While many nations have turned to alcohol or cake to help them through the stress of lockdown, it seems that the French comfort food of choice is cheese – consumption of which has soared over the last year. Of course, I am not surprised. No meal in France is considered complete without it.
According to a number of articles in the press, cheese consumption skyrocketed last year, as the French turned to their comfort food of choice during lockdown. Data from FranceAgriMer-Kantar, shows sales of cheese increased significantly last year, as follows:-
This perhaps isn’t very surprising as restaurant closures meant everyone was cooking at home. For example, sales of raclette machines increased by a whopping 300% during France’s second lockdown last year. Amazingly, the French enjoyed 34,000 tonnes of the melted cheese in 2020.
While these were the clear favourites, all cheese saw an increase in demand, including those that had become less popular in recent years such as coulommiers (+5.6%) and camembert (+2.2%). Goat’s cheeses increased by 7.2%, and organic cow’s milk cheeses also saw a spike in popularity (increase of 6.2%) in 2020.
However, despite this increase in demand from individuals, the industry is still suffering because of the afore-mentioned restaurant closures.
Why do the French love cheese?
The French love of cheese is legendary, and absolutely real. Recent surveys show that 96% of French people eat cheese, often daily. There’s nothing I love more than cheese shops and market stalls with a vast selection of cheeses of every shape, size and variety. Soft and creamy goat cheeses, hard and strong sheep cheeses, tender oozing brie and blue cheese with thick mouldy veins.
You’ll find cheese boards on the menu of every restaurant, while it would be hard to find a park without someone picnicking on bread and cheese. A good cheese – usually along with wine – is one of the important element of a French meal. Statisticians say that the French people consume up to 30 kilos (57lbs) of cheese per person per annum..
So it’s fair to say the French truly have a passion for cheese. They have been eating it for so long that they cannot imagine life without it. It’s a part of their culinary culture and lifestyle. It’s a cultural touchstone.
Why is cheese so important in France?
Cheese is so important in France, both culinarily and culturally, that you’d think it had been invented there. In fact, cheese was first made in prehistoric times, probably in the Fertile Crescent – not, as far as we know, in the region that would eventually become France.
Cheese making and eating had certainly spread to Europe by the time of the Roman Empire. By 77 AD, Pliny the Elder claimed that the best cheese came from places such as NÎmes and the Lozère region, both located in Gaul – in other words, modern-day France.
Still, despite its relatively long presence in France, exactly why cheese is so important in French cuisine and culture is a bit of a mystery. One interesting study suggests that there could be several reasons, including the French obsession with rules when it comes to classifying and eating food, a desire to hold onto a product and associated traditions that are distinctly French in the face of globalisation, and resistance to fast food culture.
The authors of the study admit that their research is only based on contemporary subjects, as opposed to, say, an examination of the evolving role of cheese in French culture over the centuries, so these probably aren’t the only reasons why the French consider cheese so important and such a quintessential part of their culture. But it’s a start.
How do the French eat cheese?
In general, the French eat cheese just like the rest of us. That is, either on its own, sliced or spread onto something (most often a piece of baguette), or in a recipe. However, it’s rare to see the French eat cheese on crackers. Most of the time, cheese is eaten on its own, with fruit, wine, or nuts.
Cheese is usually a part of a multi-course meals. The French don’t eat cheese with the other courses or as an appetiser (although some meals or salads may of course include cheese in them). Traditionally, you’ll find that cheese is consumed after the main course and before the dessert. Usually a plate is served with either one exceptional or at least three cheeses, each representing a different style of cheese or a different type of milk (sheep, cow or goat). The cheese plate will be served at room temperature, as this is optimal for flavour. Usually the cheeses are arranged around the platter from the mildest to the strongest.
How many French cheeses are there?
Most countries have a few varieties of cheese they’re proud of but the French have an unbelievable number!.
Some low estimates of the number of French cheeses hover around 200-400. Charles de Gaulle himself famously asked:
Comment voulez-vous gouverner un pays qui a deux cent quarante-six variétés de fromage? (How can you govern a country that has two hundred and forty-six different kinds of cheese?).
But that is actually a low estimate. According to the CNIEL (Centre National Interprofessionnel de l’Economie Laitière), there are 1200 varieties of French cheeses!
The reason for this staggering amount is that, in addition to some fundamental differences that clearly reflect a cheese’s taste (for example, you can’t really confuse camembert and roquefort), dairies, industrial production lines, and artisanal cheesemakers will often tweak a basic recipe to create a slight variation.
In tomorrow’s post, I’ll look more into the types of cheese we enjoy here in France.