The Luxurious TRUFFLE CHEESE

The sought after fungi takes cheese to unique heights.

Pictured: Cypress Grove’s Truffle Tremor

When we think of luxurious food ingredients, few carry the mystique, or command the price tag, of truffles. The fungi, not the chocolates.

Synonymous with the extravagance of four-star dining, the price per pound may exceed a month’s rent. The cost of truffles is related to the challenges of harvesting them, bringing these highly perishable fungi to market and selling them under the pressure of an extremely short shelf life.

Once harvested, these tubers, priced by weight, must be shipped and distributed within 36 hours to a prevent a water loss of 10 percent per day. Fresh truffles must be consumed within five to seven days to avoid becoming mushy (over ripe) and losing their most salient feature—the aromatics. They are a fragile product that can be easily damaged by processing and direct heat during cooking, so they require expert handling.

Perhaps these facts can help us appreciate why they are so expensive, although that won’t make the price  any easier on the pocketbook.

Upping the Ante

To get more truffle-bang for the buck when craving a bit of culinary pizzazz, think truffle cheese. In recent years, the presence of truffle cheese has mushroomed in the marketplace. Cheese with truffle inclusions is a smart way to grate on layers of flavor for a fraction of the cost. Still, add the word ‘truffle’ to any product, and you can expect to pay a premium. When is this coveted ingredient worth it? And when is it hype? A little background can help us to discern the difference.

Truffles grow among tree roots and have an important forest-nurturing function that goes beyond the mere titillation of gourmet palates. Given their ecological role, their valuation might be as ethically desirable as a carbon tax. The thought of truffles may conjure up the image of hogs running through woodlands with farmers in hot pursuit. But since 1985, Italy has banned truffle-hunting sows. Apparently, they make pigs of themselves plundering the terrain and scarfing down the treasured fungi. Trained dogs, on the other hand, particularly the Lagotto Romagnolo breed, simply paw at the ground to signal they’ve detected the scent.

Make no mistake, the flavor of truffles is mostly in the human nose, too, which leads us to chemical abuse; that is, aromatic spiking through the use of 2 4-dithiapentane (bismethylthio methane), a petroleum-formaldyhyde-based sulfide, known to be an eye, lung and skin irritant. The chemical is used in so-called truffle oils to imitate the white truffle (Tuber magnatum) aroma. Surprisingly, most oils contain no real truffle whatsoever. The synthetic aroma, which mimics only a key component, primes consumers to expect less range and subtlety. For example, take just a single type of fresh truffle, the black melanosporum. I found that in sampling just a few within that species, there was a different aromatic flavor profile for each one.

Given that you will pay a premium for any truffle product, check the ingredients. What does flavoring, essence or aroma actually mean? Usually, it means chemicals. As I reviewed more than a dozen truffle cheeses, the degree to which the aromatics were synthetically spiked influenced my selection process. Synthetics suggest either penny-pinching or a lack of skill. Remember that truffle is fragile and loses aroma along with its moisture. When processing truffles, timing and technique are everything to lock in flavor. Since ‘truffle’ implies luxury, we should expect to pay for a truffle cheese priced to reflect authenticity and expertise.

A Truffle Education

A multitude of truffle species, both wild and cultivated, grow around the world, but only a handful are worth eating. To explore fresh truffles and truffle products, I visited the showroom of Urbani Truffles in New York City, where I met with Marta Castillo Peinado, food scientist and manager of the Urbani Truffle Lab. Unfortunately, it was in February, too late for the White Truffle (Tuber magnatum) season, but I was able to sample a few three-day-old Black Winter Truffles (Tuber melanosporum). Shaved razor thin, the aromas ranged from floral to earthy or spicy. They are each so varied that Marta advises local clients to come in to select ones with the aromatic profiles they prefer. On the palate, the floral smelling truffle was the sweetest. For me, once in the mouth, the experience quickly shifted to texture. One was powdery, another mildly fibrous. Marta described the White Alba Truffle (Tuber magnatum) as more delicate, saying it melts on the tongue.

Truffles are seasonal and predominantly grown in Europe (France, Italy and Spain, for the most part). But since they are now being cultivated in the Southern Hemisphere, particularly in Australia, the boundaries of seasonality are expanding for certain types. Climate change looms as a consideration for future growing locations. North Americans are laying the groundwork to farm truffles by planting hazelnut, oak and other trees that are hospitable to European species.

A native species, the Oregon Truffle (both black and white varieties) grows wild in the Pacific Northwest from Northern California to British Columbia, wherever Douglas Fir forests are found. Another native type is the Pecan Truffle that takes its name from its affinity for pecan orchards. Of the many truffle cheeses I encountered, all used prestigious European species. That suggests a potential for North American artisan cheesemakers to embrace truffles reflecting their own terroir.

In the accompanying sidebar, you will find a list of truffles that you are likely to encounter in cheese, followed by a truffle cheese containing that particular type. When shopping, you may see words, such as Vitt. (Vittadini) or Pico, after the Latin names of the tuber. These are the names of the mycologists credited with first describing that particular species centuries ago. Products are often labeled ‘Black Truffle’ or ‘White Truffle’, but unless the manufacturer lists the Latin name, it’s hard to know what you’re actually getting.        

Truffles and Cheeses that Contain Them

Tuber Magnatum (Pico) aka White Italian or Alba Truffle

Grown in the Piedmont region of Italy, available from mid-September to December/January. This is the most highly prized variety, increasingly rare and so valuable that it almost never shows up in a cheese.

Cheese:

Central Fromaggi (Italy) first developed Smeraldo al Tartufo Bianco for a private client before making it seasonally available. You can generally find it in November/December and sometimes around Easter time. This is a Sardinian sheep Pecorino, aged approximately five to six months, with a natural truffle aroma of French oniony soup and subtle umami notes that play harmoniously in the Pecorino.

Serving suggestion: Shave some onto an elegant risotto or let it work its magic on a simple baked potato. Exquisite!

Tuber Melanosporum (Vittadini) aka French Black Winter or Perigord Truffle

Available from January through the end of March, Australian melanosporum are available from June-August.

Tuber Uncinatum (Chatin) or Black Burgundy Truffle

Grown across much of Europe, they are a type of autumn/winter tuber available from September to late December.

Tuber Aestivum (Vitt) or Summer Black or White Truffle

Aestivum seems to be the most common variety of truffle used in cheese. Four delicious examples are listed below. Grown prolifically around the Mediterranean coast, it is easy to understand why aestivum is the black truffle of choice for many products. The French company Agour refers to aestivum as a ‘White Summer Truffle,’ while most others describe it as a ‘Black Summer Truffle.’ To avoid confusion, check for the Latin name on the label. Aestivum are available May-August. Although the same species as the Winter uncinatum (Burgundy) truffle, they are different in appearance and taste.

Cheese:

Central Fromaggi’s (Italy) Moliterno al Tartufo. Aged a total of six months in a base of Sardinian Pecorino, the producer uses a unique technology to deliver genuine truffle into this cheese as well as the Smeraldo. The Moliterno flavor is full-bodied, more beefy-umami than the Smeraldo.

Agour’s (France) Fromage de Brebis a la Truffle, a younger Basque sheep’s milk cheese. The aroma is more vegetal than in the Moliterno.

Serving suggestions: The Moliterno and the Agour are my personal favorites to grate on any style of pasta al dente. Superb!

Cypress Grove’s (USA) Truffle Tremor.

While truffles often seem lost in soft and fresh cow’s milk, such as Brie-style cheeses and Burrata, Truffle Tremor strikes an impressive balance. Perhaps the reason Tremor succeeds is that it’s actually a goat cheese. Think Humboldt Fog without the ash. Truly elegant!

Serving suggestion: A starring role on any cheese board with fruit or vegetable crudités.

Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese Co.’s (USA) Toma Truffle, released in 2019, is aged 90 days. Point Reyes achieves a subtle balance of truffle and buttery toma base.

Serving suggestion: A harmonious companion for crunchy, whole grain breads. Or add panache as a last minute toss into scrambled eggs.

Tuber Albidum (Pico) aka Tuber Borchii (Vittadini) or White Bianchetto Truffle

Easily confused with white truffle, this is Albidum not Alba. These Bianchetto are small spring truffles available from mid-winter-April.

Cheese:

Il Forteto’s (Italy) Cacio di Bosco al Tartufo, is aged 150 days. The Bianchetto truffle has a pronounced garlicky flavor that plays well against the sweet caramel and nut notes of this semi-soft Pecorino. Serving suggestion: Try it with a baguette and a citrusy preserve or shave it onto polenta.

A LOOK INTO THE CHEESE MANY LOVE

A LOOK INTO THE CHEESE MANY LOVE

Soft-ripened Brie is flavorful and a favorite.

According to legend, French Emperor Charlemagne tasted his first bite of Brie in the eighth century at a monastery in Reuil-en-Brie and fell instantly in love with its milky flavor and luscious texture. The king’s favorite—and sometimes called the king of cheese—Brie has become a widely and deeply beloved cheese sought after and enjoyed around the world. It’s often a gateway to more obscure artisanal cheeses; it’s a cheese nearly impossible not to love.

Continue reading →

The Intricacies of Belgium’s Chimay

The Intricacies of Belgium’s Chimay

Produced by the monks at the Abbey of Notre-Dame de Scourmont.

The first thing that springs to mind for many when you hear ‘Belgium’ is beer. It’s amazing how a country so small is known worldwide for its beer and variety of styles. ‘Trappist’ beers are one of the best-known types within Belgium. Made at Abbeys, the word ‘Trappist’ originates not with the style, but with the order in which the monks within these Abbeys belong.

A Trappist is a member of a branch of the Cistercian order of Christian monks, which originated at La Trappe in France in 1664. During the French Revolution, Trappist monks had to leave France and many went to Belgium.

Trappists live according to the Rule of Saint Benedict of Nursia, a rule that offers guidelines for organising the daily life of the Abbey, even still today. The monks dedicate their life to serving God and split their time between work, prayer and study.

As Trappist tradition dictates, the monks must live from their own work, and this is where the brewing comes in to play. For beer (and cheese), the label of ‘Trappist’ means they are brewed (or made) inside a Trappist monastery under the supervision of the monks, and a large amount of the profits are redistributed to those in need.

One of the handful of Trappist Breweries in the world (most are in Belgium and the rest are in Holland) is called Chimay, which you may already know for its Trappist beers.

Chimay History

Chimay is based at the Abbey of Notre Dame de Scourmont in Belgium, just a little to the North of the French border in the forest of Mont du Secours. As well as brewing, monks and monasteries are known for making and washing cheese. At Chimay, they make both beer and cheese, creating a beautiful link between the two.

In 1850 the Prince of Chimay asked for a group of monks from Saint Sixtus Abbey in Westvleteren to establish themselves on the high Scourmont Plateau next to the town of Chimay in order to make something of the land there.

They worked hard to transform the unworked soil into fertile agricultural land and, in 1862, they brewed their first beer, which was then known as ‘La Premiere’ and is now called ‘Chimay Rouge’.

Chimay cheese has a stringent quality checklist to ensure it is made to exact specifications.

In 1857 a dairy plant was created, with butter being made and consumed by members of the order. In 1876, their very own Brother Benedict headed to France to learn how to make semi-soft cheeses, and the monks started their cheesemaking. World War II halted operations, however, miraculously everything was untouched, and they restarted brewing again shortly after. In 1975, they moved the dairy out of the brewery to create a separate operation and to focus better on both.

The Philosophy of Chimay

There are around 11 monks now at Chimay. They no longer take part in the production, but serve more as a Board of Directors. All decisions go through the monks, and they still have their weekly tasting of the products.

Their philosophy, however, continues. Everyone there works a strict 40-hour workweek. They are incredibly dedicated to the idea that you are meant to work for a certain part of the day, then study, pray and relax for the rest. They want everyone to have this same balance in life, and this philosophy is crucial for them. In the same likeness, they are conscious of the environment and focused on sustainability and reducing their carbon footprint. One example of this is that a third of the energy used within the brewery and dairy comes from their own solar panels. All profits from these businesses either go back into the monastery, allowing the monks to do charity work through the monastery itself, or through other charitable outlets. They are the largest employer of the region, and they are still growing their number of employees. At the end of this year and into the next, the monks are starting a new project. Previously, there was a farm between the monastery and what is now a restaurant. The farm is being recreated to provide jobs for people with physical disabilities. The workers will be able to both work and live there.

The Milk and Cheesemaking

Chimay has its own co-operative for milk collection consisting of around 250 farms from which milk is collected to make the cheeses. All these farms are within about an 18-mile radius of the dairy. They are not all certified organic; however, they use the least intensive farming possible.

No pesticides are used on the farms or in the neighboring land, as the monks are dedicated to protecting the environment and their water source—the main ingredient for their brewing and a huge factor in the cheese production.

The winter feed for the cows is also grown within the area. The herd size of the dairy farms vary between 15 and 200 cows and are a mixture (depending on each farm) of Jersey, Blanc-Bleu Belge and Holstein.

At Chimay, cheeses are produced two to five days out of the week, and on any one of those days, they can complete up to seven makes. About 1,200 tons of Chimay cheese is produced annually.

When the milk arrives fresh in the morning, it is immediately checked to ensure that it meets the specs given to every single farm.

Tank samples are taken and analyzed in the laboratory. The checks ensure there are no pathogens nor antibiotics present in the milk, which will only be transformed into Chimay cheeses if all quality checks are passed.

The milk is then pasteurized, skimmed and homogenised to 30 percent fat. The curds are then washed with a mixture of water and whey, which gives its characteristic, springy Tomme-like texture.

Once the cheeses are made, they are turned out and placed onto racks, then plunged into brine baths.

Here, they remain for two to 48 hours, depending on the type and size. Certain cheeses are then washed using the Chimay beer to give it an extra depth of flavor. The others are just brine washed.

The cheeses are finally taken into one of seven different maturing cellars to complete the process, depending on their style.

Chimay Cheeses

Chimay makes a variety of cheeses all year round as well as some seasonal specialities. The cheeses, available through Elizabeth, NJ-based Atalanta Corp. are:

• Chimay Classic – a semi-soft, washed rind cheese aged for 21 days with a grassy profile and buttery finish

• Chimay a la Premiere – aged for four weeks. This is a semi-soft cheese washed with Chimay beer and contains hop extract within the paste. On the nose, there are hints of stone fruit, as well as a fruity paste and a hint of bitterness from the hops themselves.

• Grand Chimay – aged for over 60 days. This uses a different set of cultures, giving it a flavor profile with more complexity, like a raw milk cheese. Grand Chimay is named due to its intense Trappist character from an ale-washed rind, while at the same time retaining a creamy freshness and florality.

• Chimay Vieux – aged six months and a happy accident launched in 1989. As with many cheese recipes, this was unintentional. After 100 years into Chimay’s Trappist cheesemaking history, the monks of Scourmont Abbey in Belgium started developing new recipes.

During the maturing stage, some of these new, ‘experimental’ cheeses were forgotten for many months. When they were found, these mature cheeses proved to be a very delicious mistake. Vieux Chimay is dome shaped, and houses a beautiful creamy orange interior. It has a long, fruity flavor, caramel notes and a smooth finish. This cheese has the smallest production, as it can only be produced in the spring and summer months when the cows are grazing at pasture.

• Poteaupré – aged for 120 days, this cheese was only launched in 2007. It is housed in its own wooden box and is a softer, more creamy cheese with spicy aromatics and a smooth finish.

Atalanta is currently in the process of launching Chimay loaves, which are the made with the same recipe as the Classic and La Premiere, but in a larger format, ideal for foodservice.