The fabulous meal that Nick and I enjoyed at the site of Julia Child’s culinary epiphanyincluded a cheese course. It featured four of Normandy’s most famous cheeses: Pont l’Évêque, Camembert, Neufchâtel, and Livarot. Naturally, we got a hunk of each, and all were wonderful. Upon returning to Paris, I decided to hunt down a couple of them for further photographing (and eating, bien sur!) purposes. While killing time waiting for my butcher to return from his lunch break, I strolled down to the rue de Bretagne where stands the aromatic Fromagerie Jouannault. I picked up a cute heart-shaped Neufchâtel and a pungent wedge of Livarot.
Neufchâtel, which tastes like a slightly milder Camembert, has a slightly grainy texture and a thin, very edible rind (this coming from someone who often eats around the rind – I know I probably shouldn’t admit that – la honte!). While the one we tasted at the restaurant had a full, mushroomy flavor, this one was slightly underripe and so had a hint of chalkiness and a bit of a tangy bite. Still, we managed to put half of it away in one sitting! (Speaking of things I shouldn’t admit…) Neufchâtel is also the most historic Normand cheese, its production dating back at least as far as the Middle Ages. As for the whimsical heart shape, fromagères made them like that as a way of flirting with British soldiers during the Hundred Years’ War, so the story goes.
I first heard of Livarot when I read Peter Mayle’s French Lessons. One of the most memorable chapters was dedicated to a cheese-eating contest in Normandy. The contestants had a time limit and were to eat as much Livarot as they could, with only local cider to wash it down. I don’t want to spoil it for you, though. At any rate, the next time I was in France, I made a point of finding some Livarot, which it turns out I love. It is another very smelly washed-rind cheese, and it is wrapped with five bands of grass to help it keep its shape once ripe, which give it the nickname “The Colonel.” The rind is crumbly, sticky, and not very enjoyable, but the golden yellow cheese inside is smooth, creamy, and full-bodied with a hint of pepperiness.
Both cheeses are made from cow’s milk, as the cow reigns supreme in this region. La Normande, the local breed of cow, is revered both for its protein-rich milk and for its meat. The cream and butter produced in Normandy are considered some of the best in France. In fact, one of the towers of Rouen’s cathedral is called the “Tour de Beurre,” or butter tower, because it was paid for entirely by selling indulgences so that the local bourgeoisie wouldn’t have to give up their beloved butter during Lent. Not surprisingly, it is the more ornate of the two towers on the cathedral’s facade.
Originally published on Croque-Camille.