Local Cheese, Local Beer – Traditional But Not Age-Old

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The problem with fine things to eat or drink is, they sometimes don’t continue. A key ingredient may no longer be available, the next generation of a family decides to sell out, some development of technology renders a valued food obsolete.

The diversity of ham cures went out the window once methodical cooling and freezing permitted the preservation of food without salt or other chemicals. Anyone living in Toronto is familiar with the ubiquity of “Black Forest Ham”. Other types exist but a vast number of commodity sandwiches sold day in day out use this form of meat. It`s a good standard quality, but there is not a lot of choice unless you search it out.

The beers of Young’s brewery in London were in high repute, but the land the brewery sat on was worth a king’s fortune. The brewery was closed and the brands were sold to the ambitious independent, Charles Wells of Bedford some years ago. The beers continue, produced now in Bedford, one hopes with fidelity to the originals. (And yes, even products of the same producer can change over time, but that is a different, more nuanced process than I am addressing here).

In the U.S., a renowned cheese of the late 1800s-mid-1900s, Liederkranz, finally disappeared from the market. It was of the Limburger type, favoured originally by those of German heritage. Maybe a key farm making it went out of business, maybe a health regulation came in and put the kibosh on the distinctiveness. This happens all the time. There is a good ending though: a company revived the cheese albeit after a 25 year hiatus. Details can be read here.

The cheese pictured above is Vieux-Boulogne, made in the Pas-de-Calais in France, across the Channel from Dover. Despite its moniker, it is relatively new, on the market since the early 1990s. It fits well within the tradition of strong cheeses in the French north country, but is a relative newbie in the large family of French cheeses.

agriculture_11-768x512With rural depopulation, the industrialization of agriculture and the general modernity of life, France has suffered no less than other countries losses of many traditional products. In Ninette Lyon`s Tour De France (Gourmand) Des Spécialités Régionales (Marabout, 1985), she often states of a product, “if still made”, or “if still available”. The process can only have accelerated since then.

But France was so rich in food diversity to begin with, at least since the 1800s, that there is still much left. More to the point, new traditional-type products are constantly being invented. They join to the previous tradition and form a seamless whole going forward.

Vieux-Boulogne is a textbook example, but French cheese in general provides a good illustration. I’ve mentioned earlier that another northern cheese, mimolette, was devised to substitute for Dutch Edam whose supply was interrupted by war conditions.

(I thought it was WW I but later read that one of the Napoleonic Wars was responsible. I still think WW I is correct, if anyone knows do tell me).

Saint Agur Blue, a creamy, not-too-salty blue cheese which comes in familiar-looking, foil-wrapped cylinders, was developed in 1988. There is no village called Saint Agur, no saint of Christianity with that name. It is a product of commerce, but the cheese is excellent and now is in the pantheon of French blues.

Vieux-Boulogne is a strong-smelling and tasting cheese of Boulogne’s windswept coastal plain and capes. The legendary cheese merchant Phillipe Olivier, of the shop that bears his name, developed it with local farmers about 25 years ago. Cows grazing on only three farms provide the milk. The rind of the maturing cheese is washed with beer, the traditional drink of the northern pays. I wrote earlier of Vieux-Lille, another strong, beer-ripened cheese of the north, in this case from the interior, easterly of Lille.

doc106Vieux-Boulogne is the same general idea, but the way it is made results in a different product. Salt and minerals enter the soil from winds off the sea and lend a unique quality to the cheese. Cheese was apparently made on the coast near Boulogne in the 1300s. Some claim that Vieux-Boulogne is a revival of that tradition. Accurate or not, in practice the cheese is a new and valuable addition to the rich inventory of French cheeses. In effect, Vieux-Boulogne is already traditional: when and how it was devised is basically irrelevant.

The resurgence of local brewing in France since the 1990s, especially in Nord-Pas-de-Calais-Picardie, is remarkable. I visited the region 20 years ago and there were, in that total area, about 20 breweries left, from thousands in the late 1800s. Today, Pas-de-Calais alone has about 40 breweries. One of these is Brasserie Artisanale des 2 Caps. Philippe Olivier worked with the brewery to devise a beer particularly suited to accompany northern cheese, the label is pictured below.

Thus, an old tradition, small-scale brewing, has been revived assiduously after a long hiatus. In this sense, the U.K. and North America have done better, but we need to catch up on the food side. The French, too, may be forgiven their delay to restore the richness of 19th century brewing since the country as a whole was never primarily a beer-drinking land; we do not have that excuse.

6ff5bec3e1France has that special connection with food and drink, a spirit of interest to keep old traditions alive or restore them where feasible. It`s bred in the bone. When a country lacks a food culture as committed as that of France, the process is more haphazard. In the case of Liederkranz in the U.S., the cheese finally returned, but so many local cheeses have been forever lost, there and in Canada.

Small-scale producers are trying to repair some of the loss, and to be sure Ontario and Quebec cheese-makers make some interesting and unique products. Finding these can be a challenge though. In France, Olivier has five shops spread through the upper section of the country which offer the house’s superb range in perfect condition. Of course, France is much smaller than Canada and the U.S., but I think at bottom the difference is cultural.

Whether artisan food will survive in France under 21st century conditions of commerce and general living, remains to be seem, but even in the millennial age the food culture seems alive and well. That frozen food shops and large supermarkets are legion is undoubted, but artisan food culture has not been rubbed out of French genes, not yet.

Note re images above: The first image, of Vieux Boulogne, is from the website of La Fromagerie, the top-class London cheese merchants. The second image is from the website of the French Regional Council for Nord-Pas-de-Calais. It was sourced here. The third image is from Villa Opale, a tourist accommodation site, here. The fourth image is from the website of the Brasserie Artisanale des 2 Caps, here. All are believed available for educational and cultural purposes. All feedback welcomed.