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Bon Fromage: Valencay, Napoleon’s Bane

Bon Fromage: Valencay

Intern Gabrielle Roman looks into what makes French cheeses tick for her blog series, Bon Fromage. Meant to answer any questions you might have but were afraid to ask about cheese made from the country famous for fromage, each post will focus on a specific cheese and take a deep dive into its history and production. Take the plunge and demystify the world of French cheese. If you missed it, check out last week’s post on the marvelous Maroilles.

By this point in the blog series, we’ve already established some themes you’ll see pop up again with Valençay. The origins of the cheese are shrouded in myth but are connected to a significant figure; AOC regulations demand strict rules for making Valençay; mold is an important part of the aging process; and it’s not pronounced the way you would initially think. The squiggly you see there under the “c” is called a cedilla, which turns the pronunciation of the “c” into an “s” sound. The second syllable “len” is not as straightforward as it looks, and is pronounced more like “lon.” All together you want to say “Vuh-lon-say.” I’ve found that even more than Roquefort or Maroilles, Valençay is best said with an over-the-top accent. I recommend saying it often and loudly.

While the sale of cheese marketed specifically as Valençay only goes back 200 years (“only” being a term that proves, once again, that time is relative), its origins can really be traced back to the reign of Charlemagne in the late 700s and early 800s CE. An account of his rule from the 16th century talks about the importance of goats in the Loire Valley, which included the production of milk and cheese. So even if Valençay proper hasn’t been made that long, the tradition and history of goat’s milk and cheese in the central region of France goes back to the beginning of what we know as France. Is anyone surprised to learn that cheese has been integral since their beginning?

Valençay itself doesn’t stretch back to the 800s, because the town of Valençay had yet to exist to give the cheese its name. A tower was constructed in the 12th century in the lower Berry region, but in the early 1500s it was demolished and construction on a new castle began in 1520 on the still-standing Château de Valençay. Construction on the Château continued for centuries, but its presence definitely helped the town thrive and grow, so if we’re still playing fast and loose with facts, Valençay could have developed around the 1500s. One origin myth of the cheese proposes that it was produced to look like the Collegiate Church of Saint-Sylvain Levroux, which was built in the 14th century. I’ve looked at the pictures and don’t know exactly what the inspiration was. But there’s a much more colorful and oft-repeated tale that is told far more often because it’s far more fun.

Battle of the Pyramids

Battle of the Pyramids by François Louis Joseph Watteau

In 1798, Napoleon Bonaparte went on a military campaign to Egypt for the purpose of establishing a French presence in the Middle East and to prevent British access to India and the East Indies. He attempted to establish himself as absolute ruler of Egypt and succeeded for several months, but ultimately a lack of new troops from France and civil unrest both in Egypt and France drove the future emperor out. This failure to achieve his goals allegedly deeply humiliated Napoleon. Upon returning to France, he was served Valençay, at that time formed into the shape of a perfect pyramid. Reminded of his defeat, he flew into a rage and he lopped the top off with his sword. Ever since that small temper tantrum, Valençay has been shaped like a truncated pyramid.

There’s another version of the story that features a politically aware character named Talleyrand. Anticipating that the shape of the cheese might infuriate Napoleon after his return, he had the tops of the cheese cut off ahead of time. Whatever story you want to believe, Talleyrand actually was a key player in the popularity of Valençay. As a close advisor to Napoleon, he was encouraged to purchase the Château de Valençay in May 1803. As a prince, bishop, and aristocrat, he started serving Valençay at fancy dinner parties. Soon, aristocrats were serving it to ensure their dinners were suitably fashionable. The real boom in production didn’t really start until the 1900s, but even the AOC commission gives credit to Talleyrand for creating a name and image for the cheese.

Napoleon portrait

Haters gonna hate.

Although Valençay does not immediately boast any kings who loved to eat it, I’m going to go ahead and give credit to Charlemagne here, who clearly understood the importance of goats. For his role in shaping France as a nation, I think Charlemagne deserves bonus points and so, because I can, he gets them. Napoleon also makes an appearance in the culture king count this week. Even if he hated Valençay, Napoleon is so often credited as being the reason its distinctive shape exists, that I think he has to be included on the list.*

Valençay achieved AOC status in 1998. This designation made Valençay the first region ever to have both AOC-protected wine and AOC-protected cheese. (There’s an entire website dedicated to both. It’s in French, but Google translate works pretty well.) The cheese is best paired with a drier wine like a sauvignon blanc or a light red. Happily, you can find Valençay wines that match this description and have an extremely region-specific dinner party.

Alpine twin goats

Twin Alpine goats. Photo credit: Windsor Wool Farm

Like any other AOC cheese, Valençay has regulations in place that producers have to follow. The first is the region, of course, which is the Berry region where the town of Valençay is located. The cheese must be made from either Alpine or Saanen goats, and it must be made from raw goat’s milk. The cheese must be matured for a total of 11 days after rennet is added in the cheesemaking process. This presents problems for anyone in the US who wants to get their hands on some authentic Valençay. US laws dictate that any imported raw milk cheese must be aged for a minimum of 60 days before it can cross the border. As Valençay is typically not aged for more than two months, this can be a real problem and means that most of the Valençay you’ll find in stores is probably made with pasteurized milk. If you really want to experience the power of this one, you’ll have to hop on a plane.

Other AOC regulations include the prohibition of putting any pressure on the cheese during the molding process (essentially, you can’t press the liquid out of it while it sits in molds), and it has to be salted with ash salt. The combination of charcoal and salt that is sprinkled on Valençay during the production process lends the cheese its distinctive wrinkled gray rind and helps maintain its flavor for longer. Valençay is aged in ventilated cellars with at least 80 percent humidity, allowing the white mold Penicillium candidum to develop.

Much like Maroilles, Valençay must be a certain size. For the large size, the base must be between 50–55 mm, or about 2 inches, and for the small size, the base must be between 40–44 mm, or about 1.5 inches. What’s more, the angle between the base of the cheese and the mold must be between 96–102°. And here you thought your geometry class would never come in handy again!

Valencay cut

An inside look. Photo credit: Formaggio Kitchen

When you cut into Valençay, you’ll notice a white paste and a dense and moist texture. (Goat cheese is always white, in fact! Read here for more info.) As Valençay ages it continues to soften, so the firmness of the cheese will depend on its age. Valençay generally tastes smooth and mild. When younger, the cheese will taste bright and more citric. As it ages, the nutty flavor comes through more. You should really eat it with the rind for the full experience, as the salt from the charcoal coating will enhance the flavor even further.

Today, more than 350 million tons of Valençay are produced every year, which means there’s plenty for everyone. What better way to celebrate the Year of the Goat than munching on some Valençay? I recommend doing so while watching Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure so you can get some Napoleon in while you eat, too. Just don’t let him near your ice cream.

*I am also going to ignore the fact Napoleon wasn’t a king. He was emperor less than fifty years after the French people tried to kill off all their royalty. In fact, he earns bonus points for bravado.

culture King Count:

First place: Charlemagne with 5 points (as overseer of all things goat and essentially creating France)

(Tied for) Second: Charles VI with 2 points (Roquefort and Maroilles); Napoleon Bonaparte (Valençay and serious swagger)

(Tied for) Third: Philip II, Louis IX, Francis I with 1 point (Maroilles)

Feature Photo Credit: cheese of valencay in france by Filimages | Shutterstock

Gabrielle Roman

Gabrielle Roman is earning her Master's in Publishing and Writing at Emerson College in Boston. She is originally from Kansas City and misses the BBQ but the Thai food is good consolation. Her favorite hobby is cuddling with her puppy.