You Gonna Eat That?
by Zoe Brickley
You can't judge a book by its cover, but a cheese rind reads like a gossip column. That's one of the things that make cheese better than wine; I can spot a Taleggio from across the park, but I might not know a Merlot if I were swimming in it. That pudgy square shape, sticky orange exterior, and tell-tale impressions are dead giveaways to that notorious gooey Italian.
So what are the options here as far as cheese rinds go? At Murray's you can always have a taste of cheese before taking the plunge. But what if you find yourself in some nightmarish situation? What if you must invest in a load of cheese and your fascist cheesemonger won't spare you a nibble? A basic understanding of the few possible cheese wardrobes will help you narrow the field, focus on a concept, and allow your imagination to do the tasting for you.
For most people the biggest mysteries of the cheese rind are: What's it doing there, and can I eat it?
Let's get that one out of the way forever. Go ahead. Eat it. Do you like it? Then eat more. Do you have wax and shreds of cloth in your teeth? Don't eat that one. Sometimes you might have to switch on your 'food-not-food' radar and figure it out.
Barring man-made materials, it's always OK to sample the cheese rind or to leave it aside. Rule of thumb - if it looks similar to the skin of a fruit, like a tomato or kiwi (yep, it can be a little fuzzy) then definitely give it a try. If it more resembles the crust of a bread or rind on a pumpkin, then try it if you like, but it probably won't be flavor packed or palatable. The reasons behind these handy clues lie below.
What's that mottled rind doing there? Is it just for earthy appeal? Wouldn't it be easier to make 40lb blocks of cryovac'd cheese with a bunch of different recipes? Yes - the answer is definitely yes, but the rind is important for more than just rugged good looks.
I've divided cheeses and their outfits into not so air-tight but conceptually functional groups. There are two main headings: surface ripened and internally ripened.
The rind is key for the creation of surface ripened cheeses. These are known for their softened texture and skin-like rinds. They are usually flat or disc-shaped, to give the rind an easier time of ripening to the center. Picture this bunch as little individual gardens, cultivated by the cheesemaker or affineur. Instead of roses or mums, though, the aim is to create a solid lawn of micro-organisms. The lawn, with its specialized enzymes, changes the curdy, feta-like texture just below ground to a creamy and more pungent version of itself. The type of the yeast, mold, or bacteria chosen to seed that lawn determines the sub-family it will belong to: washed, bloomy, or natural.
WASHED: Some like it hot - and some like more on the balmy side. 54 degrees F and 95% humidity to be exact. If you create just the right balance of pH, moisture, and salt in a fresh cheese - put it in just the right cave climate, and give it frequent sponge baths with a 3-5% salt solution - then you too can be a gardener of stink. Specific conditions are necessary to cultivate Brevibacterium linens, aka B. linens. This bacterial culture effectively ripens the cheese from the outside towards the center. This is the basic principle of all three surface ripening types, but the washers get a more pungent flavor and brighter orange appearance as the B. linens develop. Think glowing Epoisses or that hunky Taleggio for classic examples.
BLOOMY: : The customer concern that makes us snicker the most in or lofty control room: "My cheese has mold on it!" Especially if they are worried about a bloomy choice; these cheeses are encouraged to grow a full coat of fuzzy mold before they're deemed saleable. There are a few strains at play cave dedicated to mold gardening and they culminate as either fluffy white and dimpled, or off-white and brainy looking coats. The molds are functioning in a similar way to B. linens, but at a slightly cooler and less humid environment. A good bloomy rind should be super thin. Like less than a millimeter. So if the thick and chewy supermarket Brie rind is the only one you've endured - give our Brie de Nangis a shot - c'est magnifique! It really showcases the buttery mushroomy thing that bloomy rinds boast at their best.
NATURAL: A little less common - but definitely worth investigating. These natural rinds do the same thing as a washed or bloomy, but the composition of microorganisms is much more random. They typically have quite earthy, musty and complex flavors, resulting from the diversity of molds, yeast and bacteria, which are allowed to populate the surface at will. Instead of being carefully selected or applied, they come from raw milk or the ambient micro-ecology of their original caves. It's a much more laissez-faire approach to affinage. Try St. Nectaire for a classic example, or my favorite, Tomme de la Chataigneraie for a more obscure demonstration.
The internally ripened members of the cheese world are generally more aged, drier curd cheeses that form a crustier and less palatable rind over time. The purpose of the rind is very different here. Instead of actively ripening the cheese, it's usually there just to hang out and protect the cheese from moisture loss and contamination while it stews to perfection. Ripening enzymes are still breaking down proteins and making flavor - only they are doing it anaerobically, deep within the paste. These types are generally taller, or have a greater ratio of paste to rind. There are several formats to look out for.
WAXED - the easiest way to set a rind for long aging. Just dip in or brush on, and rest assured knowing that those anaerobic little bugs are working their magic. The same can be accomplished with those shrink-wrapped jobs. Look to many Aged Goudas, like Boerenkaas.
CLOTHBOUND - Traditional British Cheddars are made into a hulking 60lb keg of a wheel, wrapped with linen, and then rubbed with lard to seal the deal. What doesn't lard make more delicious?
WASHED ALPINE - These cheeses were designed to keep for lean winter months in blustery mountain regions. A drier curd cheese is almost impossible to over-ripen to rancidity, like a wet and gooey one could do within a month. The tight, elastic protein structure in these sturdier cheeses also resists excessive softening. So, washing them to develop B. linens really just adds flavor and aroma, while essentially building a rind from layers of expired B. linens. This is a much trickier feat of affinage, but the hard work pays off in the punch of a heady Gruyere or Comté .
MOLDY - Again, a drier cheese will keep its shape, no matter how much mold collects around the outside. The buildup of surface cultures eventually creates a crusty casing for a developing cheese. Blue cheeses like Stiltonthat aren't wrapped in foil, and mottled looking wheels like Garrotxa are good examples of this bunch. While the mold's enzymes aren't the most important factor for texture and flavor development - they do lend a special 'Je ne sais quoi' that you'll never get from a plastic bag. BRUSHED CLEAN - Picture a Parm! These wheels kind of look naked and straw colored. The goal is to eliminate all types of surface cultures through frequent brushing and rinsing. Eventually a casing of dehydrated cheese forms and thickens over time. A Parmigiano-Reggiano rind is about ¾-inch thick after two full years in a cave.
LEAF OR FOOD COVERED - Self-explanatory. We've got 'em rubbed with tomato paste, coffee/lavender oil, wrapped in bourbon soaked maple leaves, buried in walnut leaves or coated with balsamic must. You name it - and somebody has tried to stick it in or on their cheese. It's actually a pretty clever way of making an instant protective rind, while adding an aromatic boost to developing flavors.
So the next time you're perusing the case, play the classification game and see if you can determine the genus, species, and sub-species of your favorite cheeses. The more practice you get, the better you can order with your eyes closed…
Go Big or Go Home Reading Assignment: The Cheese Plate - crammed with full-color glossy pin-ups of the fanciest cheeses from home and abroad. Hone your identification skills without leaving the house!
Cheese You Must Seek Out and Devour: Bucheron - This is a great example of a surface ripened cheese with an intentionally thick cream-line. It's a fun exercise to try the gooey ripened part just below the surface of the bloomy rind, next to the 'fresher' crumbly chevre near the center.