“Cheese is milk transformed,” says Pierre Gay, rather poetically.
If anyone is in a position to know all about cheese and its transformed – and transformative – manner, it’s the French affineur, a man who has dedicated his professional life to selecting and ageing fine cheeses – think of him as a fromage talent scout, who seeks out the best cheeses and then helps them to realise their full potential, before putting them on display in his family-owned and -run shop.
Gay is headlining a cheese crash-course and cooking class at The Cooking House in Bangsar, part of the Enjoy European Cheese campaign, financed with the assistance of the European Union.
Along with fellow Frenchman, the KL-based Jean Michel Fraisse of The French Culinary School in Asia, he first addresses the eternal question of the cheeseboard – how much is too much?
“For a feast? Lay out seven,” says Gay. “Sometimes for Christmas, we put 11!”
“Think of constructing a bouquet – do you want three flowers in it?!” says Fraisse. Ok, we get the picture – a beautiful selection is the point, something varied and generous, and of high quality.
“The fact is that 1kg of cheese is made with about 10 litres of fresh milk,” says Fraisse. “So if you go and buy cheese for under RM40, perhaps it is not cheese at all!”
The contemporary cheese board, laden as it can be with glistening dried fruit jewels and mounds of compote, crackers and nuts alongside the cheese, is a fairly new practice.
“Tradition evolves, so that is how we eat it now – but Pierre’s father and mother would only eat cheese with some bread, that is the tradition for their generation,” says Fraisse.
But think of cheese, and it’s not an Asian landscape that immediately comes to mind – more, perhaps the sweeping mountain vistas of the Swiss and French Alps, or the cobblestoned streets of Paris?
Cheeses like the pungent-smelling, creamy Bleu D’Auvergne of Auvergne, the hard, brilliant orange Mimolette, with a sweet butterscotch hint, from Pas-de-Calais or waxy, crumbly Italian Grana Padano – these are all tied firmly to European regions or countries, their identities as wrapped up in their home locales as they are in the white, waxy paper they call home.
Can this “milk transformed” move beyond the traditional cheese board and into the typical Malaysian kitchen?
Gay’s answer is a resounding affirmative, as is Fraisse’s. It is simply a matter of the careful consideration of flavours, as Fraisse demonstrates how to add an Asian touch to the classic Croque Monsieur with slices of shiitake mushrooms, while Chinese smoked garlic elevates and transforms a rustic French onion soup.
When you’re eating cheese plain (or with crackers or dried fruit), Gay feels that unpasteurised cheese tastes better. Cook with it though, and your cheese frontiers widen.
“Then, you have many options, and can combine cheeses to great effect,” he says.
The third dish demonstrated by Gay and Fraisse is a fondue, that Swiss classic made of melted cheese in a communal pot, into which everyone dips long, two-pronged forks holding chunks of bread; to give it an Asian cast, Fraisse infuses the mixture with smoky Lapsang Souchong tea, a black tea originally from China.
“To eat with fondue, choose a bread that is dense in texture, day-old is the best,” says Gay. “Spear a cube and dip it crust first, so that you have less chance of losing your cube of bread to the fondue pot!”
Shiitake and Comte Cheese Croque Monsieur
salt and pepper, to taste
grated nutmeg, to taste
10 x 1cm-thick slices sandwich loaf bread
100g butter, melted
200g smoked chicken, sliced
250g shiitake mushrooms, sliced and sauteed with oil
250g grated Comte cheese
To make bechamel
In a saute pan, melt the butter over low heat. Add in the flour. Cook for 5 minutes, stirring, then add milk, seasoning and nutmeg. Mix well and simmer for 5 minutes. Season to taste and set aside.
To assemble and cook
Brush the sandwich loaf slices with melted butter, then spread each slide with some bechamel sauce.
Top with shiitake mushrooms, then cover with slices of smoked chicken and sprinkle with cheese.
Top with another slice of bread. Spread the top with bechamel and sprinkle with more cheese.
Roast in the oven at 210°C, until top is golden brown. Serve immediately.
Note: To turn these into Croque Madames, have 5 sunny side up eggs on hand and top each sandwich with one just before serving.
Fondue scented with Smoked Tea
1 clove garlic, peeled
1 tablespoon olive oil
100g onion, finely chopped
200ml Lapsang Souchong tea
600g to 800g cheese (such as Emmental, Tome de Savoie, Comte, Raclette, Beaufort, etc.), cubed or grated
freshly-ground black pepper, to taste
2 day-old baguettes, cubed
Rub the inside of the fondue pot with the garlic clove. Add the olive oil and onion into the pot and cook over low heat, until the onion is translucent. Add the tea and cook over low heat, until the mixture is reduced by half.
If not serving immediately, remove from heat at this point, and set aside. Reheat just before serving, and follow the next steps.
Add the cheeses and cook over low heat until melted, stirring as necessary until the cheese is stringy.
Light the fondue stove and place the fondue pot on it; it should be hot enough to keep the cheese constantly at the melting stage.
To enjoy fondue, just pierce the bread cubes with the fondue forks and dip into the cheese, coating each cube well.
Onion and smoked garlic blue cheese gratinee
300g onion, peeled, halved and sliced
100g smoked garlic, sliced
1 litre chicken or beef stock
salt and pepper, to taste
100g Emmental cheese, grated
100g Fourme d’Ambert or other European blue cheese made with cow’s milk, cubed
Melt the butter in a pan over low heat and cook the onion until golden, stirring occasionally. Add the garlic and cook for 10 more minutes.
Pour in the stock and bring mixture to boil. Lower heat and simmer for 10 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
Cut the baguette into slices, about 2cm thick each. Bake in the oven at 150°C, until golden brown and completely dry.
Ladle the stock mixture into an ovenproof dish. Place the baguette slices in the stock and top with the cheese. Place on the top rack of the oven at 200°C and gratinate until cheese is melted and slightly browned. Sprinkle with freshly-gound black pepper and serve hot.