lessons in cheese

cheese

Living Cheeses for a Delicious Autumn:
Blues, Bries and Washed
by Robert J. Aguilera • Photographs by Michael Piazza

One of my favorite folkloric monger tales is about the birth of Roquefort.  According to legend, a shepherd boy was eating a sandwich made with creamy ewe’s milk cheese while sitting next to the opening of a cave in southwestern France. He was interrupted by the sight of a pretty girl in the distance. He had to talk to her so he set his sandwich down by the cave and forgot about it.

A few days later, when he returned to the cave and found the halfeaten sandwich, he noticed that a bluish-green mold had grown on the bread and cheese. Being a little curious and possibly hungry, the boy took a bite. It tasted so good he set about trying to repeat the happy accident.

Modern-Day Copies

Many cheesemakers in the past century have tried to copy European cheeses by using dried starter cultures that contain molds like Penicillium roqueforti for blue cheese, or Penicillium candidum for bloomy, white-molded cheeses. They have tried to recreate the conditions and aging environments in an effort to replicate something that took centuries to create, naturally. Most of those efforts have produced cheeses that are close copies of the originals, but somehow fall just short. It took ages to create the ideal conditions and biodynamics to produce Roquefort blue cheese. When a wheel of cheese was then added to that environment, it created a masterpiece.

When artisan cheesemakers today try to replicate such original cheeses, their efforts often result in entirely new flavors and textures, as the unique mold environment, animal feed and aging conditions bring their own stamp to the creation. The artisans who realize that their mistakes result in better flavors and textures, even when different than originally intended, are often the most successful. Those who decide their mistakes must be fixed, as if to fit a square peg into a round hole, often spend more time aspiring to an ideal that can never be achieved.

Blue Cheese

Inside the Roquefort caves, developed over years in between the cracks of damp rocks while caressed by outside winds, the Penicillium mold was waiting to be found. Mold of any kind requires the proper conditions to grow. The shepherd boy’s sandwich just happened to have two items that fostered its growth: moist cheese and bread. This ingenious mistake ultimately led to the protective laws that now govern the development of all Roquefort blue cheeses. They must contain mold derived from a loaf of bread and grown in a select few caves, and the cheese must then age in those same caves. This ensures a consistent finished product, with the advantage of spawning from a distinct location.  One local example of blue cheese is Massachusetts’ own Great Hill Blue from Marion. Made from raw Holstein, Jersey and Guernsey cow milk, this blue is tangy, crumbly, salty and assertive. While the farm once belonged to his grandfather, Tim Stone has been running the it since 1985. They currently buy milk from surrounding farms and without homogenizing the milk, produce their cheese in a turn-of century barn on the property. The cows graze upon pastures influenced by the Atlantic breezes from nearby Buzzard’s Bay. This coastal influence can make a caramel flavor appear in the flavor profile of Great Hill Blue. This fall, pair this blue with pears, cured jams, winter squash and Mexican-style chocolate. Good beverage pairings include grenache red wines, port, and rustic dark ales like St. Botolph’s Town from Pretty Things Beer and Ale Project.

Other local Massachusetts blues cheeses to try are Berkshire Blue from Lenox and Hubbardston Blue from Westfield Farms in Hubbardston.

Bloomy White Mold

The next time you are in a supermarket, notice the number of “imported” fluffy white-molded cheeses with the name Brie or Camembert.  Taste them side by side; you will notice slight differences in their butter and milk flavors, as well as their various creamy textures. Not much, but some. In my opinion, they all taste the same.  In fact, mass-produced white-mold cheeses are no longer trying to achieve the ideal flavor of the Brie from which they were modeled. In an effort to remove their perceived defects, industrial makers create cheeses reminiscent of the original, but with less character. Customers are generally happiest when their palates are not challenged, thereby generating more sales. However, if those same customers tried any one of those pasteurized white-mold cheeses against a true raw-milk Brie de Meaux, they would be amazed by the difference. Brie de Meaux is known as the “King of Cheeses” and the “Cheese of Kings” for a reason.  A cheese thoroughly enjoyed by Charlemagne, the recipe seems simple enough: great-quality cow’s milk, curds that are gently hand-ladled into forms and a proper high-velocity, air-exchanging aging environment to form the mold. This should produce great cheese, but duplicating this cheese is impossible.

Truthfully, achieving exact consistency in Brie de Meaux from day to day is near impossible. The first hurdle to overcome is that of raw milk. American cheeses made from raw milk cannot be sold unless they are aged over 60 days. True Brie de Meaux is ready in four weeks and past its prime at 60 days. The second obstacle to duplicating this cheese is developing the thin, white, Penicillium mold and bacteria that grow on the outer rind. These strains are unique to the area called Brie in the eastern Paris basin. Combined with the breed of cattle, the native grass they graze upon and the season in which the grass is eaten by the cows, this creates a cheese that is excellent every day, but never truly identical to one made the day before. Brie de Meaux’s recipe and the region in which it is made are, just like Roquefort, protected by French law.

Massachusetts’ own Kay’s Eclipse from Carlisle Farmstead in Carlisle is a good local example of a bloomy cheese style. Tricia Smith has been producing her “microdairy” cheeses in Carlisle with the help of her husband, Michael, and their Oberhasli goats, a Swiss breed. The flock’s milk is quite rich and creamy, lending itself easily to the bloomy white-mold style. Kay’s Eclipse has a fluffy white exterior with a line of ash running through its stark white cake-textured interior.

Tricia also makes small buttons called Ada’s Honor, and other slightly larger wheels called Aly’s Eclipse, Meg’s Big Sunshine, Leah’s Great Meadow and Greta’s Fair Haven. All have the white mold you would see on a wheel of Brie, but with characters all their own and sometimes with ash or spices in the interior. Tricia’s cheeses always have a beautiful, velvety cream flavor with hints of wood and leafy greens, as the flock is fed organic vegetables grown on the farm. This fall, pair any of Tricia’s cheeses with beets, corn, bitter greens, crisp sauvignon blanc white wines, oolong tea or traditional hard cider like that produced byWest County Hard Cider.  Another bloomy cheese from the area is New Meadows from Valley View Farm in Topsfield.

Washed Rinds

Part of the mold and bacterial life in Brie de Meaux and true Normandy Camembert is something known as Brevobacterium linens, or B. linens. It appears on true raw-milk, white-mold cheeses as an orange-red color in the rind cracks. Aside from the color markings, B. linens also has the ability to bring about a funky aroma on a cheese, if it is exposed to sufficient moisture and salt.

If you were to repeatedly apply salty water, or “wash,” the outside of a wheel of Camembert or Brie, you would notice B. linens covering the rind. With enough time, that bacterial life would alter the aroma and flavor of the cheese. Thankfully for us, monasteries in Belgium and France learned to harness B. linens to create completely new cheeses that we refer to today as washed-rind cheeses. Some of the most famous washed rinds are Epoisses from Burgundy, Chimay from Belgium, Taleggio from Italy and Livarot from Normandy, France. It has been said that the birth of washed  rinds in monasteries arose possibly from a vow of vegetarianism. As omnivores, giving up meat for religious vows must have been a difficult task. However, monasteries do not typically raise animals for the daily consumption of meat, so it is important to get the most from the animals tended. So, with that desire for eating meat and an inability to eat meat, by either vow or necessity, the Belgian and French monks deduced that by painting the outer surfaces of a new wheel of cheese with salt water (sometimes using beer or wine), the resulting cheese had a meaty, cooked protein aroma and flavor on top of an already buttery backbone flavor. Buttered steak anyone?

That being said, the aroma of orange-colored washed rind cheeses can be quite pungent. Most people first experience washed rinds by noting the distinct, funky aroma but not by tasting. This is a shame. The flavors of washed rinds are quite elegant. Perhaps that is a good thing—it leaves more for the true cheese lovers.  One to try: Massachusetts’ own Trappiste from Goat Rising Farm in Charlemont. John Miller has a flock of Nubian goats that are able to produce milk almost year round, and whose milk is quite high in butterfat. With a steady diet of browse and pasture that changes throughout the year, their milk is turned into a washed-rind cheese modeled after the monastery tradition of hand-washing cheeses in brine. The result is a nutty, cream-flavored gem with a smooth, elastic texture and an earthy aroma.  John makes a similar wheel with a “cheddared” curd, which gives the cheese a sharpness begging to be had with smoked ham and pears. Pair Trappiste cheese this fall with fennel, apples, onion jam, honey, oat cakes, riesling white wines, barrel-aged ales and Scotch.  How Do You Make Cheese?

Ask a cheesemaker how to make cheese and you will get a pause, and then a long explanation that clearly explains that a person doesn’t make cheese. A person can shepherd excellent-quality milk on a path to become cheese. There are recipes, but it is the life within the vat of milk and in the aging environment that will make the cheese delicious. A cheesemaker’s job is to ensure that all the factors involved in the process foster great flavor and texture development.  Consider them conductors of this “symphony” rather than the player of an instrument. It may not be a glamorous job to some people, but the creation of a living food that I want to eat every day is still amazing to me. Those who make it their life’s work are true artists in my book.

Great Hill Blue is readily available all over Massachusetts in gourmet cheese shops and certain supermarket chains. Carlisle Farmstead cheeses are available at Formaggio Kitchen and farmers markets in Carlisle and Cambridge. Big news for Carlisle Farmstead is that the operation, goats and all, will be moving to a larger space near Hardwick. In other words, there will be more great cheeses from Tricia in the future! Trappiste is sold directly at the Goat Rising Farm store as well as on line. This cheese is in high demand, but recommend it to your local shop and it just might appear on a cheese wall near you.

Robert J. Aguilera learned about cheeses while working at Formaggio Kitchen in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and then at Farmsteadinc in Providence, Rhode Island. He now distributes cheesemaking and packaging supplies to cheesemakers across the United States. “I hope to continue to help the cheese landscape in America in any way I can.” Robert can be reached at rja279@hotmail.com.