Neufchâtel is one of Normandy’s oldest cheeses and is often recognised by its distinctive heart shape. Tradition has it that during the many wars during the Middle Ages between France and England, young Norman girls would give English soldiers a special heart-shaped Neufchâtel cheese as a token of their affection.
Our sparkly-eyed guide, Patrick Chevallier, the President of the Confrérie of Neufchâtel – the brotherhood that supports the traditional production of this cheese – says that it’s a nice story but its historical accuracy is a little questionable. What is known to be true however is that Neufchâtel is the oldest of Normandy’s four AOC cheeses (controlled designation of origin), dating back to 1035.
I visited Neufchâtel on a sunny October day with a small group of journalists who had travelled to the region to discover some of Normandy’s gastronomic highlights. It was a Saturday morning and the market was in full swing. Outside, in the town’s main square there were many stalls selling clothes and household items but inside the Maison du Beurre, there was a fantastic selection of stalls laden with fresh local produce.
In among the multicoloured varieties of squash, delicious local honey and rather too fresh rabbit (they were still alive), was Marie from the Ferme des Fontaines, one of the 30 local farms that produce AOC Neufchâtel cheese.
Neufchâtel is a creamy, tangy cows milk cheese, with a fluffy soft white rind. Patrick explained the cheese is always classified based on its method of production. There is the industrial, the artisanal and the fermier Neufchâtel. Marie’s cheese is fermier, meaning that both the milk and cheese are produced on the same farm. This is the most traditional method and definitely makes for the tastiest cheese. Better still, if it’s made with non-pasturised milk – lait cru – this is as authentic as you can get. Because of EU regulations, you won’t find the non-pasteurised variety outside of France – another good reason to indulge while you’re here!
When it comes to the taste, Patrick explained that this changes dramatically from one producer to another. It all depends on the environment where the cows graze. Rather than one cheese being better than another, according to Patrick, it’s more a question of personal preference.
Marie’s stall boasted Neufchâtel in a good range of shapes and sizes: the emblematic heart, a cylindrical shape, a brick shape and a square. Patrick explained that these are the four regulation shapes that the cheese can be made into – the different forms must also comply with certain weight restrictions.
Besides the different shapes and sizes, the next thing we noticed was the mouldy brown looking variety. Apparently brown mouldy cheese is perfectly within the Confrerie’s regulations! Marie explained that she sells Neufchâtel ranging from 10 days old up to 7 months old. The taste, texture and appearance change dramatically with age so we decided to give each a try.
The 10-day old variety was the mildest and smoothest – creamy all the way through. Next, at 1-month, the rind was a little harder and thicker and the taste was a little richer. The 6-month old, had a brown rind – it had a real kick and left a tangy aftertaste – I was told that for the hardcore cheese-lover, this is heavenly with a bit of bread and some red wine.
Our group was split between the two youngest varieties – my favourite was the 1-month old Neufchâtel, but I live in hope, perhaps one day I’ll be enough of a cheese-expert to appreciate 7-month old mouldy varieties…
Neufchâtel can be found in all leading UK supermarkets, so why not continue this tradition yourself this year by giving your Valentine a special taste of Normandy? For more information on food and drink in Normandy, visit the Normandy Tourist Board website.
All photos and text © Maggie McNulty / Normandy Tourist Board