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Adventures with Cheese

A year or so ago, I saw a show on PBS about how PR consultants test and choose keywords to influence public opinion on everything from political campaigns to new foods. Most memorable–other than the use of a statistics-wielding ad consultant for the Swiftboat smear campaign–was a French marketing expert in his late 60s who discussed the key difference he’d found in food attitude focus groups between Americans and French:

“In America,” he declared, “Cheese is dead. I can assure you of that.” The key positive words that arose in his group discussions about cheese were “sterile” and “safe”. That is, as long as the cheese was processed, uniform, free of visible mold, refrigerated, odor-free, pasteurized and–most important–wrapped in plastic so nothing could possibly escape, cheese was okay.

Otherwise, he said–you could hardly miss the sneer–Americans considered cheese unsafe. They–we–were culturally afraid of it.

In France, he maintained, “Cheese is alive.” The French focus groups brought out  words like culture, flavor, and the names of many, many specific types of regional cheeses that were their personal favorites. The French still buy much of their cheese at small local shops whose owners’ main job is to present their cheeses for sale at the optimum point of ripeness. The customers take home a wedge or small round of cheese and keep it on the counter or a dedicated shelf in the fridge, depending on the type, and they have their own fixed ideas and traditions for storing it so as not to ruin its flavor or texture–two words that did not really come up in the American discussions as much as “Velveeta”.

Are we Americans really that ignorant about cheese? The food my husband brought home from the aforementioned brunch included three or four stacks of precut sliced cheese–yellow-orange, whitish with an orange edge, and whitish again with tiny flecks of red and green throughout. Cheddar, muenster, and pepper jack? I looked at them, wondering were they real or processed–hard to say by looks alone, so I peeled off a corner of a slice on each of them to try them. They all tasted exactly alike. Although the one with the flecks was a little bit spicy, the basic flavor was Velveeta: salt, starch or gum, cooking oil. Something stale–maybe milk solids–but no culture, no tang, no fresh dairy flavor. There wasn’t even much of a smell. The French guy was right.

I started to toss the packets in the trash and my daughter asked why–so I let her taste them. “They’re not that bad,” she said. “They’re not that good,” I replied, and handed her a small chunk of sharp cheddar we had in the house for comparison. “Which would you rather eat?” ‘Nuff said.

I bring this up because I really do have a thing for cheese (damn my cholesterol-packin’ genes), but good artisan-type cheeses are often pretty expensive–$15 and up per pound–and the more affordable varieties of things like brie or gorgonzola usually lack something in the way of flavor, especially if they’re made in Canada or the U.S. Plus I have a thing for playing with my food.

For the last couple of years I’ve been playing around with the idea of taking a fresh cheese and culturing it further to get to something approaching the aged artisanal cheeses. We have lots of generic chèvre and feta and ricotta and so on these days–as well as increasingly easy-to-find inexpensive (but bland) brie and bleu cheeses made with cows’ milk. And that’s sometimes the problem: we don’t have a lot of goat’s or sheep’s milk available to ordinary consumers in the U.S., and the French-style cheeses we do have are kind of bland, maybe even oversterilized, even though as a former biochemist I’m a big fan of pasteurization, especially for any dairy that has scaled-up production. To that end, READ THE SAFETY NOTE AT THE BOTTOM OF THIS POST if you’re going to give this a try. 

On the other hand, I’m no fan at all of boiling vats of anything, and even less a fan of clabbering. No need to mention my attitude on scrubbing pots. I decided it would be just fine not to start from the milk stage. I’m not that rustic.

So one day I thought–well, the Trader Joe’s brie isn’t all that great, but it does have the white mold you need for brie, and it’s more or less pristine except for when the staff forget to rotate the older wedges to the top. The plain Silver Goat chèvre’s perfectly good and pretty tart and kind of a bargain, but I wanted to get something closer to bucheron, a log of chèvre that’s still fresh in the center but the outer ring has turned to a brie-style aged cheese with more pungent, rich flavor. Sliced crosswise in rounds, it’s a great cheese for grilling–very lightly–on toasted artisan-type bread as an open-faced sandwich with Kalamata olives, shredded basil or a little fresh thyme, and a drizzle of olive oil, with a good mixed salad beside it.

So in the name of science and culinary experimentation, I got a very small piece of the brie and a biggish log of the chèvre and cut a bit of the rind off the brie. I opened the chèvre and cut it in half without touching it, laid it on a clean white paper coffee filter and stuck a small (1/2 inch) strip of brie rind to the side of the cheese. I put each half in a sandwich bag with some air (after checking on a semi-professional cheesemaker’s site, I discovered air is important for both bleu and white penicillium cheese molds to culture the right way), sealed them, stuck them in a clean microwave container box, and put them in a clean isolated corner of my fridge to ripen.

That’s when the trouble began. I’m impatient, and the number of times I checked on the chèvre in the next six or eight weeks was pretty embarrassing. Because it really takes that long to work. But then it does work, starting around week 4. You see the white mold has started to make a coat over the surface of the cheese, and you can see hints that the chèvre is starting to turn soft buttery yellow around the edges, and it’s wildly exciting. And then you have to keep yourself from opening up the bag and tasting, because there won’t be any left to call a bucheron if you do.

All I can tell you is, this is a lot of time to spend culturing one small log of cheese, but on the other hand, if you have a couple of months, can be careful about handling the preparation steps, and are the experimenting type, it’s extremely easy and you could do two or three logs very inexpensively in the same time if you decide you like it.

My next experiment, sticking a bit of crumbled (Bel Gioioso) gorgonzola in a sandwich bag with the fresh chèvre, a bit of white brie rind, and some air, came out pretty well too–a softer, more gooey style of bleu, kind of like Cambozola, and with a nice goat cheese background to it. But someone please tell me how my forgotten half-used hunk of TJ’s ordinary feta–in a completely separate ziplock bag, mind you–got the idea to copy its neighbor in the cheese drawer. I discovered it by accident, thinking it was some leftover gorgonzola, and looked at the label. I gave it a sharp look and a sniff–to my surprise it smelled perfect, and tasted pretty good too. Is it too soon to start calling my fridge a cave?

SAFETY NOTE: The danger of contamination is ever-present when you deal with culturing, so I can’t say this is the thing for you if you aren’t big on washing your hands and utensils and keeping them from touching any kitchen surfaces before touching the food. Lab training helps in this instance. So do plastic ziplock bags and not touching the cheese directly with your hands. The culturing process will take place in your fridge, and the white brie mold is a harmless penicillium strain that should compete out other wild fungi and bacteria, but it’ll take several weeks for the chèvre to start converting, so keep an eye on the cheese and chuck it immediately without tasting if you see any reddish or orange streaks, growth or liquid, or if it smells acrid at any point rather than cheesy/brie-ish. This is the same warning you’ll find on almost all cheesemakers’ sites, and for some sourdough recipes as well. I’ll take the warning a step further and say use only pasteurized cheeses as your starters. Raw milk cheeses are now available in the U.S., but their manufacturers take more precautions than you can in your home kitchen and they have more experience to recognize when something’s not right.

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