It’s not enough for the French to have 6,000 types of native cheeses. They have to compete with the English on the one cheese that couldn’t get more English: cheddar.
That’s right; the French have a cheddar, too. And it’s delicious. Really, ridiculously delicious.
Sure, it’s not really a cheddar—and the French would probably not want you to call it that. But it’s hard to categorize this cheese as anything else in the grand scheme of things.
I’m talking about the 110-pound bigshot, Cantal. Baby-sized 20-pound wheels of the cheese, made exclusively from the milk of Salers cows, are called Cantalet (“Cahn-tall-ay”), and a version of the same cheese made only with summer milk is called Salers.
Cantal has been around for much longer than English cheddar, so the French seem to have beaten the English to the punch there. (Sick burn, right?) The recipe for Cantal goes back more than 2,000 years, and was even written down by Pliny the Elder sometime between 77 and 79 AD.
The cheese, which is made with the milk of cows who have been feeding on rich, grassy pasturelands in France’s Cantal department of the Auvergne region, is made in a process that is very similar to cheddaring. The milk is coagulated and cut into small curds, the whey is drained off, the curds are pressed in a vat, take a rest for 10 hours, are churned, salted, molded, and are pressed again.
The major difference between actual English cheddars and Cantal at this point is that whereas an English cheddar would now be set aside to age, the Cantal is instead unmolded, and its curds are churned, salted, and molded and pressed one more time before the wheels go into the aging room for anywhere from 30 days to over eight months.
The resultant possibilities are Cantal Jeune (“young Cantal”), a soft and milky cheese aged for 30 to 60 days; Cantal Entre-Deux (“half-time Cantal”), a well-balanced and aromatic cheese aged between 90 and 210 days; and Cantal Vieux (“old Cantal”), a strong and spicy cheese aged for at least eight months. The older the cheese, the firmer the paste.
It’s worth noting that the locals love to mix their Cantal in with mashed potatoes, especially when they have Cantal Jeune at hand. Cheesy mashed potatoes: a dish the Americans and French alike can appreciate.
I would totally eat Cantal mixed in with mashed taters. But I also like it alone. And on crackers. On bread. Melted on toast. In eggs for breakfast. Shredded over salad. Really, I just like this cheese a lot.
It’s creamy, smooth, a bit sharp (a more Entre-Deux version, that is): everything English cheddar aspires to be–just with a lot more of a history of being that good.