Saturday, September 1, 2007

Le Grande Fromage

This article appeared in Volume 4-Issue 4 of Flavours magazine.

A piece of brie, with its powdery white coat and creamy interior, begins to droop on the cutting board. It’s accompanied by a shard of dark orange mimolette, a crumbling chunk of blue St. Agur, and a snow white slice of chevre. A wedge of rebluchon gives off an aroma that is at once inviting and intimidating. A few pieces of ripe fruit, cleansing the palette, and some fresh baguette and rustic crackers complete the scene. This, gentle readers, is heaven.

As a chef, one of the highlights of my week is cheese shopping. At my restaurant, we feature a cheese board on our menu.
I like to offer at least twelve different cheeses, and, having customers who come regularly for this item, I must continually update my offerings.

I pick one of my favorite gourmet grocers. I march up to the cheese counter, and the unlucky attendant sees me coming.
He knows he will miss his coffee break; I plan to monopolize his attention for a while. I scan the counter for anything new or something I haven’t tried. If I am curious, he will offer me a taste. I try to cover a variety of nations: France, Italy, Spain, Netherland, etc. And, of course, I always make sure to have a vigorous representation of Canadian cheeses. When I buy, I buy big. “I’ll take that piece,” I say, pointing to a healthy wedge of St. Andre. The cheese purveyor holds up the chunk of fromage, and with his knife indicating a sliver, he asks, “This much, sir?”
“No, the whole piece, thank you.”
Some attendants are quite familiar with me; they don’t even ask anymore.

This spring I took a trip to Montreal.
I was vacationing, but also meant to buy cheese. We went to the Fromagerie Atwater and established certain criteria: we wanted raw milk cheeses which we haven’t seen before or can’t get in Manitoba. Twenty cheeses later we stopped but could have easily doubled this amount. The cheeses we chose ranged from aged raw milk cheddars to fuzzy, warm, butter-soft sheep’s milk cheeses. We loaded up our suitcase and carried this aromatic baggage back to Winnipeg.

Cheese is truly one of the greatest culinary achievements of all time. For variety and versatility, it is unbeatable.
We enjoy cheese for appetizers, cooked in our main dishes, garnishing our salads, and it is even used in desserts. We enjoy it for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and it is the best snack food going.

Cheese is remarkable for its humble beginnings.
Originally, it was a method of storing excess milk before refrigeration. In hot climates, it was discovered that milk could be preserved by curdling it with acid, such as vinegar or lemon juice, and preserving it with salt. The discovery of rennet, probably by accident, provided a more efficient and versatile curdling process. The earliest cheeses, seen in Egyptian drawings as far back as 2000 BC, would have been much like today’s feta. Cheese makers in cooler climates found that they could use smaller amounts of salt and acid and allow cheeses to age. Aging creates complex flavours, interesting textures, and vivid aromas. Cheese makers started experimenting with different varieties of molds and bacterium to further alter the quality of their cheese. How long and how hard a cheese was pressed determined its softness. Some would have their rinds washed, often with beer or wine, others would have rinds inoculated with mold (such as brie and camembert), and would be wrapped in a wax rind. I cook with a wonderful blue cheese, hailing from Spain, which is wrapped in grape leaves.

The French farmhouse tradition of cheese making started early and remains strong today.Modernization and mechanization in the 20th century, which developed mass production techniques for cheese, threatened the farmhouse tradition.
In North America, a majority of cheeses are mass produced from pasteurized milk. In fact, in the U.S, processed cheese exceeds the sales of “real” cheese. Luckily, the true cheese lovers appreciate the individuality of artisan cheese. Like a fine wine, it has a real sense of terroir.
Behind every cheese there is a pasture of a different green under a different sky behind meadows encrusted with salt that the tides of Normandy deposit every evening; meadows perfumed with aromas in the windy sunlight of Provence; there are different herds, with their shelters and their movements across the countryside; there are secret methods handed down over the centuries.

- Italo Calvino, Palomar, 1983
The technique and artistry of the cheese maker will also be tasted. Recently, in response to a demand created by increasingly sophisticated consumers, there has been a resurgence of farmhouse cheeses. In post war Europe, the number of cheese makers rapidly declined as they were replaced by cheese factories. However, in the last 10 years, the number of small producers is beginning to rise. In North America, the farmhouse tradition, although young, is definitely developing. Quebec is seeing an explosion of cheese makers, many of which are winning international awards. A Quebec cheese, Le-Pied-du-Vent, recently won the dubious distinction of the world’s stinkiest cheese.

"Comment voulez-vous gouverner un pays qui a deux cent quarante-six variétés de fromage?"

-Charles De Gaulle

With the increasing variety of cheeses, how do you choose what will appear on your cheese board? Gone are the days when a few cubes of marble cheese, a mini wheel of canned Danish camembert, and few Baby Bels would make a sufficient cheese display. I like to look for variety. Cow, goat and sheep’s milk cheeses each have their own unique character. Select some that are soft and some that are some hard. Choose a variety of styles and nationalities. I make sure to include good blue cheese, whether its Roquefort, Bleu Benedictin or Gorgonzola, a mild cheese like a gouda, and a creamy cheese like boursin. You also need a stinky cheese, such as a reblochon, trappiste or my new favorite: the ultra runny Epoisse Perrier. Add a hard cheese: an Italian pecorino, a Spanish Manchego or English farm house cheddar. Don’t forget a goat cheese. Sometimes I will add what I call a “fun cheese”: one of the many varieties of fruit filled white stiltons or wensleydales. My personal favorite is the mango ginger stilton. You always need a brie or camembert: try some of the great triple cream bries like the St. Andre.An effective way to focus your cheese board is to select a theme, and then search for variety within that theme. Themes can be based on nation or even region: French, North Italian, or Quebec for example. They can be based on the type of cheeses, such as raw milk cheeses, sheep cheeses, cheddars, or blue cheeses. It would be fun to do a cheese board that starts with mild creamy blue cheeses, like Blue Bresse, and then moves to hard sharp blues, like St. Agur, Stilton or Queso Valedon. You would want to include Cashel Irish blue, Cambozola, and Buche de Neiges Bleu. There is a great organic blue goat gouda, and, if you can get your hand on it, there is a blue cheese from New Brunswick made by “That Dutchman!”, which is inoculated with blue mold spores and then wrapped in black wax. It looks like a white gouda but tastes like a well aged blue cheese. You can put out twenty great cheeses, but sometimes a simple plate, made up of one or two really special cheeses and a few pieces of fruit, is all you really need. When tasting cheese on a cheese board, it is usually best to start with the mildest cheese and work your way up to the stinkies and blues.

Fresh fruit on a cheese board is a classic pairing. The principle purpose of the fruit is to cleanse the palette between bites. Fruit can also be used to create spectacular taste contrasts and compliments. The tartness of fresh raspberries will cut through the creamiest of bries, while a thin slice of pear will simultaneously enhance and mellow the stinkiest stilton. Try using dried fruit as well: golden raisins with a French chaumes, figs or dates with goat cheeses, and apricots with morbier or any cheese with ash. Nuts also enhance a cheese board: walnuts with blue cheeses, almonds with Swiss cheeses, and hazelnuts with anything. Add pizazz by serving your cheeses with fruit compotes, preserves or chutneys. Always serve cheese with thinly slice breads or crackers.

A fun way to serve a cheese course is to do what is called a composed cheese course. You pick one cheese and one complimenting fruit and present it in an unusual fashion. I have included three recipes for composed cheese courses. Have fun, play around, enjoy!

Walnut & Roquefort Ice Cream with Honey Roasted Pears

Walnut & Roquefort Ice Cream:
2 cups milk
1 cup whipping cream
6 egg yolks
1 cup golden brown sugar
1 oz Cognac
1/2 cup walnut pieces, toasted, plus extra for garnish
1/2 cup Roquefort (or other blue cheese), crumbled

  1. Combine milk and cream in a sauce pot set over medium high heat and scald.
  2. Whisk together yolks, brown sugar and Cognac.
  3. Pour hot milk into eggs while whisking.
  4. Return to pan and gradually heat, stirring constantly, until mixture forms light custard (it should coat a spoon).
  5. Chill mixture until cold.
  6. Poor into an ice cream maker and freeze according to manufacturer's directions. If you do not have an ice cream maker, put into a 9" x 13" pan and freeze. Remove from freezer every hour and beat until smooth.
  7. When ice cream is mostly frozen but still soft, fold in Roquefort and walnuts.
  8. Freeze until firm.

1 tbsp butter
1/4 cup honey
3 pears, peeled, cored and quartered
  1. Preheat oven to 400 F.
  2. Melt butter and stir in honey.
  3. Toss pears in honey mixture and place them on a cookie sheet, making sure they are not touching.
  4. Roast in oven for 45 minutes - they should be taking on a rich golden color with a mahogany brown around the edges.
  5. Cool to room temperature.
Serve 2 wedges of pear to each guest with a quenelle or scoop of the Roquefort ice cream.


Pistachio Crusted Chevre with Blackberry Port Compote

Pistachio Crusted Chevre
1, 3" log of soft chevre
1 cup fresh pistachios

  1. Gently toast pistachios in a skillet set over medium-low heat.
  2. Chop (or food process) to make coarse crumbs. Spread crumbs onto a plate.
  3. Slice log of chevre with a thin-bladed knife or a cheese wire. If it crumbles, don't worry - just squish it back together with your hands.
  4. Press the slices of cheese into the pistachio crumbs to cover both sides.
  5. Chill until cold.
Blackberry Port Compote
1 cup port
1 cup fresh blackberries
Pinch of sea salt or other exotic salt
  1. Bring port to a boil and reduce by half.
  2. Add blackberries to port and toss to coat.
  3. Cool to room temperature.
Place on slice of cheese on each plate. Top with a blackberry. Drizzle with Blackperry Port Compote.


Dried Apple Mimolette & Brie Napoleans with Calvados Syrup

Calvados Syrup
1/2 cup Calvados
1/2 cup sugar
1 cinnamon stick
  1. Bring Calvados to a boil (taking care around an open flame as the alcohol could ignite).
  2. Reduce by half.
  3. Remove from heat and stir in sugar.
  4. Add cinnamon stick.
  5. Return to a boil and cook until syrup coats the back of a spoon.
  6. Cool to room temperature (if syrup becomes too thick, mix in a few drops of boiling water)
Dried Apple Mimolette
3 apples
1 cup ice water
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup lemon juice
  1. Preheat oven to 170 F.
  2. Combine water, sugar and lemon, mixing well.
  3. Slice apples as thin as you can (use a mandolin or meat slicer) crossways. Don't worry about the cores - the slices are thin enough that you won't notice them.
  4. Place apples in lemon juice solution.
  5. Arrange apples on a cookie sheet lined with parchment.
  6. Bake in oven for 4 hours or until dry.
Brie Napoleans
1 baguette
1/4 lb creamy Brie
1/4 lb Mimolette
  1. Thinly slice baguette.
  2. Slice Brie into 12 slices.
  3. Shave Mimolette (a veggie peeler works well for this).
In this order: prepare stacks of baguette, Brie, Mimolette, apple, baguette, Brie, Mimolette, and finally apple. Right before serving, drizzle stacks with warm Calvados syrup.