The country of France is synonymous with cheese, and the French really do love it. There are hundreds of varieties, too many to mention here, but we will discover some of them as we embark upon this gastronomic journey to discover the cheeses of Vermont.
In many countries, cheeses are paired with a variety of tasty accompaniments, but the French cheese lover likes to eat them au naturel with a fresh baguette and of course a glass of wine. The people of Brittany are a little more adventurous and will even butter their bread… not too much, mind you.
But there is a place in the South of France where the habitants actually love their cheese with… local cherry preserves!
It has been around for so long that the 16th century writer Rabelais mentioned it in some of his works.
It takes time to make something this perfect.
The habitants of the Pays Basque in the Pyrenees (mountain range between France and Spain) have long been at odds with France, sometimes painfully. They have always wanted their independence and have never considered themselves French citizens. But the Basque population, mainly of Spanish and French origin, has at least one big thing in common with the French… a love of good food and great cheeses!
Famous for its sheep’s milk cheeses, the Pays Basque also produces varieties like Tomme (sometimes spelled Tome), and pronounced ‘tum’. Made from skimmed milk, resulting in a low-fat cheese, Tomme is a general term for a group of cheeses produced mostly in the French Alps and in Switzerland.
They are usually identified with names from their place of origin, with the most well-known being Tomme de Savoie from Savoie in the French Alps.
The Pays Basque is also famous for its sweet Itxassou cherries, and even hold a yearly festival in celebration of this fruit – so it’s not surprising that the Basques finally brought cheeses and cherries together. They have discovered that pairing cheese with a cherry preserve is delightful, with the delicate milk and buttery aroma of the cheese balancing so well with the sweetness of the cherry.
There are actually two large families of cherries:
- What the French call “cerise noire” (black cherry) or Prunus Avium, called sweet cherry in North America, is the one used in Basque preserves to pair with local cheeses. Its fruit is dark, sweet and very flavorful.
- The sour cherry, or Prunus Cerasus, on the other hand, is acidic and is often used for baking and preserves.
I have rarely seen the two types of cherries used in the same preserve, but in our own Cherry Thyme Cheese Companion®, we love the balance of sweetness and acidity achieved by using both sweet and sour cherries. Add the rich flavor of thyme and a little sugar… and you get something very distinctive.
So if cherry preserves with sheep’s milk cheese is a strong tradition in the Basque country, a lot of other semi-soft alpine cheeses – made with the milk of sheep, goats or cows – are delightful with a cherry preserve.
In Vermont, we love the taste of a number of local cheeses with our Cherry Thyme Cheese Companion®: the Tomme from Plymouth Artisan Cheese, the Tarentaise or Raclette from Spring Brook Farm, and the Savage from Von Trapp Farmstead (named for Samuel S. Savage, who settled the von Trapp farm in the 1700s), just to name a few. I hope you get a chance to try them too!
In future articles we will be meeting local cheese makers. We are so lucky in Vermont to have so many wonderful cheeses!
Bye for now and enjoy the fall season. All the best!