My introduction to cheese was recalled to me by my great grandmother: aged two, I had discovered my father’s cache of Corsican goat cheese and apparently quickly scampered onto the flat roof and ate the lot. To this day my love for that particular cheese remains unabated. In France a platter of cheese is invariably served before dessert and will comprise a type of Camembert or Brie, some blue cheese and perhaps a couple of local confections. In this post I’ll concentrate on Brie and Roquefort. In a couple of days I’ll post one on Goat cheese and Gruyère.
The oldest traditions involving the extraction and crafting of milk come from Mesopotamia (today’s Iraq). A corresponding portrayal in the temple of the life goddess Ninchursag, shows that cheese was already being produced at that time. This was around 3,000 years before the birth of Christ. So, yes, we have been making cheese for well over 5,000 years.
It’s virtually impossible to say which French cheese is the best, why we eat tons of it and produce well over a thousand variety (not including small regional cheeses made for Sunday markets and those who are simply home made) and as an aside, it’s possibly why we’re sometimes referred to as “cheese-eating-surrender-monkeys! Personally I like most of them but I draw the line to those who have live worms in them and stink to the heavens (Munster anyone?)
A word on serving it: always serve cheese at room temperature; never serve it straight from the fridge. But you knew that.
I’ll start with Brie because it has a most interesting history as well as being one of my top four or five. Brie is a historic region southeast of Paris, most famous for, you have guessed right, its Brie cheese. Did you know it was once divided into two sections ruled by different feudal lords? Brie Française, corresponding roughly to the modern département de Seine-et-Marne in l’Île-de-France région (Paris basin) and Brie Champenoise, forming a portion of the modern département du Marne in the historic region of Champagne (part of modern-day Champagne-Ardenne). Such is the power of cheese! Brie is a soft cow’s milk cheese. It is pale in color with a slight grayish tinge under its crusty white mold; very soft and savory with a hint of ammonia. The white moldy rind is edible (actually, it’s quite healthy to eat it).
In addition to plain Brie, there many varieties of Brie made all over the world, including herbed varieties, double and triple crème varieties (the subject of my forthcoming dairy on triple cream cheese~) and versions made with other types of milk. Brie is perhaps the most well-known French cheese (although Camembert people would strongly object to my pronouncement, particularly the Normands), and is popular throughout the world. Despite the variety of Bries, the French government officially certifies only two types of Brie to be sold under that name: Brie de Meaux and Brie de Melun (I checked on this yesterday, and it still stands).
Brie de Meaux made in the city of Meaux, southeast of Paris since le VIII ème siècle, was originally known as the “King’s Cheese” (later, following the French Revolution, the “King of Cheeses”) and was enjoyed by the peasantry and nobility alike. It was granted the protection of AOC (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée) status in 1980. Brie may be produced from whole or semi-skimmed milk. The curd is obtained by adding rennet to raw milk and heating it to a maximum temperature of 37°C. The cheese is then cast into molds, sometimes with a traditional perforated ladle called a pelle à brie. The 20 centimetre mold is filled with several thin layers of cheese and drained for approximately 18 hours. The cheese is then taken out of the molds, salted, inoculated with cheese mold (Penicillium candidum, Penicillium camemberti and/or Brevibacterium linens) and aged in a cellar for at least four weeks.
That is why it’s not cheap. I remember the days when French secret agents stupidly sank Greenpeace’s “Rainbow Warrior”, resulting in Australasia (OZ & NZ) blocking the sale of French cheeses in retaliation (the pretext used was that it might have brought the dreaded foot-and-mouth disease ashore). Well, never one for losing my appetite for cheese and an opportunity to defy authorities one more, I used to organize underground cheese parties (I should have called them cheeseasy, after the speakeasies of the thirties) by simply arranging personnel from Air France (also known as UTA in those days) to smuggle wheels of Brie, Roquefort and goat cheese from Noumea, in New Caledonia, a South Pacific French territory.
Another thing: the region in France that gave its name to this cheese (Brie) is, in the French language, feminine: la Brie, but French products take the gender of their general category; in this case Cheese, le fromage, is masculine, and so the cheese is also masculine, le Brie. Are you confused now? Well, here is a recipe using Brie to whet your appetite, a savory tart made with Brie, asparagus and leeks. The easy way is to buy the puff pastry, roll it, bake it blind and use the following as filling:
for 4 to 6 persons: 4 whole eggs, half a pound of Brie, 1 pint of double cream, 1 medium-sized leeks, 1 bunch of fresh asparagus, salt & pepper to taste.
It’s best to precook the asparagus in salted boiling water, drain and set aside. In a frying pan, cook the finely minced leeks, add the cream, do not boil, and add the Brie, stirring till it melts, rind and all. In a bowl mix the eggs lightly and pour the Brie mixture, whisking through. Pour the whole thing into your pastry and bake in a moderate oven for 20 to 30 minutes, or until golden brown. Some would add a little Parmesan on top, or Emmental, for good measure before the baking. This is a great starter, and can be eaten cold as well.
Roquefort: another cheese I can’t live without! My idea of debauchery is a large chunk of this cheese above, a good, crusty country bread, and an old tawny port. “You can unite the French only through fear. You simply cannot bring together a country that has over 265 kinds of cheese”, once said Charles de Gaulle famously. A long long time ago, another great man, Charlemagne, loved Roquefort so much he had it shipped to his digs twice a year, alongside Brie, his other cheese addiction.
“After the fall of the Roman Empire the monks of the Benedictine and Cistercian monasteries, thanks to whom the population did not starve to death entirely during the Dark Ages, were the pioneers of the new cheese-making industry of medieval times. If the chronicles of Eginhard, Charlemagne’s biographer, are to be believed, it was in one of these monasteries — probably the abbey of Vabres near Roquefort — that the Emperor, another lover of cheese, was given a sheep’s milk cheese veined with mould. Much to his surprise, he liked it. He made the prior promise to send two crates of this cheese a year to Aix-la Chapelle, thus nearly ruining the poor community. Charlemagne was equally enthusiastic about the cheese of Reuil in Brie. A man of discernment, he pronounced it ‘one of the most marvelous of foods’, and requisitioned two crates of this cheese as well, to round off his dinners at Aix.”
The first evidence of Roquefort was discovered in 79 A.D. when Pliny the Elder mentioned its rich aroma. Roquefort is made exclusively from the milk of the red Lacaune ewes that graze on the huge plateau of Rouergue, Causses in the Aveyron (see pic below). A genuine Roquefort has a red sheep on the label.
The story behind the origins of Roquefort has been romanticized in a very old legend of the land: the legend begins with a young shepherd who was minding his flock of sheep in the hills of Roquefort when he suddenly sighted a beautiful maiden in the distance (there’s always a maiden somewhere!) Determined to find her, the shepherd left his dog to guard the sheep and hastily placed his lunch – bread and ewe’s milk curds – in the nearby caves to keep cool.
The shepherd was away for days, looking for his maiden. Unfortunately, he never found her. Dejected, the shepherd returned to his sheep, tired and hungry. When he took his lunch out of the caves, he found that the bread and milk curds were moldy. His hesitation was brief due to his mounting hunger. With some trepidation, the shepherd took a bite and was pleasantly surprised to find that his moldy lunch tasted quite delicious! Thus, the Roquefort was born. I’m not sure if this a real story or not but I’ve seen it quoted so many times in the French cheese sites, I’m beginning to think it may have a modicum of truth to it.
The production of Roquefort blue cheese involves a series of processes, beginning with the delivery of Lacaune ewe milk to the dairy. Once there, the milk goes through some chemical and bacteriological tests to ensure that only the highest quality milk is used to make Roquefort. After these tests, the milk is heated to between 82.4°F and 93.2°F (28°C and 34°C) and placed into large vats. Spores of the fungus Penicillium roqueforti are then added to these vats, allowing the milk to ferment into curds. Once the curds are ready, they are cut into cubes and transferred into cheese molds, where they are drained and salted into cheese loaves. The cheese loaves remain at the dairy for another ten days before being relocated to the Combalou caves for natural ripening.
This much I know: before entering the damp caves, the cheese loaves are pierced through a number of times. These small holes allow air in and encourage the growth of the mold fungus. The cheese loaves are left exposed for two to three weeks to ensure that enough mold has grown into the cheese. Once there is sufficient “Penicillium roqueforti” in the cheese, the loaves are wrapped up and left to mature under lower temperatures. Three to ten months later, the cheese loaves leave the caves as Roquefort blue cheese. One brand I think is always reliable is Société, and can be found almost anywhere in the world, and online.
Here’s a nifty Roquefort soufflé, easy to make, and a sure way to enjoy its flavor. You need a few ramekins, a wedge of Roquefort and 30 minutes of your time. This will really impress your friends. Serve with a simple lettuce salad with a few walnuts tossed in it. For 6 ramekins (you can halve or increase depending on how many you need to make):
40g butter, 45g plain flour, 1/2 pint whole milk, 150 gr Roquefort, 2 tbsp chopped chives, 4 eggs, separated, salt & pepper to taste.
Butter 6 150ml ramekins. In a small cooking pot, melt the butter, stir in the flour and cook for 2 minutes. Slowly add the milk, stirring well to prevent lumps forming. Simmer for 2-3 minutes, stirring now and then. Cool a little then stir in the Roquefort and chives, season with pepper. Stir in the egg yolks, slowly and set aside. In a separate bowl, whisk the egg whites to soft peaks then fold in the cheese sauce with a rubbe spatula. Spoon into the ramekins, then place them in a roasting tray filled with water. Cook in a pre-heated oven at 200°C (400°F) for 20 minutes. Serve immediately. During my restaurant days in Sydney I made a stunning Roquefort ice-cream and served it with my hazelnut crackers.
BTW, the word soufflé is derived from French wherein it literally means “puffed up” so don’t worry too much if it doesn’t rise, it’s not the end of the world. Most people I know cower at the idea of serving one at dinner parties, thinking it’s a really hard thing to make. It’s not.