Saturday, 28 August 2010

Spruce and Pseudomonas

Blimey, I could hate Americans. But not for any other reason than Hervé Mons has a promotion on at the moment with Gabeitou. It’s a delectable cows and sheeps milk cheese with a vegetal flavour and texture not dissimilar to Morbier. But in preparation for the promotion we have been taking all the farmers’ production for the last few weeks and maturing it so it will be ready to start sending to America next week. Tastes lovely, looks great, but over 600 to turn, change the spruce boards, and wash every week, on top of our normal workload of cheeses to manage - you had better like it, America!

The spruce boards on which our cheeses rest are an important feature in a top affineur’s cave. Although not cheap (and not light!) they have a natural biofilm, which is encouraged here by our cleaning methods, which keeps bad bacteria at bay whilst allowing the cheese to breathe. On the subject on ‘good’ versus ‘bad’ bacteria (perhaps a future George Lucas film?), I asked how they maintain the balance (which is regularly checked). A classic French answer - “good products”; but from my experience of working here I know it is also because of how we pay attention to cleaning (there is no fumigating kill-all here!), the components we use to aid different bacteria (e.g. straw, paper, wood, stone, steel), humidity, temperatures and air flow; in fact the caves have established a natural perfect atmosphere after 40+ years of having the world’s finest cheeses resting in them - so much so that when they created the new tunnel they transferred hundreds of cubic metres of air from the age-old caves to help start it off.

The regular checking of each cheese ensures those that could cause problems are quickly removed. In-between my regular cheese flipping and turning, something caught my eye - a batch of Selles sur Cher - but nuclear neon green. The quality control manager (Eric) examined them with a knowledgeable look, simply shrugged in a Gallic way, and said “Pseudomonas”. A bacterial problem caused at the milking parlour or production site. So I thought I’d dig deeper - was it a common problem? How does he deal with it? What are the common problems? He smiled (a knowing smile that a master gives their apprentice when the world is complicated and unfortunately there isn’t a simple one-sentence answer). As he begrudgingly placed the Selles sur Cher in the bin he explained that everyday posed a new problem; the wonders of artisan and small farm production lead to better flavours and interesting cheeses, yet also small daily problems because the methods of farm production are not controlled like those of larger efficient cheese-producing factories. Experience here seemed to be the key; the ability to identify the problem and continuous dialogue and visits to the small producers work brilliantly; and this is evident with the next batch of Selles sur Cher, which sits there content in its cave with no trace of the nuclear neon green - problem solved.

All is still going well here at Mons, I’m getting to taste an amazing array of different cheeses also at different ages, determining when each has affined to its peak; my palate is improving and my knowledge is increasing.

The master fromager of Fauchon (a famous Paris Boutique) stayed with us for a few days and that was thoroughly interesting: although he has only been in the industry a few years, his knowledge and ability to explain tastes is impressive, as good as any sommelier I’ve ever worked with. He came to study and converse with Hervé for a week as he has entered the competition for MOF (Meuilleur Ouverier de France) this year. The competition awards craftsman of France who excel in their field and is only given every four years (Hervé was the first ever recipient for a fromager/affineur). I looked at the guidelines and it’s like running the gauntlet; the French I work with even call it “running the challenge”: the depth of knowledge as well as the quality of products, cutting and presentation is immense. But I’m English - as my test I’d rather chase a piece of Gloucester cheese down a hill.

Thursday, 12 August 2010

This weekend, to increase my cheese knowledge, I biked up to a nearby hill farm called Bois Blanc. I was greeted by Yves, a rustic French goat herder. On what was an amazing afternoon we started by chatting over his table in the farmhouse, about life, geography (and, importantly, cheese) before walking up the hill to see his small herd of goats. He has a range of breeds (naturally he affectionately points out his favourite animals), letting them graze freely on his grass which is full of herbs, flowers and wild grasses, all of which add a great flavour to the milk which is passed on to the cheese.

He milks the goats everyday, and then uses the milk to produce a small amount of farmhouse cheese in his little shed. This cheese is then sold on at markets and through local shops (including the local Mons shops), but only in small quantities as he barely has enough to sell (between 20-30 of these petit cheeses a day!)

The cheeses are a great expression of affinage, from his young just-set cheese (about 3 days) to his affiné (about a month old). They really tell a story of Yves’ farm’s terroir, goats and cheese-making techniques. Tasting the different cheeses is like tasting a tangible expression of time - you get a real sense of how affinage works. Everyone has a favourite age for their cheese, as the texture, taste, appearance and smell changes as time passes. These cheeses were mild, with only a delicate hint of goat flavour, and a lovely creamy freshness in the young, contrasting with a nice bite to the affiné.

Yves is a true artisan farmer in the real sense of the word; it was a pleasure to visit.


I went back. I couldn’t help myself. Yves invited me to spend the day making cheese with him - how could I refuse passing the time with a big Frenchman making cheese in a shed no bigger than a cupboard. We were certainly going to get to know each other, if nothing else!

First we chucked yesterdays cheeses into the bin - a storm had arrived the day before and the change in air pressure, electrostatic fields, humidity and temperature had rendered the whole days batch useless.

Then we added the ‘petit lait’ to that morning’s milk and let it ferment for 20 hours. ‘Petit lait’ (or lactosérum) contains bacteria which starts the fermentation, changing lactose sugars (in milk) into lactic acid, and forming important flavours as it helps to form the curds. Most cheesemakers use freeze-dried or commercially made starters, but Yves, in the true spirit of capturing his terroir, uses his own bacteria from a ‘petit lait’ he creates at the beginning of the milk season by essentially letting the milk go off. This ‘petit lait’ is used for the first batch at the beginning of the season, for every subsequent production he uses a bit of leftover curds and whey (from the day before) to start the process off.

As the goats’ animal husbandry is fantastic, the unpasteurised milk poses no problems. By letting it naturally ferment he uses all the natural bacteria remaining present (usually killed by pasteurisation). This means he captures the true natural flavours of his land - the only thing he adds to his cheese that he doesn’t make himself is salt. However, it also means the cheese varies vastly in taste, flavour and texture; the production and affinage must be altered accordingly.

We had two buckets of goat milk from the same day’s milking - for some reason (Yves answer to my query was a Gallic shrug) one had formed a hard curd and the other much softer. So we carefully scooped the hard curd to form a base in the mould followed by a topping of soft. Yesterday’s cheeses were un-moulded, flipped, and salted; with a flick of the wrist that was best left to professional (when I tried, I managed to cover everything in the room with salt!)

While the moulds drained we took a break: a piece of fresh cheese wrapped in a salad leaf, so simple, so delectable! Over the next 2 hours continuous topping up of the cheese moulds took place, as they drained. After that our work was done, ready to start all over again the next morning.