One the first French cheese I ever tried was Port Salut. This mild, semi-soft is available across northern France and has recently enjoyed an explosion of popularity in North America.
It is pretty easy to find these days and most supermarkets will now carry it. Like many varieties, there are good and poor versions and it is worth finding a good cheese seller with a good line on a good version.
Port Salut is a semi soft, creamy, pale yellow cow’s milk cheese that is a great choice for entertaining and an alternative to the standard brie.
The history of the cheese is colorful and well-documented. Originally named Port du Salut, the cheese is named after the abbey of Notre Dame du Port du salut at Entrammes, in Brittany. During the French Revolution in 1789, a group of Trappist Monks escaped the Terror and moved to New France. There, they learned how to make cheese to survive and upon their return to France after the defeat of Napoleon in 1815, continued the tradition. The cheese was made primarily for the monks in the monastery. But by the 1870s the monastery began selling excess production through a distributer in Paris. Sales were so brisk that the monks registered a Port Salut trademark under the title Société Anonyme des Fermiers Réunis or SAFR.
In 1959, the abbey turned over production to a factory in Lorraine. Today, Port Salut is produced in a number of sites including Lorraine and Paris. The taste is milder today than the original.
Handmade Port Salut or “Entrammes” cheese is still produced by monasteries throughout the north western French countryside, and retains the stronger flavour. This is a little harder to come by outside of rural France.
You can buy the cheese in wedges but it isn’t too expensive so if you can buy an entire wheel you should go for it. Wedges tend to be wrapped in plastic wrap, which retains the moisture but kills the aroma. Unwrapping the paper from a wheel yields a wonderfully heady and strong smell, which oddly doesn’t affect the taste. Discs are usually about nine inches in diameter. The rind of the cheese is slightly moist and orange colored.
There’s some debate about whether you can eat the rind. Apparently you can, but I tend to remove it. It doesn’t add much flavour and can seem a little waxy at times.
The cheese is aged for a month and finished with brine.
The cheese is soft and creamy and offers up a mild salt, slightly nutty flavour.
It’s also a versatile cheese with food and drink. I like it with some crusty French bread and tomato. Brittany isn’t well known for its wine production, probably better known for pears and apples, so you may want to explore something a mild cider to go with the cheese. The wine does pair well with reds like Chinon and Bourgueil, both Cabernet Francs from the Loire. It also does well with Aussie whites like Semillons.
It is worth noting that types of Port Saluts are also produced other countries under other names. Look for Steinbuscher from Germany, Mondseer from Austria, Loo Veritable and Brigand from Belgium, and Kernhem from Holland. Esrom is often called the Danish Port Salut and is regarded as the closest to the original French monastery flavour and is worth seeking out if you are a fan of Port Salut. Its bolder flavor means it can pair up with dark beers as well as red wines. Made from partially skimmed cow’s milk it is cured in rectangular moulds as opposed to circular discs, has more rind washings and a longer cure time. It takes its name from the monastery, Esrom Abbey, which produced a similar cheese in the 1500s. Production of that cheese ceased in 1559 and it wasn’t until 1951 that the process was rediscovered.