OBSERVATIONS : Food : Say Cheese : Separating Curds From Whey Is a Complicated, Sophisticated Business

CHEESE IS AN interesting and complicated subject--as interesting and as complicated as wine, another natural substance with whose manufacture it has much in common. Though the world teems with Grapies who drop the names of Chateaux as others sprinkle their conversation with the names of peers or pop stars, cheese has not yet acquired its groupies. (Though cheese does have its social implications: American Foodies speak sneeringly of the "Brie and white wine set.")

Perhaps this is because there's no cheese equivalent of Blue Nun to start the inexperienced climbing the gastronomic ladder that leads from mousetrap to Maroilles. Or perhaps it is because, like the last-named example, cheese--even at its greatest (or particularly at its greatest) is a smelly business. Maybe cheese is essentially--not, as philosophers used to say, accidentally--a suitable source of schoolboy jokes. After all, cheese is (like wine) made by a process that takes advantage of the tendency of food to spoilage and corruption. Just as fermentation could merely render the grape inedible and useless, the turning of milk into separate curds and whey could be merely destructive. Instead, it is the first step in the manufacture of one of man's oldest and yet most sophisticated foods.

The analogy with wine is even stronger than this. Both are agricultural products of the utmost simplicity but requiring to be produced under conditions of scrupulous cleanliness if the bacteria and yeasts that "turn" them are to be harnessed and put to good use. Both are strongly regional, so that the same material can produce a different result if it is from a grape grown on a sunnier slope or milk from a cow pastured in a lusher field. Conditions of aging and storage are crucial in both cases. And though the mature wine or the perfectly ripened cheese may appeal to many different sorts of people, to appreciate its finest virtues requires a degree of connoisseurship.

The complexities of wine are commonplace; every tyro knows better than to chance his drinking arm (or palate) against the experts--and knows better than to take them on in objectively evaluatable blind tastings. But cheese? Can cheese be a field for expertise and gastronomic exhibitionism? The answer, cher collegue Foodie, is yes.

As a very junior specialist writer on a national newspaper, I came close to losing my first job six months after I had begun it, when I wrote--incautiously, imprecisely, but not incorrectly--that Brie and Camembert were close relations, "identical except for the shape of the mould."

One of the paper's most senior journalists then fired off a Munster of a stinker to the editor. "How," he demanded, "can you employ someone to write about food who can't tell the difference between Brie and Camembert?" I had to eat humble quiche (but remain defiant at the same time). Of course, I had not meant to say that the taste of Brie and Camembert was the same, only that their manufacture is identical, except for the moulds used.

Brie is the older. The 15th-Century Charles d'Orleans, the father of Louis XII, gave New Year gifts of Brie to his friends, and there is even a report in one of the chronicles that Charlemagne tasted Brie in 774. At a dinner at the Congress of Vienna, given in the hopes of obtaining a little light relief after Waterloo, Talleyrand proposed a mock resolution, which was unanimously adopted, that Brie be proclaimed the king of cheeses.

Both Brie and Camembert are soft-curd ( pates molles ) types of cheese, and both are designed to ripen or mature. Up to the point where the mould is introduced, the manufacture of these cheeses is the same as for any cheese: Raw or pasteurized milk is treated, usually with rennet, to separate the curds and whey. The whey is drained off (and usually discarded, though it is sometimes used to make other cheeses). The curd is cut up--this step is important, as it determines the final consistency of the cheese--and put into moulds. When sufficient moisture has been drawn off, the pressed curd is either washed or salted to discourage mould, or, as in the case of Brie and Camembert, infected.

Authorities disagree about the flavoring agent. It is either Penicillium candidum or P. album . Confusingly, it is not P. camemberti , which is the mould used for Livarot and Pont-l'Eveque, not for Brie and Camembert and the related cheeses of Coulommiers, Chevru and Fougerus.

The surface mould proceeds, under correct conditions of storage, to ripen the cheese by the action of enzymes working inwards--which is why you sometimes get a Camembert (less often a Brie) in which there is one hard spot in the center where the enzymes have not yet reached. This enzyme diffusion, of course, is the answer to the big question of why Brie and Camembert differ so much in taste though they have everything except their shapes in common. When it comes to ripeness, thickness is all.

Unless you like slightly chalky Brie or Camembert (and lots of Frenchmen do), don't buy one that is not of the same consistency all over. It will ripen unevenly or not at all, and the telltale spot in the middle is unlikely to yield much until the rest of the cheese starts to ooze out of the rind. It is at this point that the ammonia smell of stale Brie and Camembert becomes distastefully evident.

Andre Simon says that Camembert and Brie undergo two "fermentations." In the first the penicillin mould "disposes of every trace of lactic acid present in the curd." The second "results in the decomposition of the casein," at which point the cheese is at its best and must be consumed rapidly, before further decomposition produces the ammonia smell.

It follows from this that Brie and Camembert in their prime are not completely gooey. It should be possible to cut off the rind and be left with something more resilient and substantial than a mere puddle on your plate. Do cut off the rind: The cheese maker never intended you to eat it.

The shelf life of a soft cheese, from when it leaves the farm or factory until it reaches you, is 10 days to three weeks. Brie and Camembert, under proper conditions, require about 10 days to go from having a chalky inside to full creaminess. But the proper conditions for ripening are difficult to achieve, and should be the responsibility of the retailer. I do not recommend buying Camembert or Brie much more than one day before you mean to use it, as you can then buy it in the condition in which you intend to eat it. Also, both cheeses begin to alter from the moment they are cut and lose the protection against oxygen provided by the rind.

If you must attempt to ripen your own cheese, place it in its box in the vegetable drawer of the refrigerator, and check it every day: It can take 10 days to mature. Far better to choose a ripe one in the shop. Start by pressing the cheese with your thumb, to see that it has the same consistency and elasticity everywhere, and don't forget to check the circumference.

Often in French chain stores, and almost always in British and American shops, Brie and Camembert are kept too cold and in conditions of too little humidity. At home, store cheese loosely wrapped in the vegetable drawer (with some vegetables to provide humidity), and always take it out at least one hour before serving, so that it reaches room temperature.

More than 2,000 brands of Camembert are made in France. The best still come from Normandy, from the Auger region between Touques and Dive. The best Brie is still made in the Ile-de-France.

Most Camembert and Brie are at their best from May to September, during the three cycles of the meadows where the cows graze: The first flush of grass, the flowering of the grasses, and the second growth of the grass. These distinctions tend to be effaced when pasteurized milk is used, as it is in any cheese marked Brie Laitier . Seasonal differences are much more pronounced in Brie de Meaux Fermier (though shipping it can be difficult in hot summer weather), Brie de Melun Affine (as opposed to the rindless, non-maturing Brie de Melun Frais and the Brie de Melun Bleu), the rare Brie de Montereau and the extinct Brie de Nangis. Brie de Coulommier, on the other hand, is less good in summer. At 26 cm, it is smaller than Brie de Meaux, which is normally 33 to 54 cm in diameter.

Choosing Brie can be difficult--the more desirable varieties look very like the others, and the consumer simply has to memorize their names. Camembert, on the other hand, is easy to choose. Look for one that says Fermier , and always choose an unpasteurized one au lait cru in preference to the less characterful pasteurized product.

From "Out to Lunch," by Paul Levy. Copyright 1980, 1981, 1982, 1983, 1984, 1985, 1986 by Paul Levy. Reprinted by permission of Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc.

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