Shown is a package of Vieux-Lille cheese from Lesire et Roger, dairy and cheese-makers established in the green Thiérache of France since 1923. The region is a rural enclave in the French north and counters perceptions of the north being grimly industrial or commercial.
Lesire et Roger make a range of cheeses traditional to the area, of which Maroilles, a cow’s-milk cheese, is known throughout France and internationally as one of France’s best cheeses.
Vieux-Lille, which has numerous names (Gris de Lille, Puant de Lille), is a variation of Maroilles, hence also all-cow’s milk. It is matured for longer though and is immersed in a brine solution. This imparts a salty note and alters the creamy Maroilles flavour. It also means the cheese has no rind, just a slightly thickened skin that is sometimes scored for a jaunty look.
Explanations abound for the origin of Vieux-Lille, which seems to originate in the late 1800s. Some assert that miners liked a local specialty that spread to the general population. Others agree with the mining connection, but say miners from the Pyrenees brought the idea north when they moved there to work. Another theory states the cheese was developed so it would keep when transported by horse-carriage to Lille from dairies to the east, i.e., before refrigerated transport.
One thing all agree on is the powerful flavour of Vieux-Lille. Maroilles, no shrinking violet itself, acquires an ammonia-like intensity under the influence of the brine treatment. Once out of the brine, a further maturation (affinage) is given when the cheese might be bathed in beer or gin.
To say Vieux Lille is odoriferous is an understatement.* Northern palates like the strong taste, and the cheese is often eaten with emphatic drinks: regional beer, red wines of no great finesse, and the Flemish or genever gin made in the region for centuries. Houlle is the great name here, one of only two genever distilleries left in the north.
The area is well-known for its bière de garde, a style not dissimilar to the Belgian Saison yet sometimes diverging in character. Originally, it was top-fermented, thus an ale-type although today some are bottom-fermented, lagers in effect.
While it is hard to generalize, the gardes I was familiar with when touring the French north in the early years of the beer revival there were a kind of cross of Belgian, English and German tastes. Saint Landelin, Theillier, Jenlain, Ch’ti were and still are some of the star performers. Their common element was a rich, malty quality, and this would be an excellent foil for Vieux-Lille.
The Lesire et Roger site recommends simply an “amber beer” to drink with Vieux-Lille, of which both Ch’ti and Jenlain are excellent, eminently local examples.
Most blonde lager would perhaps be too timid in palate to pair with the cheese, nor would sour styles, or bière blanche, really go with it, although personal preference must rule. A deep, amber beer with good hopping is the best choice I think.
Vieux-Lille is part of a tradition which appears dotted along the mid-northern frontiers of Europe. Limburger in Germany, while a different taste, is the same type of idea, as is the (closer) Belgian Herve. (Limburger originates in Belgium anyway, it might be added). Some Scandinavian countries have artisan, very strong cheeses which result from preservation strategies devised before refrigeration.
A recipe from the restaurant Le Square, in Lille, combines Vieux-Lille with beer to make an appetizing-sounding cheese fritter. Comments posted to the article suggest Maroilles or Munster as a replacement for Vieux-Lille.
Note re images: the first image above is from Lesire et Roger’s website. The second image, from the French tourism site, here. The third image, from this retailer. The fourth, from this retail supplier, here. All are believed available for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.
*Note added January 12, 2019: On a trip to Pas-de-Calais and Nord last August I re-tasted Vieux Lille. The characteristic salty note was there, but no ammonia notes and the cheese was not unusually strong in taste. Probably each producer has his own method and also, the cheese I bought (in Boulogne) likely was not long-aged.