The thrill of the cheese


French cheeses are showcased at the European Union cheese extravaganza at the Majestic Kuala Lumpur. (Right) Fraisse taking the media through the cheese tasting. — Photos: RAYMOND OOI/ The Star

Legend has it that cheese was inadvertently invented by an Arabian merchant who put milk in a sheep’s stomach pouch. Imagine his astonishment when he discovered later that night that the milk had separated into curd (solid) and whey (liquid) caused by the enzymes found in the stomachs of milk-fed animals (rennet).

Whether the legend is true or not, cheese has flourished since ancient times.

Over the centuries, Europe has blossomed into a major artisanal cheese-making hub, with a gilded history that shows records of Gorgonzola being made in Italy in 879 AD and Roquefort in France in 1070 AD.

These days, there are as many as 450 different kinds of cheeses made in France alone and in 2013, the European Union produced nearly 9.3m tonnes of cheese (although the United States is the leading producer of cheese worldwide).

Despite our Western counterparts’ obsession with cheese, it hasn’t caught on quite as dramatically in our little neck of the woods. Processed cheese (like the popular Kraft slices) is relatively popular but the market for gourmet cheese is only now beginning to gain traction.

Fraisse says there is a missing link between the Malaysian consumer and European cheese, but notices that more Malaysians are beginning to appreciate good cheese.
Fraisse says there is a missing link between the Malaysian consumer and European cheese, but notices that more Malaysians are beginning to appreciate good cheese.

Cheese can enjoyed in many ways, including as part of a cheese platter with other condiments like grapes and raisins.
Cheese can enjoyed in many ways, including as part of a cheese platter with other condiments like grapes and raisins.

“The cheese culture is not very strong in Malaysia but it is growing as more and more Malaysians are travelling to Europe and being exposed to real cheese,” says Jean Michel Fraisse, director of the French Culinary School in Asia.

The chef hosted a recent European Union event at the Majestic Kuala Lumpur to showcase cheese where guests were introduced to French cheese like Reblochon, Comte, Saint-Marcellin and Fourme d’ Ambert and shown the many ways that it can be enjoyed.

“There is a missing link between European cheese and the Malaysian consumer,” said Fraisse, adding that there is more to the enjoyment of cheese than sandwiching it between two slices of bread or using it to flavour food in cooking.

To begin with, cheese can be categorised into eight types according to how they are made. There is “soft cheese with natural rind” like Brie and Camembert, which is ripened from the outside. The cheese has a natural white rind and is often runny at room temperature.

Another type of soft cheese has washed rind; the rind is washed during the ageing process to prevent mould from forming. Examples are Munster, Reblochon and Epoisses, which stand out for having a strong odour.

Hard cheese like Emmental and Comte has a firm texture with tastes ranging from mild to pungent and comes under the “pressed and cooked cheese” category. It is said that you can savour 83 tastes in a Comte! Cheese made from goat milk and blue cheese form their own categories.

Fraisse says although the price of cheese here can seem prohibitive, it is comparable (after conversion) to the price in Europe.

One of the best ways to enjoy cheese is to eat it on its own. Make up a cheese platter to enjoy the many varieties, textures and taste of cheese. Fraisse recommends using at least four cheeses from different categories for a simple platter; for a grand feast, there’s nothing to stop you if you want to serve 20 different cheeses. For a more focused tasting, it is a good idea to organise your cheese parties by region.

Malaysians are slowly beginning to appreciate good European cheese, like this delicious French blue cheese - Fourme d’ Ambert.
Malaysians are slowly beginning to appreciate good European cheese, like this delicious French blue cheese, Fourme d’ Ambert.

For a French affair you can have a Brie, a blue like Roquefort, a hard Comte and a soft washed rind Reblochon and condiments to go with them – raisins, nuts and fruits like grapes make great accompaniments. And always serve a crusty bread such as baguette or country loaf with the cheese. If you have wine to wash it all down, that’s even better!

Fraisse recommends buying gourmet cheese that has been cut and rewrapped in cheese rooms at supermarkets rather than processed or mass-produced cheese. To store the cheese, keep it at the bottom of the refrigerator, then bring down to room temperature before eating it.

If you’re especially adventurous, pair your cheese platter with different teas for an exciting denouement to your meal.

“What is interesting about tea and cheese? Both have tannins and leave a very pleasant sensation on the palate,” says Fraisse.

Cheese and tea. Who’d have thunk? Just goes to show that cheese is far more versatile than you could ever have imagined.


When cheese met tea ...

It was love at first sight. The rest, as they say, is history.

An arranged union between two strangers shows how odd couplings can sometimes be the best ones. Can a successful cheese and tea pairing endear whiffy cheese to Asian consumers?

From bottom: Bethmale, Fourme d’ Ambert, Brie, Comte, Saint Marcellin and Reblochon.
From bottom: Bethmale, Fourme d’ Ambert, Brie, Comte, Saint Marcellin and Reblochon.

Fourme d’ Ambert with Darjeeling

Cheese profile: A blue cheese from the Auvergne region in France. Aged for two months, this is a mild, creamy cheese ideal for salads.

Pairing notes: The down-to-earth, warm spiciness of the Darjeeling sluices through the pungency of the blue cheese like a samurai warrior on a mission.

Saint-Marcellin with Sencha

Cheese profile: Aged for two to six weeks, this heady, soft and silky-smooth cheese has a full-bodied taste and is at its best when it is in a creamy state.

Pairing notes: The steamed green tea’s bright notes balance out the creaminess of the cheese and thoroughly cleanse your palate.

Reblochon with White Peony

Cheese profile: Made in the Rhone Alps in eastern France, this mountain cheese has a super creamy texture, a taste of the cellar, fruits and a nut-ty aftertaste.

Pairing notes: When the soft, creamy cheese meets the floral notes of the Pai Mu Tan tea, you think to yourself, “What’s better than this?”

Brie with black tea

Cheese profile: A very popular cheese around the world, Brie has a pillowy texture and mellow flavours and is a great addition to a cheese platter.

Pairing notes: The black tea is strong and flavourful and cuts through the richness of the cheese, giving a refreshing mouthfeel after.

Comte with Oolong

Cheese profile: A hard cheese named after a region in France, Comte can be aged for up to 18 months and has small holes and fruity, complex flavours.

Pairing notes: The earthiness of the oolong tea rejuvenates the flavours of the Comte, which truly comes to life.

Bethmale with Pu ‘er

Cheese profile: This semi-soft cheese is regularly washed with a brine solution to encourage the growth of a mould, which helps develop its pungent aroma and milky flavour.

Pairing notes: The marriage of two strong flavours is also a marriage of equals. The dense cheesy flavours of the Bethmale are balanced by the strong flavours of the tea, without one overpowering the other.

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The thrill of the cheese

   

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