A Case for French Cheese.
There is a famous and oft misquoted line from Charles DeGaulle stating that it is difficult to govern a country with so many cheeses. (The actual number varies depending on the source of the quote, but in any case would be much higher today.) This belies the fact that the French created the whole name-protection system for cheese - a sort of spin-off of the wine industry and the necessary governing required by a consortium to oversee the entire cheesemaking process. It also is from the French winemaking world that we took the concept of terroir, referring to the overall influence of the soil, climate and geography on the ultimate character of the grapes.
Although the term is overused and often misused today, there is no mistaking the effect of a region's particular grass, herbs and water consumed by dairy animals on the cheeses made from their milk. The concept is particularly evident in small-production, farmstead cheeses and has been successfully co-opted by many of artisanal cheesemakers in the United States.
Name-protection classification and terroir aside, we owe much to French cheesemakers. It was in France that young Laura Chenel ventured to learn the craft of making goat cheese in the early 1970s, returning to start a cheese revolution here that has yet to let up. Just as young chefs still go to France to hone their skills, so, too, do young cheesemakers continue to make the journey to work on farms and in factories to glean what they can from the thousands of years of French cheesemaking tradition.
The great cheeses of France also have been the backbone of any good American cheese business and, indeed, the entire specialty food industry. In many cases, a French selection can help define wholesalers and importers as well as retailers.
The names are legendary to cheese lovers: Brie de Meaux, Camembert, Beaufort, Bleu d'Auvergne, Comte, Crottin de Chavignol, Epoisses, Maroilles, Morbier, Munster, Ossau-Iraty-Brebis Pyrenees, Pont L'Eveque, Reblochon and Roquefort, to name but a few. They didn't invent cheese, but like their equally influential cuisine, the French codified the art of cheesemaking and arguably produce the greatest variety of cheese and some of the greatest individual cheeses in the world. But with the ever-improving and ever-growing domestic cheese scene, not to mention the gigantic strides in cheesemaking being made in places like Australia, New Zealand, Canada and South America, do French and other European cheeses still matter to our business or to our tables?
"Of course they still matter. They will always matter," says Vince Razionale, former cheese buyer at Formaggio Kitchen in Cambridge, Mass. "They're too well-made and there's too much history for European cheeses to be made irrelevant in the American market. But as more American cheese consumers are starting to ask where a cheese comes from, the bigger-production European cheeses might start to fade a bit. People like to support the scrappy upstart, after all! It will make us reevaluate what European cheeses are worth carrying alongside the ever-improving American cheeses. Moses Sleeper, for example, made by Mateo Kehler and Veronica Pedraza at Jasper Hill Farm, is currently tasting better than any French Brie or Camembert that I've seen in the States."
Noted cheesemonger, author and food impresario Steven Jenkins has a slightly more vitriolic view on the state of French cheeses. Citing interference from the FDA "on both sides of the ocean," Jenkins offers the following:
"It's really disheartening," he says. "Fake Reblochon called Delice Du Jura. Fake Vacherin Mont d'Or called Chalet Du Jura. Fake Brindamour called Saveur Du Maquis in plastic see-thru "coque'.
"Hardly any French cheesemaker knows how to ripen a chevre anymore, thus the rise of the dumbest convention of my career, the affineur - one who steps in and takes his extortionate cut from cheesemongers ... and passes that cost right on down the line," Jenkins continues. "Epoisses has been etiolated (look it up) out of existence, as far as I'm concerned. If it isn't overripe and therefore inedible, it is well-nigh tasteless.
"The heartening aspect of global commercial French cheesemaking these days," Jenkins adds in a more conciliatory tone, "is that I have an extraordinary array of Pyrenees sheep's and goat's milk cheeses heretofore unknown - truly impressive for any shop, anywhere. And I am continually amazed that these cheeses still exist for us: Langres, Pont l'Eveque, Livarot, St.-Marcellin, St.-Felicien, Le Chatelain Camembert and Le Chevrot."
The U.S. cheese industry no doubt will continue to look to France and the rest of Europe for inspiration and innovation, and as young French men and women return to the land, as has happened here, we are bound to see some exciting new cheeses and newly rediscovered cheeses from France. As Sandy Carr wrote many years ago in "The Simon & Schuster Pocket Guide to Cheese" (still a trusted resource), "The extraordinary richness of French cheesemaking is rooted in geographical diversity and maintained by that lively interest in the good things in life that is the mark of French culture generally. One might think that with so many cheeses, the French would see neither sense nor profit in inventing more, and yet there are no signs that their creativity is flagging."
A Bevy of New Cheeses from The Dairy State
Carr Valley Cheese has developed a seasonal Cheddar program to highlight the distinct flavors that emerge in the cheese at different times of the year. As customers become increasingly interested in seasonal ingredients, artisan cheese naturally lends itself to this trend. Each of the four Cheddars is designed to be merchandised within the season it represents: Irish Valley Cheddar (spring), Field of Flowers Cheddar (summer), Autumn Harvest Cheddar (fall) and Winter Solstice Cheddar (winter).
Kammerude Gouda is a new line of semi-soft cheese from Blaser's USA Inc., inspired by traditional Wisconsin folk art. Similar to Edam, the cheese has a firm, slightly yellow body and a few small, irregular holes. It comes in eight flavors: Plain, Smoked, Dill, Rosemary Garlic, Garlic Basil, Caraway, Fennel and Jalapeno. The attractive packaging features the works of famed Wisconsin folk artist Lavern Kammerude, whose paintings capture rural American life in the first half of the 20th century.
Blue Ridge Smoked Muenster is a new introduction from Mill Creek Cheese, and it's already an award winner. Gently hardwood-smoked, Blue Ridge is a mild cheese with a smooth flavor. Try it atop burgers or grilled portobello mushrooms. Blue Ridge was awarded first place in the Flavored Semi-Soft Cheese category at the 2010 Wisconsin State Fair Cheese & Butter Contest. For more information about any of these cheeses, go to www.eatwisconsincheese.com.
Quorn Extends Meat Free Line - Introducing Quorn Burgers
The frozen, meat-free Quorn brand is adding two new burgers to its highly successful range of meat-free, soy-free products. The Classic Burgers and Cheese Burgers are available at a recommended retail price of $5.99. They're available in 8.4-ounce packs, each of which contains four burgers. The Quorn burgers have 50 percent less fat than ground beef hamburgers, and are high in protein and low in saturated fat. They are the healthier burger option, with no compromise on taste.
David Wilson, general manager of Quorn USA Inc., says, "We've spent the last nine years focused on getting our Quorn chick'n products right - they're now the best sellers in the natural meat-free category. The time's right now for us to extend into burgers, the American favorite, and we've developed a unique recipe for the USA audience that consumers tell us is tasty and delicious."
For more information, visit www.quorn.us.com.
Sarabeth's Bakery: From My Hands to Yours
Having been one of the thousands who have queued up outside Sarabeth's Bakery on Sunday mornings for her delightful breakfasts, I am excited about the release of Sarabeth Levine's new cookbook, "Sarabeth's Bakery: From My Hands to Yours" (Rizzoli New York), co-authored by Rick Rodgers. The recipes for breads, cakes, pies & tarts, muffins, cookies, spoon desserts, frozen desserts and her delectable spreadable fruits, with which she has created a small wholesale empire, are both professional and homey, as if they were made by a talented French pastry chef who grew up cooking at her grandmere's side. The recipes and instructions are meticulously put together, making the execution of the baked goods almost foolproof, and the food photographs by the aptly named Quentin Bacon are not just mouthwatering - they practically run off the page. This is indeed a gift for anyone who cares about good pastry, has a sweet tooth or, like me, misses those Sunday mornings outside Sarabeth's. For more information, call 212-387-3400 or visit www.rizzoliusa.com
The Cheese Course: Rinds 101
The following primer is courtesy of the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board (WMMB).
As consumers continue to expand their culinary knowledge and seek new and interesting tastes, many Wisconsin cheesemakers are working from the outside in to create flavor. Cheeses are being soaked, rubbed, schmeared and washed, making their rinds just as interesting and appealing as what's inside.
Wisconsin cheesemakers are leading the way with their innovative rinds. Carr Valley's Apple Smoked Cheddar is hand-rubbed with paprika to give the cheese a complex and balanced flavor.Sartori Reserve also offers a paprika-rubbed cheese called Pastorale Blend, made with both cow and sheep milk. The paprika brings an eye-popping color that is sure to attract attention in any cheese case.
In addition, Sartori Reserve soaks several of the cheeses in its BellaVitano line to create appealing rinds with unique flavors. The newly introduced Cognac BellaVitano offers a complex fusion of smoky, nutty, oak, vanilla and caramel with toasted notes. Raspberry BellaVitano is soaked in Raspberry Tart Ale from Wisconsin's New Glarus Brewery. Merlot BellaVitano and Balsamic BellaVitano are similarly soaked to add complementary flavors to the cheese.
Even rinds that are not meant to be eaten can enhance the flavor of the cheese inside thanks to the affinage process. Willi Lehner of Bleu Mont Dairy created his Earth Schmear cheese with a filtered brew made from the soil at his home in Blue Mounds, Wis. The schmear is used to wipe down wheels of dry-salted cheese, imparting a rich sense of terroir. In her book, "The Cheese Chronicles," author Liz Thorpe wrote of the finished product, "It tastes like loamy garden, sea salt, butter and sour cream cake. It's amazing."
Washed rinds also flavor cheeses during the affinage process, and some of them are edible. Les Freres and Petit Freres from Crave Brothers Farmstead Cheese are semi-soft washed rind cheeses with an earthy, fruity flavor. The edible rind is light tan in color, and the interior is creamy, with an almost Brie-like texture and nutty aftertaste.
Uplands Pleasant Ridge Reserve is washed several times a week throughout the aging process. The bacteria in the brine as well as the microflora that's indigenous to the raw milk used to create the cheese develop flavors that become more complex and concentrated as the cheese ages. The rind itself typically is not eaten, but it is vital to creating the rich, smooth interior that has made this cheese such a success. It recently won the Best of Show prize at the 2010 American Cheese Society competition, becoming the only cheese ever to receive the award three times.
Pave Henri is a new washed-rind, Trappist-style cheese from Fayette Creamery, a line of artisan cheeses from Brunkow Cheese. This introduction is sure to be a favorite for stinky cheese lovers. Its scent has drawn comparisons to Limburger, but the taste is surprisingly mild with a buttery texture. Limburger - the grandfather of Wisconsin rind cheeses - still is made by Chalet Cheese Cooperative, the same plant that has been making this cheese since 1885.
Cheeses with interesting rinds make great additions to a cheese plate and are perfect for entertaining. To increase buyer confidence, consider using signage to describe the flavors of theses cheeses and explain how to approach their rinds. With these complex cheeses, sampling is a must.
Should I eat the rind?
Whether or not to eat the rind sometimes is a matter of taste, but, generally, the rinds of soft cheeses can be eaten, while those of harder cheeses are often unpleasant.
Are there any uses for uneaten rinds?
The natural rinds of hard cheeses, especially Parmesan, are wonderful for flavoring soups and stocks. Freeze your leftover rinds in resealable bags so you always have one handy.
Do all cheeses have a rind?
No. Some varieties, such as Brick and Colby, are ripened in plastic film or other protective coating to prevent rind formation. Other cheeses, such as Feta, are rindless because they are not allowed to ripen.
Do cheeses with rinds always have a strong flavor?
Not always. Washed-rind cheeses often have a strong flavor, but some are surprisingly mild. Ask for a sample, and find out for yourself! To learn more, visit www.eatwisconsincheese.com