Such a sad moment for France right now and for those of us who kick-started our culinary careers there. I first learned to appreciate cheese as a college student in Provence—I certainly didn’t grow up with the good stuff—and I had my first encounter with a cheese course in France. At farmers’ markets in Aix-en-Provence, I discovered goat cheeses as quivery as custard and others as hard as rocks. And I began to suspect that I would never exhaust the country’s cheese repertoire.
But how could I have overlooked, for so many years, a French cheese as splendid as Le Mothais sur Feuille (mo-tay sur foy)? Goat cheese aged on a leaf (sur feuille) goes way back in the Poitou-Charentes region, according to a history submitted as part of Le Mothais sur Feuille’s application for AOP status (appellation d’origine protégée, which is still pending). Because the land was ill-suited to farming, goats and wine grapes (for Cognac) defined the rural economy. Every family kept a few goats. One historical account describes a typical peasant dinner as soup, chestnuts and homemade goat cheese, fresh or aged depending on the season.
The slender chestnut leaf contributes much more than just a rustic aesthetic. It keeps the cheese from sticking to the aging surface (wood shelves in the past, stainless steel now). It adds woodsy aroma, and it helps moderate moisture loss. The regulations stipulate that the fresh seven-ounce disk be placed on the leaf—not wrapped in it—within six days. Over time, the leaf wicks up moisture as the cheese’s wrinkly geotrichum rind develops and the interior softens. Studies show that the leaves also supply desirable bacteria, yeasts and molds.
If you understand French, and maybe even if you don't, you'll enjoy this delightful video on Le Mothais sur Feuille: the people, the land, the process.
After phylloxera devastated the Cognac vineyards in the late 19th century, many people replaced their grapes with goats. Eventually, the region's residents found a broader market for their leaf-perched goat cheese, formed a dairy cooperative in 1906 and were successful enough that industrial creameries were drawn to the area. But the big guys didn’t want to make some finicky cheese on a leaf; they wanted the local milk for goat Camembert. Farmstead production of Le Mothais sur Feuille—named for the village of La Mothe-Saint-Héray—withered in the 20th century. But in the 1970s, a few stalwarts began to talk about re-invigorating it. By the mid-1980s, the cheese had reappeared in the best Paris cheese shops.
I think it’s just sublime. About the same size as a Camembert, Le Mothais sur Feuille has a thin, tender, fully edible rind with a fleshy hue. The ivory interior gets gooey at room temperature, almost drippy under the rind, but the paste doesn’t slump. Slow down and take time to mentally catalogue the aromas. I find some barny or animal notes mingled with cultured milk, green onion and garlic. This cheese is luscious and creamy from start to finish, with perfect salting and a lactic last impression. Nothing to complain about here.
I don’t know how you get so much character into a young pasteurized-milk cheese. The culture cocktail could explain a lot. The pending AOP specifications for Le Mothais sur Feuille require raw milk, but the creamery whose cheese I sampled works with pasteurized milk. Some questions are best left unasked.
Enjoy Le Mothais sur Feuille with sparkling wine or, beer lovers, with a saison. I’ve been really enjoying Almanac Brewing’s Saison Dolores. Look for Le Mothais sur Feuille at Bi-Rite Market, Little Vine, Rainbow Grocery in San Francisco; Pasta Shop in Oakland; Cheese Board in Berkeley; Atelier by JCB in Yountville; The Rind in Sacramento; Cheese Store of Silverlake, Surfas and Vagabond Cheese Company in Los Angeles; and Andrew’s Cheese Shop in Santa Monica.