Sunday, November 13, 2005

New Zealand Cheese


Ah, cheese.

At any one time, I have several types in the fridge, cupboard, counter.. because you don't always have to keep it in the fridge here in New Zealand. And for tastes sake, you shouldn't.

This is about a few things cheese. I am sure there will be more posts about one of my favourite topics, to which I devote much of my time and my budget, but I first have to point out a few tips for anyone planning to serve cheese platters over the coming Christmas holiday:

1) Buy a good portion of your choices soon. And forget about the use by date. They will taste better as this date approaches and in some cases, past. This might not be to everyone's taste but experimentation is the fun part. Buy a few small wheels of camembert and taste them over several weeks. Don't worry if you don't live in Christchurch (Canterbury Cheesemongers are ripening a lovely selection) or near some of the great local producers who hold their product until optimum eating, a little advance preparation will make the most of the supermarket selection.

2) Include cheese in your recipes because cooking with cheese can not only enhance a dish, it can make a little go a long way. In most cases, these aren't cheap choices, but they are quality products made with quality milk that are big on taste. So experiment, roll your favourite inside a crumbed chicken parcel with spring asparagus, make a warm grilled lamb salad with cheese crumbled over top, fill pastry shells with mushrooms and cream cheese for a tempting hors d'oeuvre, or serve a perfectly aged piece of cheddar next to an apple tart.

To put it in simple terms, which is often the best way to describe anything..

Cheese is alive.

Yes, cheese is a living, breathing, evolving food. A fact discovered long ago. One my many favourite cheese quotes was made by Clifton Fadiman who said cheese was "milk's leap toward immortality". And how true that is. Milk certainly could not be kept on the pantry shelf for months on end. We could credit a fortunate accident (as to how milk ended up in a calf stomach) or lack of refrigeration but must thankfully acknowledge the inherent qualities of milk. Its absolute specificity for rennet and natural flora (natures vehicles of preservation) that combined with the climate or storage facilities (temperature and humidity) yielded something very tasty - think of the Roquefort caves! Add to this centuries of development of cheesemaking methods that capitalize on the available resources and you have the characteristic textures, tastes and aromas specific to the various regions of the world.

Think of the legendary aging halls of Parmigiano-Reggiano and the glorious King of cheese appreciated in its homeland for its inconsistencies and seasonal/regional differences. Then, there is the well known affinage of legendary French fromages (of numbers it would take a lifetime, maybe two, to get through them all!). And the differences are staggering. Some types are tended from pale and firm to caramel coloured and oozing. The lovely rinds containing cheese just waiting to be released onto a baguette. And although Kiwis love to travel, one need not wait for a holiday in Brebis, Lausanne or Aosta.. there are some fantastic cheese experiences to be had right here.

No matter what your taste, a fresh mild chevre or a well-aged golden gouda, someone in New Zealand is having a go at making it. I'll apologise now for failing to list them all (and for the rudimentary explanation of cheese types). There are many sub-classes within the main cheese categories, depending on the method used to make the cheese, but the basic breakdown is just this: Fresh or aged (ripened, in cheese terms). Under the aged category, cheeses can be soft-ripened, semi-soft, or firm/hard according to their texture. And again within these categories, terms like washed rind, natural rind, and blue varieties can all be included.

Fresh cheeses are delightful but don't benefit from and aren't designed to age. Snowy chevre for salads, rich mascarpone for irresistible desserts or (make your own) paneer for Indian curries featuring this heat-acid precipitated cheese.. All are delicious. Keep refrigerated and use them relatively soon after purchase.

The most common soft-ripened varieties are usually associated with the flour-like (it isn't) bloom covering the exterior. This special and edible mold (penicillium candidum, for the interested) is what covers Camembert and Brie (and even some blues). These cheeses that are matured by a process that occurs from the outside in, evident when you slice into a cheese that is oozing around the rind but still firm in the center. When fully ripe and tempered, they should have good give if poked gently and they should be almost runny when sliced open.

"Semi-soft" refers to cheeses that have a smooth, generally creamy interior with little to no obvious rind. Many blues are in this category as would be something like domestic harvarti, and often, washed rind cheeses. They can be quite elastic (read: like eating rubber) if not tempered before eating.

Some washed rind varieties are also part of the aforementioned groups. Washed rind being when the surface of the cheese is rinsed or brushed with anything from wine, beer, salt (brine).. where the natural growths on the cheeses exterior are constantly removed by the cheesemaker and replaced with other materials that promote the growth of another type. This gives a characteristic flavour and texture profile to the resulting cheese. The surfaces of washed rind cheeses can vary in colour and the oranges and browns of their rinds are an eye-catching addition to a cheese platter. More often than not though, these cheeses also bring an distinctive nose (odour) to the cheeseboard.

There are a couple very interesting cheeses being made in New Zealand in this category. Kapiti makes Ramara, a washed rind that is overlayed with mold. Don't be put off by the um, subtle, ammonia-type aroma. The cheese is only exhaling and it will dissipate once it is set out for a wee bit. It has a gloriously fluid interior and, even in the fridge, if you leave ripe Ramara on an angle, be prepared to have the cheese flow to one side of the wheel. Not so much a problem with the Mt. Hector. When ripe, the exterior is wrinkled and the interior is like silk. The wrapper should read: A fantastic little pyramid shaped nugget of goat milk goodness. This last one benefits from a few days in a cool cupboard and both should be at room temperature before serving.

Feta is a soft-ripened variety but requires constant refrigeration. It is more perishable and prone to picking up other flavours from the fridge. I still bring it to room temperature about an hour before using but I slice only what I plan to use and return the remainder to the fridge. Have to say that I am not a fan of feta made with cows milk so will refer anyone interested to the Cuisine website for their tasting of the NZ selection. I think feta should be as white as the driven snow and taste slightly sweet and tangy underlined with the mildly gamey ewe (or goat) milk flavours that so easily handle the salt from the brine aging. Puhoi makes a relatively mild goat feta (seems more like a slightly firmer chevre) under the Ornelle label (likely the most easily sourced from the Cuisine list) that I like for salads and as an ingredient. A solid choice that will suit most. Where texture is important, or for a Greek inspired (mezes) platter or a classic Greek salad, feta from Blue River Dairy or Whitestone are worth seeking out (or ordering from their websites). For something different, although I have never tried it with a local offering, is grilled feta. Sprinkle with dried oregano and a good olive oil, roast at 190C for 12-15 minutes. Careful not to burn the herbs. Nice accompaniment to dips and a glistening bowl of olives.

With the exception of feta, most soft cheeses need some time (I prefer a few days) in the cupboard to develop flavours and lose that chalky or rubbery texture becoming rich and runny (and, in my opinion, better able to compliment wine). Much like decanting or tempering a fine wine, buying cheese in advance and storing in the fridge until the week of the use by date and a day or two (or more) at room temperature should allow for the cheese to be tasted at its absolute best.

The harder cheeses cover a huge category. They can vary from in flavour from mild and milky becoming increasingly sharp and downright pungent. Texture-wise these can also be elastic to coarse, grainy grating cheeses. Many Dutch styles, cooked or Swiss types (i.e. gruyere), cheddars and parmesan are all included here.

These cheeses need even more time which means that your wax-enrobed cheddars should have been tucked away in the back of the fridge for awhile already. Oil can appear on the cheese surface at room temperature (if it is really warm) so storage out of the fridge should be limited to 3-4 hours before serving.

Kapiti makes several fine examples of cheddar (a smoked one too!) as does Whitestone. Their Airedale and Totara are both good. Tasty on a cheeseboard, the savoury, tangy flavours are nicely paired with Pinot Noir. Karikaas makes a lip-smackingly good vintage Gouda (Sileni pairs it well with their Semillon) as well as a Leyden, delicately enhanced with the traditional cumin seed. As for gruyere or Swiss cheese, I can't, in good conscience, recommend any of them. But it isn't the fault of the cheesemaker. I still maintain that pasturisation ruins the domestic gruyere flavour and alters the melt. (If you don't believe me, a side-by-side comparison with the imported stuff melted on toast is a good illustration, but I digress.) These yummy cheeses are also very good tucked into a burger for the grill. Cut a 1cm slice and fold it inside while forming patties. Good for advance preparation because they need a bit of time in the fridge to set up. Resist the temptation to press the burgers while on the grill, you'll get a more flavourful burger and won't squeeze out all the cheese. Not bad with a sturdier blue either..

Blue cheeses are those with distinct blue (or even green) streaks created by the addition of penicillium roqueforti mold (actually a fungus) during the cheesemaking process. For the characteristic veins to develop, the cheese needs to be aerated and small holes intentionally poked through the wheel allow enough air to promote the growth of the mold. This mold provides a distinct flavor to the cheese as well, and depending on age, ranges from fairly mild to downright aggressive! Blue cheeses can also be in all of the cheese categories, but not fresh cheese.

My tastes on blue vary as widely as the styles do. Creamy and mild to pungent and crumbly. regardless, the same applies. The closer to the use by date the better and they need a good breathe before serving. I have found many NZ blues are rather creamy and are good wine matches for the abundance of well-made sweetish Riesling for dessert. Beyond the classic pairings, I had a fantastic platter in Matakana winery pairing their Pinot Gris with, among other things, Puhoi blue (the one in the black wax). In another style, if you are in Marlborough, River Terrace farm makes a good one. It is harder and slightly saltier than most and, with age, was a wonderful grating cheese. I also liked it served alongside a pumpkin ravioli with sage brown butter and I plan to order more to mix into a ravioli filling.

Much has been written about NZ cheeses. There are articles, awards, medals and the like.. and these recommendations, similar to those in the wine industry, can steer you toward a good choice. Really though, it is a matter of personal taste and with so much to tempt the palate, I hope people take advantage and explore be it at the supermarket, specialty shop or farm gate. Ultimately, support of the domestic cheese industry will be a driving force for artisanal cheesemakers to continue to produce quality cheeses and with time, develop some flavours all their own.

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