Cantal (pronounced kahn-TAHL) is an aged French cheese with a natural rind, a firm texture, and a subtle yet complex flavor. It's one of the oldest French cheeses and is protected by an AOC (Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée) that determines how and where cheeses using the Cantal name can be produced. It's sold at a variety of ages, with flavors intensifying as the cheese matures.
- Milk Source: Cow
- Country of Origin: France
- Texture: Firm
- Color: Pale yellow
What Is Cantal?
Cantal is estimated to be at least 2,000 years old. It's named for the Department of Cantal, a region in south central France known for its lush grasses that grow in fertile volcanic soil and is produced by more than 1,300 different farms. More than 60 types of plants have been found in the pastures there, and since Cantal's AOC requires that cows whose milk is used to make this cheese must graze on fresh grass for at least four months of the year, these complex flavors show up in the finished cheese.
Cantal's subtle flavors grow in complexity the longer it's aged, ranging from milky and buttery to piquant and peppery. The cheese has an earthy natural rind that may be white, gray, or gold, depending on the cheese's age.
How Cantal Is Made
Cantal is produced according to the centuries-old process required by the cheese's AOC. First, the milk is heated, and microbial cultures are added. When the proper pH has been reached, rennet is added to coagulate the milk into a gel-like curd. The curd is cut into small pieces, which increases the surface area of the curd and helps to expel the whey. The whey is drained, then the curds are pressed together into a mass in the vat. The mass of curds, or tome, sits for at least 10 hours. Next, the curds are churned in the vat and salted, then put into molds and pressed to drive out excess whey. This process is repeated once more, a step specific to Cantal production.
The wheels of Cantal are then aged in a cheese cellar for at least one month and often much longer. The activity of cheese mites, tiny organisms that live on the rinds of cheese, is responsible for the pitted texture of long-aged wheels of Cantal. The large wheels measure 14 to 17 inches across and weigh anywhere from 77 to 99 pounds each when mature.
Salers, another hard, pressed cheese from south central France, is similar to Cantal (in fact, Salers was originally a subtype of Cantal, but its producers spun the cheese off with its own, more specific AOC designation). In recipes where the cheese will be melted or mixed into other ingredients, firm, sharp cheddar cheese can be substituted, as can British cheeses like Cheshire or Leicester.
Cantal cheese is categorized into three types, depending on its age. Cantal Jeune ("young" in French), aged from 30 to 60 days, is the youngest type, with a smooth, softer texture and fresh, milky flavor. Next is Cantal Entre-Deux ("in-between"), which is aged between three and seven months and known for its more intense flavors of fresh grass and nutty, buttery aromas. Finally, Cantal Vieux ("aged") is aged for at least eight months, during which time it develops powerful peppery, spicy flavors, a dry, crumbly texture, and a thicker rind.
Cantal shines on a cheese board with accompaniments like toasted hazelnuts, grapes, or stone fruits like peaches and apricots. The cheese pairs well with wines such as Côtes d'Auvergne or Cabernet Sauvignon. It can be shaved onto a green salad tossed with a vinaigrette, melted into fondue, or blended into potatoes in pommes aligot. It can also be grated and used in recipes for baked dishes like tarts, quiches, and gratins.
Store Cantal in its original packaging in the coldest part of your refrigerator. After opening, rewrap Cantal in its original cheese paper (if provided) or wrap it tightly in parchment paper or waxed paper, then enclose the cheese in a plastic baggie. Wrap the baggie around the cheese but do not seal it; this allows the cheese to breathe while holding in moisture and protecting the cheese from the drying environment of your refrigerator. Cantal can be stored like this for up to three weeks.
If mold grows on the surface of the cheese, thoroughly scrape it off with a knife. Freezing is not recommended for Cantal cheese.
Can You Eat the Rind?
Cantal's natural rind is technically edible, although it may be too hard and tough to enjoy on longer-aged varieties.