Cheese—Are You a Connoisseur?
By “Awake!” correspondent in France
“A LITTLE cheese before dessert?” inquires our hostess, presenting an appetizing, well-stocked cheese board. Yes, here in France, a meal “according to the rules” should always include cheese.
In France the average consumption of cheese is 18 kilograms (40 lb) per person per year—a world record. There are many varieties to choose from. In fact, some say that a person living in France could, theoretically, eat a different cheese every day of the year!
Have you ever wondered how such a variety of colors, aromas, and flavors can come from such a relatively neutral-tasting product as milk? There are three main steps: coagulating, draining, and curing. Let us talk first about coagulating.
From Milk to White Cheese
Did you ever leave a jug of milk outside the refrigerator, only to return later and find that it had become curds and whey? What happened? Raw milk contains a number of microorganisms, including lactic bacteria that break down the lactose (milk sugar) into lactic acid. When a certain degree of acidity is reached, the chief protein in milk (called casein) coagulates into an insoluble curd. If you would like to see this actually happen, all you have to do is drop a few teaspoonfuls of vinegar into half a glass of milk. Of course, you won’t get cheese this way, but you will observe the curdling process.
However, it can be dangerous to make cheese using milk that has curdled on its own. It may contain disease-carrying bacteria, resulting from either unhygienic milking conditions or a sick cow. In order to kill unwanted bacteria, cheese makers pasteurize the milk and then may add selected bacteria to help promote coagulation.
A substance called rennet is also often used for coagulating. This contains rennin, an enzyme found in the stomach of a young, unweaned calf. Rennet causes coagulation when mixed with milk at a temperature of about 40 degrees Celsius (104° F.). Why? Because the function of the rennin in the unweaned calf’s stomach is to curdle the mother’s milk, which is its sole food. This process constitutes the first stage of the young animal’s digestive process. Hence, in some ways it might be said that cheese is a form of predigested milk! But what next happens to our curd, whether it was made with rennet, or lactic bacteria, or both?
Now it is time for the second stage, the draining. After coagulation the curd is generally drained, and the liquid whey (containing lactose, protein, and mineral salts) is separated and used for food products or cattle feed. The curd now forms an unripened, soft white cheese with a sourish taste. It may now be eaten—either plain or with salt, sugar, or mixed herbs. Cream is sometimes added to obtain a smoother consistency. Or the curd can be processed further to make other kinds of cheese.
Hardening and Flavoring
Matured, or cured, cheese has to undergo a ripening process. The curd is drained according to the type of cheese desired, and bacteria are added to break down the casein, fats, and lactose. This produces a variety of substances that help to develop the characteristic flavors and aromas of some cheeses. Choice of bacteria, appropriate curing time, and the temperature and humidity of the storerooms are all very important in developing such special varieties.
Sometimes the acidity in the curd must be neutralized to enable the cheese to ferment. This can be done in a variety of ways. For Muenster cheese, which originated in Munster, a little town in eastern France, the ammonia in the storage-room air suffices. In Cendré (meaning “ash-covered”) cheese, made near Orleans, France, acidity is neutralized by potash.
Soft cheeses have a very special place on the cheese board. World-famous Camembert, for instance, was originally made in the village of the same name in Normandy. Its white, cottonlike skin, or “flower,” is produced by a mold called Penicillium, related to the well-known penicillin. Choosing a Camembert is no light matter! Even in a big supermarket, you can see the connoisseur opening the box and pressing gently in the middle of the wrapped cheese with his thumb. He will examine several before making his choice.
Maybe there will be a blue cheese among the variety on the cheese board. Some people prefer a piece of Auvergne bleu made from cow’s milk, while others relish a slice of Roquefort made from ewe’s milk. Both are made in the rugged Massif Central of south-central France. The blue and greenish-blue veins running through these cheeses come from a special mold that develops during the ripening process.
Hard cheeses, such as Gruyère and Emmentaler, are old favorites. To manufacture this type of cheese, the curd must be heated to about 55 degrees Celsius (130° F.). This dries the cheese and retains only those bacteria that develop at higher temperatures. During the curing process certain bacteria (called propionic-acid bacteria) produce carbon dioxide. This forms bubbles that make the familiar holes—small and few in Gruyère, large and numerous in Emmentaler.
Last, we come to Cantal, a pressed cheese similar to British Cheddar and named after a mountainous area in central France. For this, the curd must be pressed for eight to ten hours after draining in order to give the cheese its typical sharp tang.
High Food Value
Milk is a food that contains many of the elements the human body needs. But what about cheese? It is an excellent source of protein. For instance, a 35-gram (1.25 oz) portion of Saint-Paulin (a pressed cheese somewhat similar to Dutch Edam) contains as much protein as 50 grams (1.75 oz) of meat, a quarter of a liter (about a half pint) of milk, or one and a third eggs. Even after draining, cheese retains mineral salts and, above all, a generous proportion of calcium and phosphorus. Most of the calcium lost in a day by a nursing mother can be replaced by a 35-gram portion of Saint-Paulin cheese.
Cheese can also satisfy many of our needs as far as fats (or lipids) are concerned. However, when reading the label on the package, remember that the percentage of milk fat given on the label often relates to the dry matter in cheese, whereas cheese also contains water.
Does cheese contain any carbohydrates? Most of those present in milk, such as lactose (milk sugar), either disappear during draining or are absorbed by the bacteria as they go about their curing work. However, this is probably a good thing, for many people in Africa, Asia, and Europe have difficulty in digesting milk because of its lactose content. Thus the well-known—albeit obsolete—portrait of a Frenchman with a stick of French bread and a chunk of Camembert illustrates complementary nutrition, the bread providing the carbohydrates lacking in cheese.
Hence, the next time you sit down to an appetizing meal that includes cheese, think of all the time and effort that went into producing that delicious food, from the day the cow was milked to the placing of the finished product before you. And do not forget those tireless little workers, the bacteria, without whose efforts cheese could never be made. It may be that you are not a connoisseur of cheese. But you can surely appreciate this tasty treat, and perhaps the information presented here will help you to enjoy it a little more.