One of the easiest ways to quickly turn a simple salad into a delicious and complete meal is by adding some cheese to it. While cheese is produced in many countries, the largest variety by far comes from France where they produce over 400 different types of cheese. By how do you know which French cheeses are good to add to a salad and which ones aren’t?
To help navigate the wondrous world of French cheeses, I was invited to attend a workshop at Top Chef Cooking Studio in Dubai given by award-winning cheesemonger Francois Robin (he was voted Best Cheesemonger in France in 2011 which allows him to wear the coveted tricolore collar on his chef coat).
As Francois explained early on in our workshop, there is no bad type of cheese, there are just many varieties and you have to find YOUR cheese – that is, learn which types you prefer and which you don’t. Each variety has something different to offer, and even the same type of cheese can taste totally different depending on how long it has been aged.
A case in point are the two Brillat-Savarins which we tried in our workshop. First, we tasted a 6-week old Brillat-Savarin which had a butter-like texture and was very salty and slightly bitter on the sides of the tongue. About half an hour later, we tasted a 1-week old Brillat-Savarin which was totally different from its older brother – fresh and creamy with some sweetness which made it almost like a dessert.
Tasting cheese is all about using your senses (touch, smell, taste and sight) to ascertain its various qualities. Once you have looked at the cheese, just closing your eyes before you taste it can help you focus more intensely on the aromas, flavours and texture. As a general rule, hard and tangy cheeses should be tasted with the tip of the tongue while soft and blue cheese should pressed to the roof of the mouth.
We also experimented with pairing the cheeses with different ingredients to see how they enhanced or muted the flavour. We experimented with pomegranate syrup, honey, spice powders (zaatar, cumin and clove), sesame seeds and a variety of dried fruit and nuts. Experimenting with flavours will help you make great combinations of ingredients when pulling together a salad. Each of us came up with our own creations in the workshop. This was mine:
So which French cheeses are the best to add into salads. Well, the answer really is whichever ones you like. Depending on the texture of the cheese, it can be cubed, grated, shaved or crumbled directly onto your salad. A gooey runny cheese can simply be cut into a wedge and placed on top or to the side of your salad to dip into once in a while. Cheese can also be incorporated into a salad dressing – have a go at making my easy and delicious Blue Cheese Dressing (warning: you will never buy bottled again).
A good cheese counter is a great place to taste different cheeses before deciding which ones to buy. According to Francois, some of the best places in Dubai to buy good French cheeses are Galeries Lafayette and Carrefour. Remember that good artisanal cheese can be expensive as it’s hand-made and often uses a lot of milk. You may be surprised to know that it takes 10 litres of milk to make 1 kilo of French Camembert de Normandie.
Also try and look out for the acronym AOC which stands for Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée. It means that the quality of these specific cheeses are a direct result of the geography, climate, flora and fauna of the specific area they were produced in. There are currently just over 40 cheeses which have been assigned AOC status. However, even if a cheese is not designated AOC it can still be very good.
My personal favourite French cheeses to add to salads include Beaufort, Brie de Meaux, Brillat-Savarin, Bûcheron, Chèvre (unripened), Comté and Roquefort.
To learn more about the different varieties of French cheeses available, the following book comes highly recommended on Amazon: French Cheeses – The Visual Guide to More Than 350 Cheeses from Every Region of France.