FRENCH CHEESE CLASSIFICATION
ABOUT FRENCH CHEESE CLASSIFICATION
THE WORKSHOP • THE CHEESE BOARD
If there’s one thing the French are German about, it’s cheese classification. Poetic and evocative it isn’t. It is inordinately useful. If you want to understand the practical differences between each cheese, how it is that their fabrication affects their texture and flavour, then the French cheese classification system is perhaps the best place to start.
It begins with curd
The French classification system begins with how the curd is made and goes on to explore what can happen to each type of curd in the processes that follow this first step of cheesemaking.
Curd formation is that magical moment at which milk becomes cheese. This is the process of splitting milk into a delicate gelatinous solid and a thin cloudy liquid, curds and whey. So let’s start with milk. Milk is a stable emulsion of water, fat, protein, sugar (lactose), vitamins and minerals – everything a young mammal, or indeed a gluttonous old one, needs. The problem is that untreated milk spoils rather quickly.
The best way of thinking about the cheese making and aging process is as the controlled transformation of milk. Nothing is preserved as such. When milk ‘goes off’ it goes through a process of continuous change due to the action of bacteria metabolising its constituent parts. This process, unchecked, renders the milk as dangerous as it is unpalatable. However, the cheese maker finely controls the very same process to turn milk into both something new and something that continuously changes throughout its lifetime. The crucial difference being that this controlled fermentation results in something delicious and hopefully non-fatal.
There are technically three ways of making curd. First, you can simply leave milk to spoil. Bacteria in the milk or its environment will start metabolising the sugar in the milk, lactose, to produce lactic acid in great quantities producing the characteristic sour smell – and if you are unlucky, taste – of rancid milk. The presence of this acid curdles the milk. The casein proteins present start to clump together as the pH of the solution plummets and these clumps float in a cloudy translucent liquid. The warmer the milk, up to a point, the faster this happens. Unfortunately, all sorts of other reactions happen as ‘bad bacteria’ do their work creating toxic, foul smelling and tasting chemicals. The other two methods are far more useful: Lactic coagulation and Enzymatic coagulation.
This is the simplest way of making curd. Add lemon juice or vinegar to warm milk and it will curdle almost immediately through the very same process described above. The acidity of the milk spikes and the proteins present clump together to form fragile protein matrixes, or curds. To make curds suitable for more robust cheeses, cheese makers use starter cultures, often lactobacilli and streptococci, to convert the lactose in the milk to lactic acid. In the absence of rennet (which we’ll come to next) a fair amount of lactic acid needs to be produced in order for the casein proteins in the milk to be encouraged to bind to one another; an acidity level anywhere from 0.4-0.5% (which is a pH level of 4.8-5.0, bearing in mind that a neutral pH is 7.0!)
This high level of acidity has two major effects on the resultant curd. Firstly, it produces a sour curd and ultimately a tart flavoured cheese. Lactic coagulated cheeses of all milk types tend to have a pronounced lactic or yoghurty tang on the palate. Secondly, lactic coagulation produces a very weak and slow forming curd – they can take anywhere up to a full day or two to form. The high concentration of acid causes much of the calcium, which is crucial to forming strong bonds between the proteins, to run off with the draining whey. As such, cheese makers must handle the curds very carefully. They cannot be cut too finely, heated too much or pressed. The resulting curds are always cut into large pieces and carefully drained and salted.
The cheeses made using this process require patience and a light touch but cheese makers are rewarded with something fresh tasting, fragile and beautiful with the potential for rich and balanced flavour. Take Epoisses, the quintessential stinky French cheese. A Burgundian classic, the delicate lactic coagulated curd takes up to 20 hours to form. The curd barely holds itself together and must be hand ladled into moulds to slowly drain for two days. It is salted and placed on racks to further dry. At this point the cheese is a tart and flaky unprepossessing puck but the cheesemongers wash the exterior in a mixture of brine and Marc de Bourgogne – a spirit made from the vine pressings left over from the production of Burgundy’s great wines – over the next 3 or 4 days. It takes great skill to keep the rind moist but not wet and to keep the salt and alcohol levels just so. This encourages a pungent peach coloured bacterial rind to grow around the outside of the cheese. The resulting brevibacterium linens mould transforms the cheese. It metabolises the nutrient rich flaky curd from the outside in, breaking the fats and proteins down to produce an earthy, meaty and molten ‘jacket’ reminiscent of a savoury egg custard. The perfect moment to eat an Époisses de Bourgogne is when this breakdown has advanced just far enough to leave a hint of the original fresh lactic core, which gives a burst of acidity to balance the rich and unctuous surrounding. Magic.
Perhaps surprisingly, this method of making cheese dates back thousands of years. Nomadic tribes in the Middle East transported milk across great distances in vessels made from the dried stomach of young goats. Time, warmth and agitation resulted in formation of curds and whey by the journey’s end. The first brave and possibly very hungry man or woman to taste this odd looking gelatinous semi-solid must have found something eminently edible. With some crude manipulation, perhaps draining and the addition of a little salt, this curd was both more delicious and kept a great deal longer than the original milk. Cheese was born.
We now understand that the crucial part of this process was in fact the vessel itself. Young mammals’ stomachs contain a number of enzymes required to break down their mothers’ milk; namely, rennin, pepsin and lipase. The most important of these being rennin. Any substance that contains this enzyme and is produced to be used in the cheese making process is called Rennet.
Rennin, like all enzymes, is a catalyst. Catalysts to do not cause chemical reactions like the formation of curd they simply facilitate them allowing the process to happen in less time and with less energy. So whilst curd can form by itself or simply with the addition of acid, rennet allows the reaction to take place much faster – in as little as 15-20 minutes – and at much lower levels of acidity – 0.15-0.17% - than lactic coagulation. Importantly, this lower acidity level leaves the calcium unmolested resulting in a stronger protein matrix. Ultimately this means a quick setting and robust curd. Not only does this result in more efficient curd production but also the curd itself is so much more versatile leaving myriad options open to the creative and ambitious cheese maker.
The curd can be left in large pieces like the Epoisses and allowed to break down with aid of surface flora like the Brie de Meaux of Ile de France or the Alsatian Munster. You simply have a less tart tasting starting point resulting in rich and relatively sweeter soft cheeses. However, the curd can also be manipulated to a far greater extent. This is a boon to cheese makers wanting to make longer lasting cheeses. Whey is the component of cheese that causes it to eventually go rancid so the more of it you can get rid of the longer the cheese will last. The tougher enzymatic coagulated curds can be finely milled and pressed to get rid of this liquid as is done with Cheddar or the French Salers. It can also be cooked and then pressed resulting in hard, smooth, nutty and meltable cheeses like the venerable Comté. It can even be inoculated with moulds like penicillium roqueforti, pressed and pierced to allow bluing to occur.
Enzymatic or rennet coagulated curds have a great deal of potential. Lactic coagulated cheeses can only become a fresh cheese like the Sariette de Banon, a bloomy rind soft cheese like the Couer de Neufchâtel or Brie de Melun or a soft washed rind cheese like the Epoisses or Ami du Chambertin. However, the addition of rennet in the cheese making process allows for the production of blue cheeses like Roquefort, pressed and uncooked cheeses such as the hard Salers or the softer earthy St. Nectaire, pressed and semi cooked cheeses like the Abondance and pressed and cooked cheeses such as Emmental and Gruyère. That is, in addition to fresh, bloomy soft brie-like and pungent washed soft cheeses.
In this board you will taste each production type exploring the effect each one of these technical processes has on the flavour and texture of France’s great cheeses. Enjoy!
the french classification