Allyson Gofton in France: Pyrenees cheese
From the French doors of our stone maison I look directly south to the Pyrenees from where on clear days, as we are pretty much in the middle of the mountain range, the vista is exceptional.
The tortured landscape of the Pyrenees — mountains cobwebbed with hidden valleys awash in spring with lush pastures and distinctive flora — falls away to maize cropping plains below where we live. This geography benefits the small farmer, as international dairy companies, whose main target is mass market cheese or milk powder, cannot survive in this landscape.
Life in the Pyrenees continues as it always has with sheep, whose nimble feet traverse the steep valleys with ease and whose milk is much preferred for cheese. Brebis, sheep cheese (fromage du lait de brebis) is much-loved here — fresh, semi-soft, hard or aged.
Many of the farmers tend small flocks of around 100-200, hand milk the ewes and may produce only enough milk daily to make two or three wheels, weighing 4-5 kilograms, per week. It’s a cottage industry that has kept many families together for generations. Such cheeses, fromage fermier, are available at the farm gate or local marche.
The farmer, often with his kids in tow, will set up a simple table with his and maybe his neighbour’s cheese on display, photos of the farms and the animals, all supported by hand-written explanations. The rustic appearance of the stalls belies the quality of the cheese on sale.
Though I like an aged brebis — served as tradition dictates here with cherry jam and referred to as farmer’s dessert — I rarely cook with the unpasteurised hard cheese, as this artisan product is expensive. The rich hard brebis cheese ranges in colour from antique white and blonde through to honey gold, and each slice is nutty with sweet stonefruit flavours; it’s delicious.
For cooking, the intense flavours of fresh and semi soft sheep cheeses stand up well to cooking — as in this tart, where a little goes a long way. The cheese comes in a range of flavours and styles from buttery and brie-like to chalky-textured, brilliant white, semi-hard mounds with lemon and grassy notes that can, when aged, become quite peaty.
Locals at my market buy cheese to eat on the day of purchase or soon after. The fromagier cuts the size required from a large wheel or, in the case of small cheese mounds, will ask when you plan to use them, so he may pick the cheese that will be parfait when served.
Once selected, the cheese is wrapped in cheese paper— white paper waxed on one side — and comes with a firm suggestion that it be eaten soon! Cheese keeps best where it can breathe. It’s fine in the refrigerator, but not in plastic and preferably not for long as its flavour is suffocated by other food — and it goes without saying that cheese must be served at room temperature.
The pate feuilletee, or puff pastry, I buy here comes pre rolled to a 30cm round and the finished product cooks to a thin, flaky, buttery, yet crisp crust. Sadly, many of the brands at home add raising agents, which classically should never appear in puff pastry’s ingredient list, and the resulting pastry rises like a pillow.
Here you find the tarts prepared from pate feuilletee will have a well-browned, well-cooked pastry case. To avoid the pastry rising too much, I have advised to prick the pastry well before cooking and to cook this tart just below the middle of the oven. Get the recipe