Monday, 29 December 2014

Cheese platter 101

While I tend at home to have a single cheese at a time to explore and really get to know it while it's in my fridge, for entertaining or in the restaurant the cheese platter is what the French call un incontournable.

There was a typical French cheese platter at my partner's sister-in-law's Christmas get-together in Paris - a Brie and a really oozing pale straw-coloured goat's cheese representing opposite ends of the classical spectrum, a Roquefort for 'something blue', a Caprice des Dieux for the children (sweet, white, creamy, inoffensive), and a couple of other cheeses to add some variety.

(It's a bit like the bridal dress. Something old and something new - say a 24 month Comté and a really young Selles-sur-Cher - true, nothing borrowed, but always something blue - Roquefort, or perhaps Fourme d'Ambert or Bleu d'Auvergne.

 The Guardian has just put out a fascinating article on how to make up a well balanced cheese platter. Admittedly it's by Guardian Australia, so those of us currently sitting in brilliant sunshine and temperature of minus 5 with a hard frost on the ground can ignore the summer-orientated advice re stinky cheeses. But the rest is good; particularly the advice to take the cheese out of the fridge and let it warm up to release the aromas and flavour.

 I also love the idea of pairing cheese with sweetness, such as Sienese panforte or dried apricots. Though I don't detest oat biscuits with cheese, particularly with some of the softer and stinkier.

For the Francophone, a nicely savage article proposes two alternative cheese platters, one horrific mass-produced nastiness, and one well composed classic cheeses. I'l summarise:
  • If it's wrapped in aluminium or comes in mini-portions all individually wrapped, avoid. (The French haven't yet sunk to the all-time lows of pre-sliced cheese, thank the Lord.)
  • You need a soft cheese (Camembert, Brie, Coulommier), a hard cooked cheese (Comt√©, Gruyere, Emmenthal) and a hard raw cheese (Tomme, Cantal, Saint-Nectaire), a "pas vache" (which might be goat's cheese or sheep's milk cheese), a blue cheese and last but not least, a stinky cheese.
  • >Preferred stinky cheeses? Munster, Langres, Pont l'Eveque and Epoisse I know well - Chablis and Vieux Boulogne are gaps in my cheese knowledge that I need to make good in 2015!
  • >Buy 'fromage fermier' from a small producer if you can.

Tuesday, 2 December 2014

Cheddar cheese

A lovely story in the Guardian about cheese making in Somerset, a great Cheddar dynasty (plus a picture of the cheese store). What's quite fascinating is the glimpse of a completely integrated agriculture in which nothing is wasted; whey is fed to the piglets (in Italy, it makes ricotta), and the pig manure is recycled to fertilise the pastures which feed the cows.

It's this relationship between the cheese and the local terroir which is missing in so much industrial cheese, made from milk tanked to a factory from far-off farms. The great cheeses of Europe all have a history that's about how farmers adapted to local conditions; local breeds of cow (or sheep, or goat), seasonality, different types of pastures, different methods of storage (notably in the great caves where Roquefort gets its flavour).

That's very similar to the world of wine where a move of just a couple of kilometres can produce a different character in the wine. Or beer, where, for instance, the lambic breweries of Belgium depend on the wild yeasts of the Senne valley, or the famed 'Burton snatch' of sulphur from the waters of Burton-on-Trent that comes through in a Burton beer.

Friday, 14 November 2014

Cheese recipe - Hungarian cheese spread

I found a Hungarian cheese recipe the other day which seems similar to the German obatzda, and decided to make it up. I particularly like the way the raw garlic cuts through the creaminess of the cheese and cream. Good on bread - excellent on toast. If you make your own cheese, it's a good way of using it fresh. Otherwise, use soft curd cheese or cottage cheese, or a mix of the two.

Ingredients: about 500g fresh curd cheese, chopped onion, chopped garlic, paprika, mustard powder, caraway seeds, a few tablespoons of sour cream

Chop your onion and garlic. Beat the sour cream into the cheese. Mix a tablespoon or two of paprika (you can use a lot more than you think!), a couple of teaspoons of mustard powder, and a teaspoon of caraway seeds into the cheese, and then add the onion and garlic.

I'm told this is traditionally made with a Liptauer sheep's milk cheese. However it works well with my own home made cow's milk cheese, and keeps a good few days in the fridge.

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

DIY cheese

It had to happen. I saw a cheese-making machine at a car boot sale. Time to move from being an avid consumer to making my own cheese. Three euros was my in-price. That gets me the machine, with its glass insert, and a plastic 'faisselle' or strainer-thingy inside that.
Recipes abound on the internet and all are slightly different. Some start by using a petit suisse or a fromage blanc from the supermarket as a starter. Some use rennet, some use lemon juice, some use vinegar. I've tried it all ways and it doesn't seem to make a lot of difference.
There is a kind of magic to a natural process. Making perry, or beer, or wine, through fermentation; watching your bread rise as the yeast starts pushing air out through your dough; making your own yogurt (which, in fairness, you could also use this little machine for - a cheesemaker and a yogurtmaker are not very different, it's basically a matter of keeping your milk at a constant, warm temperature).
The magic of this process is putting the milk in just before dinner time, seeing the milk just a bit thickened by the time you go to bed, and coming down early in the morning to see solids starting to clump together.
It tastes good. Light, creamy, full, fresh.
Even better, I've learned how to make ricotta. You take the whey, boil it with the addition of about another half its volume in fresh milk, add a little lemon juice, and leave it to do its thing. Strain it out, and there's the ricotta; not as creamy as what you get from the supermarket (actually I found the addition of a little creme fraiche made it taste better, but the texture was still quite granular), but wonderfully soft.
The next step, if I want to take it, will be to buy some cheese moulds from Tompress (superb if expensive supplier of all kinds of kitchen and smallholding equipment) and dry out the fresh cheese for longer storage. But at the moment, we're eating all the cheese I produce fresh, in just a couple of days, and very nice it is, with chives and a little salt, or with sugar, or served up with fruit, or used in a vegetable gratin.
We all need a little magic in our lives. For so little investment, and so little effort, I now have some cheesemaking magic in mine.

Thursday, 28 August 2014

Cheese recipes of the Auvergne

I first encountered aligot when I walked to Santiago de Compostela from Le Puy - the old pilgrim path which starts in the remote mountains of the Auvergne, before descending to the limestone causses, and then the fertile plains of Gascony. It's a dish that must have been invented to supply the needs of hard-working peasants or hard-walking pilgrims; full of cheese, cream, and carbohydrates, enough stodge to fill the stomach and boost your energy.

Aligot blends tomme d'Auvergne or Laguiole cheese into mashed potatoes, with the addition of butter and cream and garlic. It's cooked slowly, till all the ingredients are blended and the mixture becomes smooth, and if you put a fork into it, you can pull out thin strings of incredible strength and fineness.

Of course, pre-1492, Aligot was not made with potatoes. It was made with stale bread, instead - a bit like migas in Spain, or fattoush in the Middle East, a way of using up the odds and ends, which made it an economical way for the monks to feed pilgrims.

Now, aligot is a recipe you find in the Aubrac. But in other areas of Auvergne, around Clermont-Ferrand and down to Aurillac and Carlat, you find truffade. Again, the main ingredients are potatoes and chees - preferably Salers or tomme fraiche du Cantal - but for truffade, the potatoes are slowly fried, and then the cheese is added to make a sort of lasagne or pancake. There may or may not be garlic (depending on where you are - not in Cantal, apparently).

I've eaten truffade with just a green salad, the crunchiness of endive and lettuce neatly offsetting the waxy potato and creamy cheese. It goes well with local ham and other charcuterie. I'm told some chefs make it with fourme d'Ambert instead of tomme fraiche or Salers, the blue cheese giving it a quite different character. There are even controversies about whether you let the potatoes or the whole dish crisp up on the outside, or not. I prefer it with the little golden brown bits of crispiness, the way the Bar du Palais in Murat serves it.

Truffade has nothing to do with truffles, by the way. Trufa, in Auvergnat dialect, is a potato.

I have to say that though I'm a big fan of both, I prefer aligot. Its creaminess nicely counterpointed by that little edge of garlic, the nutty flavours of the cheese coming through strongly, the grainy and stringy textures... mmm. Very nice. How lucky the Auvergne is to have such good cheese recipes - and such good cheeses.