Hello all! For this post, I want to give a basic overview of cheesemaking and discuss how microorganisms are involved. Then, I will introduce my two favorites from the trip.
For a basic definition, cheese is a dairy product that is made by curdling the casein proteins within milk and removing the whey. This process is initiated by starter cultures or lactic acid bacteria. The bacteria convert the lactose in milk to lactic acid, and this lowers the pH. Together with the addition of rennet extract, the casein proteins and fats come together to separate themselves from the solution, forming the curd. The softer the cheese, the larger the curd is cut, and the more whey retained. The harder the cheese, the smaller the curd is cut, the more whey is removed and the longer it is ripened.
Before the cheese curds are set for ripening, they will typically be loaded into a mold and pressed, and then brined, salted, and/or inoculated with microorganisms. They can also acquire microorganisms such as molds, from the air. The wheels are typically aged in a humid cellar ranging from just a few weeks to many years, and this is where chemical reactions from the microorganisms continue to change the aroma, texture, and flavor of the wheels.
Now l want to introduce two of my favorite cheeses that I tried in France, they are called Epoisses and Comté. Our class got to take a tour of the Gaugry factory, the only commercial factory that produces raw-milk Epoisses, and a cheese cooperative called Fruitiére-Fromagére de Grande Rivière which makes Morbier and Comté.
Epoisses is a French word for “stinky but loveable”. It’s known for being one of the most pungent cheeses in the world and is made only in Burgundy. Epoisses is a soft, uncooked, washed rind cheese that is made with raw cow’s milk. The distinguishing features of Epoisses include the wooden box it is packaged in, the fact that it’s washed with Marc de Bourgogne, a brandy made from Burgundy wine, and the “red smear” on the exterior containing Brevibacterium linens. It’s no secret that this is the bacterium that gives Epoisses it’s sticky, rustic colored rind, along with its unpleasant aroma. As Epoisses ages, the exterior gets darker and drier, the interior becomes gooier, and the taste and aroma get stronger. It can be served after six weeks of ripening and is typically alongside bread and a red Burgundy wine. These elements help to neutralize the smell and allow you to taste the sweet, salty, creamy flavors of Epoisses. The bottom line here is that if you go to Burgundy, France, you HAVE to try this one. I didn’t think that I was going to like it!
Now to introduce Comté (pronounced con-tay), a semi-hard cheese made in the Jura Mountains of Burgundy. This one is very mild in comparison to Epoisses. It’s a cooked, ripened cheese made from raw cow’s milk, and is also one of the most produced French AOP cheeses. The wheel is huge, averaging 80 lbs and 28 inches in diameter. They will typically be ripened for eight months but can go all the way up to 36 months. Inside the cellar at the cooperative, we saw just some of the thousands of wheels that they had, and the smell was pretty intense. Each wheel is unique in the way it represents the micro-climate from which it was produced (the terroir). But, every wheel is still graded on a scale of 1-20. If a wheel scores below 12, it can’t be labeled with the Comté AOP label, and they are instead sold for other purposes. The smell of the cheese is pleasant when cut, and the taste is buttery and rich, like the perfect combination of Swiss and Cheddar. Comté is available in the US but only in pasteurized versions (like Epoisses) which apparently don’t taste the same. We were lucky enough to be able to buy some Comté from the cooperative and have it vacuum sealed to take home with us. This experience was completely worth having to endure the strong scent of ammonia.