Editor’s note: This story appeared in the Sunday Star-Times on 3 May 2015.

In Nouméa, the annual French Cheese Festival in June is a must-attend. John Corbett meets its creator.

Gerard Poulard, Maitre Fromagier.

Gerard Poulard, Maitre Fromagier.

He gestures at a long and artfully-lit buffet table of cheeses stretching away down a function room in Nouméa’s Le Méridien Hotel.

Ici, je présente ma collection printemps-été’” (“Here, I am presenting my Spring-Summer collection”), says Maître Gérard Poulard,

Vraiment” (“Indeed”), I reply. Maître Poulard speaks very little English so our conversation is in French. “You are, it seems, rather like a cheese equivalent of Karl Lagerfeld.”

He smiles and waved dismissively but the resemblance is there, right down to the ponytail that shows when he turns his head. And there’s no disputing his Lagerfeld status in the cheese world. In France he’s a Maître Fromagier (Cheese Master), a sought-after consultant with an encyclopedic knowledge of his subject. For the last 12 years he has brought an annual collection of around 130 cheeses (some of them rare and available only in France) to Nouméa for his popular two-week gourmet event, Le Festival des Fromages.

“There is a certain affinity between cheeses and fashion,” he says, picking up on my remark. “For example, I also present an Autumn-Winter collection in France, but to my mind, the cheeses of spring and summer are always better. That is when the best and richest milk is produced and the cheeses are full of life and force and freshness; you can taste the young grasses and the flowers and the newness of the season.”

Just some of the 130-plus cheeses at the Festival des Fromages

Just some of the 130-plus cheeses at the Festival des Fromages

One of the pleasures of a conversation with Maître Poulard is appreciating his Gallic habit of mind. Like many Frenchmen, he views his profession through a philosophical lens and expresses himself with panache.

“Cheese is essentially a feminine product”, he declares.

I must have made a dubious face.

“How is that, you ask? Well, the farmer is busy out in the fields tending to his animals and his crops. At home, in the kitchen or in the barn, it is the farmer’s wife who makes the cheeses. There is therefore a very strong female tradition of cheese making in France. But of course, one must also not forget les abbayes (the monks). They have always been great gourmets.”

Listening to Maître Poulard’s flow of observations and anecdotes, it becomes clear that his passion for his subject is inseparable from a love of the French countryside and its time-honoured artisanal practices. He is so closely attuned, in fact, that he can sometimes tell you the name of the cow or goat or sheep that produced the milk for a particular cheese.

With a chuckle, we pass over General de Gaulle’s famous dictum about the difficulty of governing a country that has 246 varieties of cheese.

“Actually it is many, many more,” he says. “Many cheeses in France today are protected and regulated by appellations, which is a good thing, but that is by no means the end of the story. Every farm and village and town and region has always had its own way of doing things.”

Sein de Nounou (Nanny's Breast), an "evocative" raw goat-milk cheese from central France

Sein de Nounou (Nanny’s Breast), an “evocative” raw goat-milk cheese from central France

Does that mean that it is still possible for new varieties of cheese to emerge, even from France?

“Of course. That is always up to the individual inspiration of the cheese maker. Every cheese expresses a moment of time, and culture, and weather”. And sometimes a touch of whimsy….

“Come and look at the cheeses before you go,” he says. Halfway along the table a name tag catches my eye.

“Ah, Sein de Nounou,” he murmurs, smiling down at a dusky-coloured raw goat’s-milk cheese whose conical shape, produced by the funnel used to make it, is unmistakable.

“This is a traditional cheese from central France. It was common, you know, in older times, amongst families of a certain standing, to employ a wet nurse and nanny (nounou) for the children. Some families, perhaps, still do. So for many, this is a cheese of evocation and memories….”

Outside the function room, 150 cheese lovers have gathered and are waiting for the evening’s presentation and tasting to begin. It is time, with reluctance, to go.

The 2015 Festival des Fromages is being held from 2-13 June at Le Méridien Hotel, Nouméa, and from 18-20 June at Sheraton New Caledonia Deva Resort & Spa (Bourail district).

John Corbett travelled to Nouméa courtesy of Aircalin

Photos: John Corbett; bestofbudapest.com

Fact file
Getting there

Aircalin and Air New Zealand fly to Nouméa from Auckland six times a week.

Where to stay
Le Méridien Hotel, Point Magnin, Nouméa, +687 26 50 00. See lemeridiennoumea.com

Sheraton New Caledonia Deva Resort & Spa, Domaine de Deva, Route de Poe, 33, 98879, New Caledonia. +687 26 50 00. See sheratonnewcaledoniadeva.com