Thursday, 16 October 2014

Le Cordon Bleu Week 3 - Je T'aime Fromage! A midweek special.

It's 10:33pm on a Wednesday night. I've just returned from possibly the best and most engaging lecture of my entire life and so I feel compelled to instantly write down and communicate all that I have learnt! 

When I noticed on my time table during orientation week that we were to complete one cheese and one wine lecture, I thought to myself "goody, I like cheese and I like wine". My thoughts didn't really extend any further than that. I entered the class a little nonplus, with no real expectations. I'd heard a rumour that we'd all get to sample some cheese but it wouldn't be until the last ten minutes of our 3 hour lecture - this rumour upset me and thankfully turned out to be nothing but a nasty lie. 

When we entered the demonstration room, we were greeted by plate upon plate of cheese samples and a jolly happy chappy who oozed enthusiasm, character and charisma. I don't remember him introducing himself by name so I'm going to call him the cheese man. Because that's exactly who he is - this man grew up on a cheese farm, his mother herded goats, milked the goats and produced goats cheese here in the UK. His love of cheese saw him go into training in the diary industry and later in life he became a consultant, helping farmers to produce the best cheese suited to their location and herd. Now, he's a cheese sales man, working with Michelin star restaurants across the globe, ensuring they are serving only the very best to their customers. 

The cheese man started the lecture by gushing about cheese and declaring its awesomeness. To give you a better idea of who the cheese man was and what he looked like, let me try to describe him. Imagine, if you will, Basil Fawlty in terms of stature (although you'll need to loose the moustache and add a very quaint dicky bow). He was as British as they come with a voice not too dissimilar to that of David Attenborough - soft, British and incredibly knowledgeable. He was wearing Airforce blue, so had you left the Basil Fawlty moustache on, he'd have fitted in to bomber command circa 1940 incredibly well. Another great word to describe him is bombardier!  

After telling us how amazingly wonderful cheese is, he went on to tell us why and started with it's history. I was fascinated to learn that cheese was discovered hundreds of thousands of years ago - man grew tired of hunting beasts as it involved a lot of running around without much reward. Having to adapt their ways quickly due to the high infant and adult mortality rate, man learnt that by following the beast and earning its trust, that they could reap far more rewards from the animal than merely it's flesh. By earning the animals trust, they could milk the animal and they could use the animals for warmth and in some cases protection or even as a method of transport. Using the milk from the animals was great - the children lapped it up, growing quickly from the nutrients the liquid provided. And they were growing up to be strong which back then was exactly what the tribes needed in order to stay safe and ultimately survive. 

Man tried many ways of earning the animals trust - trying to bride them with food and water, but in the case of the goat and reindeer they had to think much further beyond the ordinary and found that what the animals craved the most was salt. After a little bit of experimentation into ways of delivering this unique requirement, they noticed that the animals was strangely attracted to the areas that the men had gone to urinate. Be it in the sun or in the snow, the urine had evaporated, leaving only the salt at ground level for the animals to enjoy. The men had a lightbulb moment! So that they could remember where they'd peed, and so that they could move the lure point if needed, they would piss onto rocks which then became salt licks - you'll notice that farmers, to this day, still use salt licks! They don't piss on them but essentially that's how they came about! I digress, but it's an interesting fact! 

So we learnt about animal tracking, earning the trust of the animal and milking the animals and then came the cheese. Milk, way back when, only lasted about an hour to an hour and a half before it would begin to sour and become unpalatable. Not to mention humans all those years ago were lactose intolerant - only babies and young children could stomach the stuff. Not only that, milk was in relatively short supply, and could only be obtained following the birth of the animals young in the spring, though to autumn when they'd stopped lactating, reserving their energy for the winter and their pregnancy the following year. And of course, all those years ago man had no way to store the milk safely, especially in the African deserts but they saw the benefits and wanted more! 

It was only by accident that cheese was discovered and it was discovered quite simply by doing nothing at all. Milk was simply just left out. After a few hours in the sun it had started to sour, the proteins had become acidic and the fermentation process had began. First to be discovered was yoghurt - following this, the yogurt would dry out completely and cheese was born! Yay cheese!

I won't talk you through all of the cheeses that we sampled, but I will provide a list at the end. Instead I'm going to list all of the fascinating cheese fact that the cheese man took great pleasure in telling us - these will both impress and excite your family and friends at the next dinner party you throw. You are welcome...

Fascinating fact number 1. 

We have cheese to thank for the invention of packaging. Man quickly learned that he was onto a good thing but that it wasn't only humans that loved cheese. Flies also love cheese and to deter them, man looked around him for a solution. He didn't look far and the first type of cheese packaging recorded was a cheese rolled in fire ash. Flies hate ash and so this technique is sometimes still used today. 

This particular cheese, a French St Maure de Touraine made from goats milk, you'll notice has a stick running through its centre. This is actually a single strand of straw which is used to give this crumbly cheese some structure and something to cling on to. Farms in France still use straw and will write their names onto the straw for traceability purposes and to market their product as it is sold as seen. The ash is the packaging! This type of cheese is referred to as an acid set cheese. 

Fascinating fact number 2. 

Whey, the by product of cheese making it actually pretty incredible. Used to make cheeses such as Ricotta and Gjetost, this cheese was often given to the pour, leaving the good stuff for the rich. If you'll recall a very famous child lapped up the stuff...Little Miss Muffet. 

It was only the incredibly rich folk who could afford the products created using the curd. The reason, especially for giving it to the children is that it is incredibly sweet. Due to the fermentation process it is full of sugar and essential proteins, meaning it made you strong and gave you energy! Great for giving to your staff or to workers in the field. 

We sampled some Gjetost and it was quite possibly the most interesting flavour combination that I have ever experienced. It's basically a cheesy fudge! And the Norwegians love it! 

As sugar pre 14th century was such an incredibly rare commodity, it was in fact the cheese monger who made sweets for the children. The cheesemonger! Who'd have thought! And although this is no longer the case in the UK and most of Europe, in India and Goa the children's favourite after school destination is still to visit the cheese maker for sweet cheeses! Despite them being able to make ordinary, sugar based sweets, it's still the cheesy sweets that they prefer and long for. Who knew! 

Fascinating fact number 3. 

Buffalo Mozzarella as we all know originates from Italy. But buffalos don't... When the Great British empire was in full swing, a couple of Italian gentleman happened to be walking past the salt marshes in India and remarked upon how amazing the 'cows' were. They told the Indian farmers that they couldn't get their cows anywhere near their salt marshes and therefore couldn't utilise their land effectively. Spotting a good business opportunity, and knowing how quickly the buffalo mated, the Indian men sold a small herd to the Italians. Delighted the Italians sailed the beasts back to their home land and there the water buffalo thrived. They soon, and painfully discovered that mozzarella could be made - I say painfully as the way this cheese is best created is by picking up the curds, and gently dunking them in boiling hot water WITH YOUR BARE HANDS and then stretching out the elastic cheese and wrapping it and spinning it around itself. In some area of Italy the cheese is still made in this way. 

The Italians loved mozzarella but its production came to an abrupt end during the Second World War due to the German invasion. The Germans, unaware of the delicious commodity these buffalo were helping to produce, shot and killed every single animal in the country. Not even one survived. Devastated the farmers made the decision to travel back to India and beg the farmers their to sell them more so that they could re build the herd and continue their production of mozzarella and that's exactly what happened. 

Just imagine, if we hadn't have won the war, we could be living in a world with no mozzarella. It doesn't even bare thinking about!

Fascinating fact number 4. 

This fact goes again to mozzarella! Did you know that this cheese is whats referred to as a mimic food? Mozzarella comes in a variety of sizes and the sizes have been created in accordance to tomatoes! Not only that, some believe that the Italian flag was designed to mimic the nations favourite simple salad - tomato, mozzarella and basil (it probably wasn't but hey, great coincidence)! 

Fascinating fact number 5. 

In the UK we used to make a lot of cheese! And the cheeses we made were big! As they were so big (no offence intended ladies), they required men to turn them and roll them during the maturing stages of production. At the turn of the 19th century our cheese production was booming! But then came the First and Second World Wars where we lost 90% of our skilled cheese makers. 

In France, a third of their male population died at the hands of the Germans but as the cheeses they made were small, women made and maintained them and so their cheese production continued, unaffected. 

The UK haven't ever truly recovered in this area and today only boast approximately 200 good cheese producers. 

Fascinating fact number 6. 

The popular orange rind cheese, Munster, was created by the monks of Burgundy, possibly the greatest foodies of all time. Everyone loved this slightly gooey, meaty, full flavoured cheese but it wasn't selling at the rate the monks were hoping. The monks, being the smart fellas they were, identified that meat was their key competition. The solution? They invented Lent and the church put a ban on the eating of meat during certain months of the year. Hungry and desperate for a replacement for their lost protein, the peasants of France turned to the monks and monks provided. At a cost! It's no wonder that during the French revolution the people of France chased the Catholic monks from the country. They were wealthy beyond belief and their personal needs and the people of France were starving. 

A Munster cheese is best served with a dry white wine. It's smelly - really smelly, but the smellier the better. 

Fascinating fact number 7.

Cheese farts! Cheese farts!!! Gases created within the cheese due to the breakdown of the lactic acids lead to holes forming within the cheese. For some this ruins the cheese and makes it unstable, but when the Swiss discovered this farting issue they used it to their benefit. Way up in the Alps, the Swiss cheese makers were making a much more rubbery cheese - they needed to do so in order for their cheese to survive it's roll down the mountains - there were no cable cars back in their time! They created their rubbery cheese by heating it to 60 degrees, causing the cheese to become elastic. It shrunk and expanded creating Emmentaller, the cheese we know as Emmental. You'll notice when you cut into this cheese that it has huge holes inside - these are air bubbles caused by the cheese farting! But luckily for the cheese makers of the Alps, these air bubbles made the cheese bouncier and meant it was better protected for it's roll from top to bottom! 

Fascinating fact number 8. 

The way we bank and store our money is largely inspired by cheese. As soon as we discovered that we could keep and store cheese for longer than a week, longer than a year, longer than 5 years without becoming ill, we realised that it was no longer a food we'd created but a commodity. Creating a commodity meant we'd created something of real value, something which needed to be stored and protected. It was the monks in Italy, responsible for the creation of the famous Parmesan cheese who created large storage vaults, first to hold cheese and then later to hold anything else of value. Funnily enough, this cheese is still valuable enough to be stored in the vaults in Italy and is even exchanged with the banks in return for bank loans. Crazy hey! 

Fascinating fact number 9. 

Way back when, before we had exotic ingredients such as chillies and peppers at our disposal, we would use old, hard, almost black cheeses. These old, dirty, mouldy cheeses would be grated or sliced and placed within dishes to give them a kick! Great news for people who are allergic to chillies - just use some really old cheese! 

Blown away by these fascinating cheese facts, I sat listening to the cheese man in ore as he left us with some parting words of advise, advise that I hope you'll find of use when selecting the cheeses to feature on your Christmas menu! 

A cheese course is not meant to fill you up. The purpose of a cheese course is to make memories and to leave your mouth full of wonderful tastes and joy - it should leave you wanting to return to sample more. When serving a cheese plate, it's important not to stick great wedges of the stuff in front of your guests, instead he suggested creating a pandoras box of gorgeousness. A maximum of 4 bites is enough which means that you can serve smaller bites and a much wider selection of cheese. The reason being...

Bite 1 - this is where the magic happens, the taste buds come alive and the flavours hit you! 
Bite 2 - this is your confirmation bite, your mouth agrees with its initial judgement 
Bite 3 - the flavours become less intense. This bite is good but not as great as bites 1 or 2
Bite 4 - your just eating for eatings sake now. You are no longer enjoying the taste nor the flavour of the cheese. Stop 

His second piece of advice was regarding the cheeses that you select. In the UK we are less than adventurous when it comes to cheese and creating our cheese boards. We've almost been programmed into selecting the following: 
  • A brie (it's French, it shows we know our cheese)
  • A cheddar (it's British and everyone loves it)
  • A hardish cheese with a colourful rind such as emmental (it has holes - how exotic)
  • A blue (to show our adventurous side)
  • A goat cheese (it's our bush tucker trial cheese - wow we're a crazy bunch)
The cheese man's advise was not to buy any of the cheeses that you find on the shelves in the supermarket. Unless you happen to shop in Waitrose, Harrods, Fortnum and Mason or perhaps Selfridges. If you want cheeses to impress you need to think more creatively in either a vertical or horizontal manor and buy from local suppliers. 

Vertical selection refers to cheeses selected by type, or family. For instance, choosing only blue cheeses, or only goats cheeses! Not only will you take your taste buds on a far superior adventure but now, selecting an accompanying wine becomes easy! After all, there is no wine in the world that will ever be complimentary to our usual 5.   

Horizontal selection is a little more fun and could involve following a cheese path of sorts, or selecting from a particular region. For instance, choosing cheeses which follow a river, such as the Thames or perhaps the River Severn, the second longest river in the UK, taking you through Wales and England, past some wonderful cheese makers! Or you could select your cheese board only by smell - imagine serving only the smelliest cheeses you could lay your hands on! What fun! 

And that concludes my cheesy facts! I've never left a lecture so full of knowledge and excitement. In case you hadn't built up a picture in your head of what the cheese man looked like, this is him. He was totally and utterly fabulous and I cannot wait for my next cheese lecture, next year! 

*Please note that the views I express are mine alone and do not reflect the views of my place of study*

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