Tuesday, 30 March 2010
Cheese of the Month - Charolais
Having snapped up this pretty little barrel-shaped Charolais in Hamish Johnston last weekend, in a bit of a rush to get back to the house and light up the barbeque before the heavens opened, I assumed that I could Google the important details at a later date, tack on a tasting note or two, and call it a review. After all, that's how this process normally works. I don't, believe it or not, have an encyclopaedic knowledge of cheese - in fact I'd be lost without sites such as Fromages or http://www.slashfood.com, where the intimate particulars of almost every cheese you can think of is listed in extraordinary detail. Very handy they are indeed, to a chancer like me.
But while pulling together a set of notes for Charolais, I came across a number of annoying inconsistencies. Charolais is "traditionally" made, according to Fromages, from a mixture of one part cow's to two parts goat's milk, and although production varies from farm to farm - this is after all an artisan product, not a Kraft cheese slice - from the handful of sites I've browsed it seems this element of mixing and tweaking the mix of cow's to goat's milk is an important part of the character of the cheese. And yet what's this - on 23rd January 2010, according to Slashfood, Charolais became a AOC label cheese, and as part of the strict criteria that comes with this poisoned chalice, using cow's milk in any stage of the process is now strictly forbidden.
I'm a bit grey on these AOC and DOP badges. Protecting culinary heritage and artisan producers is all very well, but it seems odd that a group of bureaucrats can in the year 2010 suddenly put a stop to a perfectly valid method of producing perfectly good cheese that's been going on since God knows when. Or if not put a stop to it then prevent people calling it Charolais. I'm sure they think they're preserving authenticity but in the end it's them that's decided what's authentic in the first place.
The reason I mention all this is because this authentic, authenticated and genuine Charolais, presumably made from 100% goat's milk because them's the laws nowadays, didn't really excite me very much. The texture, first of all, was very uniform and cloying - moisture is usually a good thing but this was rather unpleasant; it coated your mouth like putty. And there wasn't much going on in the flavour department either. At first there was almost literally no flavour at all, but then a hint of a grassy aftertaste prevented the whole thing from being a complete waste of time. Still, it's hardly a ringing endorsement of the strict new designation - if is an example of an AOC Charolais then I can't really see why it was worth protecting in the first place.
So the question is, would this cheese have been any better if the producers had been allowed to use a mix of cow's and goat's milk to their liking, or tweaked various other elements, even if they wouldn't have in the end been able to call it Charolais? My instinct says yes. The habit - and I'm mainly talking about France and Italy here, though there are other examples - of obsessing over and dictating the ingredients, process and geographic location of a cheese at the expense of ending up with a product that is actually any good to eat, seems incredibly counter-productive. If someone started making an Epoisses-style cheese in Canada (don't laugh) and it tasted just as good, I'm sure there would be very few people who would care that it wasn't "authentic". Then again, the Canadians wouldn't know what to do with a cheese that you couldn't melt onto chips, so it's probably nothing we'll ever have to worry about.