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OBSERVATIONS : Food : Say Cheese : Separating Curds From Whey Is a Complicated, Sophisticated Business

December 13, 1987|PAUL LEVY

CHEESE IS AN interesting and complicated subject--as interesting and as complicated as wine, another natural substance with whose manufacture it has much in common. Though the world teems with Grapies who drop the names of Chateaux as others sprinkle their conversation with the names of peers or pop stars, cheese has not yet acquired its groupies. (Though cheese does have its social implications: American Foodies speak sneeringly of the "Brie and white wine set.")

Perhaps this is because there's no cheese equivalent of Blue Nun to start the inexperienced climbing the gastronomic ladder that leads from mousetrap to Maroilles. Or perhaps it is because, like the last-named example, cheese--even at its greatest (or particularly at its greatest) is a smelly business. Maybe cheese is essentially--not, as philosophers used to say, accidentally--a suitable source of schoolboy jokes. After all, cheese is (like wine) made by a process that takes advantage of the tendency of food to spoilage and corruption. Just as fermentation could merely render the grape inedible and useless, the turning of milk into separate curds and whey could be merely destructive. Instead, it is the first step in the manufacture of one of man's oldest and yet most sophisticated foods.

The analogy with wine is even stronger than this. Both are agricultural products of the utmost simplicity but requiring to be produced under conditions of scrupulous cleanliness if the bacteria and yeasts that "turn" them are to be harnessed and put to good use. Both are strongly regional, so that the same material can produce a different result if it is from a grape grown on a sunnier slope or milk from a cow pastured in a lusher field. Conditions of aging and storage are crucial in both cases. And though the mature wine or the perfectly ripened cheese may appeal to many different sorts of people, to appreciate its finest virtues requires a degree of connoisseurship.

The complexities of wine are commonplace; every tyro knows better than to chance his drinking arm (or palate) against the experts--and knows better than to take them on in objectively evaluatable blind tastings. But cheese? Can cheese be a field for expertise and gastronomic exhibitionism? The answer, cher collegue Foodie, is yes.

As a very junior specialist writer on a national newspaper, I came close to losing my first job six months after I had begun it, when I wrote--incautiously, imprecisely, but not incorrectly--that Brie and Camembert were close relations, "identical except for the shape of the mould."

One of the paper's most senior journalists then fired off a Munster of a stinker to the editor. "How," he demanded, "can you employ someone to write about food who can't tell the difference between Brie and Camembert?" I had to eat humble quiche (but remain defiant at the same time). Of course, I had not meant to say that the taste of Brie and Camembert was the same, only that their manufacture is identical, except for the moulds used.

Brie is the older. The 15th-Century Charles d'Orleans, the father of Louis XII, gave New Year gifts of Brie to his friends, and there is even a report in one of the chronicles that Charlemagne tasted Brie in 774. At a dinner at the Congress of Vienna, given in the hopes of obtaining a little light relief after Waterloo, Talleyrand proposed a mock resolution, which was unanimously adopted, that Brie be proclaimed the king of cheeses.

Both Brie and Camembert are soft-curd ( pates molles ) types of cheese, and both are designed to ripen or mature. Up to the point where the mould is introduced, the manufacture of these cheeses is the same as for any cheese: Raw or pasteurized milk is treated, usually with rennet, to separate the curds and whey. The whey is drained off (and usually discarded, though it is sometimes used to make other cheeses). The curd is cut up--this step is important, as it determines the final consistency of the cheese--and put into moulds. When sufficient moisture has been drawn off, the pressed curd is either washed or salted to discourage mould, or, as in the case of Brie and Camembert, infected.

Authorities disagree about the flavoring agent. It is either Penicillium candidum or P. album . Confusingly, it is not P. camemberti , which is the mould used for Livarot and Pont-l'Eveque, not for Brie and Camembert and the related cheeses of Coulommiers, Chevru and Fougerus.

The surface mould proceeds, under correct conditions of storage, to ripen the cheese by the action of enzymes working inwards--which is why you sometimes get a Camembert (less often a Brie) in which there is one hard spot in the center where the enzymes have not yet reached. This enzyme diffusion, of course, is the answer to the big question of why Brie and Camembert differ so much in taste though they have everything except their shapes in common. When it comes to ripeness, thickness is all.

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