Tour de fromage
Fortunately for adventuresome cooks, France produces more cheeses than there are days in the year—from fresh to aged, soft to hard, bloomy rinds to washed rinds to triple crèmes to blues. To invigorate your kitchen, take the tour de fromage and elevate your French cheese IQ.
Brie and company: the magic of mold
That velvety white coat on the outside of Brie demonstrates the positive role that molds play in cheesemaking. But how does it get there? Modern cheesemakers add the mold Penicillium camemberti to the milk, or spray the spores on the young cheeses. With the right temperature, humidity and surface pH, the mold quickly blooms, encasing the cheese.
The rind limits evaporation, keeping the interior moist. And it gradually ripens the interior—known as the paste—so the cheese becomes progressively more creamy.
The mold also contributes to the mushroom aromas of bloomy-rind cheeses like Brie, Camembert and Coulommiers. To judge ripeness, press the cheese gently; it should have some give. Reddish or tan markings on the rind also indicate that the cheese is maturing nicely.
Washed rinds: big aromas, bold tastes
French washed-rind cheeses, such as Tomme d’Alsace, Reblochon, Saint-Nectaire and Munster, have a pungency that can fill a room. Cheesemakers work hard to develop the aromas in washed-rind cheeses by bathing them repeatedly with brine as they age. The brine seasons the cheese as the salt works its way in. But it also creates a moist, saline surface, luring bacteria that like those conditions. Washed-rind cheeses with a tan rind have desirable bacteria on the surface. These bacteria produce enzymes that help to ripen the cheese, producing those head-turning scents.
Mountain cheese: marvelous melters
The cheeses of the French Alps are still mainly large-format cow’s milk cheeses, such as Beaufort, Comté, Emmental and Abondance. They are firm cheeses, built to last. A Comté, weighing 120 pounds, can improve for 18 months or more.
If you want to make a cheese capable of extended aging, you have to get the moisture out early. Alpine cheesemakers do that by cutting the curds small, heating the curds and then pressing the young wheels—all steps designed to expel whey. The result is a durable cheese with a firm, tight texture. Most have no eyes (interior holes) or only a few small ones; the exception is Emmental, with eyes the size of cherries or larger. They form in Emmental because the wheels are aged in a warm room, producing carbon dioxide gas that can’t escape.