Saturday, March 23, 2013


Continuing the theme of presenting cheeses from my platter, I thought that Abondance deserved an introduction. Particularly given this epic advert that has been up in most of the Lyon metro stations recently.
Abondance is a pressed and cooked raw cow’s milk cheese in the Savoie, a mountainous part of France that houses some of the French Alps.

"You're going to eat tradition" (with an implied "whether you like it or not")
Check out the official site

The origins of the cheese are tied to the work of the monks at the l’Abbaye d’Abondance who, from the 14th century, created pastures in the Val de l’Abondance and carefully selected a breed of cows, also known as Abondance. The goal of this work was similar to that of most alpine cheese producers, essentially to find a way of storing the richness of summer grasses and plants through the brutally cold and desolate winter months. Cheese is a great medium for this, particularly the harder, cooked cheeses which age gracefully allowing storage for anything from months to years.

Abondance, a handsome beast

Sorry, 'cooked'?

Just to clarify, when I say that Abondance is a cooked cheese, I mean that once the curd has been formed from the milk in a big vat (like a big jelly), it is cut into lots of little cubes – this mixture of curd cubes and residual whey is then heated, to about 48oC in the case of Abondance. This causes the curd cubes to tighten and shrink, expelling more liquid. Generally speaking, the lower the moisture content, the longer the cheese will age.

Abondance is considered to be a semi-cooked cheese. Other cooked cheeses include the classic French examples of Comté and Beaufort, which are both cooked to around 53oC. As a result, Comté and Beaufort tend to reach their peaks of flavour and texture at around 15 – 18 months (although this can vary hugely) and Abondance can’t really be taken much older than a year.

Personally I prefer this cheese when it’s matured - the best part of a year old, such as the piece in these photos - but it is available as young as 3 or 4 months old where the rind will be much paler and the pâte significantly less craggy looking.

Well aged Abondance, showing off its fissured pâte.

In this well-aged piece, the pâte has dried and fissured but the flavour has also developed significantly, imbuing the natural fruity, hazelnutty quality of the cheese with strength, piquancy and a slight bitterness (which refreshes the palate). Watch out though, with some examples of the cheese at this age, it can develop a very strong stinging finish on the tongue.  

This complex flavour, coupled with a relatively soft pâte give a perfect cooking cheese, that is ideally suited to the tops of gratins and the classic après ski fondue.

Another factor that separates this cheese from the Beauforts and Comtés is the treatment of the rind during aging, typically rubbing with water or a water and vinegar mix to develop flavour characteristics commonly found in the soft, washed-rind cheeses such as Epoisses and Langres (more on Langres coming soon to a computer screen near you). This is generally where that bitterness comes from.

The dark brown rind can take on an almost red tinge when well matured

The name Abondance, and the methods through which it is produced have been protected under the French AOC system (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlé) since 1990. If you can find it, you should really be looking for the rarer Abondance Fermier, which is essentially produced through the same process, but mechanisation is largely prohibited.

Sunday, March 17, 2013


Parmesan (as the French call it), or to give it its full name Parmigiano-Reggiano DOP, was another of the cheeses that I put on my competition platter. It’s a stunning Italian cheese that I imagine almost everyone reading this will have come across in some form or another.

Parmesan showing off its brittle texture

In the UK, we tend to use it almost as seasoning, grated onto pizza, or shaved over a salad. But there’s more to it than that, this is a fascinating and unusual cheese that’s well worth a more in-depth look. I could go into huge detail as to how it’s made and aged etc. but there are already some pretty good resources on this on the web, so I would invite you to have a look at these videos.

So, how should you buy parmesan? As I've said before, if you can possibly avoid it, you really shouldn't be buying cheese from a supermarket. Try and find your nearest cheese shop, it is well worth the effort to forge a lasting relationship with an expert, the rewards are greater than Nectar points can ever be.

Parmesan's marked rind

You should look for parmesan in the biggest squarest lump that you can find/afford, it’ll last well in the fridge but the issue, as always, is that a cut cheese dries out. The cheese, for me at least, is always better when freshly cut, the texture will have a crumbly, and is almost effervescent in the mouth; the flavour will be fresher as well. That’s why the best parmesan you will ever taste is prised from the centre of a wheel of parmesan opened just instants ago. It’s worth noting that as soon as a cheese is cut, the wonderful flavour compounds that have been building up over the years of affinage will be released in a short burst that’s almost criminal to miss.

I included Parmesan on my cheese platter because its taste and texture border on unique in the cheese world and it deserves to be treated as a cheese in its own right, not just as a dust on top of what might otherwise be a bland pasta dish. My recommendation is that the next time you have cause to open a bottle of champagne, you buy a reasonably well aged piece of Parmesan (around a couple of years old) that hasn't been allowed to dry out too much and you prise it apart into small bite size chunks at the last possible moment. Paired with the champagne, or a good dry sparkling wine, it truly comes alive.

Any leftover chunks (unlikely though they might be) go well in in a salad, and don’t forget that the rind can be added to the mix to impart a soup or risotto with a richer savoury flavour – just drop it in to the simmering stock.

I wanted to finish with a brief aside on opening and cutting a wheel of Parmesan. The whole cheese is a bit of a beast, weighing in at around 40kg and it tends to have quite an oily rind making it difficult to manoeuvre. 

My boss Etienne having opened a Parmesan the
traditional way with his Parmesan knives
Traditionally it’s opened with a set of specialist knives with flat 10 cm long blades, inserting and wiggling to find the natural weaknesses in the cheeses, this splits the cheese leaving a very uneven surface, giving a great idea of how the curds hold together to form the finished cheese. This opening method is considered to respect the texture of the cheese.

In the Mons caves and shop however, we do it differently. We use a very long, extra thick cheese wire to cut the cheese neatly in half, the benefit being a much lower surface area to lose humidity 
and flavour, with the advantage that it is easier to wrap closely once cut to further reduce undesired loss of water. Pulling a thick cheese wire through a block of solid cheese is no easy business and requires both muscle and technique - it took me a while to get the hang of it.

It’s with a certain nerdy pride that I framed the badge of the Italian affineur from the first Parmesan that I managed to open myself. It’s now sitting on the mantelpiece.

Parmesan trophy