Monday, November 26, 2012

So can I eat the rind on that one?

'Can I eat the rind on that one?' is the one of the questions that I'm asked the most frequently. Well, it's one of the questions that I'm asked the most frequently by our non-French clientele - our French customers have grown up around these sorts of cheeses and tend to know instinctively how this works.

As a general rule, the answer is yes – with a couple of exceptions. You are unlikely to come across cheeses where the rind looks edible but isn’t, and where this is the case, I think it’s pretty likely that you would be told about it. So actually, I think that a better question would be - 'will I enjoy eating the rind on that one?' - and the answer to that one (he says, shirking responsibility), is down to you personally.

My approach is relatively simple, I try some of the rind of every cheese that I eat, then I can be sure as to whether or not I want to eat any more of it.

So why would we want to eat the rind? The obvious reason is that as a customer, we have paid for it and therefore are reluctant to let it go to waste if there’s any enjoyment or nutritional value to be had from it.

The more important reason is that the rind is incredibly significant to a cheese, and to your experience of that cheese; it's where most of the action (or, err, magic) happens. This is the boundary between the cheese and the rest of the world, crucially, the boundary between the cheese and the atmosphere/environment of the ageing cave. The rind is where the flora and fauna work their best, due mainly to the presence of oxygen (which of course is largely absent in a solid block of curd). It’s the result of these chemical and biological processes that provides a significant source of the cheese’s more complex and interesting flavours.

Next time you eat some cheese, make a point of trying some of the cheese from just below the rind and comparing it to the cheese from the centre. The differences are usually quite noticeable.

Bi-caillou goat's milk cheese from Limousin

This photo of a bi-caillou (goat’s milk cheese from Limousin) is a good example of the ripening process, the part of the cheese just under the rind has turned creamy whilst the centre remains relatively untouched and not dissimilar from the freshly made cheese. This is because the action takes place at the rind. In fact, given time, and the right conditions, the whole cheese could go creamy, although this wouldn’t be a great result as it would be impossible to sell – imagine a tasty puddle on your cheese plate.

So how do you decide whether or not to eat the rind when there isn’t a cheesemonger there to help you? I’ve written down some simple guidelines based on cheese types, these should serve in almost all cases.

Goat cheeses, fresh or aged (such as the bi-caillou above) – the rind is integral and lovingly cared for - it should be eaten, even (or I would be tempted to say ‘especially’) if it has started to grow interesting blue moulds.

Langres is a cow's milk cheese from Champagne, it's orange rind
results from washing with Marc de Bourgogne or Marc de Champagne

Soft washed rind cheeses (such as the langres above) – someone has gone to a lot of effort to create that wonderful, sticky, smelly rind, washing it maybe twice or three times a week (usually with the locally produced alcohol) so you should really at least try it. If it isn’t to your taste though, cut it off and enjoy the rest of the cheese which should have been mildly flavoured by the activity on the rind.

Soft natural rind cheeses (think Brie and Camembert) – the soft white velvety moulds have covering these cheeses have been nurtured with your benefit in mind, they are there to be eaten and for the most part are very mild.

Uncooked, pressed cheeses (Cheddar and tomme de savoie) and blue cheeses (such as Stilton and Roquefort) – this is where it gets a bit more complicated. If the cheese is covered in a cheese cloth, don’t eat the cloth. If the rind is hard, dry and has the appearance of rock, try it by all means, but you probably aren’t going to love it (make sure that you eat all the good bits just below the rind though). If the rind is soft and pliable and has no obviously unnatural coating, give it a go and see if you like it.

Cooked, pressed cheeses (Comté and Beaufort) - These cheeses tend to be the ones that are aged for a long period of time (potentially several years). To prevent certain types of damage to the cheeses over time (such as undesirable moulds and cheese mite) these cheeses are often waxed (typically using a polymer based substance). If the rind has a shiny texture to it, I would avoid eating it myself. In fact, I would just generally not bother with the rind of these cheeses, they tend to be rather unpleasant texturally and often don't have great flavour. It should be said though that we do from time-to-time get customers who absolutely love the rind of a comté...

In the pictures below you can see Mimolette, a cheese where affineurs will actually encourage cheese mites (to give it that rusty cannon ball look), and a close-up of a Beaufort d’Alpage where you can see a thin wax layer, designed to keep the mites at bay. More on cheese mites in a later post…

Mimolette is a cow's milk cheese from the north of France.
Its cratered rind is evidence of cheese mite
I have enlarged a section of the rind of this Beaufort to demonstrate the
thin layer of wax that has been applied

A final note: One of the reasons I’ve seen cited for avoiding eating the rinds of cheeses that are not commonly eaten is hygiene - essentially, that the cheesemonger/affineur might treat cheeses differently if he knows that the client won't be eating the rind. When I first heard this I was rather dismissive as hygiene is a massively important consideration and not something that we would mess around with. Then I thought, hang on a minute, with the larger wheels of cheese such as comté and beaufort (which weigh in at around 40 kg each) they really do get wheeled around on the floor a bit particularly when it comes to cutting them open. Our floors are pretty clean, but still, I would understand why you might want to avoid the outside edges of one of these large wheels of cheese.

Monday, November 12, 2012

How to buy cheese

I am well aware, from personal experience, that buying cheese from a cheesemonger can sometimes be intimidating (in a similar way to buying meat from a butcher and fish from a fishmonger), particularly if you happen to be battling across a language barrier. The process becomes even more concerning if you have a limited budget and are worried that you might accidentally end up blowing your whole pay packet on a chunk of overly expensive cheese.

Wouldn't it just be easier if things were all pre-cut and neatly wrapped with a price on so that you could just pick them up and put them in your shopping basket, avoiding all potential for awkward conversations with professionals? Well, yes obviously, but you already know why you shouldn’tbe buying cheese from a supermarket.
Me during a brief visit to help out at another cheese shop

I’m not in a position to help you out with the French butcher or fishmonger, but having some experience in selling cheese, I reckon that I can provide some pointers to ease the process when visiting the cheesemonger.

Les Halles de Lyon (aka Halles Paul Bocuse) is not only the key weekly shopping location for the wealthier Lyonnais, it’s also a significant stop on the gastronomic tourist trail. This mélange of clientele brings a correspondingly diverse mix of needs and budgets, and a large part of the cheesemonger’s job is to separate these out. It’s a real knack (and I confess that I don’t get this right every time) to be able to give a client what they want, particularly when they struggle to articulate it (or articulate something different entirely. Ultimately that’s the goal though, if people leave with the thing they wanted, at the price they expected, they’re a whole lot more likely to come back.

This is just a guess, but I would hazard that as a reader of this blog, you are not one of our clients who breezes through the weekly cheese run every week with confidence and an ‘I’ve seen it all before’ glaze over their eyes. When one of these clients walks in, and asks for a slice of Comté, I know that I can hold the knife across the cheese and they will tell me when the slice looks big enough.
 I’m going to be honest here, this is very convenient for us particularly when we’re in a rush - if we indicate the size of a slice of cheese and you agree to it, we don’t have to worry about how much it might weigh (or cost), as you‘ve already agreed to buy it.

But there is no shame in not being able to judge the value of a slice of Beaufort by eye, and if you aren’t confident in this, then it’s not in either of our interests for you to try. If we give you too little, we’ve lost out on the sale and you might not have as much cheese as you’d wanted. If we give you too much, you might feel stung and never come back again – which is the result that I worry about most. I’ve seen people wince when I’ve told them the price of a slice of cheese they asked for, and although I do my best to say that I can cut something smaller, I’m rarely taken up on it.

So, I’ve talked this over a bit with my colleagues at the shop and basically my advice to you as someone looking to buy cheese is this:

Let us know what you’re concerned about upfront and then we can make sure that you get what you’re after. Make us responsible for meeting your requirements.

For example, if you have a limited budget, tell the cheese monger that you have, for example, 10€ that you want to spend on local cheeses to make a cheese board. Then you’ll know that you won’t be paying more than that. We can find the right selection at the right price.

If you need to travel with your cheese, ask us which ones travel well, rather than trying to guess. That way you don't risk limiting your choices more than you need to, or ruining your best clothes with cheese goo from that over-ripe slice of brie.

If you’re having a fondue, tell us the style that you’re after and how many guests, then we can help you select the most suitable cheeses and make sure that you have enough to go around.

As I said above, we want you to leave happy with great cheese at the right price (and come back). We have no interest in you leaving with a bad taste in your mouth, quite the contrary in fact!