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French ‘Ratatouille’ chef named world’s best

A French chef who inspired a tough kitchen character in the hit animated film "Ratatouille" was named the world's best female chef on Wednesday.

French 'Ratatouille' chef named world's best
French chef Helene Darroze in 2008. Photo: Shaun Curry/AFP

Helene Darroze, 48, has an eponymous restaurant in Paris and another in the Connaught hotel in London, which has two Michelin stars.

Darroze was named the world's best female chef by Britain's Restaurant magazine, and is to collect her prize at "The World's 50 Best Restaurants" awards in London in June.

"It is an honour to win the award because there are talented female chefs all over the world and I imagine it's hard to choose just one," Darroze said in a statement.

"My hope is that the winners of this award inspire young women, including my daughters, to follow their passion and work hard to hone their skill regardless of their profession."

Well known in the restaurant world, Darroze built her career as a single mum with two adopted daughters and inspired the character Colette in Disney Pixar's 2007 "Ratatouille", a tale of a rat who can cook and begins helping at a prestigious French restaurant.

"Haute cuisine is an antiquated hierarchy built upon rules written by stupid old men, rules designed to make it impossible for women to enter this world," Colette says in the film.

"But still I am here. How did this happen? Because I am the toughest cook in this kitchen."

Restaurant magazine said that Darroze was "loved and admired" across the industry and said the chef was far sweeter than her feisty cartoon counterpart.

"The character's aggressive kitchen style is far from a reflection of Darroze," the magazine said. "The big heart she reveals towards the end of the movie is more fitting."

A fourth-generation chef who was cooking dessert for her parents' dinner parties by age 12, Darroze trained under top chef Alain Ducasse, took over her father's restaurant in 1995 and opened her own in 1999.

Darroze credits her grandfather with inspiring her seasonal and ingredient-led cooking style, which has infused British produce such as Cornish crab into classic French cuisine.

Her signature dishes include poached lobster in seaweed butter with white asparagus and bottarga breadcrumbs; and foie gras from her home region of Landes in south-western France with cocoa, calamansi fruit and gingerbread.

The inspiration for her dishes comes from anything from her travels to her daughters, eight-year-old Charlotte and Quiterie, 6.

Darroze succeeds Brazilian-born Helena Rizzo of Mani restaurant in Sao Paulo, who was crowned in the 2014 edition of the awards, which also nominate the world's best restaurant, an accolade currently held by Denmark's Noma.

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Reader question: Exactly how many different types of cheese are there in France?

One thing everyone can agree on is that France has a lot of cheese - but exactly how many French fromages exist?

Reader question: Exactly how many different types of cheese are there in France?

Question: I often see a quote from Charles de Gaulle talking about ‘246 different types of cheese’, but other articles say there are 600 or even 1,000 different types of cheese and some people say there are just eight types – how many different cheeses are there in France?

A great question on a subject dear to French hearts – cheese.

But it’s one that doesn’t have a simple answer.

Charles de Gaulle did indeed famously say “How can anyone govern a country with 246 different types of cheese”, but even in 1962 when he uttered the exasperated phrase, it was probably an under-estimate.

READ ALSO 7 tips for buying cheese in France

The issue is how you define ‘different’ types of cheese, and unsurprisingly France has a complicated system for designating cheeses.

Let’s start with the eight – there are indeed eight cheese ‘families’ and all of France’s many cheeses can be categorised as one of;

  • Fresh cheese, such as cottage cheese or the soft white fromage blanc
  • Soft ripened cheese, such as Camembert or Brie
  • Soft ripened cheese with a washed rind, such as l’Epoisses or Pont l’Eveque
  • Unpasturised hard cheese such as Reblochon or saint Nectaire
  • Pasturised hard cheese such as Emmental or Comté
  • Blue cheese such as Roquefort 
  • Goat’s cheese
  • Melted or mixed cheese such as Cancaillot

But there are lots of different types of, for example, goat’s cheese.

And here’s where it gets complicated, for two reasons.

The first is that new varieties of cheese are constantly being invented by enterprising cheesemakers (including some which come about by accident, such as le confiné which was created in 2020).

The second is about labelling, geography and protected status.

France operates a system known as Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC or its European equivalent AOP) to designate food products that can only be made in a certain area.

As cheese is an artisan product, quite a lot of different cheese are covered by this – for example a blue sheep’s milk cheese is only Roquefort if it’s been aged in the caves in the village of Roquefort.

There are 63 listed AOC cheeses in France, but many more varieties that don’t have this protected status.

These include generic cheese types such as BabyBel and other cheeses that are foreign in origin but made in France (such as Emmental).

But sometimes there are both AOC and non-AOC versions of a single cheese – a good example of this is Camembert.

AOC Camembert must be made in Normandy by farmers who have to abide by strict rules covering location, milk type and even what their cows eat.

Factory-produced Camembert, however, doesn’t stick to these rules and therefore doesn’t have the AOC label. Is it therefore the same cheese? They’re both called Camembert but the artisan producers of Normandy will tell you – at some length if you let them – that their product is a totally different thing to the mass-produced offering.

There are also examples of local cheeses that are made to essentially the same recipe but have different names depending on where they are produced – sometimes even being on opposite sides of the same Alpine valley is enough to make it two nominally different cheeses.

All of which is to say that guessing is difficult!

Most estimates range from between 600 to 1,600, with cheese experts generally saying there are about 1,000 different varieties. 

So bonne dégustation!

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