There are some cheeses that speak of history, authenticity, the land and the true history of cheese and there are some that verge on heresy, that speak of factories, time and motion and the lowest common denominator. Examples of the latter are Wensleydale with Cranberries or Cathedral City “cheddar”; abominations and insults to the possibilities and potential of cheese. Today’s example of the former is Saint Nectaire, a semi-soft cheese from the Auvergne , the sparsely populated, heavily wooded area of central France.
And handily, another saint is involved. Saint Nectarius of Auvergne was a 4th century missionary who was sent from Rome and was killed by Bradulus, the local pagan chief. Sadly, I know nothing about the gruesomeness of his death and so Nectarius is categorised as a “Dull Saint” according to my strict Aristotelian system.
When you seek out this magnificent cheese, you must look for Saint Nectaire fermier. This is the indication that it has been made on the farm and there is a good chance it is made from unpasteurised cheese. When you smell this cheese, you smell the grass and rocks of the Auvergne. It reeks of caves and straw. It is aged on beds of rye straw which gives it its magnificent scent. This is a poem to the land and to the cattle that produced the milk. This cheese is not from the milk of the bovine proletariat that exist in the industrialised world that produces your orange, rubbery, shrink wrapped novelty cheeses. This cheese is from the milk of the proud and heroic cows of the Cantal and Puy de Dôme.
By consuming this cheese you become imbued with the august and glorious spirit of these cows. Choose the industrialised and artificial cheese from the supermarket and you will become a drudge like the cattle that produced it, watching soporific reality TV shows as you witlessly chew the curdish cud and stare at the walls of your warehouse-like barns and await the next serving of your chemical-laden fodder.
Anyway, enough of my hyperbole, back to the panegyric of Saint Nectaire. See the rind, a beautiful and slightly rumpled rind, with a bloom that varies from a pale, almost white through to a fearsome, pencil lead, dark grey. The rind is edible so don’t let it go to waste.
I know many people are often nervous about eating the rinds on cheese. Most are edible but some are worth avoiding. The aged, crumbly rinds can and should be cut away. Having said that, I know a chap who likes the rind of a Stilton. That’s hardcore, verging on masochistic.
The cheese is an uncooked, pressed cheese that has been salted and aged for around six to eight weeks and sometimes up to three months. The cheeses are washed with salt water and sometimes scraped to reduce the mould growth. It is possible to buy washed rind Saint Nectaires. I prefer the ones with the grey rind, which have been scraped. The longer the period of maturing, the stronger the taste.
The paste is a beautiful, bright gold, and is supple and pliable and is often marked by small holes. The cheese is buttery with a slight chew. Its flavour is sweet, with the slightest hint of soft acidity and a taste of nuts and a troglodyte’s mushrooms. It’s perfect with some bread and a Beaujolais. This is fantastic cheese and maybe one of my top three cheeses. As Legrand Aussy wrote in 1768, in the account of his trip to Auvergne, “If we want to treat you, it’s always with Saint Nectaire that we show it”.