The Diplôme d'Université "Fromage et Patrimoine" (a certification in cheese studies), while abbreviated from its original scope that included a professional license and additional scientific credits, still will provide a fairly comprehensive overview of all things cheese, I think. The three days of classes in February were conducted by a well-known French affineur/fromager, Rodolphe Le Meunier, who lives and tends cheeses not far from Tours, in the small town of La Croix en Touraine, at Les Fromages du Moulin. He's also got a permanent space in downtown Tours at Les Halles, and sells at several of the local weekly markets. He started out in the family business of goat cheese production and aging - the Loire Valley is known for its excellent goat cheeses - but later he and his sister Caroline decided to drop the cheesemaking and concentrate on the aging and sales of all types of cheeses. Much of his business involves facilitating cheese sales, starting with the selection of the cheeses and maintaining relationships with the producers, moving to assembling and aging (affinage) in his storerooms, then shipping or delivering to restaurants, boutique stores, or large supermarkets locally and around France, or out to places in the United States or Japan. He's been awarded the title of Meilleur Ouvrier de France (MOF), and is one of France's "best craftsmen" as determined by a juried competition that's been held every four years since 1929. He was named the 2007 World Champion Cheese Affineur and continues to travel for presentations, take part in conferences and trade shows, and assist at classes such as ours. Selecting, evaluating, presenting, and selling cheese would be the focus of these sessions.
We started off by talking about cheese in general, and about the role of the affineur. A few years ago there was a fair bit of press devoted to affinage and arguments from cheese professionals on both sides of the debate, with opinions running from "it's all hype" to "proper aging is essential." A lot of the problem depends on when you define the start of the aging process; technically, a cheese starts aging as soon as it's out of the form that shapes it. Since it's unlikely that a cheese will be turned over by the producer to the affineur immediately, the producer also needs to know how to treat the cheese, where to store it, and in what environment. M. Le Meunier said that local and regional affineurs can often get the cheese within five days of when it's made, and that many of these local people specialize in the cheeses of their region ("monoproduit" operations, as opposed to the multiple types and styles of cheese that he deals with).
And there are many types and styles of cheese, especially in France, though they can be broadly classified into five or six categories: croûte fleurie, a soft or semisoft paste covered in a "flowery crust" (or "bloomy rind") formed by the action of Penicillium camembertii or other white mold; croûte lavée, or "washed rind," similar in texture but much stronger in odor due to the bacteria that develop on the rind; pâte pressée, with either cooked or uncooked curd; a somewhat fluid categorization either labeled chèvre or croûte naturelle; and persillée (blue cheese). Fromage à pâte fraîche (fresh cheese) is another category that includes cottage cheese (though not in France), Corsican Brocciu, and mascarpone. It's a little difficult for me to keep some of these categories straight, especially when one cheese can appear in several, such as the Sainte-Maure de Touraine, which can be classified as a chèvre, a bloomy rind, or a fresh cheese.
But no matter which cheese you start with, the role of the affineur is to provide it with the correct environment to reach its full potential. Although, as M. Le Meunier said, the cheese ages by itself, and the most important thing is to make sure you're starting out with a good cheese. "Faut avoir un bon fromage; sinon, rien à faire." When you have a good product in the beginning, then it's time to look at the three requirements of an aging facility, each of which need to be adjustable depending on the type of cheese you're dealing with: temperature, humidity, and ventilation. At the Les Fromages du Moulin facility, there's a separate walk-in storage area for each type of cheese.
Clockwise from top left: Couronnes de Touraine (goat); long-term storage of pressed-curd cheeses; whole wheels of Emmental de Savoie; storing precut wheels
Several of the cheeses looked, to my sanitized American eyes, somewhat less than edible. Wildly sprouting molds of various lengths and hues, these cheeses would horrify customers scanning the cheese case at your average Whole Foods, and they'd sweep the lot into the garbage. I remember hours spent patting down the mold on bloomy-rind cheeses at Rivers Edge and scraping away red or yellow or black spots from the wheels of ripening tomme. Here, by contrast, molds are allowed to run rampant, resulting in goat cheeses so covered with fuzz that their original shape is hard to make out, or blobby hairy objects like the racked Gaperon cheeses below, flavored with garlic and black pepper, and quite delicious once you get past the fact that they look like things a giant cat might hork up in the middle of the night.
Go ahead, eat it. No, really.
It's not illegal to sell raw-milk cheeses in France, though as more cheese production becomes industrial, milk that has been pasteurized or thermisé (like pasteurization, but heated to a lower temperature) is becoming more widely used. However, M. Le Meunier tends to stay with the nonindustrial sources, and said that only about 30% of his cheeses are made with pasteurized milk. For cheeses that have been granted the Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) label, there are rules about what type of milk you can use. In fact, for some cheeses the rules are very specific, and include things like what breed of animals the milk must come from, what they eat and where, when in the season the cheeses are produced, and how long the cheese must be aged. In this case "aging" might have to be done on site where the cheese is made, as is the case for Roquefort, which depends on the natural moisture, ventilation, and molds present in the rocky caves where the cheese is stored. The cheese called Langres (below) can only be sold under the AOC designation if it has been produced in one of three départements (Vosges, Côte-d’Or, Marne), with milk that's at least 50% from one of three breeds of cows (Montbéliarde, Simmental or Brune) which get at least 6 months of free-range grazing and whose feed year-round is composed of at least 80% grasses or other fodder from the defined production zone. And those are only a few of the rules governing the creation of this cheese. I asked if the affineur had to worry about any of these rules, and M. Le Meunier said not, and that even with all the rules that need to be followed, "rien n'est exact dans le fromage et l'affinage."
The goat's-milk Sainte-Maure de Touraine is a regional specialty here, with hundreds of producers making the ash-dusted log and sticking a straw through the middle, though only the AOC producers use the official straws that are laser-printed with the AOC designation. At the Saturday farmer's market here in Tours, there are three or four people selling the cheese, and the butcher's truck that comes by the apartment every Friday afternoon always has a line of a dozen in various stages of ripeness. I'm not sure how much importance people - normal everyday people wanting normal everyday cheese, that is - place on the AOC designation when it comes to a cheese that's a simple and ubiquitous as the Sainte-Maure. If it tastes good, eat it. As
long as the producer uses good milk and has the right storage conditions, it'll probably be just fine.
And then came the dangerous part: the dégustation. M. Le Meunier kept pulling out more and more cheeses from the aging rooms, muttering "oh, you've got to try this" and "here, let's use three different Comtés to see the difference" and things like that. With a huge pile of cheeses on the cart, he passed out paper plates and started slicing, starting us off with the a mild fresh unsalted chèvre, milky and sweet. We tasted a Couronne de Touraine (goat) in three different stages, a slippery 4-day-old, a firmer week-old, and a solid 3-week-old round. The Sainte-Maure (goat) was about 3 months old, and was dry and crumbly; it's usually sold younger, but M. Le Meunier said that some of the older generation liked to wait until these cheeses are hard and eye-wateringly strong before eating them. We tasted a slice of a small goat cheese called bouyguette that is shaped like a kayak with a sprig of rosemary or thyme down the middle, and a wedge of the ash-coated pyramid of a perfectly-ripe 6-week-old Pouligny (also goat) with its lemony aftertaste.
We moved on to cow's-milk cheeses then, with soft thin wedges of Camembert and a silky brie fermier. M. Le Meunier mentioned that for people in the region where Camembert is produced, there's a wide range of customer tastes to satisfy, and clients want the cheese in every stage from young and firm to old and runny. Outside the production area, most people either want a barely-ripened cheese, or one that puddles on the plate as soon as you cut into it. I found the brie to be somewhat gummy and sticky. The texture of these cheeses will depend, we were told, on whether you age the cheese unwrapped or in the paper and box it comes in. In the pressed-curd category, we were given bits of Comté at 18 months, 30 months, and 40 months of maturation. The oldest cheese was crunchy with casien crystals and deeply nutty in flavor. And we tried a wedge of Reblochon, a raw-milk washed-rind cheese that's aged on pine boards, giving the rind a slightly resinous tang.
I'd taken the precaution of popping a probiotic pill, but by this time my nose had started running and I could feel the flush on my cheeks from an allergic reaction, so I also took one of the handy antiallergy pills I'd picked up in the UK a few months ago, Piriton (chlorphenamine maleate, which I think is what Chlor-Trimeton is, which I remember taking as a kid, but not for dairy). But I kept tasting the cheeses as they were presented.
Etivaz was next, and I wish I'd tasted it at the source in Switzerland back in 2007, because it's a lovely cheese, moistly firm and a bit crumbly with a well-rounded flavor.
And we tasted 24-month-old Parmesan that was really, really good. And the slumpy orange washed-rind Langres, and Tomme Rabelais with its dusty brown rind (which wasn't as good as the Tomme de Savoie we'd tried earlier). Then there was the sheep's-milk Ossau-Iraty from the Basque region, firm and spicy, followed by another pressed sheep's-milk cheese, the round Le Puits d'Astier with its patches of yellow mold. We finished with the cow's-milk high-mountain Salers, a tightly-regulated cheese that can only be made in the summer, milking cows that graze on the rich volcanic slopes and processing the milk in a large wooden vat, pressing the curd and cheeses several times, then aging the cheeses for three months to a year. It's a strong and slightly crumbly cheese with a herby flavor that would go well with a Côtes d'Auvergne from the same region.
Part of the cheesemonger's task is to figure out how to add value to the cheese he or she sells. We spent a good bit of time talking about how to present cheeses on plates or in cases, but we also talked about making things with cheese to sell, like cheese tarts in pastry, or spreads with soft fresh cheese, or whole cheeses marinated or coated in something flavorful that would complement or enhance the flavor of the cheese. As an example of this last concept, M. Le Meunier showed us how to make two "improved" versions of Camembert, one drenched in Calvados (apple brandy) and then rolled in spicebread crumbs, and the other coated in dried sage. We took the cheeses out of their boxes and wrappers, dunked and rolled as directed, then wrapped them back up in plastic and stuck them back in the boxes to develop in flavor for a few days before they went to the store to be sold.
I had to learn new words to be able to discuss cheese, like présure (rennet) and souche (strain, as in bacterial strain) and saumure (brine). I never paid much attention to the storage cases where Pat keeps her cheeses while they're ripening, or bothered to ask the exact temperature and humidity that Robin kept his blue cheeses at in Totnes, but now I know that cheese likes to ripen best between 8°C and 14°C, and that you have to make sure that you don't have too many cheeses in a small place because it will get too humid. Humidity throws the bacteria/culture balance out of whack and attracts the bad molds, something that you need to pay particular attention to with the soft and semisoft cheeses. In general the hard cheeses have already developed tougher rinds that keep the uninvited molds out. The affineur's goal is to have no wasted cheese, so obviously carelessly allowing cheeses to spoil in the aging rooms is not on. Like much of the rest of the job, it's a matter of practice, as you get to learn how much cheese to order, and what client demand is likely to be, and who you can sell cheeses to at each point of ripeness, and how to factor in shipping time - M. Le Meunier ships cheeses by boat to the States sometimes, and they leave his facility still young but arrive just at the right point to sell immediately. And if some of your cheeses get really ripe, you'll need to know who likes to eat them at that stage ... or develop a taste for them yourself.