Two years ago, Khéma launched the first of its own range of branded artisan cheeses, Le Rousseau, a simple Fromage Frais named in honour of dairy consultant Nicolas Rousseau who spent months training our team in the ancient arts of cheesemaking.
Fromage Frais, or fresh cheese, is probably one of the earliest forms of cheese developed by man, and it wasn’t just an important source of nutrition. References to it as a vehicle for letting the gods know how much they were revered can be found in the Hindu Vedas, the Old Testament of the Bible, and in early Buddhist and Jainist texts.
Soft, thick, creamy and lightly tangy, Fromage Frais is one of the simplest cheeses to make and one of the easiest to start out with for those who may find the prospect of tucking into an aromatically lurid blue or leaky brie a little off-putting. It makes a delicious treat in its simplest form, smeared on a slice of baguette perhaps with a drizzle of honey, but is also highly adaptable for use in salads, or topped on grills and baked potatoes, and especially in desserts. For those watching their figures, the fact that it’s not ripened means it’s generally lower in fat than other cheeses and can be used as a low-fat, low-calorie alternative for cream in dishes such as Beef Stroganoff without sacrificing depth of flavour.
The earliest evidence for cheesemaking can be traced back to the period between 7000 and 6500 BCE. By then, humans had long kept dairy animals, first goats and sheep and eventually the less gregarious cow, though mainly as a source of meat. However, the discovery at this time of pyrotechnology led to the creation of pottery which in turn led to huge advances in human food preparation because finally it could be stored, processed and transported without falling prey to the elements (we’re thinking ants!). This revolution led directly to the earliest forms of cheese, simple curds, separated and strained, i.e. a Fromage Frais, just like Le Rousseau.
But simple should never be mistaken for unworthy. The Hindu Vedas were written over many centuries by a pastoral people whose lives were deeply rooted in cattle rearing. The texts reveal the pivotal and venerated role that dairy foods played in ancient India where they were valued not only as an integral part of the diet, but also for their role as offerings to the gods in religious observances. Later on, Buddhist and Jainist texts affirmed the importance of dairy products, including curds and fresh cheese, in the Indian diet. But this central place was not to hold, perhaps due to environmental factors, perhaps also due to the increasingly elevated status of the cow, and emerging prohibitions on animal slaughter. It seems clear too that the kinds of smelly, mouldy, even maggot-infested, cheeses—whose ripening may be compared to a sort of rotting—that were later favoured in Europe would have confounded a culture increasingly rooted in purity and vegetarianism.
Early Christians also centred fresh cheese as a form of offering to the gods. The first reference to cheese in the Bible comes in Genesis when Abraham, the father of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, is subjected to a surprise visit from God and two of his angels that would put anyone’s day into a spin. Whipping up a meal that was fitting for such august company, Abraham put together a table that included freshly baked bread, veal, fresh cheese and milk. But even a harried Abraham was not the first of his time or place to offer fresh cheese to his god. Cheese and butter had been an integral part of religious practice and offering in Mesopotamia for more than 1,000 years.
So the next time you see a Le Rousseau or other Fromage Frais, do not think ‘too simple for my tastes’. Instead think “well, if it’s good enough for the gods…” That is the beauty of simplicity.
One delicious way of serving up Fromage Frais is a Cervelle de Canut, a rich and creamy dip whose origins lie in Lyon. It may be simple, but the results are divine, making it a perfect offering for guests, be they gods or otherwise.
Cervelle de Canut (Serves 6-8)
200g Fromage Frais
20g Finely chopped shallot
10g Finely snipped chives
1tsp Finely chopped garlic
15g Finely chopped parsley
10g Strong Dijon mustard
15ml Red wine vinegar
25g Olive oil
100g Whipping cream, lightly whipped
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
Put the fromage frais into a bowl and mix in the shallot, chives, garlic and parsley. Add the mustard, wine vinegar and olive oil and mix again until the texture is uniform. Finally, stir in the lightly whipped cream and season to taste with salt and pepper.
Serve with: thin slices of baguette, lightly toasted, or crostini Grissini breadsticks and raw cucumber, celery and carrot batons.
Credit for this recipe goes to the legendary Michel Roux, and his chef Stéphane Colliet.