I love cheese! A few weeks ago I posted The Odd Couple: Roquefort and Brie. Today is the turn of another two.
According to both historical resources and common sense, it is understood that the first cheese was perhaps made thousands of years ago by pure chance (which reminds me of how Guinness was discovered: by pure accident). Possibly, our early ancestors happened to store some milk in a pouch made of animal skin, probably a calf or lamb. Mammoth need not apply.
The next day they probably discovered that the milk in the bag had formed into curds and whey, over the course of the day. These chunks of solid curds, which could be just dried out and then preserved for long periods, were a handy derivative of plain milk which would have been extremely perishable without refrigeration. And the proverbial wheel was set in motion!
First a few words on rennet: before delving into the fascinating depths of its uses, it can help to know what rennet is, and how it works. Rennet is an enzymatic extract made from the lining of the stomachs of young ruminants, such as cows, sheep, and goats. These animals produce enzymes to help them digest the milk produced by their parents, breaking down the milk so that the maximum nutrition can be extracted from it in the stomach and intestinal tract. These same enzymes can be used to curdle or thicken milk to make a variety of foods. Today more and more cheeses are made with “microbial enzymes” (synthetically developed coagulant) which are widely used in the dairy industry because they are a consistent and inexpensive coagulant (according to some sources, almost 6 out of 10 hard cheeses made in the US today are manufactured using Genetically Modified rennet, yep, GMO’s pervade in most if not all processed foodstuffs!) There are also rennets which are derived from a variety of vegetable sources though it is far from having a commercial viability. Quite a lot of soft cheeses such as cream cheese and cottage cheese are manufactured without rennet. The exact processes in the making of cheese varies between different varieties. However, all cheeses are made by essentially the same method.
According to my Larousse:
People have been using rennet for centuries; it’s the foundation of traditional cheese making, for example. Initially, people were forced to make their own rennet, which was a messy and unpleasant process, as the stomach must be removed, scraped, cleaned, and dried. To use rennet in this form, cooks had to cut off a piece of the dried stomach and soak it in water to encourage it to dissolve before adding it to the recipe. Over time, butchers started offering rennet as a useful byproduct of their business, and eventually companies seized upon the idea of making rennet in tablet and liquid form for convenience.
How it works in cheese: rennet helps in the coagulation of the raw material—milk—into solid curds and milky whey. For example, I visited the local lady who makes a super goat cheese that is soft and spreadable, and very tasty. Here is a short version of how she does it, using rennet tablets:
In a large cooking pot she’d heat her milk to 80 degrees. It would then cool off and she’d add the rennet, stirring all the time and adding a type of culture needed for this cheese called Mesophilic-M. The pot then would be covered and left to sit undisturbed at room temperature for 12 to 18 hours. Now it’s ready to drain and drip using cheese cloth. She hangs it to allow the whey to drip through the cloth into a bowl set under it, for 6 to 8 hours. The cheese is then ready to be seasoned with salt, pepper or fresh herbs.
Gruyère: growing up in a hotel atmosphere had its pluses and minuses. On the plus side I got to meet some of the craziest people working in the hospitality industry (believe me, you have to be some sort of a nut to work in a seasonal hotel as both work and play are just as intense). One summer we had twin brothers from Switzerland, both equally wacky and incredibly forgetful. My uncle aptly named them the Gruyère brothers, because, as he saw it, they were full of holes!
I was six or seven at the times and didn’t really understand why my uncle had chosen a new name for them. He took me aside and proceeded to give me a lesson on cheese making, namely the fabled Gruyère cheese, and of course, explained in great details the provenance of the famous holes.
Gruyère is named after the Swiss valley from which it originates in the canton of Fribourg (the pic above is of a belled Swiss cow cosing up to a little piggy friend). It is made from cow’s milk fed on the edge of the Vaudois uplands and end up in enormous wheels that are aged between three and six months (see pic above the Swiss cow). Apparently this cheese has been made in the region from the time of the Celts, and was known to the Romans.
Fine Gruyère is typically aged for 10 to 12 months. Because Swiss cheeses use a bacterium (Propionibacter shermani) and when warmed, bubbles of carbon dioxide form inside the cheese, roughly the size of peas. These bubbles then become the distinctive holes (or eyes as they prefer to call them) as it matures. An interesting aside, cheese makers can control the size of the holes by changing the acidity, temperature, and curing time of the mixture. There’s a plethora of recipes using this cheese, with French onion soup, Gratin Dauphinois, Quiche and Fondue at the top of the Gruyère culinary ladder. Pic below is of the Vaudois uplands.
Here’s a recipe using the “holy” cheese: Caramelized Shallots & Potato Flan. Quick and easy to make. You’ll need 10 shallots, 3 tablespoons of butter, 1 tablespoon of honey, 6 to 8 baking potatoes, half a pound of grated Gruyère, salt & pepper to taste. Peel and slice the potatoes as finely as you can and set aside. Peel and mince the shallots. In a cooking pan over a small flame, melt the butter and add the shallots then the honey. Cook slowly until caramelized or about 30 minutes. Grease a large round baking dish with butter and proceed to layer the dish with the sliced potatoes, in a shingle fashion. One potato layer then a spoonful of the shallots and a generous pinch of the cheese. Repeat until you use the lot. Bake in a pre-heated oven at 350F for 45 minutes, or until potatoes are tender. You can eat this hot straight away or cool it for a few hours then upturn it and cut into thick wedges.
And now we come to my favorite cheese of all times: the goat cheese. I was once discovered hidden in a cupboard, aged two, eating my father’s cache of Corsican goat cheese (a wonderful, hard as rock, goat cheese wrapped in vine leaves, from Napoleon’s island). I was hooked for life.
I suppose that in order to discover the process involved in the production of cheese, folks had to expand their existence as hunters to that of herdsmen. This began with goats, sheep and cows being domesticated, with the result that there was milk available in larger quantities for trying out new ways to enjoy it. The varieties of goat cheeses are not only due to the varying tastes, but also in part due to the flexibility the cheese offers with its numerous combinations, hard or soft, pasteurized or not, seasoned in a thousand different manners.
Goat cheese can be an acquired taste to some and can be enjoyed both warm and cold and the way it is often served is reflective of the time of year: warm goat cheese tarlets, soufflés and quiches in winter; in salads and even in ice-creams in the summer. In the old days, only in winter when goat milk production was suspended for a few weeks at the end of the year, it was not readily available. Now we have supermarkets carrying all kinds of cheeses from many countries.
This is a good dish when you’re alone and feeling unfussy: a goat cheese omelet, made with brocciu, another Corsican cheese, soft and savory, think of ricotta with attitude! I Googled it and it is available in the US but any kind of goat cheese is good in this omelet. The trick is to find a few leaves of fresh mint to make it really special. And three free range eggs. You can use as much cheese as you like in this. I add a few slivers of red bell pepper to jazz it up. You’ll also need a knob of butter.
Beat the eggs and season with salt and pepper. Melt the butter in a frying pan approximately 10 to 12 inches in diameter. When the butter has melted and is bubbling, throw in the mint leaves and the bell pepper julienne. When it has sizzled in the butter, pour in the beaten eggs and tip the egg around the pan, here and there. Crumble the cheese over the omelet and cook, lifting the sides and swilling the pan around to let any runny egg cook in the heat underneath. Flip the omelet over, cook it for another 10 to 20 seconds, fold it in half and slide it onto a plate. Another neat trick is to sprinkle a few drops of balsamic vinegar into the pan after you have put the omelet on the plate and pour over it immediately. Now that I have written this recipe I think I might do a whole piece on omelets: quick to produce, extremely nutritious, inexpensive and amazingly diverse.
Chocolate mousse is not the only option for dessert, goat cream cheese combined with fruit is surprisingly tasty. The combination of mild , soft goat cheese and raspberry mousse is a very harmonic combination. Exotic fruits are also a very compatible match to French goat cheese. Try mango with a goat cream cheese or pineapple with a Chèvre du Poitou (a truly fantastic variety, also for sale in the USA).
And this caught my eye in the New Scientist:
A drug expressed in the milk of genetically engineered goats has won a favorable review from the FDA. Made by GTC Biopharmaceuticals of Rockville, Maryland, antithrombin prevents blood clots during surgery or childbirth in people with a rare clotting disorder. It received European approval in 2006.