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French Cheeses

"Would you like white cheese or yellow cheese with your omelet?" I am sure I am not the only French native who had to suppress a laugh the first time I was asked that question by a coffee shop waitress. Coming from a country that boasts more than 400 different cheeses, I always found it limiting to define cheeses by their color alone... Although the selection of cheeses in the USA has vastly increased in the last 15 years, I still need my regular "cheese fix" for the many varieties that are just not available here, or have to be "altered" in order to satisfy USDA regulations.

There is evidence that the abundance of cheese in France has inspired generations of poets, philosophers and advertisers (you may be familiar with the old saying " a meal without cheese is like a beautiful woman with only one eye"...). Fortunately, it also inspired many chefs and a visit to Androuet's restaurant in Paris will convince any skeptical soul that cheeses are not just bound to the cheese board: they are important ingredients in fine cuisine as well. To help you maneuver around the cheese platter with more confidence, here is a little crash course in cheese-making.

Cheese 101. Although history does not tell us where and when the first batch of cheese was ever made, we do know that nomadic tribes in Asia and Africa, and also the Greeks, Romans and Jews were using cheese. In fact, cheese probably was one of the most valuable food in the early days since you can pack a lot of nutrients in a very small space, for a considerable amount of time without spoilage. Cheese was made by stock-herding peoples to use the surplus of milk. Milk-producing animals included buffaloes, camels, cows, goats, reindeer and sheep. Today, most cheese is made from cows', goats' or sheep's milk. Although cheese is made in some form in every country of the world, each country, and different regions within a country, can produce their own special cheeses.

Cheese is the casein of milk with varying amounts of butterfat and whey. Factors affecting the differences in cheeses are: the source of milk, the butterfat content of the milk (whole, partly skimmed, skimmed), the agent used to coagulate the milk (acid or rennet), the amount of whey removed from the curd, and the treatment and final curing process. The first step in cheese-making is to coagulate the milk in order to separate the curd from the whey (liquid, called "petit lait" in French): either the milk is allowed to sour naturally, or a lactic-acid starter is used, or coagulation may be induced artificially with the addition of rennet (présure), an enzyme found in the fourth stomach of the calf. Most commercial cheeses are made from rennet-coagulated curd. The curd is then separated from the whey by the means of a press, the degree of separation being determined by the type of cheese desired, soft or hard. Softer cheeses have a higher liquid content than the harder varieties. The curd is seasoned and pressed into shapes characteristic of the particular cheese being produced. Cheese is allowed to ripen or cure in natural caves or in temperature and humidity controlled storerooms. Again, the time of aging depends upon the specific variety of cheese: it may vary from a few days to several months. Changes which occur during the ripening process affect the flavor, texture, and cooking qualities of the cheese.

Cheese made by using lactic acid as the coagulation agent (either from natural souring or the addition of a lactic-acid starter) loses more calcium from the whey than does cheese made by the addition of rennet, because the lactic acid changes the calcium to a soluble form. Since milk contains fat-soluble vitamin A, cheeses made from whole milk are an important source of this vitamin. Milk also contains water-soluble vitamins B, G, and some C, but much of these tend to be lost with the whey. Therefore, the softer cheeses retain more of the water-soluble vitamins than do the hard ones. Cheese is also high in protein: a pound of cheese made from whole milk contains almost as much protein as three quarts!

A classification of various cheeses.

Cheeses are usually organized in seven main families.

1/ Fresh cheeses. This is cheese in its initial stage. Fresh cheeses existed before maturing and fermentation processes were used. The curd, which is cut into small pieces, is drained slowly to encourage retention of the whey that keeps the curds moist. After 24 hours, the curds are smoothened, sometimes enriched by the addition of cream, and packed. These cheese are soft with a delicious lactic flavor. They are eaten with salt or sugar, and they combine perfectly with herbs and spices or with jam and fruit. They keep only a very short time. Examples: fromage blanc, Crêmet d'Anjou, Brousse, Boursault, Gournay, Boursin.

2/ Soft cheeses. They are matured cheeses, made with raw or pasteurized milk. They account for more than one third of French cheese production. Two types are available:

2.1 Soft cheese with white rind. During maturing, the addition of penicillium forms a white "bloom" which gives the rind its downy appearance with touches of red. Examples: Brie, Camembert, Carré de l'Est, Coulommiers, Chaource, Neufchatel.

2.2 Soft cheese with washed rind. The rind of these cheeses is washed with salt water during the maturing process to keep it supple and allow the salt to penetrate into the cheese. After this treatment, the rind is smooth and ranges in color from straw-yellow to dark brick-red. Examples: Pont l'Evêque, Munster, Epoisses, Livarot, Maroilles, Reblochon.

3/ Goat cheeses. Entirely made with goat milk, these cheeses have a marked personality of their own and come in many unusual shapes: disks, logs, pyramids, cylinders. Depending on the period allow for maturing, they may be soft, medium-dry, dry or hard. Some are sprinkled with charcoal ash which gives them an ash-gray color and absorbs surface moisture to help preserve them. Examples: Crottin de Chavignol, Valençais, Sainte-Maure, Bougon, Banon, Selles-sur-Cher.

4/ Semi-hard cheeses. The curds are broken up, pressed, crushed, salted and molded. The surface is evenly salted and forms a thick rind, light yellow, gray or red according to the type. Examples: Pyrénées, Saint-Paulin, Mimolette, Cantal, Tomme, Morbier.

5/ Hard cheeses. They are large in size and heavy. Traditionally, they were made on the farm, in the mountains, when the cows had the full benefit of the spring and summer grass. Due to the practice of transhumance, these cheeses were not brought back to the valley until Fall; that dictated their method of production. It is also because they had to be kept for a long time that they are large in size (up to 285 Lbs!), so that the cheese can retain its suppleness. Examples: Gruyère, Emmental, Comté, Beaufort.

6/ Blue cheeses. The blue veins confer a unique appearance to this family of cheeses. A pure culture of blue Penicillium mold is introduced into the crumbled curds or into the milk before the addition of rennet. Its development is mainly due to the aeration if the cheese as it matures in damp cellars. Many varieties are made with cow milk (Bleu d'Auvergne, Bleu de Bresse, Fourme d'Ambert); Roquefort is made with ewe's milk.

7/ Processed cheeses. May be made from one or more melted cheeses. Coagulated milk, cream, butter, spices, flavoring, nuts... may be added. To obtain a combination of flavors, young cheeses with a fresh lactic taste are often blended with matured cheeses. Examples: Crème de Gruyère, Vache qui Rit.

Over 30 years ago, a famous General said it was impossible to govern a country that had so many cheeses. With new varieties emerging every year, it is not getting any easier!

JDV Recipes Featuring French Cheeses
    AppetizerCheese and Olive Pâté
    AppetizerCheese Puffs
    AppetizerLeek & Goat Cheese Tart
    AppetizerWalnuts with Roquefort
    SoupsCheese Soup
    ChickenChicken Breast stuffed with Roquefort

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