Meet the Two New French Cheeses Invented During Lockdown
"How can anyone govern a country that has 246 different types of cheese?" the late French President Charles de Gaulle once famously groused. In fact, no one really knows how many cheeses France has—some estimates go as high as a thousand, but the good news is that the ultimate cheese-lovers' paradise definitely has two more fromages to taste today than it did a year ago.
One of the new cheeses, Le Confiné (the shut-in or locked-up one), was created almost inadvertently by dairy farmers and cheesemakers Lionel and Laura Vaxelaire, who milk a herd of 30 cows. The cattle are an heirloom varietal native to the Vosges mountains where they live at Au Petit Gravier, a farm near Saulxures-sur-Moselotte in eastern France.
"When France went into its first lockdown last March, my cows never got the message—they just kept producing milk," chuckled Laura Vaxelaire. "So we kept making cheese, yogurt and other products even though our sales dropped by eighty percent within a week, because the restaurants we supply had closed, as had most local markets and our farm store."
Very quickly the cellars where Laura Vaxelaire tended the Munster cheeses produced on the farm—placing them on metal shelves to age after they'd been drained, washed and salted and then turning them over and washing them with fresh water every two or three days for at least three weeks—became overwhelmed by unsold cheese.
"So we decided to let a bunch of cheeses age undisturbed for a month without following the normal aging process of regularly washing and turning them over just to see what would happen. And they became a completely different cheese," said Vaxelaire, cheerfully adding, "Sometimes adversity is good inspiration."
The new cheese developed a spotted gray rind, which is not traditional to the Vosges region, where washed rind cheeses are the norm. When the Vaxelaire family first tasted one of the new cheeses, which they named Le Confiné, they found it had a runny texture just inside the rind but remained chalky at the center. "It tasted a little bit like camembert but more floral and lactic. Over all it's a beautiful reflection of the unspoiled environment of this part of France and happily it's also delicious," Laura Vaxelaire explained.
When the initial French lockdown lifted in May, they introduced Le Confiné to their customers, who loved it. So the Vaxelaires registered the name with the l'Institut National de la Propriété Industrielle, the French patent, trademarks and industrial rights office, and have been producing the cheese ever since, unable to keep up with demand. "Our cheese has become part of French history. It's something wonderful, which shows how we confronted and overcame a terrible trauma," says Laura Vaxelaire.
La Bédigue de Nimes, France's other new French cheese, was created by gregarious cheese-monger Sylvain Crégut to celebrate his homecoming to Le Gard, the sunny leaf-shaped southern French departement bound by the Cevennes mountains, the Mediterranean and the Rhone River where he grew up. As has been true of many other people whose lives have been disrupted by Covid, the pandemic pushed him to make a change he'd been considering for a while, so he left behind his cheese shop in Auxerre in Burgundy, moved south and rented a stall in Les Halles de Nimes, one of the best covered food markets in France. "I missed the warmth of the south, both the weather and the people," Crégut explained.
"I'm a cheese affineur (curator) by profession, but this is the first time I actually made one," said Crégut. His goal was to invent a cheese that would be emblematic of Le Gard. So because many of the departement's best known cheeses are made with ewe's milk (a bédigue is a ewe in provençal), he contacted a dairy in the village of Lussan and explained what he wanted, which was a fresh ewe's milk cheese where the texture of curd was still present, sort of like a cheese made by compacting cottage cheese.
Next he used two other Gardois products—sea salt from the saltworks in Aigues-Morte and Carthagène, a sweet local wine most often drunk as an aperitif, to age the cheese, first dipping it in salted water and then regularly washing it with wine to absorb some of its perfume and flavor. "I was looking for an equilibrium between sweetness and bitterness," Crégut explained.
Finally the aged cheeses are put in frilled paper cups inside of small round wooden boxes and garnished with a couple of yellow raisins soaked in carthagène. Crégut only makes a hundred a week, and they sell out right away. "People love them, because they're light but have some character, which makes them a great hors d'oeuvre and good with salad or on a cheese tray after a barbecue."
"I love cheese because it reflects the best of human nature, its ingenuity—cheese was invented as a way of storing milk, and its capacity for pleasure and sharing," said Crégut, adding, "So I'm very proud to have created a new one. Vive la France!"
Since neither of these new French cheeses are exported, you'll just have to come to France to taste them. Find La Bédigue de Nimes at the stall of Sylvain Cregut on Allee du Curry in Les Halles de Nimes, the city's covered market, which is open daily. To sample Le Confiné, visit Lionel and Laura Vaxelaire's farm shop at Au Petit Gravier (https://www.facebook.com/AuPetitGravier/) or go for a meal at their auberge (http://fermeaubergelesprenzieres.e-monsite.com).