Sunday, October 28, 2012

From suit to hairnet

Did I mention that I used to be an accountant? Probably if you've met me you already know this but just in case, I thought I'd write a little post to briefly explain my transition into the world of cheese.

Me at the cheese caves, quite pleased with myself
for having broken down an 80kg Emmental
(wearing a hairnet)
Me about to take on the world as a
public sector accountant
(wearing a suit)

So basically, I trained as a chartered accountant, essentially as a civil servant. I was in the job for a few years and whilst I enjoyed elements of it, I felt that maybe it wasn't what I wanted to be doing for the rest of my life. My office offers a career break scheme, whereby we take a two year trial separation, after which, in theory, I return.

I decided that maybe I should take the career break and move to France, with the lovely Jen, to pursue a solid grounding in the world of cheese, or more specifically, the French world of cheese - which the French would probably describe as 'the world of cheese'.

We left England in September 2011, with some savings, an idea that we might want to live in Lyon and a fair amount of enthusiasm for a change. I didn't really have any work lined up, just a contact from the UK end of the MonS organisation (from asking nicely at their cheese stall in Borough market). After a fair bit of uncertainty, and a few interviews (in my heavily accented and rather halting French) I managed to get myself some work experience over Christmas and New Year. Apparently I did sufficiently well to later be employed at the Lyon MonS shop where I have been working since June (following a hefty stint in the cheese caves to learn the ropes - fodder for several future posts I'm sure).

A common (and reasonable) question that I'm often asked is 'why cheese?'. This is a really difficult one, but basically, I think it results from the fact that cheese is a financial dead end. There is too much work involved, too much varied expertise required and too little profit for anyone to make any real money out of the industry, particularly at the artisan/farm house end. This means that the motivations for people to stay in the industry are quite compelling - wanting to keep something historic alive, wanting to create something new and brilliant, wanting to give away huge quantities of their time and effort essentially just for the love of cheese. That kind of person is exciting (or maybe, interesting - in all the senses of the word) to be around.

Ok, there are other draws too. I love cheese, its taste and the variety of its production. I love the complexity of the science behind it, the fact that actually, we don't really know all the details about how curds form and develop with age. I also find that cheese is a great window into the world of French gastronomy and to an extent, French family life.

Well, there's lots of material here for future posts, where I'll hopefully be able to do some of these subjects a bit more justice, for now though, I hope that this serves as a brief introduction to my move from suits to hairnets, and from excel to cheese wires.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Vacherin Mont d'Or

One of the great things about cheese is its seasonality; just as the goats cheeses are winding down (after all, even goats need to go on maternity leave), new cheeses are starting to come into season. Over the last few weeks we’ve some notable, and very welcome, new arrivals in the shop – of particular interest are the first of the 2011 Beaufort d’Alpage, and one of my long time favourites, Vacherin Mont d’Or (or Vacherin de Haut Doubs - depending on origin).

A baked Mont d'Or, fresh out of the oven

Vacherin is a great example of how the huge variety of cheeses often results from the overcoming of some fairly mundane logistical issues. Mont d'Or is the cheese made with the last ebbs of the milk from the Montbéliarde cows that have been busy making milk for large wheels of Comté in the Alpine pastures all spring. This is their warm down when they aren't producing enough milk to make a big cheese.

In a quirk of the cow lactation cycle (I'll spare you the majority of the details) the quantity of milk produced towards the end of the year is significantly reduced compared to spring and early summer, however, it is very rich. This, combined with the hay-heavy diets that the cows enjoy as they relax in their sheds, gives a milk high in protein and fat content that is perfect for making the brilliantly runny Vacherin Mont d'Or.

Once the cheese has been made, it's wrapped in a spruce belt to help keep its shape and impart a woody flavour. The young cheese is also washed regularly during the early stages of its life which gives rise to the orangey red rind and the ever-so-slight sharpness to the taste.
After the first few weeks of washing, the young cheese is forced into its box where it is aged until creamy enough to sell. This squeezing process leads to the characteristic undulating, barely restrained surface.

A Montbéliarde cow

So there are basically two traditional ways of eating this cheese – cold, for which read room temperature, and hot. Either way, the goal is to be eating this bad boy with a spoon. There are a number of different sizes available, so pick the one best suited to your number of guests or your appetite.

For eating cold, you’ll want to be sure that it’s as ripe as possible, this might be difficult at the early end of the season. Have a feel of it yourself if you can, you should be looking for hints of a very gooey centre. If not, try and get one from a reliable cheese monger. Given my current work place you might not be surprised to learn that I would recommend that you get yours from one of the MonS shops (either in les Halles in Lyon or at Borough market in London). Given that the cheese is in a box, it does take a while to reach room temperature, so make sure that it's out of the fridge at least an hour in advance.
There is a traditional approach to the preparation of this cheese for inclusion on a cheese plate, involving much cutting. Next time I bring one home, I'll take some photos and walk you through the process. To be honest though, you can't go far wrong armed simply with a spoon and an appetite (and maybe some crusty bread and a glass of wine).

Vacherin is in my opinion at its best when eaten hot though, in the style of a mini-fondue from the centre of the table with friends and wine.
  • Remove all packaging leaving just the cheese in its box with the lid to one side, the cheese should already be at room temperature otherwise it will take forever to cook
  • Gently rub white wine into the rind, a tablespoon at a time, until you think it just can't take any more
  • Put the lid on and wrap the shut box in aluminium foil
  • Bake the cheese in an oven pre-heated to 180C for 20 minutes.
  • Remove the cheese and test for done-ness, i.e. is it hot all the way through, if not, return to the oven until it is
  • Once hot, serve with bread, or boiled potatoes, charcuterie, some salad and cornichons.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

So what is "proper" cheese - and why can't I find it in a supermarket?

I'm fascinated by cheese, that's no secret. But it's not just because I like the taste.

For me, a good cheese is an expression of the land that produced it (terroir in wine parlance), the heritage and breeding of animal that gave the milk, the care of the farmer in feeding and nurturing the animal, the skill and knowledge of the cheese maker (often a form of cultural heritage in itself) and last but not least, the experience and judgement of the affineur.

This troop of 80 goats produces enough cheese to sell at local markets and to local
restaurants, it will never be able to provide the quantity required by a supermarket.

Cheese made like this on a relatively small scale, using traditional techniques, has character - particularly the highly important category of 'raw milk' cheeses (more on this in a future post). These cheeses change from week to week in line with the seasons, the weather, and the mood of the goats (or cows or sheep). Their tastes and smells are evocative of the farm and the beast. Cheeses like these are alive and often slightly unpredictable as a result.

However, the majority of cheese that the majority of us run into, particularly in supermarkets, is made industrially. What this generally means is that an enormous quantity of milk is bought into a factory from a selection of farms and dairies, homogenised and often heat treated before undergoing a very mechanically, chemically and biologically controlled process whereby tonnes of identical cheeses are produced. Raw milk can be rather temperamental in an industrial set up such as this so pasteurised milk cheeses are usually the norm.

So how come supermarkets tend to sell these industrial cheeses? There are probably three main reasons:

(1) Price - Industrial production and with its inherent mechanisation will certainly offer significant economies of scale, allowing the cheese producers to sell at a lower price to supermarkets who can then pass on the lower cost to the consumer. It goes without saying that this is important under these difficult financial times.

(2) Quantity - Supermarkets have a huge clientele and need to be able to stock cheeses in sufficient quantity to meet demand - and not just demand in one shop, but demand nationally. It should be noted that french supermarkets are significantly better at promoting smaller, local products than those in the UK. However, cheese is rarely one of those promoted items.

(3) Homogeneity - Cheese created under the clinical conditions of an industrial production tend towards homogeneity. They will taste the same and age in the same way, wherever they are purchased, and their shelf life will also be highly predictable. These are all traits that consumers have been trained to search for, particularly in the UK.

I'm not going to say 'don't buy cheese from the supermarket', some of it really isn't that bad and I understand that cost is a serious consideration in deciding what to eat. What I would say though, is from time to time, go to your local cheese shop or farmers market and see what they have on offer. Ask some questions about what's good, what's local, and what's special. Treat yourself from time to time with a quality piece of cheese.
Your cheesemonger and stall holder well certainly be more invested in the story of the cheeses that they are selling than the average supermarket employee and from personal experience, they tend to be rather keen to share their passion. They will also give you good advice on which cheese to buy when so as to best meet your needs.

Think about it, there's a huge amount of work and pride that's invested in that one little farm house or artisanal cheese, there's some seriously meticulous work that's gone into its creation and ageing. I personally am happy to pay a little bit more just to be part of that story, and that's completely beside the fact that a 'fermier' or 'artisanal' cheese will almost invariably taste better than its industrially produced clone-cheese equivalent.

I feel that I should add a point here: I'm not saying that cheese shops don't sell industrially produced cheeses, clearly they do. But a good cheese shop will be able to tell you about where a cheese came from and give you good advice on which cheeses to buy if their origin is important to you.

So, here's an example of a cheese that you won't find in your local supermarket, it's called a fagacé. It's a small goat cheese from the department of the Lot in southern France. It's sprinkled with sariette (savoury) and then wrapped by hand in chestnut leaves before being aged in the MonS caves. I can confirm from personal experience that the wrapping of this cheese is far from an easy process.

Hand wrapped Fagacé cheese

The result is quite special, it's light and often young with a fruity acid tang reminiscent of lemons and even passion fruit. There are also underlying herbal and tea-like notes from the sariette and chestnut leaves. A young goat cheese like this favours a white wine that isn't too dry and acidic - something a little sweet and fruity like a viognier grape would be ideal.

Unwrapped Fagacé cheese

And as a final thought, there is a rather insidious and potentially damaging side effect of the supermarket approach to selling cheese - that in supplying only industrially produced cheese, they trick the consumer into thinking that this is all that there is. I'll leave you with an adage that I came across somewhere on the internet that seems particularly pertinent:

"Just remember that every time you spend a pound, you vote for how you want the world to be".

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Fourme de Montbrison

Fourme de Montbrison is one of the 40-50 French cheeses protected under the AOC/AOP system. It’s a blue cheese made in the French department of the Loire near the very picturesque town of Montbrison.

The cheese has a beautiful orange punctured rind that smells sweet, faintly fermented, and slightly musty and woody – this comes from aging the cheeses on curved spruce boards. The centre of the cheese is a rich ivory, turning almost golden, laced with delicate lines of blue, deriving from the ubiquitous Penicillium roqueforti.
The name “fourme” apparently derives from the Greek “formos” which represented the recipient in which curds were shaped into cheeses. From this route came the old French “fourmage” which over time evolved into the word fromage, meaning cheese in modern French. The term “fourme” is now applied to French cheeses of a rather specific cylindrical shape including Fourme d’Ambert made just across the border into the Auvergne.

In flavour the cheese is surprisingly mild, quite milky with a faint woodiness. There’s definitely an element from the blue mould but it’s mild, lacking the spicy piquancy of some other classic blues such as Roquefort and Stilton. I’m going to be honest here, I’m not a huge fan of the cheese at room temperature. Shocking I know. 

Where it comes into its own though, is when it’s heated. The crumbly pâte melts in a way reminiscent of cheddar and bubbles and browns pleasantly under the grill. The cheese also melts well into piping hot pasta, aided with a dash of cream and some seasoning.

The recipe (if you can even really call it that) below was demonstrated to me by the last existing farm house producer of Fourme de Montbrison when I spent a day there helping to make the cheese. If there’s a recipe using the cheese, they know it!

Grilled Fourme de Montbrison on toast

This makes a fantastically easy starter or finger snack to serve with an apéro.

1.  Lightly toast a slice of bread
2.  Place a slice of cheese on the toast
3.  Cook under the grill until the cheese bubbles and starts to brown
For more information, you can check the official website (in French).