I started this post because I realised there’s a lack of appreciation among Malaysians (at least my close friends, and family) on cheese. Some of them never even realised there are much more varieties of cheese beyond the commercially made cheddar cheese slices, and mozzarella on pizzas.
I am not claiming myself to be a connoisseur for cheese (hence my ever ongoing research). But, I have, over time, developed quite a fondness for cheese, or more specifically French cheese (fromage in French).
Of course, it is not just France that makes good cheese. You have Cheddar from England, Gruyere from Switzerland, Gouda from the Netherlands, Parmigiano Reggiano (Parmesan) from Italy etc.
France is not even the country with the most varieties of cheese. As of 2016, UK has the most varieties, up to 750 different cheeses.
Fun fact: France is also NOT the top cheese consuming country. It ranks 4th after Denmark, Iceland, and Finland (based on data from International Dairy Federation).
So, why is it that people naturally associate cheese to France? Some say it is because French makes the best cheese in the world. I don’t disagree. Most of my favourites are French (but I can be biased).
What makes cheese
I am sure you all know what makes cheese : milk! However, it is not just cow’s milk. Goat’s milk is also commonly used to make cheese, e.g. Mozzarella, Paneer from India etc.
The milk used for making cheese can either be raw or pasteurised. Pasteurisation is a process of heating the milk to a higher temperature for a short time (around 72 degC for 15 seconds), and then cooled rapidly. This process is done to sterilise the milk to allow for longer life.
Raw milk when used for making cheese, uses the natural bacteria in it, which otherwise who have been killed in the pasteurisation process. Hence, raw milk produces cheese with more flavour and sharper notes, as compared to pasteurised milk cheese. However, raw milk cannot be kept long. Hence, when using raw milk to make cheese, it must be done very quickly, within 12 hours.
How to make cheese
The four main processes of making cheese are,
- Salting, and
Curdling is the process whereby milk solidifies by natural acidification either by the lactic ferments it contains, or by adding natural accelerators. One of the most common natural accelerators used in rennet, which is an enzyme found in the stomach of young calves.
Draining of the liquid (whey) from the solid (curd), is the most important step, as it determines the quality of the cheese. Different types of cheese will have different draining time to ensure the right moisture content in the cheese.
Salting is done to enhanced the flavour, as well as to solidify the rind (hard outer layer of cheese to protect against humidity loss). Salting can either be sprinkled with fine salt, or soaked in brine bath.
After salting, the cheese is placed in its mould depending on the types of cheese, before undergoing the final step of Maturing. This process requires careful control of humidity, temperature and other external factors to ensure the cheese further develops its flavour and texture. Again, different types of cheese have different maturing time.
- Blue cheese takes 12 to 30 weeks, maturing from the inside out, giving it a buttery texture.
- Hard pressed cheese takes from 9 months up to 2 years to mature, which is why the rind is usually drier, and the flavour has more depth.
- Fresh cheese has the shortest maturing time, if not none (e.g. Paneer which doesn’t require maturing).
You can actually try making fresh cheese at home with just three ingredients, i.e. milk, lemon juice and salt. Check out this homemade paneer recipe by Emma from thekitchn.com.
Understanding different categories of cheese
For simplicity, I loosely categorised French cheese into four categories.
- Soft cheese (including fresh cheese and goat cheese)
- Semi soft cheese
- Hard cheese
- Blue cheese
Soft cheese, as the name suggest, has soft, creamy, and velvety textures. It almost melts in your mouth because of its relatively higher moisture content (50 to 60%). Common examples of French soft cheese are, Camembert and Brie. Other non-French soft cheeses include feta from Greece, and Raclette from Switzerland.
More info: Soft cheese can be washed (periodically in brine during maturing) or bloomy (sprayed with penicillium during maturing).
Fresh cheese is usually more bland in flavour, and its texture like yogurt. Common fresh cheeses from France are, Petit Suisse and Brousse. Other non-French fresh cheeses are, Paneer from India, and Ricotta from Italy.
Goat cheese (chevre in French), made of goat’s milk (of course!), is so common in France, there’s a dedicated French dish for it, i.e. chevre chaud (goat cheese served hot on toast bread). Goat cheese has a very distinct taste, it almost tastes a bit gamey (at least for me). Common goat cheeses from France are, Crottin de Chavignol (the most popular) and Saint Maure.
More info: Fresh cheese and goat cheese are curdled without the addition of rennet.
Semi soft cheese has a slight more firmer texture due to more compaction from mechanical pressing. Its moisture content is 45 to 50%. Common examples of French semi soft cheeses are, Reblochon, Tomme de Savoie, and Morbier. Another non-French semi soft cheese is Edam from the Netherlands.
Hard cheese is the most common of all the categories. With moisture content between 35 to 45%, the texture is almost grainy, and some a bit dry to the palate. Common hard cheeses from France are, Emmental, Comte, and Cantal. Other non-French hard cheeses are, Cheddar, Gruyere, Gouda, and Parmigiano Reggiano.
You probably already knew Blue cheese as the more stinky one. And this is due to an additional process whereby a species of blue green mold is injected into the cheese, to allow for fermentation from the inside out. Hence, the blue veins, and crumbly texture. Blue cheese generally has a very strong aroma, buttery texture, and salty to taste. Common examples from blue cheese from France are, Bleu d’Auvergne, Roquefort, and Saint Agur. Other non-French blue cheeses include, Danish blue, and Gorgonzola from Italy.
Appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC)
AOC is a controlled French certification granted to certain French geographical regions for wines, cheese, butter and other products. It is based on the concept of terroir, which describes the earth or soil, and a set of other environmental factors which affects the crops. Grass that is fed to cows and goats, affects the quality of the cheese from which the milk is made.
There are about 40 French cheeses that have been awarded the AOC status.
So, technically cheese dairy which produces Blue-style cheese outside of Auvergne region, cannot use the name Bleu d’Auvergne AOC.
Design your own French cheese platter
After all the technicalities above, you want to start experimenting with different types of French cheese. And someday, you want to design your own French cheese platter for your house party.
A good French cheese platter should have about 4 to 5 types of cheese. Ideally, one soft / semi soft, one hard, one blue, and one goat.
When choosing your cheeses, you want to think about shapes and flavours to make sure your cheese platter looks good, and is balanced in taste. For example, if you chose the spiced Langres as the soft, you want to complement it with the nutty Beaufort as the hard. Or if you chose the stronger Munster as the soft, you want to pair it with the milder Cantal as the hard.
Tips: Men prefer stronger flavoured cheese, while women prefer cheeses which are sweeter, lighter or melted.
Here are some basic tasting notes of some of my favourite French cheeses by categories,
Chevre (goat cheese)
- Crottin de Chavignol AOC
- Saint Maure de Touraine AOC
- Camembert de Normandie AOC : creamy texture with edible white rind, perfect with almonds, almost none stinky
- Brie de Meaux AOC
- Langres AOC : from Champagne, spicy with a bit of saltiness, pairs well with Champagne
- Munster AOC : dark yellow in colour, strong flavour, pairs well with dark beer
- Boursin : cream cheese texture, garlic and herbs, a bit salty
Semi soft cheese
- Reblochon AOC : creamy texture, nutty, pairs well with red wine
- Tomme de Savoie AOC : mild but savoury
- Beaufort AOC : fruity and nutty notes, may stink a bit (only smell)
- Morbier AOC : easily identified by its distinctive black horizontal line in the middle, it gives a spicy tingling sensation to the tongue which I don’t quite prefer
- Saint Albray : dark orange rind, nutty notes
- Emmental de Savoie AOC : similar to the Swiss Emmental
- Comte AOC : my current favourite hard cheese, similar to the Swiss Gruyere, hard and almost grainy texture, full of flavours; I like it aged at least 12 months
- Cantal AOC : some calls it the French Cheddar, mild and less acid
- Bleu d’Auvergne AOC
- Roquefort AOC : my current favourite blue, sharp and peppery
- Saint Agur
My current favourite pairing is (any one of) Chevre, Camembert, Reblochon, Comte, and Roquefort.
I like to serve the soft cheese on crackers, and for the condiments, I have baguette (the real French way), nuts, dried fruits (cranberries, raisins etc) and cured meat (optional).
Some other important notes when serving your cheese platter,
- Take out cheese from the fridge at least 1 hour before to get to room temperature for more enhanced flavours
- Serve on natural material, e.g. glass, wood or ceramic. Do not use metalware as it can alter the cheese flavours
- Arrange your cheese clockwise from mildest to strongest (and yes, you should start eating from the mildest goat cheese to the strongest Blue)
- When cutting your cheese, the rule of thumb is to ensure every cut has the same share of the centre (most aged) and the rind (more interesting flavours)
Where to buy them in Kuala Lumpur
I have put together for you a price list of my favourite French cheeses, from the grocers I frequent for my cheese hunting. Check it out in this link !
Now, go forth and explore, and hopefully, you’ll learn to love French cheese as much as I do !