Blessed are the cheesemakers: valençay

Categories: Product stories

A young, soft goat’s cheese from the Loire, via Une Normande de Londres

“This time of year, when you see the sun coming and you can have your first French rosé—that is the best time for this cheese.” Jean at Une Normande a Londres trails off, looking dubiously at the irredeemably grey British sky. Here’s hoping. Still, after our first few days of what could conclusively be described as spring weather, we’re in the mood for fresh goat’s cheese and a glass of Rosé d’Anjou.  

Valençay fits the bill nicely: “Soft and quite flavourful—but not punchy,” Jean continues. “Some goat’s cheeses have a really strong goaty taste, but this is milder.” Small, young and soft, it is recognisable by its volcanic shape and dusting of blue-black ‘ash’: a salt and charcoal combination which, added before maturation, works to preserve the flavour while the cheese sits in humid cellars for up to a month, growing a downy coat of the white mould, penicillium candidum.

It is a classic French goat’s cheese—one of the first goat’s cheeses to receive protected AOC status in an area famous for goat’s cheeses and even more famous for wine making: the Loire. There, the combination of a temperate climate and lush, fertile valleys create a haven for goats and grapes alike.

Fresh bread and sweet jam
Unlike the cows behind Alpine cheeses which, come winter, are forced to beat a retreat to warm sheds, the goats live “on the same field, eating the same grass pretty much all year round”. This means the cheese is always available, though Jean particularly likes it at this time of year because “it goes so well with fresh bread and sweet jam.”

Shut your eyes and you can almost taste it: a late, lazy breakfast in the sunshine, the still-warm baguette torn and spread with valençay and dark, sticky fig jam while the rosé perspires on ice until an acceptable drinking hour. Yet there is more to this pleasingly geometric cheese than its lemony-bright flavour, and its affinity with rosé and fig jam.

Though named for the town of valençay in the Berry region of the Loire, legend has it the truncated pyramid shape stems from it being served at a dinner for Napoleon Bonaparte upon his return to France, having tried and failed to conquer Egypt and block British access to India. Enraged by this cheesy reminder of his defeat at the hands of the Pyramid builders, he lopped off the top of the cheese with his sword, and since then, the story goes, the cheese has always been made in this shape.

Moussey on the tongue
Whether you believe the legend or not, you cannot deny the quality of both the texture of valençay, nor its taste. The pate is brilliantly white, moussey on the tongue and, when eaten with the rind, slightly saltier than other Loire goat’s cheeses. Though citrusy when young, a week or so’s ageing results in a more complex flavour—nutty, though still light and fresh.

“Breakfast, lunch, evening, morning—any time it is good,” Jean happily enthuses, looking back at the clouds again. If only the same could be said of Britain’s rays.