In a world where one country can propose over 246 different kinds of cheese (as spoketh De Gaulle), how does one decide what cheeses to make? There are multiple options and few limitations in today’s world, but all those different cheeses came about due to quite clear and delineated limitations.
Why are the alpine cheeses made so large and so dense? How glorious to enjoy those aged, nutty flavors and crumbly, crystal filled textures.
And what about tender fresh chèvre? How did they come about?
Creamy and decadent camembert, brie and vacherin, or stinky meunster and époisses.
Natural gray rinds, or sticky orange ones?
If I were to work in France I would make the cheese of the region, whatever it would be, as there simply wouldn’t be much of a market for someone who bucks the local trends. A teacher of mine tried to make camembert style cheese in the Pyrenees, and found he could barely make a living. Colleagues in Provence make some hard cheeses from their goat milk in early spring, when there’s an abundance of milk, and the tourist season has yet to take off. But as soon as the market picks up, they’re making their classic little pélardons and crottins.
As an American cheese maker, there’s not much local cheese tradition to fall back on. There’s a definite local preference for hard cheeses; cheddar and gouda being the best known and most frequently appreciated. But, I don’t think I’m here to make what is familiar, or rather not necessarily.
Thus, how to choose? Well, you could say, as I’m working with goat milk, that limits my options. Yes, the best known goat cheese is the fresh, creamy and slightly acidic white cheese, great for spreading, blending, baking. But in fact, goat milk can be used for any cheese (practically) that you can make with cow’s milk. The fat globules are smaller and more fragile in goat milk, so not every recipe will be as successful, and the handling of the milk is of the utmost importance. But, that said, you can always try, taste the results, and then decide.
So back to decisions and options. The French break down the cheese world in a few standard categories:
les lactiques – these are your creamy fresh cheeses that have a somewhat ‘yogurty’ bite, easily spread on your toast – crottins, pélardons, cabécous, St Félicien, St Marcellin, St. André triple cream. These cheeses are generally eaten young, even just a couple of days old. They are fragile, don’t travel well, have a short shelf life, but have a high yield for the cheese maker, and thus as long as there’s a market nearby, it’s a great style to make. Anyone who’s visited Provence markets and noted the abundance of fresh little chèvres crottins or pélardons can see the proof of this. All the local goat cheese makers work with these styles. It keeps their lives simple, keeps their yield at its highest (the only thing higher is yogurt), and permits them to work consistently and to earn steadily throughout the season and the years. One of the extra boons to this style is that if it is aged dry and hard (which is possible), it can keep for a very long time and still be enjoyed.
les pâtes molles – this is the soft cheese family that includes the bloomy rinds: brie, camembert, as well as the washed rinds: reblochon, époisses, meunster. This is a fragile and short shelf life cheese. It takes generally 3-4 weeks to mature, and once at its peak, should find a home and a cheese plate relatively quickly. Whereas an aged lactic cheese above can be grated on salads, or brought on a hike – an old soft bloomy or washed rind cheese goes terribly ammoniac and over-runny. Once past peak, a camembert’s life is short and over. But consider the home of the Brie: the department Seine et Marne which makes up a portion of the Ile de France, best known for its lovely city, Paris, home of kings, beloved of kings, and proximity to the wealth of Champagne. Brie has been made and eaten by an abundance of high dignitaries for centuries. It travels across oceans today, but traditionally, it didn’t need to travel far to be consumed, and to enrich its makers. And, if you’ve ever spent time in these regions, you’ll note the high rain fall, the dark and damp winters, the effects of river valleys. High humidity, damp and cold but not freezing temperatures… sounds like a perfect cave to me.
les pâtes préssées non-cuites – these are pressed cheeses that are not heated particularly high during cheese make (generally under 40C or 100F) including the tommes des Pyrénées, morbier, raclette, tomme de Savoie. These cheeses have a longer shelf life than the pâtes molles, upwards of 3-6 months. They are often washed rind, occasionally natural rind. They are soft but not runny, easily and cleanly cut with a knife, but great for melting over a baked potato. Their yield is lower than the lactics (5:1) and the pâtes molles (7:1), at an average of 10:1. These cheeses are generally made in manageable sizes – 2-5 kilos, 5-15lbs. A great family cheese, ideal for transporting mid-length distances. Not usually found over 6 months old, but occasional batches can be tasted – some bite back, some are fantastic.
les pâtes préssées cuites – these are the cheeses that are brought to a high temperature, the curd cut as small as possible (rice grains), and pressed with heavy weights. Imagine where they came and come from : the high hills of summer, a shepherd or more surrounded by his cows, taking advantage of the wonderful grazing areas, but far far away from town, market, family. Living in the alps, summers are short, winters are long. Milk is abundant and lower in fat when the grass is green. Thus, this cheese evolved to use up a lot of milk, put it into as compact a shape as possible, made to age for upwards of a year, and so cover the food needs of the family throughout the harsh winters. 35 gallons of milk will yield 20 lbs of cheese. 130 litres for under 10 kilos. Which may lose 15% its weight over the months of aging. A yield ratio of approximately 13:1. It is a glorious cheese. Delicious, designed to last a long long while, salty and crumbly, dense and nourishing.
And so, what do I make here? In this land with a great summer filled with outdoor markets, awesome restaurants, a short spring, stunning fall, and very cold and (for this poor girl from Provence) overly long winter? Well, in the spring, I start with tommes of the Pâte préssée non-cuite variety – smaller tommes designed to ripen for the summer market. Then I get busy on fresh for the local restaurants and specialty markets – fresh in tubs, fresh in delicate forms such as crottins, logs and pélardons. And then I begin my pâte molle, the camembert. I start small with this cheese, careful of its short shelf life, and desirous of finding a home for every cheese I make. I know that the local market will pick up in May and June when the weather improves. It will take off like a rocket when the Fourth of July arrives. Thus, the camembert being one of my most popular cheeses, I’ll adjust my cheese makes to have enough (I hope) for our summer visitors.
Late summer, I’ll start making tommes again, most likely of the pâte préssées cuites variety in larger sizes that will age over the fall and be ready for Christmas. The fall milk will be likewise managed into large rounds that can age through the winter, and perhaps even to next summer.
No doubt, this being the United States, where it seems anything is possible, the above cheese-make calendar will evolve and adapt. The challenges will always be there, and I’m looking forward to making the best possible cheeses I can.