The teachers have taught for a long time this adage: Tilling and grazing are the two breasts by which France is fed…
And Seine-Maritime could have served as a case in point for this primary school adage: the Pays de Caux with its plains and plateaus is still dedicated to tilling and cereals, while the Pays de Bray with its small valleys and gentle hills is dedicated to grazing and livestock farming. The motorway leading to Neufchâtel-en-Bray provides this idealised image of Normandy: green fields, fat cows, and half-timbered farmhouses. We can tell that, here, people have never lacked milk or butter…
And it is precisely to a gourmet visit, a gastronomic adventure that we are going today to learn more about the secrets of the symbolic cheese of Normandy…
'We are going to eat Camembert today, aren't we?' Julie asked from the back seat of the car.
'No, I told you: Norman cheese!'
'Well, it's Camembert, no?'
'I have already told you: Camembert is the cheese in Lower-Normandy, but in Upper-Normandy it's the cheese shaped like a heart, do you remember?'
And why a heart by the way? What does it symbolise? The affection of the Norman people for their cheese? A declaration of love to good food? I will have to ask. But here is Neufchâtel-en-Bray in front of us, a small town lying on a hillside. Now, we have to take a country road on the right because the true capital of Neufchâtel cheese is Nesle-Hodeng! Most of the farms that make Neufchâtel cheese have all been located in this small village, which is almost a hamlet, for more than a century. One of them, the Ferme des Fontaines, organises guided tours of their facilities.
In the farmyard of the Ferme des Fontaines, where a small group of English tourists was already waiting, the owner welcomed us casually.
The tour started with a question in one of the half-timbered buildings of the farm:
'So, first of all, do you know what Normande cattle look like?'
A question to which, as an ignorant city-dweller, I didn't know the answer… Just like when I was a kid at school, I naturally looked up at the ceiling: an opportunity to admire the thickness of the beams…
'Normande cattle', she resumed, 'are easy to recognise: white with brown spots and, more importantly, brown-spectacled eyes that we call "glasses". And here, to make Neufchâtel cheese, we raise Normande cattle, even if they are not exactly dairy cows. In fact, the Normande breed has the particularity of being a "mixed" breed: they can be
raised both for their milk and their meat.'
In short, cows that are similar in many ways to a Norman (non-committal) answer: Maybe, maybe not…
The farmer carried on while putting on the table metal moulds just like the ones used for baking.
'You probably know the most famous shape of Neufchâtel cheese: the heart! But there are others. There are 6 official shapes in all: square, brick, small cylinder and large cylinder, small heart and large heart that weights 600 grams (21 oz.).'
Official shapes indeed, as Neufchâtel cheese, with its thousand years of history, is one of the oldest cheeses in France and its making is highly codified: there is no trifling with the AOC status (controlled designation of origin).
'After the milking of the cows, we first add a few millilitres of rennet to the milk so that it coagulates. Then we leave the enzyme do its job and solidify the milk for 24 hours. We drain it, we press it and we end up with…
'Modelling clay', Julie said loudly, 'like at school!'
I would not have dared to say it, but it indeed looked like white modelling clay.
'Curds…' the farmer said smiling.
With a few brisk and steady movements, she grabbed a handful of this modelling clay, squashed it into the heart-shaped mould and pressed it. Five seconds later, a large Neufchâtel heart emerged from the mould… It was time for me to check out my theory on the symbolic meaning of Neufchâtel cheese!
'So, this heart shape dates back to the Hundred Years' War when Normandy was English', the farmer said to the British tourists. 'It is said that young women from the area who had fallen in love with English soldiers had moulded Neufchâtel cheese into the shape of a heart to give to them and thus declare their love…'
People smiled. So this is what this cheese symbolises: an old love story between the English and the Normans, stories of disaffection, conquest, jealousy and separations.
'So here we are, it only has to be matured for about 10 days in a cellar and it will be ready to be eaten. But there is Neufchâtel cheese to suit every taste. It can be matured longer, up to 6 months for those who enjoy the stronger flavours of Neufchâtel cheese.
The one we have tried there was young and creamy, it melted in the mouth.
'Are we going to see the cows?' Julie said, impatient.
This is what Julie was the most interested in: 160 animals live here in the cowsheds and milk parlours. Cows of course but also calves and heifers, which are young cows that have never calved and are bred until it's time for them to be inseminated.
We had a little bit of time left for Julie, who so happy, to stroke a calf born in the morning before leaving with a bag full of big hearts…