The other day, I returned home to interrogate my husband with the age-old question: “how much do you love me?”
“Out of ten? Maybe an eight,” he said.
‘*An eight?! Is that all?” I shrieked. “Try again.”
“OK, maybe a nine when you’re not being horrible to me,” he conceded. “Why?”
I told him that I had a plus one invitation to attend a Cheese Appreciation Masterclass by The Smelly Cheese Shop (TSCS).
His eyes lit up and he quickly back-tracked. “Did I say nine? I meant, twelve. Twelve out of ten – that’s how much I love you.”
Huh. Men. The way to their hearts is definitely through their stomachs.
So it was that Mr Hungry Australian and I found ourself at The Smelly Cheese Shop’s headquarters in Wright Street last Monday night.
We are welcomed by The Smelly Cheese Shop’s Valerie Henbest, whose horrible job involves travelling the globe sourcing the best cheeses for TSCS and Lulu Lunn, a highly experienced cheese maker who can be found behind the counter sharing her expert knowledge with customers. Both women are whippet thin – a fact that convinces all of us in the class (perhaps erroneously) that we need to add more cheese to our diets.
Firstly, Valerie takes us into the Cheese Cooling Room. It feels like a bank vault – secure, temperature controlled and housing items of great value: the cheeses surrounding us would collectively be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. Some of the wheels weigh 40kgs – at around $100 a kilogram, that’s $4,000 worth of cheese in that single wheel.
But the prices these cheeses fetch are not outrageous when you understand how they are made. For example, I’m astonished to learn that it takes 12 litres of milk to make one 250 gram Camembert. Mr Hungry Australian made a lovely fresh cheese a month ago using only 2 litres of milk (see how to make fresh cheese), but a soft ripened cheese like Camembert is of course considerably denser and much more complicated to produce.
And then there is the ageing process. The most famous of all hard cheeses is Parmigiano-Reggiano, which cannot be sold for at least 12 months after it is made, although an ageing period of three years and longer is completely usual. This ageing process requires an investment of storage and time by the cheese maker, who must plan years ahead to ensure regular income.
Then it’s back upstairs to learn about the history of cheese and start the cheese tastings.
Legend has it that cheese was discovered by a nomad, possibly an Arab, who stored some milk in a saddlebag made from the stomach of a young animal. As he rode along in the blisteringly hot sun, the enzymes in the saddlebag separated the milk into curds and whey.
The first recorded cheese was a Gorgonzola, making an appearance in 879. This was followed by a Roquefort in 1070 and a Gruyere in 1115. Cheddar was recorded in 1500 and Camembert in 1680.
To whet our appetites, Lulu treats us to some Goats Cheese Mozarella, which she makes right in front of us. She firstly kneads the goats’ milk curds, before covering them with just boiled water, cutting the cheese and then stretching it and manipulating it into balls, which she squeezes off through her fingers.
Then Valerie begins the tasting by offering us some Buffalo Mozarella from Victoria. It’s creamy, buttery, and delightfully moist; pressing it softly yields drops of milky whey. It’s a very mild-tasting cheese and would be perfect with some vine-ripened tomatoes and fresh basil leaves on sour dough bread.
We are then invited to try the Coulommiers Truffes from Ile de France. A white mould, soft-ripened cow’s cheese, Coulommiers is similar to a Brie, with the same gorgeous runny texture. But the Coulommiers has a very special feature – a paste of black truffle and triple cream cheese sandwiched in its centre.
The Coulommiers’ smell is magnificent, heady, and rich with truffle. I smear some onto a cracker and bite into it. I’m in love. Instantly. Irrevocably. The room seems warmer, the colours brighter. I have visions of flying to France and marrying the man who made this cheese so I can eat it every day before I remember that my husband is sitting next to me. I wonder what will happen if I leave him a Dear John letter along the lines of “the heart wants what it wants.”
But for now I have to concentrate on the next cheese. The Sainte Maure Frais Cendre from Poitou in France is an ash covered log of goats cheese. Valerie tells us that the ash would have originally been used to help protect the cheese but nowadays it’s mainly for decorative purposes. The Sainte Maure is tangy, full-flavoured and assertive. This is not a cheese for the faint-hearted, or those who aren’t really keen on ‘foreign food.’ It’s a cheese to make you sit up higher in your chair. I love goats cheese and enjoy it baked in the oven and served on crusty bread with a salad.
The Beaufort D’Alpage AOC from Savoie in France is next. It’s a very likeable semi-hard cheese, and similar to gruyere in taste and appearance. There’d be nothing shocking or risky about serving this cheese to unfamiliar guests; with a slightly nutty flavour it’s a real crowd pleaser.
The Luigi Guffanti Taleggio from Lombardy in Italy is next. This washed rind cheese is my least favourite of all the cheeses today. Not because it’s bad – it has an interesting, slightly grainy texture, and a mellow taste – but because I find the others more interesting. On the other hand, Mr Hungry Australian adores this cheese and pronounces it to be his favourite. As he eats the Taleggio, he keeps making whimpering noises and while his eyes roll back in his head. I’m slightly embarrassed to be seen with him.
But then a washed rind cheese, the Soumaintrain from Burgundy in France, is next, and now it’s my turn to whimper. I love this strong-smelling cheese. It’s voluptuous and dreamy, oozing languorously on my cheese board like a starlet draped over an unmade bed in a Vanity Fair shoot. It has a delicate, slightly sweetish flavour and is the kind of cheese that I would eat non-stop until forcibly restrained.
We finish with a bang. A bleu bang, that is. The Herve Mons Roquefort AOC is a fitting finale to what has been an extaordinary selection of cheeses. We’re big fans of blue cheese – we regularly buy another blue, the Blue Castello, which is a creamy, mild blue cheese.
But the Herve Mons is in a different class altogether. It grabs you by the scruff of the neck and shakes you around while turning out your pockets in a civilised, European way. It’s ferociously strong and tangy – Valerie suggests teaming it with honey or pear to tone it down a little or crumbling some through a salad. I am reminded of the sensational Gorgonzola Dolce I recently ate at Kingley’s Steak and Crabhouse in Sydney (see review here), which was served with honey, fresh apple, walnuts and toasted fruit bread.
Top cheese tips:
- For a cheeseboard – have segments of one soft, one hard or semi-hard and one blue cheese as a minimum. Add a washed rind for interest. Alternatively, serve only one complete cheese as a centrepiece. If you do, go for something really spectacular – the staff at The Smelly Cheese Shop can advise.
- Take your cheese out of the fridge an hour before serving it so it can warm up to room temperature. This greatly enhances the taste, aroma and texture of the cheese.
- Arrange your cheese on the board from mildest to strongest, and let guests know in which order to eat them. For example, once you’ve eaten a blue cheese your taste buds can’t really cope with anything else so save this for last.
- Serve with crackers and/or fresh bread and quince paste, dried figs and slices of fresh pear or apple.
The Smelly Cheese Shop’s Cheese Appreciation Masterclass has been a fantastic experience. I have a newfound respect for cheese-makers and a solid appreciation of just how much work goes into making an artisan cheese. I’ve learned about the different types of cheese, sampled some excellent fromage and learned how to select and eat cheese at home.
So with Christmas just around the corner, a gift voucher for a 2012 Cheese Appreciation Masterclass (usually $70 per person) would make a fantastic present for any cheese lovers you know.
As for my husband, well, if he keeps behaving badly then he will get a pair of socks this year. However, if he is good, I know just what to buy him: a hunk of Luigi Guffanti Taleggio.