By Victoria Ruvolo Minchala
Seasonality is a pretty big buzz word in the food community. As food professionals, a change in season reminds us of a change in the availability of local produce. However, it’s also important to remember that many of our dairy animals experience changes during the seasons which can drastically change the quality of the milk and cheese they produce.
Knowing when a cheese is or is not available is good; but knowing why it’s only available at that time is even better. That knowledge sets you, your staff and your establishment apart from every other fellow who boasts a cheese selection on his menu. According to cheesemaker Sheana Davis, of Sonoma’s, The Epicurean Connection (www.theepicureanconnection.com), “It is a chef’s responsibility to educate, not only his or herself, on the importance of cheese seasonality, but their entire staff.”
Getting that education is easy. The first question you should ask is what kind of milk your desired cheese is made from. This is crucial to the next two questions: what is the animal’s breeding season and what are the animals grazing on during their breeding season?
Why concern yourself with breeding seasons when you’re more likely to be concerned with the condiments you’ll serve with the cheese? It all ties together. Dairy animals do not lactate solely to create delicious morsels of milky goodness for our consumption; they lactate to feed their young. Since cows have the incredible ability to breed all year round (lucky ladies) and their gestation period lasts around 9 months, while sheep and goats on the other hand generally breed in the summer to early fall months with a gestation period of 5 months, it is just as important to consider what your dairy animal was eating during their lactating stages as it is to consider what the animals you are eating ingested.
All of this shows when a cheese at its peak reveals the intricacies of the different pastures where the animals graze. Picture if you can, a serene pasture filled with happy, frolicking goats grazing on what seems to be an endless supply of certified organic clover, saplings, brush, and fresh hay. Seemingly perfect conditions to create a rich, delicious cheese but wait – there was too much alfalfa in that pasture and now your cheese may have a slightly different taste! Increases in protein can create acidic dairy milk which in turn can give a cheese a sour taste.
One additional grain, herb, or supplement can make all the difference. Cheeses that are available in the autumn have a stronger taste than spring cheese due to climate changes, changes in grass and rain. Milk produced in the spring can create cheeses with grassy, flowery notes while the hay-fed milk that produces our winter cheeses creates a milder, richer cheese. These winter cheeses are perfect for washed rind or aged cheese varieties and it’s not too late to indulge in some of the creamy, buttery jewels. For the next few weeks, we all get to savor the last remaining winter cheeses of which there’s a variety of variety of tasty, iconic French offerings that may still be available at your local fromagerie.
The French have always regarded cheese as an essential part of life; who can blame them? French cheese has had a long and celebrated existence spanning hundreds of years. In fact, it was France’s own Charles de Gaulle who once asked, “How can you govern a country which has 246 varieties of cheese?”
France’s love of cheese and cheese variety makes them the perfect focus for any cheese plate.
Some notable representatives of French fall dairy are: Cantal, Camembert, Livarot, Pont-l’Évêque and the deliciously pungent Epoisses. In the wintertime the cheeses you find that peak during this season are usually strong and complex due to extended affinage (aging). Many delicious winter cheeses are made with summer’s milk but they have been aged over several months to create depth and complexity. Some of the best offerings for your cheeseboard during these colder months would be Adondance, Beaufort, Comté, and Vacherin. This season also gives us some of France’s most beautiful blue cheeses such as the Bleu d ’Avergne and Fourme d’Ambert.
Not familiar with some of the above dairy items? Here are tasting notes:
Adondance – a strong smelling cheese with a nice balance of sweetness & acidity with a long aftertaste.
Beaufort – similar to Adondance, except it can have a flowery aroma with a hint of saltiness, honey and butter.
Camembert – made from the fresh raw cow’s milk, which is very high in fat (that is unless the milk is pasteurized). Once ripe, Camembert should be eaten within 5-7 days. Its rich and buttery texture yields a creamy, mushroom-y taste.
Cantal – depending on whether you buy a young or mature cheese, can be aged from 1-6 months. When young, its flavor is mild and buttery, but over time this mildness develops into a pleasant bite, reminiscent of sharp cheddar.
Comte – Comte is another cheese that changes greatly with aging. Young Comtes, aged for 6 months, are buttery with hints of hazelnuts while an older specimen may be fruity and spicy with hints of roasted flavors.
Epoisses – an extremely stinky, washed rind cheese with a creamy interior that gets super runny when at room temperature.
Livarot – a very strong smelling, earthy cheese with a thick supple texture. It should have a spicy finish.
Pont l’Eveque – a mild cheese with a rustic, piquant taste and a buttery, tangy finish.
Bleu d’Auvergne – an incredibly buttery and crumbly veined cheese with a sharp tangy smell.
Fourme d’Ambert is a mild, creamy blue cheese with a delicate fruity flavor and mushroom overtones.
Next time you’re creating a cheese plate for a client, look deeper into your selections. Go beyond the common selection qualification such as flavor profile, texture, and variety. Consider the peak ripeness of your cheeses as well as a dairy animals breeding season. Let your customers know that you are keenly aware how understanding cheese seasonality can enhance their cheese eating experience. Cheesemaker Sheana Davis, of Sonoma’s famous The Epicurean Connection concludes, “Chefs have a fantastic ability to educate the public.”