Aug 26, 2014

It's a Culture Thing: Caillé de Brebis


Walking down the dairy aisle at a French grocery store is overwhelming, and not just because there are dozens of yogurts including fig, muesli, and sheep's milk (along with the goat's milk) -- flavors I'm not used to seeing elsewhere. No, mostly it's because the aisle also contains tubs of Faisselle, Fromage Blanc, and crème fraîche. And sometimes even Caillé. I just scratch my head, wondering what it all means...until now.

The most common two products are yogurt and Fromage Blanc. If you're wondering, I capitalize all cheeses as proper nouns, which should give you a clue about what is -- or is not -- officially "cheese".

Yogurt is made with milk thickened through a process of fermentation. In France, the lactic bacteria lactobacillus delbrueckii subsp. bulgaricus and streptococcus thermophiles must both be present in the final product in order to be considered true yogurt. The milk is heated, and the bacteria are introduced, and the milk ferments and thickens by itself, resulting in the familiar creamy texture and tangy flavor. It may or may not be sweetened and flavored within an inch of its life, thereby negating virtually all its healthful properties (but, I must admit, also making it taste quite yummy). While it's normally cow's milk, it can also be made from goat's or sheep's milk. You will often see yogurt "brassé", which means "mixed" with fruits.

Fromage Blanc, on the other hand, is called a "fromage" because it is, indeed, a cheese. In order to thicken the cows' milk, it is submitted to pressure, which makes it "cailler" (which means "curdle" or "coagulate"). Some cheeses continue from here, with bacteria added, but Fromage Blanc is stopped once the milk thickens, then cooled, and then strained, resulting in a thick, creamy product that is yogurt textured without the yogurt tang.

Faisselle tastes more like yogurt but is made more like Fromage Blanc. It is drained and left warm about twice as long, before putting it in the refrigerator to stop the curdling process. That makes it thicker and, also, tangier. While it's not a yogurt, it's much more reminiscent of yogurt. A "faisselle" is a sort of strainer used in the process of making it.

Crème fraîche is something different -- closer to yogurt than cheese. While the others are made with whole milk, crème fraîche starts with cream instead of whole. It's thicker and fattier to start with, and then they inject lactobacilli cultures, as in yogurt. It gets nice and thick and makes an excellent substitute for American sour cream in recipes or on a burrito.

Caillé, by far the most unusual of these products, is a cheese made in a similar way to Fromage Blanc or Faisselle. Though most famously made with sheeps' milk cheese, it can also be cows' or goats' milk. It too, is made with pressure, to thicken and coagulate. It is less strained, however, and the end result is that it's not creamy so much as gelatinous. It feels much more like a flan than a pudding.

One thing that baffles me is that the only big tubs you can easily buy in France are Fromage Blanc, Faisselles (medium tubs only), and sweetened/flavored yogurts. It's not that plain yogurt ("nature") isn't popular; in fact, plain yogurts (both full fat and 0%, organic and not, thick or regular) account for about half of the aisle. It's just that plain yogurt is only sold in small, individual cups, and never in big tubs. Ironically, it's one of the things I miss while living in Europe: large tubs of creamy, European-style yogurt from Trader Joe's.

With much of the whey gone, all of these products are low in lactose and, because they are also strained and concentrated, high in calcium and protein. Frankly, I'm not that picky about what I buy. No matter what product I have in the house, it's just an excuse for me to eat a mountain of fruit with something creamy -- possibly with a drizzle of honey, or more likely with some muesli and nutty granola on top. It's my favorite breakfast and one I've eaten, in some version or other, probably 5-7 times per week for well over a decade.

THE CHEESE: Caillé de Brebis

Caillé de Brebis ceom from the Pays Basque, which makes sense since it's real sheep country. As the name suggests, is a sheeps' milk cheese, curdled and coagulated under pressure. It's a great way to make milk last a long time and the process is believed to have been discovered as long ago as 7,000 B.C. It is known through texts that it was consumed by the Sumerians in 2,000-3,000 B.C.

In the mountains, the traditional way of doing this was to expose the milk to the sun or by getting it close to heated stones and then beaten (the added pressure needed).

The texture is very much like a flan or custard -- gelatinous and silky, but not creamy. It has only a very, very mild sheep flavor and after a little experimentation, I decide it tastes best with fresh cherries and a drizzle of honey. As far as I'm concerned, it's great as a dessert, snack, or breakfast.


Caillé is one of these yogurt, creamy dairy products sold in little (or big) pots. It's not one you're likely to find in a smaller grocery store, but you may come across a pretty little pot of it in your favorite fancy cheese shop or even a huge grocery store. In higher end samples, like the one I buy, the little pot itself make a nice pencil holder or change jar when you're done.


  1. Here in NoCal, we make creme fraiche by simply adding a couple of tablespoons of buttermilk to a cup or so of heavy cream in a jar. You cap the jar, give it a few gentle shakes, and set it on the windowsill for a day. It works best with non-ultrapasteurized cream, but even the ultrapasteurized stuff works OK.

    1. Yum! I will have to try that, especially when I'm no longer in the land of easy Crème Fraiche. You can always let me know who are by giving me a shout out on the "contact me" page, but either way, thanks for the recipe.

  2. BTW, I wish I could post as someone other than "unknown" but I can't figure out how to do that.

  3. As I trype this I am eating a dish of chopped apple, clemintine a caillé. I am `english and heve lived near to Carcassonne, S. France for 12 yers and I discovered caillé not long after arriving. It's amongst my favourites! That along with yaourt de brebis and chevre along with all the raw milk cheeses. we only buy them from one of the 3 bio, organic, small supermarkets here and they are heaven in a pot! I bought the first caillé because I didn't know what it was and now, along with goji berries, I'm hooked!


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