Cantal cheese along with Roquefort is one of France's oldest cheeses. Written references to this firm aged cheese can be found going back as far as 2000 years.
Cantal is an uncooked cheese made from the milk of cows that graze in the mountains of the Auvergne region, which makes up part of the Massif Central mountain range in the south of France. This is a cheese born in a rugged land of harsh winters where having a way to store food through the cold months was at one time essential to survival.
It is made in large cylinders weighing up to 45 kilograms (about 100 pounds!) and then cut in smaller slices to be sold. It is somewhat crumbly and salty, with more and more of a spicy bite as it ages. Some people find it reminiscent of cheddar cheese.
Cantal cheese, like many French cheeses, is protected by an AOC (appellation d'origine controlée) that stipulates the territory where this cheese can be made as well as the method for making it. There are several stages in the making of this cheese, and different types of Cantal are issued from each of these stages.
Types of Cantal Cheese
Cantal Tomme - This is unaged Cantal that has been pressed just once. It is a mild tasting cheese that is used in cooking to make local specialities such as Truffade and Aligot (cheesy mashed potatoes).
Cantal Jeune - This means young Cantal and here the cheese has undergone further processing including a second pressing and aging for one month, giving the cheese a thin greyish white rind. This cheese is appreciated for its young fruity taste.
Cantal Entre-deux - This means between two, making it a sort of middle aged cheese. Here the cheese has been aged for two to six months in carefully controlled conditions (the temperature is maintained at about 50° F and the humidity at about 90 percent), giving it a golden rind that becomes browner as it ages.
Cantal Vieux - This means old Cantal. Cantal Vieux has been aged at least six months and has a thick hard rind veering towards orange. This is a strong, affirmative cheese and probably should be reserved for tasting rather then cooking. It is the most highly prized of the Cantals by most connoisseurs.
Salers - This is a special Cantal made exclusively during the summer grazing months, although from the same cow's milk as the other Cantals. The fact that it is made from grass-fed summer milk confers a different flavor to this cheese, prompting the adoption of an AOC for Salers in 1979 to distinguish it from the other Cantals.
Enjoying Cantal Cheese
To serve Cantal, cut it en biseau, assuring that each slice includes a small piece of the rind. This is the correct way to cut and serve most cheese.
Like many cheeses, Cantal marries well with grapes, apples, pears, and other fruits as well as nuts such as walnuts or hazelnuts. Serve it with a rugged bread to complement its rugged flavor.
A large spectrum of fruity red wines as well as white wines are the friends of Cantal. Perhaps a Beaujoulais or a white wine from the Savoy region such as an Apremont, but do try whatever you think will complement this sharp, salty cheese.
Cooking with Cantal Cheese
In addition to the local specialities sited above, Cantal cheese is a popular ingredient in many French dishes. It makes a nice addition to green salads (perhaps with a few walnuts), melts into quiches, tarts, and savory clafoutis, blends into soups, and marries very nicely with potatoes. A simple way to get started cooking with Cantal is to try it in an omelet.