Tuesday, October 9, 2012

So what is "proper" cheese - and why can't I find it in a supermarket?

I'm fascinated by cheese, that's no secret. But it's not just because I like the taste.

For me, a good cheese is an expression of the land that produced it (terroir in wine parlance), the heritage and breeding of animal that gave the milk, the care of the farmer in feeding and nurturing the animal, the skill and knowledge of the cheese maker (often a form of cultural heritage in itself) and last but not least, the experience and judgement of the affineur.

This troop of 80 goats produces enough cheese to sell at local markets and to local
restaurants, it will never be able to provide the quantity required by a supermarket.

Cheese made like this on a relatively small scale, using traditional techniques, has character - particularly the highly important category of 'raw milk' cheeses (more on this in a future post). These cheeses change from week to week in line with the seasons, the weather, and the mood of the goats (or cows or sheep). Their tastes and smells are evocative of the farm and the beast. Cheeses like these are alive and often slightly unpredictable as a result.

However, the majority of cheese that the majority of us run into, particularly in supermarkets, is made industrially. What this generally means is that an enormous quantity of milk is bought into a factory from a selection of farms and dairies, homogenised and often heat treated before undergoing a very mechanically, chemically and biologically controlled process whereby tonnes of identical cheeses are produced. Raw milk can be rather temperamental in an industrial set up such as this so pasteurised milk cheeses are usually the norm.

So how come supermarkets tend to sell these industrial cheeses? There are probably three main reasons:

(1) Price - Industrial production and with its inherent mechanisation will certainly offer significant economies of scale, allowing the cheese producers to sell at a lower price to supermarkets who can then pass on the lower cost to the consumer. It goes without saying that this is important under these difficult financial times.

(2) Quantity - Supermarkets have a huge clientele and need to be able to stock cheeses in sufficient quantity to meet demand - and not just demand in one shop, but demand nationally. It should be noted that french supermarkets are significantly better at promoting smaller, local products than those in the UK. However, cheese is rarely one of those promoted items.

(3) Homogeneity - Cheese created under the clinical conditions of an industrial production tend towards homogeneity. They will taste the same and age in the same way, wherever they are purchased, and their shelf life will also be highly predictable. These are all traits that consumers have been trained to search for, particularly in the UK.

I'm not going to say 'don't buy cheese from the supermarket', some of it really isn't that bad and I understand that cost is a serious consideration in deciding what to eat. What I would say though, is from time to time, go to your local cheese shop or farmers market and see what they have on offer. Ask some questions about what's good, what's local, and what's special. Treat yourself from time to time with a quality piece of cheese.
Your cheesemonger and stall holder well certainly be more invested in the story of the cheeses that they are selling than the average supermarket employee and from personal experience, they tend to be rather keen to share their passion. They will also give you good advice on which cheese to buy when so as to best meet your needs.

Think about it, there's a huge amount of work and pride that's invested in that one little farm house or artisanal cheese, there's some seriously meticulous work that's gone into its creation and ageing. I personally am happy to pay a little bit more just to be part of that story, and that's completely beside the fact that a 'fermier' or 'artisanal' cheese will almost invariably taste better than its industrially produced clone-cheese equivalent.

I feel that I should add a point here: I'm not saying that cheese shops don't sell industrially produced cheeses, clearly they do. But a good cheese shop will be able to tell you about where a cheese came from and give you good advice on which cheeses to buy if their origin is important to you.

So, here's an example of a cheese that you won't find in your local supermarket, it's called a fagacé. It's a small goat cheese from the department of the Lot in southern France. It's sprinkled with sariette (savoury) and then wrapped by hand in chestnut leaves before being aged in the MonS caves. I can confirm from personal experience that the wrapping of this cheese is far from an easy process.

Hand wrapped Fagacé cheese

The result is quite special, it's light and often young with a fruity acid tang reminiscent of lemons and even passion fruit. There are also underlying herbal and tea-like notes from the sariette and chestnut leaves. A young goat cheese like this favours a white wine that isn't too dry and acidic - something a little sweet and fruity like a viognier grape would be ideal.

Unwrapped Fagacé cheese

And as a final thought, there is a rather insidious and potentially damaging side effect of the supermarket approach to selling cheese - that in supplying only industrially produced cheese, they trick the consumer into thinking that this is all that there is. I'll leave you with an adage that I came across somewhere on the internet that seems particularly pertinent:

"Just remember that every time you spend a pound, you vote for how you want the world to be".


  1. Thank you for this write up! It's a good reminder of why we need to support our local cheese mongers and NOT the giant hypermarchés chains.


  2. Thanks for the comment. For more information on this there's a great French documentary that's been subtitled in English on the cheese slices blog. You'll also see a fair amount of my current boss, Monsieur Hervé Mons, and the caves that I was working in.