Day 1: Coulommiers
Where do you start when your aim is to eat forty different cheeses over forty days? Do you go for classics or novelty? How representative do you need to be by country, by family of cheese, by animal, or by shop?
I figured I’d start with what I like. So, the honor of being the first goes to a cheese that most people outside of France have never eaten, and many French confuse for its more renowned cousin.
Coulommiers is a cow’s milk cheese in the family the French call pâte molle à croûte fleurie (soft paste with a bloomy rind). Bries and Camembert de Normandie belong to this same family of cheeses and are more widely available and well-known. Coulommiers is somewhat larger than Camembert, smaller than Brie, and thicker than both. It originally hails from the same département as Brie (Seine-et-Marne). Naturally, there’s a town called Coulommiers, from which the cheese gets its name.
For all intents and purposes, Coulommiers and Bries are the same cheeses, made in virtually the same way. Brie de Meaux, and its close cousin, Brie de Mélun, are distinguished by the protected designation of origin (PDO). This means each must be made according to strict guidelines relating to the location of production, the types of cows, what they are fed, and the size and fabrication of the cheese itself, among other things. Coulommiers does not have this same obligation. (One could argue that, because of this, it is easier to industrialize and bastardize. Then again, if you avoid cheap industrial supermarket cheese and seek reliable cheesemongers who take pride in their product, you can easily avoid this.)
The summer is an ideal time to eat bloomy rind cheeses, whatever the type. It takes six to eight weeks for a Coulommiers to age to perfection, which means that the cows would have had plenty of fresh herb and grass on which to feast. This makes their milk taste better and thus makes the cheese taste better as well. This particular cheese was also made from raw, not pasteurized, milk, which again only serves to enhance its flavor.
While great milk is essential, it takes a great affineur to be able to coax the best out of a cheese during the aging process and present it at its peak, and few are as good as Marie-Anne Cantin. I can find good cheeses in many places in Paris and across France, but at Fromagerie Cantin I find consistently great cheese. A second-generation cheesemonger, Madame Cantin is an expert at her craft. When Mrs Fromage and I jumped on the 92 bus and headed down to the 7th arrondissement, we knew we were in for a treat.
The velvety white cover of this Coulommiers gave off a heavenly smell of fresh mushrooms (Champignons of Paris). Its soft, creamy paste lent a light nuttiness to its taste. Some believe that, to reach peak flavor, a cheese of this nature needs to be runny. I disagree. This cheese was, for me at least, at its perfect maturation point. I found it flawless and one of the best bloomy rind cheeses I have ever eaten.
What a great way to start this adventure!