Day 2: Science!
This post is part of a series from my two week-long training courses with the Academie Opus Caseus. You can find the rest of these posts by searching for the tag academie-opus-caseus.
I have managed to eat a lot of cheese over the past two years, which in turn has allowed me to become fairly familiar with French cheeses for a non-professional. But if there’s one area where I’m really at sea, it’s the science of cheese-making. With Tuesday’s session, I took a major step forward in my knowledge.
The day started though with a “field trip” to the Halles Diderot, site of Mons’ first retail store in Roanne, to set up the store. As the store is closed Monday, the shelves were bare. We arrived at 6:30 am to help Laurent and the staff clean, bring out cheese, rewrap where necessary, and get the store ready for the day. It was great to get hands-on experience and we enjoyed interacting with the staff.
After a few hours at the shop we returned to the operations center in St Haon. rom the content of milk to how animals produce milk to how cheese is made, we covered an amazing amount of ground. I learned about lactation cycles, how milk content differs across animals (goats, sheep, cows) and even across different breeds, the two ways of making milk coagulate (lactic acid creation vs renneting), and how applying heat (thermization, pasteurization, and sterilization) changes the properties of the milk.
One of my favorite parts of this discussion, one which I’ll surely retain forever, was Laurent Mons’ verbal tour of French terroir from a cheese context. He connected the terroir to the science by looking at the interplay of environmental conditions, terrain, seasons, and human techniques. What he gave us was a highly generalizable explanation for why different cheeses are made the way they are and where they are. We talked about the eight families of cheese, which, as the French view it, are:
- Goat cheese
- Soft-ripened bloomy rind
- Soft-ripened washed rind
- Pressed, non-cooked
- Pressed, cooked
We looked at how they are made and the steps they have in common. It was an incredibly thorough yet understandable approach. As the person with the weakest understanding of the science, I really appreciated the framework, which I was able to easily connect to what I know.
Our sensory analysis of the day was actually threefold. First, we tasted different types of milk. I’ll confess that I had difficulty really smelling differences, there were some that I was at least able to taste. I successfully picked out the raw milk, which wasn’t so hard especially in contrast to the UHT super-sterilized shelf-stable milkwater we tasted!
Then came our first of the cheese tastings. prior to our cheese tasting of the day. Soft cheeses were on display as we tasted several chevres, two bloomy rinds (Brie de Meaux and Coulommiers), and a triple cream (the almost vaporous and exceedingly rich Brillat Savarin).
As if this weren’t enough, we then tasted the cheeses that Alex, Kym, and Ryan brought. Of Alex’s two Romanian cheeses, the one that was fermented in a pig’s bladder certainly was the most unique. Its deep fermentation conjured up images of a well-aged Salers from the Auvergne region (which is close to where we are now) for Laurent. (NB: We tasted them side by side on Wednesday and, sure enough, he was right!) Ryan brought multiple cheeses, of which his best was a bloomy rind cheese made from sheep’s milk. The French love their bloomy rinds but they almost never do them with sheep’s cheese. A number of us really enjoyed this one as it had the rich yet clean flavors of sheep’s milk. Kym’s two cheeses included his Monforte, which he just won an award for in Australia. By the time we finished eating all this cheese, nobody felt like lunch.
We returned to the hotel for dinner of roasted chicken quarters and a cauliflower gratin. Our chef provided a special desert: homemade flan and his own hand-made “Poire Williams,” a pear-flavored eau de vie which was surprisingly smooth. Suffice it to say the evening was a bit long, but we had a great time.