My homemade Coulommiers has matured from tasteless milk curd to strong cheese and is calling for release from the fridge. Sitting out on the kitchen counter prior to tasting, the cheese receives several hours of admiration and by dinner time yields like a soft down pillow under the pressure of my thumb. It has developed a velvety white bloom, a wrinkled rind and an aroma that can only be described as "barnyard."
The first wedge reveals a creamy, pale yellow interior that oozes gradually out onto the plate. The milk and mushroom flavours of the cheese are contrasted with a tart rind. There's a pleasant nutty taste that's a bit unusual and I wonder if the neighbour's cow might have been grazing under the walnut trees that grow on his finca. Walnuts can be poisonous for horses, but what about cows? Maybe Argentine bovines have a taste for nuts, a secret craving that ends up enhancing their milk.
Transforming a pail of fresh milk into a round of mature cheese is a craft gleaned from art and science and for some, the miraculous process is akin to a religious experience. "Cheesemaking has enriched my spiritual life," says Mother Noella Marcellino, the Benedictine nun whose passion for cheese is the subject of the PBS documentary"The Cheese Nun." Her experiences making artisanal cheese at the Abbey of Regina Laudis in Connecticut led her to pursue a Ph.D in microbiology and a Fulbright scholarship to do scientific research in France. She examined the fungi Geotrichum candidum in the Auvergne region caves and identified 14 strains of the bacteria that grew in the ripening rooms of seven cheesemakers. Mother Noella is a strong advocate for preserving biodiversity in the cheesemaking process. In addition to her ongoing work making Bethlehem cheese at the abbey, she has become a popular lecturer, a consultant to artisan cheesemakers and adviser to the cheese industry in the United States. She believes that cheesemaking is her calling and has devoted her life to the vocation.
Coulommiers can be successfully paired with white or red wine, but on the advice of a Frenchwoman who knows her fromage, we serve our cheese with a glass of champagne-style sparkling wine and a slice of green apple. It doesn't need crackers or bread or anything else on the side. The effervescent, dry Duc de Saint Remy Extra Brut is made in the province of San Juan, using the French methode champenoise for elaboration. A blend of Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc, this sparkler comes from the Saint Remy bodega established by Swiss-born brothers Hector and Manuel Maglione who emigrated to Argentina in the 1920s. The contrast between earthy aged cheese and youthful bubbly is delightful, with the champagne's fresh citrus notes offsetting the pungent density of the Coulommiers. A bottle of Duc costs 18.19 pesos at Vea supermarket.
The milk arrived at my door still warm from the cow's udder. That's exactly how it should be for cheese-making; fresh, natural, unpasteurized and non-homogenized, with a pale yellow layer of butterfat floating on the surface. Unlike supermarket milk, the pail of leche provided by my neighbour's cow is full of the good bacteria and enzymes needed for lactose fermentation, the controlled decay that creates a great cheese.
Heating the milk
I am making a French-style Coulommiers, an ancestor of Brie cheese that has three distinct elements: a white bloomy rind, a sweet, creamy interior, and a more solid, tangy coeur. I first sampled it in France during a research trip which led me to many markets, restaurants and farms to try out different varieties of fromage. Coulommiers is my favourite soft cheese because it includes in one mouthful all of the intriguing stages of affinage (ripening). The milk is heated to 32 degrees C, which doesn't take long as the body temperature of the cow is very close to that point. Small amounts of mesophylic bacterial culture and penicillium candidum in powdered form are sprinkled onto the surface and allowed to dissolve for a few minutes. Rennet, the coagulating enzyme derived from a cow's stomach, is added to the milk and stirred in with 20 strong top to bottom strokes.
Filling the moulds
A cheesemaker's most important attribute is patience. The milk must sit undisturbed for an hour or two to form a good curd. It is ready when a knife inserted into the curd makes a clean break and the liquid whey has separated from the milk solids. The curd is ladled in large chunks into cylindrical plastic moulds that are perforated on the sides to allow even drainage. The whey drips into a pan below the cheese rack for several hours until the cheese has reduced to about one quarter of the mould's capacity and has set into a semi-soft round that is firm enough to handle.
The mould is carefully removed and the cheese rounds are salted with coarse natural salt. The salt acts as an anti-bacterial agent and slows down acid development to round off the flavour. The next step, creating a perfect micro-climate for the affinage, is a little tricky. The cheese is quite finicky and wants to be kept moist, but not too moist; cool, but not too cool. The ideal temperature for the ripening of soft cheeses is cellar temperature, 10 - 12 degrees C. but here in Argentina, lacking a basement, I use a small refrigerator set at the lowest level and place a thermometer inside for monitoring. The cheeses are stored during the aging period in plastic boxes with lids closed to achieve the 75-90% humidity that is required for optimal development. Every day the cheese must be tended by wiping out the moisture that has accumulated inside the box and turning the round over on its mat for even ripening.
Ripening in boxes
When my Argentine Coulommiers is ripe and ready to eat, I'll determine which wine works best with it. Each cheese reflects the region in which it was produced, just as each wine is defined by its terroir. The vegetation, climate and breed of dairy cow are different here than in Alberta, Canada, where I used to make cheese from rich Jersey milk. It's an experiment, working with a new herd in a new environment, so we'll just have to wait and see how this batch turns out...
From March 26 to 29 the village of Coulommiers, France (located just 60 kilometers east of Paris) hosts a Wine and Cheese Fair. The event showcases the marvellous Brie de Coulommiers which is paired with a glass of Cotes-du-Rhone.
When we lived in Alberta, Canada, we raised Nubian goats on our hobby farm. This breed of dairy goat produces the richest milk for cheese-making. Our goat girls - Paisley, Heather, Liberty and Magnolia - were intelligent and affectionate pets, and as a result, we find it impossible to eat chivito (goat meat) here in Argentina.
We do still enjoy eating goat cheese, however, and Argentina offers some interesting varieties. For lunch today we sampled Gouda de Cabra and Queso Fresco made by Cabras del Plata from Lavalle, Mendoza, and a semi-hard Queso con Pimienta Verde made by Cabramarca in Santa Maria, Catamarca. A spicy dried country-style salami sausage with the brand name Campo Austral, walnuts in honey and prunes added savoury and sweet flavours to the cheese platter. We served the cheese and meat on unsalted sesame crackers.
A strong, assertive wine is needed to match the tang of goat cheese and the garlic overtones of dried sausage. We paired La Chimiza Amateur Polo Cabernet Sauvignon 2008 , another notable Mendoza wine, with the food. This red comes on strong with black cherry, pepper, coffee and herbal notes. There's a touch of nutmeg in there, too.
La Chamiza is named after a breed of polo pony, and the vineyard, located near Tupungato, was established on an estate that was formerly used for the "sport of kings." The long history of polo in Argentina has spawned many top-notch riding schools. Have a look at an estancia that offers polo instruction for novices and more experienced players who want an active, adventurous vacation.
This bottle was purchased at Vea supermarket for 20.85 pesos.