Cheese

Cheese

By
Greg Malouf, Lucy Malouf
Contains
5 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
ISBN
9781740667678
Photographer
William Meppem

When Greg was 19, and a young and foolish apprentice, he spent a magical time in France working in the dessert section of a Michelin-starred restaurant. He is fond of describing how he laboured from morning to night baking crisp buttery pastries, whipping up mounds of cream and lovingly stirring rich eggy custards. There is little doubt that he was eager to experience as many tastes and flavours as possible, and would have spent as much time licking the spoon as stirring it.

Naturally, the dessert section also included cheeses. This being France, there was an extraordinary variety of cheese on offer. The temptation to try every one was irresistible. Ah, but those were the days! The sad result of all this indulgence was that Greg ended up flat on his back on a hospital trolley awaiting bypass surgery. The next ten years saw more heart surgery, ballooning of the arteries and finally at the grand old age of 30, a heart transplant.

Not surprisingly, all this surgery has made him a more cautious, if not wiser man, and he has had no choice but to modify his eating habits. Cheese, with its very high fat content, is definitely off the menu, although, as a treat, we will sometimes make fresh yoghurt cheese – labna – at home. This is a Lebanese favourite, and dead easy to make. Being a dairy product, it is certainly not fat-free, but has about a third of the fat content of other soft cheeses such as brie or camembert, and a quarter that of hard cheeses such as cheddar.

Simple curd cheeses are still popular throughout Eastern Mediterranean and Middle Eastern countries today, where many households still make their own. The problem for those of us living in Australia (or North America, or any of the EC countries) is that all commercially available milk these days is pasteurised – and pasteurisation destroys the milk’s natural bacteria. If you want to make fresh curd cheese at home, you have to add your own starter – something like cultured buttermilk works well. Another simple way to make your own fresh cheese is to use live natural yoghurt, which already contains its own cultures and in which the fermentation process has already taken place. The technique for making labna is described under Saffron-Yoghurt Cheese.

In Arabic countries there is nothing like the range of cheeses we have in the West. This is partly because few of them have a strong dairy tradition, and olive oil rather than butter is the main cooking medium. Such cheeses as there are tend to be made from goat’s or sheep’s milk rather than cow’s milk.

However, cheese is widely consumed. Fresh curd cheeses are eaten at breakfast with bread, perhaps livened up with fresh herbs and a dish of olives. Other favourites are the very salty, crumbly fetta cheeses, which are also made from goat’s or sheep’s milk. These are popular throughout Greece and Turkey, and also Bulgaria.

Then there are the hard, almost rubbery cheeses, like haloumy, which are delicious dusted with flour and pan-fried, or baked in an Arabic-style calzone. Both Cyprus and Lebanon make excellent haloumy cheese – the Cypriot version is usually flavoured with dried mint, the Lebanese one with black cumin seeds.

Also used in cooking are milder flavoured hard cheeses such as kasseri and kashkaval, which are often mashed together as filling for savoury pies, omelettes and other egg dishes. Kephalotyri is closer to an Italian parmesan. It is strongly flavoured and usually small amounts are grated to add flavour to a dish.

A brief history of cheese-making

The transformation of plain old milk into so many different products is quite extraordinary. It seems something of a quantum leap from that startling discovery in Neolithic times that the semi-solid curds produced from milk left to go ‘off’ in the sun could actually taste good, to the very sophisticated technology employed in cheese-making today. And yet the basic principles remain unchanged.

At its simplest, the curdling process occurs when the natural lactic-acid bacteria which are already present in milk are allowed to flourish – typically by heating. But there are still more things which can be done to speed up the curdling process. Food historians suggest that pastoral nomads in Central Asia used the stomach bags of animals as a sort of pre-historic Tupperware container. They would have discovered that rennet, an enzyme found in the stomachs of young calves, hastened the curdling of their milk, resulting in much firmer curds.

Once curdled, the next step in the cheese-making process is to drain off the whey. Today this is usually done in cloths, but in ancient times they used woven baskets. The French fromage, and Italian formaggio derive from the Greek word for basket, ‘formos’. The Latin word for basket, ‘caseus’, became the German ‘käse’, the Spanish ‘quesoa’ and the English ‘cheese’.

Variations in flavour and richness depend on the choice of cow’s, goat’s, sheep’s or buffalo’s milk. And on whether the animals have been fed on rich spring grass or winter hay. And in which part of the country the milk is from. The production of the whole range of cooked, smoked, aged, blue vein and surface-moulded cheese follows on from the initial curdling process.

Selecting and storing cheese

Buying cheese is, of course, all about personal choice. Do you fancy a bitey piece of cloth-wrapped cheddar to munch on with an apple and a hunk of crusty bread? Perhaps you want to pop a slice of aged goat’s cheese under the griller until it is all bubbly-brown, or to smear some perfectly ripe Brie onto an oat biscuit. Whatever your fancy, these days there is absolutely no reason why it should not be satisfied, unless of course, you buy plastic-wrapped slimy cheeses from the supermarket. Far better to visit a decent delicatessen or specialist cheese shop, where they understand that cheeses are living things which need nurturing.

So many of the cheeses which are unique to the Middle East and Mediterranean are simply not available here, although some local producers seem enthusiastic about experimenting with new varieties. All the recipes can be made with readily available cheeses – either imported or locally made equivalents, which are just as good.

Once home, cheese should be wrapped in a damp tea-towel, and stored in a cool, damp place – or failing that, the refrigerator. If you intend to eat it as is, then remove it from the fridge for at least an hour ahead of time, so it can slowly come up to room temperature.

Different cheeses have different life spans. As a rule, the very hard cheeses, with the lowest moisture content, will last the longest, and soft, fresh cheeses like curd, cottage and cream cheeses will spoil more quickly. As with so many foodstuffs, it really makes sense to buy in small quantities, and consume fairly quickly.

Using cheese

Preparing cheese for immediate eating involves first selecting a perfect, ripe specimen, storing it correctly and bringing it to room temperature before eating with crusty bread or hard biscuits, perhaps some fresh fruit, a wedge of quince paste or some dried muscatel grapes and, naturally, a glass of an appropriate wine.

Recipes in this Chapter

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