I love a good dairy sandwich. When I lived in England, I was an enthusiastic purveyor of the Tesco meal deal, and in New Zealand, I tried the sandwiches at pretty much every bakery, home cookery and food bar in all of New Lynn.
The dairy sandwich most emphatically exists in France, although the ones made with regular bread are far more soggy than any other sandwich I’ve encountered. However, there exists a variant here made with pita bread, which, when paired with smoked salmon and creme fraiche, is straight delicious.
When I began my French classes, it became apparent that it was not going to be ok for me to keep buying sandwiches willy nilly every day – not necessarily because of monetary concerns but more because these sandwiches were objectively gross and I was in France, and in France’s capital of gastronomy, at that.
My day is slightly awkward when it comes to eating. I get up in the morning and have breakfast – no problems there – and then head to class. My first class, my intensive French class, goes from 9am until 12pm, and then from 12:30 until 1:45pm, I have my terrifying conversation class. There’s nothing quite like having 15 people stare expectantly as you attempt to inelegantly answer a question in broken French that you only half understood.
Anyway, the short half-hour between my first class and the second isn’t really enough time to buy lunch if you don’t want to only ever just eat dairy sandwiches from the Carrefour. So I decided it was time to start making my own lunch.
To that end, I grabbed a wedge of unassuming-looking cheese at the supermarket with the intent of making sandwiches. It was labeled Saint-Nectaire and it appeared to be somewhat gummy, with a pale yellow colour and an orange rind.
Saint-Nectaire is a cows’ milk cheese that is made in an area smack in the centre of France (and a few hundred km west of Lyon). It is an AOP cheese, but interestingly comes in two classes – one that has been made on farms that milk their own cows, and one made in an industrial setting. These two kinds of Saint-Nectaire are identified by a label on the cheese – oval for the farm cheese, and rectangular for the factory cheese.
After the cheese is made, it is matured for at least 28 days, although the stinkier examples of Saint-Nectaire can mature for much longer. During this process, it is regularly washed with brine and flipped, a process that helps develop its mottled rind.
I grabbed what I can only assume was the industrial version of the cheese. My intention was to slap it on a good, old fashioned ham’n’cheese sammie with a couple of cornichons and a bit of dijon (which is considerably more spicy here than the dijon we get in New Zealand).
It worked great. It made a delicious sambo, but to my delight, was also a grand eatin’ cheese as well. It delivered a buttery, gummy experience with a very distinct salty cheese tang. It was of particular deliciousness when it had spent the morning in my bag (i.e. out of the fridge), really making the cheese tang pop.
However, in researching this blog post, I began to feel like I hadn’t fully experienced Saint-Nectaire, and I had done it a disservice by only trying the industrial version. So I went back to the supermarket and after another successful interaction with a French person, came away with a much more solid-looking wedge of farm-raised cheese with a mottled black-and-grey rind.
This Saint-Nectaire was almost unrecognisable from its industrial sibling. It was drier and more firm, with a chalky texture and flavours of mushroom and nuts. The farmhouse Saint-Nectaire reminded me of visiting gardening centres with my parents when I was little – it had a strong vibe of fresh soil.
Cheese, I guess, is a lot like wine, especially in France. There are many different cheeses, made in different ways with different kinds of milk, that all taste quite different from each other. But there is also a lot of variance in cheese that is made the same way from the same kind of cheese. So much depends on the terroir – how happy the animals were, what kind of grass were they eating, what kind of salt was used to brine the cheese, how long did the cheese age for. The possibilities are endless.
Type of Cheese: Saint-Nectaire
Eaten with: Côtes-du-Rhône, saucisson, baguette
Score: 8 out of 10 laughing cows, both kinds