AWE Alsace Trip – Visit to La Maison du Fromage

By Patricia Stefanowicz MW
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After our cheese-and-wine tasting, a visit through La Maison du Fromage itself.

Conceived as ‘living history’, the Maison includes an informative documentary of the terroir of the cows and sheep, a visit to the farm [marcairie], a demonstration of traditional cheese-making and the occasional arts/crafts exhibition.

The film documentary was interesting and gave a view of the Vallée and its attractions. The visuals included the Vosges and their terroirs with cows, sheep, cocks, birds (especially the storks), forests, summer storms, winter snows, the odd church whether German Protestant or French Roman Catholic and church bells, cheese-making, viticulture in a desultory way, summer sports. Images were beautiful, but on their own just don’t tell the story. Music mostly fitted and I think I found a Gurlitt piece in there somewhere?  The film was a little discontinuous and might have benefitted from further post-production? But the shots themselves-most notably a young girl playing a flute on a hillside, an image of the god Pan-were lovely cuts and very well-conceived.

The current art exposition is Eric Babilon, a series of photographs: colour abstracts almost like Josef Albers together with black-and-white photographs, including cheesemaking. Thought provoking, and I, at any rate, needed a bit more time to study fully.

But we were off to the demonstration of Munster-making.

The Making of Cheese: a Basic Lesson

Cheese is ancient and most likely started (like many other natural products, including wine) by accident. Nomadic herdsmen would carry milk in sheep or goat bladders. The interaction of milk, including lactic acid, wild bacteria and rennet created, firstly, a form of yoghurt and later curds. Draining the curds from the whey (water) created a crude form of cheese. Important to the herdsman, cheese was a semi-preserved form of milk that could easily be taken from place-to-place.

Essentially, cheese is a concentration of casein and milk fat; whey is water-soluble proteins, minor milk proteins and lactose.

In making cheese culturing is the first step. Culture can be natural or added. This action promotes the growth of bacteria that feed on the lactose and ferment the lactose into lactic acid. As with red wine ferments, the temperature is c. 32oC for best results.

When the cheesemaker decides that there is enough lactic acid produced, rennet is added to make the casein precipitate. Rennet contains an enzyme (chymosin) that converts k-casein to para-kappa-caseinate (the principal component of cheese curd) and glycomacropeptide, which is lost in the whey. After adding the rennet, the cheese milk is left to curds over a period of time. As curd is formed, milk fat is trapped in the casein matrix.

Next comes draining. As with many foodstuffs, bacteria encourages decomposition. Separating the curds from the whey causes partial dehydration.

Methods include scalding, as for cheddars, or for most soft or semi-soft cheeses, mould-ripening, as for Munster.

The Munster demonstration

Chaudron et utensiles

Chaudron et utensiles

Munster is a cow’s milk cheese, often milk from the Holstein cow, formed into flat cylnders, 7-12cm in diameter for petit Munster géromé or 13-19cm for grand Munster géromé. The cows stay up in the hills and mountains until 15th October-15th November, when the animals are brought down for the winter. But Munster cheese is made all year round, although style, taste and texture varies, at least a bit.

The cheese is produced from unpasteurised milk. Two days of milk are used; the cream is skimmed off to use as cream or to churn for butter. For butter, first churn, add salt, then roll and mold.

Fabrication du Fromage

Fabrication du Fromage

After culturing, the rennet is added for the fermentation. To mix the curds well, wooden paddles (sabralers) are used to cut vertically, gentle but firm. Next, the curds are ladled horizontally to remove the lactomil and then about 5 litres of milky curds are ladled into a wooden sieve to separate the curds and whey. The sieves are filled to the rim, about 2 cm deep. These then rest until they lose about 90% of their volume.

 

Moulage du Munster

Moulage du Munster

The cheese is normally made in the morning, drained for a whole day, whence it has lost ¼ of its volume. Then the cheese is turned and rubbed on 1 side, 3-4 times. By the third day due to the weight of the cheese alone (and gravity), the cheese is compressed. On the fifth day the cheese is removed. For the very fresh soft Munster, only about 24 hours more affinage. AOC/AOP Munster requires 30-31 days ageing and is cleaned with a clean cloth every two days during affinage. The mountain cheese Barikas is aged for 4-6 months.

In the summer and early autumn months the cheese, Haute Vallée de Munster, is made from milk of cows in the Hautes Chaumes (high stubble) from pastures already mowed for hay. It is particularly fragrant.

The Finale

At the end we were offered a tasting of curds and whey with a rather large dollop of kirsch. High alcohol. Heady stuff!

Patricia Stefanowicz MW

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