A 2,000-year-old cheese? Really?
Cantal, the great French cow’s milk cheese, has been made since the times of the Gauls— far longer than the more well-known Roquefort (first produced in the eleventh century) or Livarot (first produced in the thirteenth century). It is one of the very first recorded cheeses made in France, a country celebrated for its proud and impressive cheesemaking history. In fact, the French word for cheese, fromage, most likely originated from name of the wooden cylinders, les formages, in which Cantal cheese was traditionally made. In 1956, Cantal became just the third cheese to be given the prestigious state-controlled AOC designation; needless to say, it has long been considered one of France’s cheese icons.
I was first attracted to this cheese because it has one of the best labels I have seen. I got interested, did some research. It was Cheddar-like, and I like Cheddar. To me, it is better than most Cheddars because of the less sweet notes usually found in American Cheddar-style cheeses and more grass and floral notes, so it is a bit more savory.
Named for the Cantal Mountains in the Auvergne region, this cheese is packed with as much flavor as history. Its taste is similar to British Cheddars in that it tends to be more savory than sweet, unlike those made in America. It has a slightly nutty flavor with hints of pleasant bitterness, and a wonderful sharpness that pairs well with Côtes du Rhône red wines — some of my favorite wines to drink with firm cheeses.
The most commonly found version comes in a 22-pound cylinder with a mottled brown rind. If possible, talk to your cheesemonger and seek out the longest-aged form you can find — six months or more is best — for a cheese with more sharpness and bite. Cantal is wonderful as a fondue, grated on top of pasta, or melted on a gourmet sandwich.