MIGHTY CHEESE

MIGHTY CHEESE
December 10, 2011 Sarah
In General

Ending a meal with a bland piece of factory-made cheese leaves a bad taste in the mouth, just like drinking horrid wine with a glorious steak. The White Sheep’s siblings, Tania Attard and Sarah Borg, give us the low-down on an altogether different breed of cheese, the farmhouse type. [First published in Money magazine, Nov/Dec 2011 issue]

 

 

 

Like wine, one can talk endlessly about cheese, about its texture, aroma and its style. One can list countless cheeses, dating back centuries and generations, made in different weather and terrain conditions. As our affineur said, when we were discussing this piece, indeed, one can write a PhD about cheese! But, we wouldn’t want to bore you with fine details. Instead we’d like to simply urge you to explore different cheeses, and question their provenance. This will give you a better understanding of why [even the same] cheeses taste different, and of why, as early as a first morsel, should take your taste buds back to the cheeses’ milk and indeed the animal it was milked from.

 

Firstly, one must understand that, as with most other commodities, there are farmhouse [or artisanal] cheeses and industrial ones. Needless to say, the tastes and appearances are incomparable. Where farmhouse cheeses are ‘alive’ and develop flavours with each day that passes, industrial ones are, simply put, ‘industrial’. When supermarkets started dominating the food market, they demanded cheapness, uniformity and quick production for the masses, at the lowest prices. They did away with the character and flavour, with the ageing process of farmhouse cheeses and opted instead for block cheese, injected with preservatives in order to retain colour uniformity, and in most cases pre-packed and sealed it in plastic. The result is cheese that looks like plastic. Its taste is predictable as it is factory-made to taste that way. In fact, when you buy a block of cheddar from your supermarket it will, invariably, taste the same, predictable way.

 

Farmhouse cheese is a different breed altogether, starting with the animal and the terrain it grazes on, complimented with clean mountain air, to the milk used [unpasteurised in most cases], to its hand-made production process, to its affinage, and its final storage space at the cheesemongers’. The amount of care and attention put into every stage is what makes huge differences to the taste and texture.

 

Professional cheesemongers buy their cheeses at a young stage, preferring to develop and age the cheeses themselves. This is the affinage process, and its excellence is deemed as important as the production process itself. A discerning maturer, or affineur, gives distinction to the cheese’s character, he has the ability to turn the mundane into the extraordinary. Through the different ageing stages, cheeses develop different flavours and textures. If it is not cared for properly during these stages, its development is tarnished. Take a young Stilton, for example. The younger it is, the sharper it is in taste and firmer in texture. As it matures, it should develop more mellow, warm flavours and its texture should become creamier, richer. Somewhere along the line, something would have gone wrong if its taste becomes sharper or its texture is dry and flaky.

 

Once farmhouse cheeses get to your local deli, plenty of work goes into ensuring the quality of the cheese does not decline. Firstly the cheese needs to sit in the right environment, a fresh one with a good dose of humidity so that it doesn’t dry up and its flavour continues to develop. Cheeses are turned regularly so that the moisture inside remains evenly distributed. They are cleaned of natural moulds on a daily basis. In a nutshell, behind a good-looking cheese display at a reliable cheesemonger’s, much work, care and attention goes into keeping the cheeses tasting so great. It is no wonder, then, that cheeses, even of the same name, differ so much in taste and in price.

 

Buying cheese should be a pleasant experience in itself. You should always taste your cheese before you purchase, a good cheesemonger should, indeed, insist on this. They should help you put together a cheeseboard, encouraging you to try new cheeses, and even suggest wines and accompaniments that will enhance the flavour of the cheeses, without over-powering them. Once the cheese gets to your home, there are some rules to adhere to, but, thankfully, they are much simpler.

 

Domestic fridges [and industrial ones, unless equipped with a humidifier] dry up the cheeses. Ideally, cheeses should be arranged on a tray, covered with a clean, damp tea-towel to retain moisture, and placed in the vegetable drawer of your fridge. Alternatively, where there’s lack of space, keep the cheese in the wax paper you bought it in, as this also retains the right amount of moisture within the cheese without it becoming smelly and soggy as it would if it were wrapped in cling film. Never keep your cheeses uncovered in the fridge alongside other ‘raw’ foods as they can easily get spoilt and tainted.

 

When serving, remember that cheese tastes best at room temperature, it should never be eaten straight out of the fridge. Bring the cheese to room temperature [about an hour before serving, depending on weather conditions] and keep covered with a clean, barely damp tea-towel until ready to serve. One type of cheese at its best is far more effective than four or five inferior-quality pieces. A nice chunk [or a whole truckle for Christmas time] of Stilton, or a hand-made farmhouse Cheddar, served with an aged Port; a splendid Parmigiano Reggiano di Montagna served with cured wild boar sausage and subtle slices of prosciutto crudo; a smooth wedge of Brie de Meaux, or an unctuous, baked Vacherin Mont d’Or, served with dollops of cranberry jelly, fresh bread and some fine, oatcakes or natural crackers; they are all impressive and wonderful ways to round up an evening in great company.

 

TYPES OF CHEESE

Fresh – These are the babies of the cheese world. Rather than being pressed, they are left to drain under their own weight, and are ready to be sold within days. Fresh cheeses have a soft, spreadable paste with a simple and very clean taste.

Soft – Soft cheeses are young ones, generally characterised by white bloomy rinds achieved by the addition of Penicillium in the milk at the beginning of the cheese-making process. The cheese is matured in a humid atmosphere encouraging the growth of white Penicillium on the cheese’s exterior. The enzymes from this mould ripen and soften the cheese from the outside in. Soft, white-mould cheeses often have a flat and thin shape, which helps this process. You would also find a good number of goat cheeses covered in vegetable ash as it provides the right platform for moulds to develop.

Semi-Soft – These are often characterised by a pungent smell which is usually not reflected in the taste, which is milder on the palate. Semi-soft cheeses include the washed-rind type. The rinds of young cheeses are washed with brine or an alcoholic solution as they mature, to encourage the growth of bacteria on the rind. This results in a sticky, orangey exterior, a semi-soft texture and a mellow, warm flavour.

Hard – Hard cheeses are aged for months, in some cases even years, and longer than any other cheese types. They require a considerable amount of investment in money and time. It takes 300 litres of milk, for example, to produce 27 kilos of farmhouse cheddar. The firm texture is obtained by the pressing of the cheese during the production process. There is a huge variety of hard cheeses and their character and taste is developed through different techniques: milk temperatures; methods of curd cutting; the size in which the curd is cut; the different methods of salting; and the various degrees of pressure applied during the pressing process.

Blue – Blue cheese producers mix blue mould [Penicillium roqueforti or Penicillium glaucum] into the ripened milk, and then proceed with making the cheese in ways that allow this mould to grow – the cheese is not usually pressed much so that it retains moisture and an airy texture; the cheeses are turned [by hand in the case of farmhouse blues] as they mature, in a warm and moist atmosphere, so that the moisture spreads evenly; they are also pierced with long needles allowing air to penetrate to the centre of the cheese.