By trade, I’m an English teacher. But on the weekends these days, I make cheese. My students have picked up on this, and enjoy poking fun at my newfound hobby by mentioning cheese in their literature presentations. As we embarked on Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, I told my students that I would make cheese for them to sample when we finished the unit. Even though Hemingway’s book is about the eastern-Italian front of World War I, I chose French Camembert because it was such a popular “taste of home” for French soldiers during the first “great war.” From all I had read, its relatively quick production time and ability to mature in transit made it ideal. Hemingway’s love of all things French also influenced the decision. I ordered what I thought was the Camembert mold, Penicillium Candidum, and proceeded to make the cheese according to the instructions. I had never tasted Camembert, and what I ended up with was edible, but it was not Camembert. I had ordered the wrong type of mold—instead of Candidum, I bought an aroma blend that emphasized the “sweaty sock” odor found in some French Camemberts. I knew I was not on the right track when my wife asked if something had died in our cheese cave.
In my research, I found out that Camembert and Brie are related, and are created in virtually the same way. In the past, I have tried the Bries that can be found in most grocery stores and have not been impressed. They often seem characterized by little flavor, a certain gumminess in texture, or an overpowering odor of ammonia. And because of my mainstream American sensibility, I was never sure what to do with the moldy rind. I mean, is it really mold? And if it is, can I safely eat it?
The answer is yes—it is edible mold—and if it doesn’t taste right, that’s because the cheese has been ripened or stored too long, or not allowed to breathe. I might also argue that the grocery store examples are not particularly great representations of the styles—many have a dull, middling flavor profile, like mass-produced American lagers. It turns out cheese varieties that originated in Europe usually have a regional appellation—like wine varietals or certain beer styles. That’s because in Europe, the flora used to graze the milking livestock is as important a flavor factor as the type of milk, the bacterial culture, or even the cheesemaking process. It’s probably improper to name cheeses not made in these regions by their traditional names, but the styles have become so ubiquitous that the regional names just take over. Traditionally, the differences between Brie and Camembert vary due to the aromatic cultures added, and the size of the cheese—Bries are generally made in tall, wide hoops, and Camemberts in narrower, yet equally tall molds. And there are other variations of Brie—like double and triple creme Brie—that are so delightful, I just had to try to replicate those on my own cheesemaking odyssey.
I have awakening points in my food-crafting hobbies that intersect with my newfound knowledge—an “aha” moment when my research leads me to the discovery of a wonderful new flavor, and then the realization that I have the ability to create that flavor in my own kitchen. As an example from my beer making past, when I discovered Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, I vividly remember really “smelling” beer for the first time, and all at once understanding and falling in love with the rose-like aroma of fresh Cascade hops. If Sierra Nevada was my gateway into what craft beer could be, then certainly Mt. Tam Triple Creme from Cowgirl Creamery in Northern California has been my gateway into the sublime category of triple creme Brie cheeses. I tried it by accident at an outstanding gastropub in downtown Claremont—Union on Yale—and I couldn’t believe what I was tasting. Slight mushroom flavor, clean underneath and beautifully textured, this was not grocery
The process for making these cheeses is fascinating. With a pressed-curd cheese—like cheddars, Derbys, Goudas—and hard cheeses, time is spent working with the curd after it has set: heating, stirring, draining, “cooking” raising the temperature 10-14 degrees, knitting allowing it to “melt” together, and in the case of cheddar, stacking it. With cheddar, heat causes the curds to knit together, and before being pressed into a mold, squares are cut into sections and placed on top of each other in a process that increases the acidity and reduces the water content. This prepares it for a long aging process.
By comparison, Bries and Camemberts are low-acidity cheeses with minimal curd processing and a short aging time of 2-8 weeks. The milk is heated—and for double and triple cremes, just add a percentage of heavy whipping cream to the mixture—cultures are added including the mold varieties of Penicillium Candidum or Geotrichum Candidum, the rennet is added to set the curd, the curd is cut and stirred, and just as the curd is beginning to expel the whey, it is scooped out into tall cheese forms. These cheese forms have small holes drilled into the sides, and are usually bottomless. I use cheesecloth to prevent curd loss, and have fabricated a raised platform of sushi mats in a rectangular stainless steel chafing dish. Sushi mats do wonderfully for cheese draining—I can easily wash and sanitize them dry in a 200-degree oven in about 12 minutes. The forms are then flipped every few hours for the next 24 hours until the whey is expelled and the cheese has shrunk and knitted together.
The next step in the process is the most fun. The very edible, mushroom-flavored mold that is essential to this cheese style has to grow and do wonderful things to the cheese. First, the rounds are generously salted on the outside only use no-additive salts in cheesemaking. If you remember from science class, liquids like to balance, and salt has the osmotic quality of draining liquid from cells—this tightens the surface of the cheese as the first formation of a rind. The salty environment also makes sure that nothing else will grow on this rind except the mold you want—remember, you have already inoculated the cheese with white mold. Within a week, in a humid environment of about 55 degrees—and daily flipping—this cheese will begin to “bloom” the pillowy-white flora you have implanted within it. The mold lowers the acidity of the cheese, allowing it to soften and ripen, imparting the flavors associated with delicious Bries and Camemberts.
If you had told me that three months into cheesemaking I’d be hounding specialty soft cheeses at boutique cheesemonger stores finding good cheese in Southern California is a story in and of itself and that my most favored cheesemaking tools would be my Camembert molds, I would have laughed at you. As my stacks of Derby and Gouda in my wine refrigerators/aging caves will attest, I love pressed-curd cheeses. But in the midst of this odyssey, the discovery of the buttery, mushroomy flavors of triple creme Brie has opened my eyes to the variations possible within a very specific variety of cheese. My English class will have to wait for their Camembert sample for now, and will have to instead enjoy some homemade triple
Union on Yale
232 Yale Avenue
Claremont, CA 91711
1 Ferry Building
San Francisco, CA 94111