Traveling through France it is easy to get caught up in the history of the country. Roadside buildings made of stone that are abandoned or in disrepair often lead me to daydream of who lived in the buildings in decades or centuries past and what was their daily life about. What did they eat? Was the forest the same as it is now or were the fields more cultivated…or less cultivated? When I get to experience cheese(s) many times the names help answer these kinds of questions because they reflect the location or specifics about the area where the cheese is produced. This is the case for the Cazelle de Saint Affrique sheep's milk cheese aged by Hevre Mons that we are featuring in April
The "Cazelle" portion of the name refers to the stone building that is used to house hay or even shelter the shepherds and/or sheep. The area of origin is located in Aveyron. Monoliths and other stone monuments are still present in the hillsides of this area in the south of France. The Cazelle is probably a natural evolution of using regional stone to construct the shelter. Hevre and his team at Mons came up with the name because the form of the cheese reminded them of the Cazelle structure. The history of humans in this area dates back over 12,000 years.
The town of Saint Affrique, the town that the cheese is named after, is just north of the Mediterranean coast, nestled between two rivers. As a direct result of location there is a unique micro-climate that impacts agricultural growth. Sheep are one of the key farm animals in this area and the breed used for many famous cheeses from the south of France is the Lacaune.
This is the same breed used to supply the milk for Roquefort cheese. The average size of the herd for this area is 250. Many of the farmers that provide the milk for the Cazelle sell their milk to Roquefort producers as well. Sheep's milk is rich in protein and calcium with the highest level of B vitamins of all dairy animal's milk. Sheep's milk cheeses are very high in solids, which contributes to the creamy texture of the cheeses - you can see and taste this in the texture of the Cazelle.
The Cazelle is artisanally produced in small batches by a producer who makes many other cheeses available in the Saint Affrique area. The cheese arrives at the Mons caves when it is 10 days old - it is a fragile jewel and since it is artisan, every cheese is very different.
The Mons affineurs take great care nurturing the cheese so the flavors evolve and show the cheese's personality. The cheese is firm with a creamy texture and has a nutty and earthy flavor. Don't be afraid if some of the cheese gets a bit of a blue mold on the exterior. This will impart additional spicy flavors.
I asked Hevre what some of his favorite pairings are for this cheese and his response was to serve with a Chardonnay wine that is geared more towards buttery characteristics. Stay away from dry wines with this cheese. I also love serving sheep's milk cheeses with dried fruits - Hevre recommends golden raisins and figs; I like it with apricots. Either way is it a fantastic cheese that we are offering you during the month of April. Welcome spring with a lovely, young cheese from France, and hurry since it may not be around long!