Neufchâtel: The wonder of Fromage – unveiling one French cheese at a time
There are two major myths that need debunking when it comes to the French cheese known as Neufchâtel. The first, of course, is any association with the low-fat cream cheese masquerading under the same name in the U.S. Neufchâtel in France refers to a bloomy-rinded soft cheese – not unlike fellow Norman son Camembert – with a dense, fudgy interior, a powerful, salty kick, and a surprising shape: that of a heart.
According to Patrick Chevallier, President of the Confrérie des compagnons du fromage neufchâtel – a brotherhood devoted to the cheese – it was ostensibly invented by local maidens during the 100 Years’ War. To hear him tell it, the young women would give the heart-shaped cheeses to their lovers – English occupying soldiers – as a symbol of their enduring love.
It’s a legend, of course, but it’s pretty! We have to keep it going! says Chevallier.
And keep it going they have. Today somewhere between 80 and 90 percent of Neufchâtel cheese is indeed sold in the shape of a heart.
What is Neufchâtel?
Neufchâtel is a member of the bloomy-rinded family of cheeses – the same category to which Brie and Camembert belong. Neufchâtel specifically boasts a long and illustrious history, referenced according to Chevallier, as early as 1035.
There are ostensibly written records – which I’ve never seen – that reference the cheese tithe to the Lords of La Ferté. Those are the first written records referring to Neufchâtel.explains Chevaillier
As compared to Camembert, which hails from the Pays d’Auge (a part of Normandy long better known for washed rind specialties like Livarot) and was ostensibly invented in the 18th century, Neufchâtel is a venerable old cheese to be sure! What’s perhaps more recent is the most popular form of the cheese: In addition to the heart, Neufchâtel is also available in several ancestral shapes, including the 100-gram bonde and 200-gram double bonde – both of which are log-shaped – as well as the 100-gram briquette.
“And of course,” says Chevallier, “there’s the gros coeur.” This massive heart is three times the size of the norm, at 600 grams.
“That’s the family size,” he says of the gros coeur. “We mainly sell that in Normandy, for really big fans of Neufchâtel.”
And according to Villiers, his is the only French cheese AOP that can be sold in multiple forms.
How do you make Neufchâtel?
Neufchâtel starts, as all cheeses do, with milk. But not just any milk! Normandy is home to a native breed of cow descended from animals brought to this region by Viking invaders in the 9th and 10th centuries, and since 2017, herds devoted to Neufchâtel must be made up of at least 60 percent of these white cows splotched with brown.
“We’re at about 70 percent Normandes,” says Villiers, who notes that until the new rule was passed, producers often relied, instead, on Holsteins, known for their massive milk supply – about 30 to 35 liters a day, as compared to the 20 to 25 rendered by a Normande.
“But it’s a richer milk,” he says. “It’s richer in protein and in fat.”
And he should know – on his farm, Pierre Villiers and his sister spend most of their time making the cheese, while his brothers are divided between the land and the deliveries.
While he notes that he and his siblings didn’t necessarily set out to take over from their parents, they’re proud to continue in the centuries-old tradition. And working with one’s family, he says, “is very, very practical.”
“We were raised the same way,” he says. “We work the same way. And we have the same mentality.”
The one change the new generation has put into place? Cultivating time for rest.
“Our parents worked so hard,” he recalls. “We never got any time with them, no vacation, because they were working seven days a week.”
The four siblings, instead, organize themselves so that each one gets at least a day off a week.
“It’s pretty well organized,” he says.
What does Neufchâtel taste like?
Neufchâtel may look like a heart-shaped Brie, but it’s anything but. While it does indeed share the mushroomy character shared with its fellow ‘bloomies’, Neufchâtel is known – perhaps above all – for its saltiness, though this has changed in recent years.
According to Chevallier, just ten years ago, some Neufchâtels would reach three or four percent salt.
“It was due to the method of salting,” he says. “You’d have the cheese in one hand and a bucket of salt in the other, and you’d just sprinkle the cheese with salt. You couldn’t really measure it.”
These days, the cheese and salt are both weighed out, to ensure a salt content of just two percent. It’s still, nevertheless, a cheese known for its saline character – something Villiers says is not a reflection of its actual sodium levels.
Comparing Camembert or a Comté with Neufchâtel
“If you analyze it, you’ll find it actually has less salt than a Camembert or a Comté,” he says. “But the method of fabrication means that the flavor of the salt is more pronounced.”
When purchased at a cheesemonger’s or supermarket, Neufchâtel is often characterized by three distinct textures: the bloomy rind encases a soft, creamy layer flowing around a fudgy, almost grainy core. But this, Chevallier asserts, is a “flaw.”
Thanks, fridges! The pate needs to be unctuous. It needs to be soft, it needs to be melting. It should never be grainy.Chevallier quips.
This also comes down to aging: while many shops sell Neufchâtels that are barely a month old, most experts prefer their Neufchâtel aged far longer. Chevallier likes his Neufchâtel at least a month old, so that it becomes slightly creamy, with a tan hue to the white rind.
“It needs to be nice and soft,” he says, “and it should have never seen the inside of a fridge. That’s the worst horror – putting cheese in the fridge!”
Villiers likes to push his even further, to two or three months.
“It’ll start to have a brownish color. It’s not all white, anymore,” he says. “And it will start to become soft. Really soft.”
How do you enjoy your Neufchâtel?
Unlike other Norman cheeses like Camembert, Pont l’Evêque, and Livarot, Neufchâtel isn’t all that well-known outside of Normandy, something that Villiers tells Le Réveil is due in part to the fact that so little of it is produced: about 1700 tons per year, as compared to 60000 tons of Camembert. (The latter, it must be said, is not a reference to the AOP Camembert de Normandie, which has encountered its own struggles throughout time that I explored in depth for the BBC.)
Most Neufchâtel found outside of the region, Villiers continues, is produced by a company called Pays de Bray, owned by the Lactalis group, which also produces the President brand and is the largest producer of French cheese in the world. And while in recent years, Neufchâtel production, in general, is on the rise, fermière production – that is to say, on-site production of cheese by farmers – fell by 11 percent between 2009 and 2019, according to Le Réveil.
The time has never been riper to snag some!
With its salty character, it’s perhaps no surprise that Neufchâtel marries particularly well with a slightly sweet accompaniment. Chevallier recommends pairing Neufchâtel with apple, pear, or grapes. “…a juicy, sweet fruit” that will marry well with the salty character of the cheese. He adds another suggestion gleaned from a Meilleur Sommelier de France: a fortified Banyuls wine from the southern Roussillon.
But for local experts, the true best pairing for Neufchâtel is another native product: cider.
“Dry cider,” counsels Chevallier. “Wine goes well with it too… but at the end of the day, we’re Norman. We’re a bit chauvinistic.”
Have you tasted Neufchâtel are you a connoisseur? Share your preferences and experiences with us in the comments below
1, 3, 4, & 5 copyright Emily Monaco
1. – Pierre Villiers with a platter of Neufchâtel
2. – Patrick Chevallier in his Confrerie outfit with his wife.
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‘The wonder of Fromage – unveiling one French cheese at a time’ by Emily Monaco