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Travel - More cheese, please!

Summary: The dying days of Autumn are a great time to visit rural France, with the combination of morning mists and still flowering vegetation making sight of small villages, settlements and orchards or vineyards seem more romantic, even when speeding past in a tour bus full of media folk often more intent on updating their on-line presence than relishing the escape from the Gulf's oppressive heat and diving into centuries old traditions of the countryside. Dave Reeder joins a cheese tour.

As a farming and manufacturing process, it doesn't get much simpler than cheese. Cows -- in some case, sheep or goats - feed themselves on lush vegetation, they're milked twice daily, that milk is treated with rennet which separates the milk in curds and whey. The whey returns as animal food and the curds are poured into moulds. Some turning, some storage and -- hey! -- you've got cheese.

Of course, it's not quite that simple. The art of a good cheesemakers lies in ensuring the quality of the milk, understanding how feed affects it, guaranteeing cleanliness, delivering the right conditions for maturing and, finally, knowing just when a cheese is ready for market. It's part science, part art and a whole lot of expertise. For such an apparently simple product, it's a surprisingly complex subject.

And one the French are historically very good at, with regional and very local cheeses right across the country in a bewildering variety of tastes, shapes and colours. As Napoleon famously observed -- how can you govern a country with more than 500 cheeses?

To try and answer this question and introduce a group of UAE food writers, Sopexa (the support body for French exports) recently organised a tour of three cheese-producing areas: Normandy, Burgundy and Rhone-Alpes. The idea was simple: give us an understanding of the French cheese industry, see on the ground how French cheeses are produced and, of course, sample as much as we could!

Meeting in Paris, we took a train to Caen, where we transferred to coach and rode through the boscage to Bayeux, home of the famous tapestry. After checking in to the excellent Hotel Reine Bayeux, with many rooms backed by the small river Aure and views of Cathedral Notre Dame from its front door, we moved to the local Le Lion D'Or hotel to eat at its small restaurant La Table du Lion which specialises in local ingredients cooked is a modern and classy style, though clearly most of the party were tired after a long day's travel from Dubai and most of our thoughts were focused on the next day's early departure for the road trip! The restaurant is efficient, the food excellent but a general feel of emptiness made it feel rather out of season.

A brisk start the next morning, after a simple self-service breakfast in the hotel, saw us back on the coach heading to

Isigny-Sainte-Mere. Isigny, as a whole, is an important milk production area, with AOC butter and cream as well as excellent cheeses such as Camembert, Mimolette, Pont-l'Eeveque, Tresor d'Isigny and more, made by the Isigny Sainte Mere co-operative. Quick aside for a fun fact: the earliest known ancestor of Walt Disney, with a similar name, was Jean-Christophe d'Isigny...

Although Sopexa and CNIEL (the French Dairy Association) were the organisers of the trip, our expert guide was Francois Robin MOF (Meilleur Ouvrier de France - a lifetime title recognising skill and knowledge) - who is a cheesemonger, who selects, ages and sells cheeses. He has also been the chief cheese advisor to Fauchon, the upmarket food store in Paris. No better person then to explain to us the process of turning milk into cheese, though there is a marked contrast between the state of milk production (albeit mechanised though, with farmyard animals, in not spotless conditions!). Normandy milks are distinguished by their exceptional richness, high fat content, high levels of protein, Omega-3 fatty acids and vitamins, as well as by their lactic bacterial flora that is characteristic of the Isigny terroir.

It's worth a brief diversion to discuss the issue that divides cheese lovers: pasteurised or non-pasteurised? One either side of the argument, we have strong opinions: raw milk gives cheese a better flavour or cheese made from pasteurised milk can be as delicious. Leadingtheglobalfightforpasteurisation is the USA, where cheese made from unpasteurisedmilkcannotbeimported unless it's 60 days old, the belief being that the acids and salts in raw milk cheese combinedwiththeagingprocess naturally prevent listeria, salmonella, E. coli and other harmful bacteria from growing. So how is milk pasteurised? Simply by heating it to a temperature of 161F for fifteen seconds or to 145F for thirty minutes or more.

First stop on our tour was Graindorge, one of the farms whose dairy supplies nearly 1,800 litres of milk a day from two milking morning and late afternoon. The cows are milked with automatic machines and the milk is then stored in refrigerated tanks for delivery to the Cooperative. All equipment and the milking shed are disinfected after each milking, of which there are two a day. On delivery, rennet is added which has the effect of trapping water and fat in the curds, which are squeezed during the process to remove more water thus creating a more solid cheese. Once formed, the curd is chopped into small pieces and poured into moulds the shape of the desired final cheese. Salt is added either during processing or via a brine solution later to draw out moisture and help protect against contamination. The cheese moulds are then stored in a warm room. This whole process holds true of all cheeses except blue cheeses, which receive an injection of the Penicillium fungus.

After the cheese has formed, they need to be aged or ripened and it's at this stage that the different effects of temperature, humidity and storage time help to give each cheese variety its own distinct characteristics.

Isigny Sainte-Mere cheeses all bring together a variety of rich and rare milks, with two of them - Normandy Camembert and Pont l'Eveque - enjoying full PDO status. The 110-worker strong Cooperative now produces three main families of cheese:

* Softcheeseswithmouldrinds,suchas Camembert or Pont l'Eveque.

* Hardcheesesthathavebeencooked and pressed, like Mimolette, Saint- Paulin or Pave d'Isigny

* Fromagefrais:smoothorset,withfruit or plain.

Demand for product is so high that the operations run for 24 hours, five days a week, with production increasing in October and November, to meet the peak demand of Thanksgiving and Christmas. At that time, the workforce increases to 200 and the operation gears up to 24/7 production.

So, let's look at the cheeses in a bit more detail.

An historic and gastronomic monument, the invention of Camembert is attributed to cheesemaker Marie Harel, who lived near the village of the same name in the early years of the French revolution. By the late 19th century, it was already finding a ready market well away from Normandy. It was awarded PDO status in 1986, which guarantees that the cheese has been made locally from raw milk produced in the Normandy terroir, the mould is filled by hand with a ladle and the cheese is ripened for a minimum of 16 days in the ripening chambers. Milk for Camembert is heated in vats, then it seeded with lactic cultures and rennet is added. This curdles the milk which starts to drain naturally. The moulds then filled in a number of successive passes, depending on the required results, with each layer of curds resting for 40 minutes before the next is added on top, The curds are then salted and then put in a well ventilated room called a haloir, in which the master cheesemaker watches over the early stages of the ripening, adjusting the humidity and temperature in the room. By the fourth day, there should be a mild scent of apple, which is a mark of quality. Two days later, a downy white coat of penicillin marks the start of ripening, which should take another six days before the cheese is packed into its traditional wooden box, where it continues to ripen. Camemberts are offered to market in four stages of ripening, depending on customer orders.

Pont l'Eveque may not be as well known as Camembert, but it's creaminess and golden rind make it a special cheese. Making it requires both skill and patience, since the process is completely different to making a Camembert. As before, milk is heated and rennet added to coagulate it. When formed, the curd is cut and the whey drained off to limit lactose levels and curb the development of lactic cultures which feed on lactose - this is why Pont l'Eveque remains a supple cheese. After four days, the cheeses are taken out of the moulds and salted on the fifth day. They are washed in salt water on the seventh day, hence the term washed rind cheese. For the rest of their time in the haloir, the cheeses are turned by hand as they ripen, which can take between two and six weeks.

Isigny Ste-Mere Brie is a soft cheese with a mould rind which is left to drain slowly, on its own. It's a close cousin to the Brie de Meaux and the Brie de Melun. The Isigny Ste-Mere Brie is a half lactic, half stabilised Brie using a traditional process in terms of technology. The milk is seeded with lactic starter cultures and matures before being moulded. Once drained, the cheeses are removed from their moulds and dry-salted before being held in the ripening room. They will then ripen on wood shelves, for at least seven days.

A cousin to Port-Salut, Saint Paulin was originally made by Trappist monks at Saint Paulin. It is made with pasteurised milk and has a washed rind. Curdled, stirred, drained and bathed in brine, the crust has a touch of anatto to give it a distinctive orange tint. It spends three weeks in a ripening chamber, developing into a subtle cheese, with a hint of sweetness and a taste of slightly acidulated fresh milk.

Seemingly the odd one out amongst Normandy cheeses, the bright orange Mimolette draws its nature again from the local milk, seen as ideal to produce such a hard cheese. As before, milk is heated and seeded with lactic cultures that help the flavour notes to develop. Rennet is then added to the batch, followed by anatto, a naturally-occurring plant-based orange colouring agent. The curds are cut to allow the whey to drain and the curd is then pressed for a first time and cut up again into cubes, going into cloth-lined moulds before being pressed a second time. At this stage, the Mimolette has taken on its final shape and is placed in a saline bath for 72 hours, which adds to the taste and helps to form its crust. A cycle of six weeks in the warming chamber follows during which the cheeses take on a bloom or fine coat of mould on which cheese mites will feed. This is a good thing, since these mites will take off the layer of mould and give the cheese its finished look! To ensure the uniformity of the crust and the shape of the cheese, a master cheesemaker turns the cheeses over at regular intervals and checks them by striking them with a wooden mallet, to test their quality and warns of any weaknesses in the structure. If the noise is muffled, the Mimolette is fault-free, with no air spaces inside it. On the other hand, a hollow sound indicates a hole -- and a faulty cheese.

The production method for fromage frais is a little different. Again, whole milk is seeded with carefully selected lactic starter cultures before rennet is added to trigger curdling. The curds are left overnight at a predetermined temperature before whey is drained off in the morning. Farmhouse fromage frais is made in cloths, draining slowly and gently, as tradition requires. This process preserves all its character and texture, allowing a lightly acidulated taste to develop.

Feeling by now as if we had survived a complicated science lesson, we thankfully got out of our white coats, show covers and hair nets to get back on the coach to head to Lisieux, with just enough time for a quick and undistinguished lunch, before riding the train back to Paris. There, we transferred to the slightly quirky Hotel de la Porte Doree in the 12eme, before heading across town to Le Chardenoux, Chef Cyril Lignac's take on a traditional Parisian bistro in the 11eme, close to the Marche d'Aligre - a place I'd eaten at a few years back and one I was eager to try again. It's a slightly odd place, with a compact L-shaped room almost dwarfed by dark wooden fittings, frosted glass panels, plaster mouldings and, as if that wasn't enough, a ceiling painted with a blue sky and fluffy white clouds. Thankfully, the food is much simpler with Ligniac's reinvention of classic dishes, such as steak tartare and frites. Time for sleep and the first part of our French cheese tour was over!

The cheese tour continues with a look at the cheeses of Burgundy and the Rhone-Alpes in an upcoming issue.

WHERE TO BUY IN DUBAI

Although most large supermarkets sell French cheese, you're better sourcing from a good retailer who stores cheeses properly and can offer advice. We recommend:

* Carrefour

* Jones The Grocer

* Lafayette Gourmet

* Market & Platters

* Secrets Fine Food

STORE AND EAT!

Tempting though it is to keep cheese in its original wrapping, it is far better to store it in greaseproof paper and then place it in a Tupperware container, which has a mildly damp cloth as lining together with two or three sugar lumps to help maintain the moisture. You can store several types of cheese togater except blue cheese which, being much stronger, should be stored seperately. This will keep soft cheese fresh for a week or so, hard cheese for two or three. Never serve straight from the fridge - give cheeses an hour or so to adjust to room temperature.

Creating your own cheeseboard is, of course, a matter of taste but you're probably best with a mix of hard and soft, mild and strong, plus a blue. Start eating with the mildest.

NORMANDY COWS

The Norman cow located under the apple blossom is not just your stereotypical image. It is the emblem of Normandy. Normandy cows have white coatings with brown marks. They live in the grassy pastures for one half of the year and indoors in the barn during winter. They only feed on grass and fodder, enriched with some natural food supplements.

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Publication:BBC GoodFood Middle East
Geographic Code:4EUFR
Date:Jan 24, 2017
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