Saturday, 18 February 2012

Baking Camembert.

Baked Camembert seems to have very quickly become very popular. Every pub and restaurant have one on their menu in some form, ranging from the sublime to the, well, horrendous. As with any food trend, the quality of the dish can suffer with its popularisation, and can be subjected to horrendous and quirky interpretation. Or at best, punches below it's weight and falls to mediocrity. Surely putting a cheese (with comes usefully in a wooden box for baking) into the oven and cooking until molten is fairly fool proof? Sadly it wouldn’t seem so – I can vouch for this having recently been subjected to a nasty version of what should be the simplest and most delicious of cheese dishes.
A firm, cold cheese (mistake number one) had been cut in half horizontally (mistake number two, I didn’t order “half a baked Camembert), dipped in truffle oil (mistake number three, truffle oil is almost always rank), nuked for 2 minutes (mistake number four), and served with cold tomato bread and cranberry sauce (mistakes number five and six: what cuisine puts cranberries, truffles and tomatoes on the same plate? A confused one apparently).

Don’t get me wrong, I adore a dish full of molten, gooey cheese, but not if its been buggered about with.
A decent Camembert isn’t too hard to track down. For a real cheese, choose a Camembert de Normandie Appellation d'origin contrôlée, and look out for the phrases “moule a la louche” and “au lait cru” - hand ladled and made with raw milk. A cheese whose box bears these words should be good, but always inspect the cheese inside before buying – the rind should be delicate, not too thick or with too many brown areas. A little brown is fine, a good indication the cheese has developed well and is ready, but too much and the cheese could be eye-stingingly sharp and full of ammonia flavours.

Before baking, let the cheese come to room temperature for an hour. This will help the cheese cook more evenly, and not leave you with a cold, uncooked centre.

Remove the cheese from its wooden box, and take off the waxed paper. Carefully place back into the box and make a small cross in the centre of the cheese. Lightly crush a clove of garlic and bruise a small sprig of thyme, and push them deep into the cheese.

Place the lid of the box over the cheese and wrap the box in foil – to catch any escaping cheese as it melts. Cook for 15 minutes, at 180ºC until the cheese is molten and collapsing.

Eat as soon as the cheese comes out of the oven, with toasted chunks of chewy sourdough to mop up the liquid cheese, a fruity chutney to cut through the richness, and a glass of soft and buttery Burgundy Pinot Noir.

Monday, 13 February 2012

Marcel Petite Comté

A certain French cheese has been receiving a lot of attention recently. Since Raymond Blanc covered Marcel Petite Comté on his series, “The very hungry Frenchman” two weeks ago, UK sales of the cheese have soared. That evening Comté trended on Twitter - #TheRaymondBlancEffect. And rightly so. Comté is far and away one of the most diverse French cheeses, with layers of complex flavours and aromas. But of equal interest is the production of the cheese, and the strong links in the chain of milk farmers, cheese makers and affineurs.

British farmhouse cheese tends to be produced using single herd milk, on the farm, where it is ripened and sold ready to eat. The system which is established for Comté production is quite different, and controlled with rigour. Milk is produced by some 3000 small scale farmers, whose herds are seldom more than 30 cows, but often as low as 12.

Map of Comté producers
95% of the cows are the Montbéliarde breed, with the remaining 5% of milk coming from the Simmental. Each cows must have 1 hectare of pasture during the summer grazing months. The milk is sent to the local fruitière – the dairy where the cheese is made. 170 fruitières are dotted around the Jura Massif and the Haut-Doubs, the two departments of the France-Comté region in Eastern France where Comté must be produced, and can only process milk from farms within an 8 mile radius. This co-operative system of production has been established for a thousand years, and has ensured that Comté cheese is can only be made on small scales, crucially by limiting the zone in which milk can be used by each fruitière and ensuring an extensive method of milk production.

The recipe for Comté is just as protected as the milk production, essentially each fruitière makes the cheese to the same method, in copper cauldrons, traditionally heated over a fire of spruce.
Equiptment for alpine cheese making

Compared to a British territorial cheese, the Comté recipe is very quick, with the milk being heated to 40°C and a solution of whey which has been used to rehydrate strips of calves stomach to extract rennin for the coagulation. Once the milk is set, the curd is cut and heated to 53°C, being constantly stirred rapidly to speed up syneresis (expulsion of whey from the curd structure). The curd will shrink to the size of rice grains, and have little acidity development at this stage, remaining sweet. The natural starter has a balance and range of microflora very specific to the indervidual fruitère, giving each fruitère a defined flavour profile.

Once the cheesemaker has made the cheese, he sells the fresh cheese to the affineur, who takes care of the ripening of the cheese, before selling it on to the cheese monger. It is the affineur who uses his senses to judge the cheese, and how is best to take care of each batch of cheese he buys.
Fort Lucotte de Saint Antoine

Marcel Petite is generally regarded as the best Comté affineur, and the cheeses matured at 1500metres altitude in the Fort Lucotte de Saint Antoine are the very highest quality. It was in 1966 when Marcel Petite purchased the fort (which was built in late 1800s to protect France again Prussian invasion from nearby Switzerland). Marcel Petite developed a new method of maturing Comté cheese, using the naturally low temperatures of the stone fort to age the cheese slower, and for a longer period of time. This changed the nature of the cheese in two ways: a low temperature reduced the likelihood of “eyes” forming in the body of the cheese as a result of yeasts activity, and a greater complexity of flavours from increased enzyme activity over a longer time period.

Today, the fort at Saint Antoine houses over 100,000 40KG wheels of Comté, selected mostly from the higher altitude fruitières, each cheese bearing a casein label with the producers details. A team of robots patrol the aisles between highly stacked shelves of cheese, turning, dry salting, brushing and washing the cheeses.

The one part of the affinage of the cheese the robot can not, and will not ever be able to, is to test the cheeses, a highly refined skill of a small team of tasters, lead by the “chef de cave” - Claude, who “rings” each wheel regularly, by stroking the rind of the cheese in a circular motion, feeling the crust, followed by repeatedly knocking the cheese from the centre outward with his cheese iron, listening to judge the density and texture of the curd – keeping watch for cheeses with cracks or holes forming. The cheese iron is plunged into the paste, turned 180°C, and pulled out to reveal a golden sample of the cheese. The sample is sniffed, manipulated between the thumb and forefinger, and tasted. Each cheese is treated individuality, and selected for specific customer needs. A lot of the cheeses are ready for eating after 12 months, some after18 months, a few after 24 months, and a very select few make it to 36 months and over. At this age they have the greatest complexity and depth of flavour, and a dense, fudgey texture - peppered with a gritty, calcium crunch. I remember tasting the 3 years cheeses at St Anotine, magnificent cheeses which the richest, pineapple, caramel, coffee, praline, biscuity flavours. One of the most memorable mouthfuls I've had.

Sunday, 12 February 2012


Marmalade as we know it has a great history, with the Scottish town of Dundee being reputed to have created the first jellied preserve set with shreds of orange peel. Prior to this, marmalade would have been of a more solid consistency, paste like, and usually made from quinces. The name comes from the Spanish "marmalada" – the predecessor of membrillo – the sticky quince paste found all over Spain, Portugal and re-created in Latin America.

It is written that King Henry VIII was gifted “a box of marmalade” from a gentleman of Exeter, in 1524. This would have been imported from Spain, and made from quinces, but started the English tradition of creating “sweetmeats”, set fruit pastes, which were formed in decorative moulds of animals, flowers and family crests.
The consumption of candied peel, both as a confectionery, and to flavour baked goods was a common practice through the Tudor times, and already oranges were noted for their medicinal qualities, so it was a natural progressing for small pieces of peel to find their way into a breakfast preserve. In 1797, Janet Keiller opened the first commercial marmalade factory in Dundee. Her husband had received a delivery of Spanish bitter oranges from Dundee harbour and Mrs Keiller took the decision to create a very different marmalade than was being written in English cookery books at the time. Instead of pounding the fruits to a paste, and concentrating the pulp to a thick paste, she followed a French method – a quicker recipe, where the peel was finely cut, and the juice boiled with water and sugar, and the marmalade we eat today was invented.
In 1861, Mrs Beeton wrote “the appellation of marmalade is applied to those confitures which are composed of the firmer fruits, as pineapples, or the rinds of oranges; where as jams and made of the more juicey berries...Fruit pastes are a kind of marmalade”.

Marmalade was quickly becoming an integral part of the British breakfast table, and an increasing number of confectioners were producing the preserve in the early 1900s, companies such as Wilkins of Tiptree and Frank Cooper of Oxford, who are still producing the countries highest quality marmalades.
Today, almost all of the bitter oranges grown around Seville are destined for the British marmalade market.

The season is at its peak now, find boxes of the fruit in greengrocers and farmshops, but only for a couple more weeks – the Seville orange season is always brief. I got mine from Daylesford, with green stalks and healthy leaves still intact.

This is how I make marmalade, which gives a rich, dark jelly, with a very deep citrus flavour and bright acidity. Up the sugar to taste if desired.

12 Seville oranges

1200g sugar (1000g preserving sugar, 200g muscovado)

2 lemons, chopped

3 litres water

Using a very sharp pairing knife, remove the skin of the oranges, with 2-3mm of white pith intact. Shred the peel to the thickness you like, I prefer a very fine cut.
Finely shredded peel

Cut the peeled oranges into quarters, and squeeze all the juice, flesh and importantly, pips out of each quarter. Place the squeezed oranges in a pan, and strain the juice over, so in theory, there are no pips, and minimal flesh in the pan.

Seville orange juice and pips, to be strained.

 Gather the shredded peel in a piece of muslin, and tie tightly before placing in the pan. Add 3 litres of water and the chopped lemons, and simmer for 2 hours. Pick out the muslin bag of peel, and strain the juice from the now pulpy orange quarters, gently squeezing to extras as much juice as possible without breaking up the oranges too much.

Squeezed oranges

Add the sugar and shredded peel, and slowly bring to the boil, stirring constantly to dissolve the sugar. Take to a rolling boil, and cook until it reaches 105˚C. This may take 30minutes or more. The syrup should darken, and thicken slightly. Drop a teaspoon on a plate (cold from the freezer) to test the gel. To ensure the peel is evenly distributed through the marmalade, leave off the heat for 15 minutes to begin to thicken, stirring often, before pouring into sterile jars.
A jar of the finished product.