Saulieu and the Cheese Cart (Burgundy I)
This is the first of several posts on our brief visit to the Burgundy region of France. We were only there for three days. While we felt like we got a great introduction to the area, we only really scratched the surface. We'll just have to go back!
It is impossible for me to understate how much I enjoy living in a country where a short drive or inexpensive train ride brings you to yet another region with its own food, cultural nuances, and geography. The long weekends that arise from numerous national holidays that pepper the calendar provide a perfect opportunity to explore different regions of the ‘Hexagon’, as the French occasionally call their country. In this case, though, we used one of the last weeks of the summer to explore a region that is famed worldwide for its wine.
I should note that we came nowhere close to really exploring the entire Burgundy region. That would be like taking an open-top bus around Paris and saying you've seen the town. It was merely a start. We rented a car and travelled three hours south of Paris, down the A6 autoroute, through the city of Auxerre, and then down the departmental roads to Beaune. Less than an hour south of Dijon, the capital of the Côte D’Or department of the Burgundy region, Beaune is a smaller town with a pleasant, walkable centre ville. We stayed on the outskirts of town in a little hamlet called Challenges.
Our first meal in the region was about an hour outside of Beaune in the minuscule commune of Saulieu, population 2538. Trip Advisor steered us to the equally tiny La Vielle Auberge for lunch. Starters of foie gras and escargot were outstanding. Simple main dishes of fish—mine, the regional speciality of dos de sandre (a pike-perch in a red wine sauce), Madame’s in a light mushroom sauce—were equally good. The star of the show though was the cheese cart.
The Cheese Cart
As an American, I’ve seen plenty of dessert carts with cakes and pies piled high in a rolling tribute to the gods of Sugar and Butter. But only in France have I seen a cheese cart. This was my second. My first was in the town of Chablis many years ago.
We tried eight cheeses at this meal, all of which derived from the abundant number of cows in the region. Some were mild, while others made their presence known by an aroma that matched their strong bite. Most were solid in form yet semi-soft, with a creamy interior and a firmer white core. All of them are linked to their terroir via the diets of the three primary breeds of cows—Brune, Simmental (near Langres, the name of one of the cheeses on the cart), and Montbéliarde—that graze on the pastures of the rolling countryside.
1 – Époisses affiné au Marc de Bourgogne
Époisses is the signature cheese of the region. The fabrication is said to derive from monks from the 16th century. Despite its heritage, it nearly became extinct after World War 2 when, because of the large number of wartime deaths, labor (especially female labor) was dedicated to the field and Époisses production languished. Happily, fabrication was revitalized in the 1950s by farmers who sought to preserve the cheese, which ultimately led to Époisses receiving the AOC distinction in 1991.
Époisses is made from unpasteurized cow’s milk and aged for at least one month. The rind is washed in Marc de Bourgogne, a strong local brandy made from the leftovers (stems, pulp, and skins) from wine production just like grappa except that it is aged in wood barrels, which merely serves to intensify its already strong odor and flavor. It's fairly firm in a cooler environment yet it softens quickly at room temperature. Brillat-Savarin, himself a fromager whose eponymous cheese derives from Burgundy, calls Époisses the King of Cheeses!
Read more about Époisses at the excellent androuet site.
2 – Cendré de Vergy
This odd-looking creamy little cheese is made from unpasteurized cow’s milk and covered in a superfine coating of hardwood ash. It was pungent with a creamier interior and a unique texture owing to the ash. Personally, I felt the ash was a little overpowering, but the cheese was nevertheless gooey and delicious.
3 – Ami du Chambertin
A relative newcomer in the world of cheese, produced first in 1950 by Raymond Gaugry, Ami du Chambertin has a wrinkled yellow-orange exterior. This is another cheese with a strong smell, yet a milder creamy interior and flavor.
4 – Soumaintrain
Perhaps my favorite of all the Burgundy cheeses, Soumaintrain is named for a small village next to the Yonne river in Burgundy. Like the Époisses and Ami du Chambertin, Soumaintrain has a washed rind and a more pungent odor. Younger Soumaintrains have a firm, white, milder center that gets creamier and more yellow with age. For me this was a perfect blend of smell, flavor, and texture.
5 – Plaisir au Chablis
This cheese is the youngest on the block in terms of production, hearkening back only to 1999. Produced close to Dijon, its rind is washed with a solution of salt and a reputable white wine from the Chardonnay grapes of the Chablis region as its name would suggest. It is aged for a month to produce a semi-soft cheese that still makes its presence known in terms of flavor and odor, but less pungent than many of the others we ate.
6 – Langres
Langres heralds from the town of Langres, about 20 km north of the border of Burgundy in the Champagne-Ardenne region. Similar to Époisses in fabrication, texture, and appearance, it can be made from raw or pasteurized cow’s milk, but is generally milder than its Burgundy cousin. Also, like Époisses, Langres has earned an AOC distinction.
7 – L’Éclat des Nuits
Made by the Fromagerie Delin in Nuits St George, on the northern or "Côtes de Nuits" side of the Route des Vins (Wine Road), L’Éclat des Nuits is largely similar to Époisses in its production, the main differences being that it is made from pasteurized milk and its rind is washed with Bourgogne Aligoté, the AOC white Burgundy wine made predominantly from aligoté grapes. Though strong in smell, it has a very creamy taste and a milder, more balanced flavor.
8 – Fleur de Nuits St Georges
Fleur de Nuits St Georges was far and away the mildest and lightest of the cheeses we tried. Another creation of Fromagerie Delin, it is similar in taste and fabrication to Chaource. Ours was very young, with a clean white rind and crumbly white interior. Perhaps unfortunately, it was little more than a palate cleanser as we tried only after we had eaten several of the stronger cheeses above.
The process of ordering and tasting off the cheese cart was pretty overwhelming. The quantity and quality of cheese, along with their similarity in taste and fabrication, made it difficult to fully appreciate the uniqueness of any one, which may also explain the similarity of my descriptions. In any event, our encounter with the cheese cart was an excellent (and fun) introduction to the cheeses of Burgundy.