîte we’d ever come across. It had electricity and running water but those were pretty much the only modern conveniences!

There wasn’t a kettle or a tin opener or any cups bigger than thimbles. We hit the hypermarché to put that to rights. It was a rather gloomy old house with a menacing stuffed squirrel on a shelf as you went upstairs.

We met some great people. The Cantalais are very friendly. Chris and Benj had gone fishing so I took the two little ones for a bike ride. It was blazing sunshine when we set out but a thunderstorm loomed out of nowhere so we took shelter in a village shop, since we were in flimsy cotton clothes and it was lashing. I asked the assistant if it was OK for us to hang around there until the deluge stopped. But it went on and on and on, so the shopkeeper offered to run us home and said we could put our bikes in the storeroom to keep them safe till we came back for them. And she was as good as her word.

There was an elderly farming couple in the tiny hamlet of Farges, where the gîte was. They made cheese and invited us down to watch the process one afternoon. Then another time Madam la Fermière arrived on the doorstep with all the ingredients to show me how to make the perfect truffade, Cantal style without ham but with extra cholesterol. It was delicious. So although the landscape is bleak and rugged, I always think of Cantal as a warm place.

Anyway, to the cheese.

Now a quick test. Can you remember from last Tuesday which family of cheeses Cantal falls into? It’s group 4, pressed cheeses or fromages à pâte pressée. Cantal is a very old cheese and dates back to the Gauls.

Henri de La Ferté-Senneterre, a marshall from the Auvergne, introduced the cheese to Louis XIV, or possibly the other way round, and that’s what made it famous. There are two types – Cantal fermier which is made from raw milk, lait cru, and Cantal laitier, the mass market version made from pasteurised milk. The milk in either form comes from Salers cows, but only when they’re being fed on hay. When the cows are grazing on grass in the summer months, then their milk is turned into Salers cheese. Now I bet you didn’t know that, did you! And Salers cows really know how to do horns.

The hard cheese is made into one foot wide cyclinders and aged for anything between 1 to 6 months. It gets a different label according to how long it has aged, namely: Cantal jeune (aged 1-2 months), Cantal entre-deux or Cantal doré (aged 2-6 months), and Cantal vieux (aged more than 6 months). Apparently a lump of Cantal vieux will keep for eighteen months!

Tastewise it reminds me very much of Cheddar. It gets stronger as it gets older, so the Cantal jeune is very milky and creamy, whereas the indestructible Cantal vieux is described as ‘vigorous’. I’m not one for strong cheese so I’ve tended to steer clear of it, but plenty of people do enjoy it. It has a 45% fat content and makes good fondues and gratins.

But I love a chunk with baguette and chutney, and it goes very nicely with fruit cake too.

So another interesting and tasty cheese to try.


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