The King of Cheese: 3 French Cheeses Vying for the Crown

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The French have been wary, at times, of human kings -- consider the rough way they treated Louis the Last (XVI) -- but they've never shied from crowning kings of cheese. Below are three French contenders for the cheese throne, and the prominent voices that have lobbied for each.

1. EPOISSES: The cheese that was once banned on public transportation

Epoisses is not as old or renowned as Roquefort (see below); but it can boast a legitimate claim to the crown, thanks in part to two distinguished fans: Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, the influential 18th century gastronome, and Napoleon Bonaparte, the late emperor-king of just about everything. It was Brillat-Savarin, philosopher-gourmand, who dubbed Epoisses the king of cheeses -- a declaration not to be dismissed, considering the seriousness with which he regarded cheese. ("A desert without cheese is like a beautiful woman who has lost an eye," he wrote, not quite in jest.)

Napoleon, on the other hand, wasn't quite as careful or as cultivated in his taste: "I eat quickly and masticate little," he admitted. Still, he was an awfully powerful man -- a potentate to match Caesar and Charlemagne -- so when he favored a food, that opinion mattered; and he favored Epoisses. As the last man proclaimed king over most of Europe -- a man who confessed he "could never see a throne without feeling the urge to sit on it" -- perhaps Napoleon knew a sovereign cheese when he tasted one.

If you have the chance to taste some ripe, runny Epoisses, you might be surprised by its powerful odor, which has proven offensive to many. There are even rumors that it was banned on public transportation in France. Napoleon had his peculiarities -- but how, you might ask, could a sophisticated connoisseur like Savarin love a cheese that smelled to heaven? Well, legend has it that his culinary aesthetic was so enlarged, so distinguished, that he would carry dead birds around in his pockets so he could savor the aroma. That is the kind of man we are dealing with. To each his own.

2. ROQUEFORT: The preferred cheese of genius

This pungent and striking blue ewe's milk cheese has a long history and a formidable reputation. In fact, Julius Caesar may have been the first big shot to praise Roquefort, which he tasted while conquering Gaul in the first century B.C. Although Julius wasn't a "king" per se ("I am Caesar, not King," he told his subjects), he did have a few other titles including dictator-for-life, consul-for-life, imperator, father of the fatherland, and God. We can only assume his opinion on cheeses mattered.

After Rome's fall, Charlemagne "rediscovered" Roquefort for the Middle Ages. Following a battle with the Saracens in 778, Charlemagne stopped for a snack in Rouergue (the region of south-central France from which Roquefort hails). An abbot served some cheese to the monarch, who started picking out the greenish-blue bits with his dagger, assuming the mold to be a corruption. Noticing this, the abbot advised Charlemagne that the blue bits were the best part; Charlemagne ate, enjoyed, and ordered a couple of wagon-loads of the cheese delivered to his home every year.

In 1411, French king Charles VI, a.k.a. Charles the Well-loved, a.k.a. Charles the Mad, legally ensured Roquefort's regional identity, restricting its aging to the Caves of Combalou -- where it was first ripened, and still is today. It's uncertain whether Charles was lucid or bonkers when this decision was made; but it doesn't matter. Since then Roquefort's been adored by all the glutton kings of France, especially the later kings Louis.

All of that said, love of Roquefort has not been restricted to royalty; even rebels, revolutionaries, and intellectuals have admired it. Enlightenment philosopher Diderot (who famously suggested that kings should be strangled with the entrails of priests) declared that Roquefort "is indisputably the finest cheese in Europe". Rough-edged American novelist Henry Miller (who famously wrote some lurid things about love-making), had similar thoughts, claiming of Roquefort, "To eat this cheese one must have genius." Whatever that means.

3. BRIE: The cheese worth losing your head over

The story goes that Charlemagne discovered Brie exactly as he discovered Roquefort (although four years earlier). This time he was staying at an abbey in the region of Meaux and was offered a soft, white-rinded cheese. The monks caught him picking off the rind, aiming for the creamy interior; so they told their king to eat the cheese whole, crust and all. He did, and he liked it enough to order a couple of batches delivered each year to his castle in Aachen.

Another royal fan of Brie was Louis the XVI, the guillotined one. He hampered his own escape from the revolutionaries by insisting that his entourage stop for long and luxurious meals. He clearly wasn't used to thinking practically. It's said that the ill-fated monarch was caught at last while relishing, very slowly, some good Brie cheese at a tavern in Vernnes. Perhaps it was worth the beheading: different people have different priorities.

Other cheeses have had their royal endorsements; but of all the contenders for the kingship of cheese, Brie is the only one to be formally crowned by a unanimous vote of European aristocrats. After the Napoleonic Wars, representatives from every European power gathered in Vienna to rearrange their devastated continent. Reacting against all the violence caused by the French Revolution, the Congress of Vienna restored "legitimate" monarchies throughout Europe. And while they were naming kings of nations, why not name a king of cheeses? France's statesman, Talleyrand, proposed a friendly contest of cheeses to pass the time (and assert some nationalistic pride); the others assented, and brought in their nations' finest. England's Stilton, Switzerland's Emmenthal, Holland's Edam, and Italy's Gorgonzola were each enjoyed, assessed, and discussed in turn. Talleyrand remained silent until his own messenger arrived, bearing Brie de Meaux. As one historian records, "The Brie rendered its cream to the knife. It was a feast, and no one further argued the point." Without further ado, the Congress of Vienna declared Brie the Cheese of Kings and the King of Cheeses. Then they got back to redrawing borders.

Cheese expert David Clark is guest blogging with us all week! Be sure to check out his previous posts: 'Big Political Cheeses and the Riots They Caused' and 'The Maggot Cheese of the Mediterranean.'

January 8, 2009 - 3:00am
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