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Get Behind the Rind

Monday, 21 January 2019 11:34

By Rachael Lucas

Husk.  Coat.  Bloom.  I called it skin before I knew the appropriate term for that bizarre superstratum that exists on cheese. 

The rind is one of the most misunderstood aspects of fromage.  Visually, it can range from fuzzy and billowy to crusty, dusty, pocked, and/or indurate.  The rind protects developing cheese from unwanted microbial interlopers, as well as it imparts flavor.  The life existing on it encourages enzymatic breakdown in the paste, giving the cheese texture, aroma, and character.   The rind is the exoskeleton of its maker’s vision.  This crust can be manipulated and managed by its cheesemaker and affineur (one who ages cheese) through controlled temperature, humidity, salt levels and pH.  In so doing, she controls the microflora that thrives on said cheese.  After such meticulous toil on the producers’ end, it is worth trumpeting, arguably, the most important participant in the cheese’s life.  No matter how harrowing it may appear, cheese-curious friends, we need to get behind the rind.

cheese pix 1 roncari Picmonkey Spain's Roncari. Ewe's milk, foil-wrapped blue. So damned delicious.One question I receive often is whether the rind is edible.  All cheese rinds are, in fact, edible.  Even the rinds that entail cloth, wax, leaves, or bark are technically safely ingestible; rest assured cheesemakers do not implement harmful ingredients.  While we take solace in the safety of eating our cheese’s encrustment, we can then determine by our unique, discerning palates whether we enjoy what it offers.  Does it enhance the salt in the paste?  Does it impart a mineral edge that cuts through a lactic sweetness in the creamline?  Or does it deliver a ghastly bitterness that overpowers any pleasant characteristic that otherwise exists?  Is it bucky? (Editor’s note: Rachael Lucas explains that "Bucky is a term used to describe that goaty flavor that sometimes puts people off. It’s pretty gnarly.”) Rind flavors can go in any direction.  We must decipher for ourselves whether it belongs in our bite.  I recommend tasting a bit of the paste by itself (smell it first!), and then taste some paste with a little rind.  You will either like it or not, but it’s important to be open to try it.  After all, that rind is teeming with life.  

There are countless cheeses in existence, and thus innumerable idiosyncrasies to be found on their exteriors.  Local ambient microbes, traditional and specific cheesemaking and aging techniques, rind treatments, and many other factors make categorically defining cheese rather ambiguous.  For our purposes, let’s examine five general classifications of rinds (or lack thereof):  rindless, bloomy, natural, washed, and treated.

Cheese will be rindless for one of two reasons:  It is still so fresh that microbial visibility is nil, or the cheese is encased in a material such as wax, foil, or Cryovac plastic.  Surface molds require oxygen to thrive, and in the latter instance, the cheese is shielded from air.  One reason cheesemakers choose to envelop their work in a protective cloak is that it makes for a controlled environment, which creates a more consistent product.  Many phenomenal cheeses are aged in such habitats.  Try Wisconsin’s Carr Valley, wax-swaddled, 10-year-aged cheddar.  It epitomizes sharp.  Clothbound cheddars cannot mature to such an age because they would dry out.  Washington’s Gothberg Farms Cryovacs their aged cheeses, and these artisan beauties are highly revered around the state.  Their raw goat’s milk Caerphilly style is extraordinary.

cheese pix 2 PicmonkeyFrance's Midi-Pyrenees Bethmale chevre. Natural-rinded, brushed goat's milk tomme.

Bloomy rinds are the ones that remind me most of mushrooms.  These rinds get treated with molds like Penicillium Candidum or Penicillium Camemberti.  That’s right, Camembert is a member of this family.  The mold is typically sprayed on or (more traditionally) stirred into the curd.  When these microbes set to work, they literally bloom into a velutinous exterior as they enzymatically break down the milk and create a rich, fungal, silken paste.  As the penicillium proliferates, the affineur pats it down, which helps to regulate its development.  Another yeast-like mold can be placed in this category, though its result reminds me more of skin than anything bloomy.  Geotrichum Candidum creates the brainy looking rind that we see on Loire Valley and Poitou crottins.  This busy culture is quite prevalent in bloomy-rinded cheese, though it is often used to instigate enzymatic activity and then gets blanketed in plumes of penicillium to stifle its rapid growth.  It’s all highly calculated.

Natural rinded cheeses glean their surface mold from their environments.  The most grooming these wheels get is turning and brushing.  Everything else is left to nature at work in her chemistry lab.  These are the rinds that I fantasize about.  I imagine armies of microorganisms working together and/or grappling with one another.  I envision enzymes combining resources to produce, as well as terminate, new life and growth, while collectively thwarting the entrance of malignant bacteria.  Some examples of cheese with such rinds are French tommes, Catalonian Garroxta, Welsh Caerphilly, and Stilton.  These are rinds that many consumers deem inedible.  Even on the label of Piedmont’s Raschera DOP, an otherwise congenial cheese, it warns of a crosta inedibile.  This did not deter me from trying it--once.  I was instantly transported to the last day of 4th grade when I landed face-first into a puddle of mud.  Cheeses with this sort of rind tend have varying degrees of earthiness.  When you sample a natural rind, remember that you are devouring life and death.

Washed rinds.  Washies.  These are the stinky ones.  Affineurs use a salt brine, or a salt solution with other life-provoking elixirs, such as beer, cider, wine, or Cognac in which to bathe the wheel.  These tubbies do a few things:  the salt retards acidification which enables the brine’s love children, Brevibacterium Linens, to do their deed at their own pace.  No rush.  B Linens are responsible for the orangish/reddish hue that you find on the surface of this brand of cheese.  They are also culpable for those classic aromas that people often associate with smelly cheese.  If you find your cheese reeking of sweaty Converse, your junior high gym teacher’s pits, or some non-flosser’s Sunday roast, you’re experiencing B. Linens’ breath.  Submit to the notion that these critters are microbes that we produce in our own bodies, hence the associations.  Now, don’t you feel more connected to your cheese?  Common washed rind cheeses include Italian Taleggio, Alsatian Muenster, and Cascadia Creamery’s Celilo.  They tend to be savory in nature, beefy, brothy, and at times yeasty.  The dermis often possesses a granularity due to the saline brine. 

Treated rinds are any that have had a special application to them.  Ash ripened cheeses are one example.  Ash is applied to the outside of the cheese, which alters acidity levels, changes flavor profiles (often creating sweetness), and protects the cheese.  Other treatments can include binding with cloth, macerating in a solution, cinching with bark, or rubbing, as is the case with Parmigiano Reggiano.  The olive oil applied to its rind enables it to thicken, harden, and become the acidic, pineapple, umami god that it is.  Toss your Reggiano rinds into your soups, and you’ve taken cooking to the next level.

When shopping for cheese, pay attention to the manner in which the wheel has been cut.  The rind-to-paste ratio should be even throughout.  Nobody deserves to buy an obnoxious wedge that is mostly rind.  The exterior weighs more than its pasty counterpart, so if your cheesemonger opted to make your wedge crust-forward, you are getting ripped off.  Conversely, all paste and no rind makes cheese a dull…cheese.   Even worse, that delectable interior is going to develop surface mold in a hurry since its protective shell has been stripped away.  One means of avoiding rind overload/scarcity is to request that your cheesemonger cuts you a fresh wedge from the wheel.  Tell her that you want a fair rind-to-paste ratio.  Your cheesemonger should appreciate that the consumer deserves to experience said fromage at its best.

At whatever level of rind enthusiasm we find ourselves, we can all acknowledge that there is a delicate, minute ecosystem at work in our cheese.  Every organism functions for the betterment of the wheel.  A respect for the energy that was involved in creating the mouthful that we enjoy is a step forward in the preservation and endorsement of artisan cheesemaking.  We owe it to the cheese (and its producer) to give its thriving membrane a chance before we snub it; for we are sure to find variations that we hadn’t noticed in a rindless bite.  What’s more,  cheeses that we covet the most would likely not exist if it were not for their vivacious shields.  Thus, fellow sprouting turophiles, I encourage you to spread the word:  Let’s love our cheese, warts and all.

Rachael Lucas with cheese wheels MUG


Editor’s note:   Rachael is an American Cheese Society Certified Cheese Professional (CCP).  You can most often find her cheesemongering in the Seattle area.  When she's not working with cheese, she's eating it, talking about it, reading about it, writing about it, and dreaming about it.  You can find more of her writing on Tumblr under Lukaasrachael.

Last modified on Monday, 21 January 2019 17:46


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