A soft ripening cheese (Brie or Camembert, for example) is a very young cheese often sold between 30 and 60 days old. As the name implies, a soft ripening cheese softens as it ages from the outside in. When the cheese is first set and able to hold its shape, it is inoculated with a white mold called penicillium candidum. This mold will actually grow and bloom on the outside of the cheese causing the cheese to ripen quickly and the cheese to soften. At first the inside is hard, firm and chalky. As the cheese ripens this core begins to disappear and becomes smaller and smaller. Once this core disappears the cheese is considered fully ripe.
Because Coulommier is a little thicker than Brie or Camembert, it is considered perfect with a little trace of core remaining in the center. Some people prefer this cheese on the young side; many like it riper. It is simply a matter of taste. With a little practice determine with a little squeeze just how ripe a cheese is. When the cheese is overripe, in addition to being very soft, the white mold will change to a brown color with an ammonia smell. This ammoniated aroma is a by-product of bacteria growth. At this stage the cheese is considered overripe and distasteful to most. Unlike hard cheeses, just a matter of a few days can make a big difference in its taste. So when purchasing this type of cheese, be sure to mention when you plan to use it so it will be perfect on the day needed.
I could never imagine assembling a cheese tray or an assortment of cheese for someone without including a soft ripening cheese in the selection. When in good condition, they are mild, creamy, and enjoyed by all. They are the universal cheeses that go well with all wines in the way champagne is the universal wine that goes with all foods. The problem today is that many of the soft ripening cheeses have changed and not necessarily for the better. Many years ago the soft ripening cheeses were made of raw milk, unlike the pasteurized versions we can only buy today. Europe is allowed to use raw milk in young cheese production; we are not allowed to import them. Often I hear customers tell me of their recent travels overseas and how good the cheeses were in France or Italy for example. They found the local cheeses full of flavor, runny, creamy and, if allowed, would run all over the table like warm honey. In fact, runny used to be part of the description of Brie back then, not so apropos today. Today’s Bries and Camemberts are fairly firm in texture, even at room temperature. Add poor moisture care and you really do end up with what I call hockey pucks. I sell very little actual Bries today and I’m forever looking for that old style, runny, flavorful, creamy, soft ripening cheese I used to know.
A Treasure is Found
The good news is I found one. Not in Europe, but of all places, cheddar country Vermont. Lillé Coulommier cheese is wonderful. It has a beautiful white bloom and, depending on the age of the cheese, a subtle core and a luscious inside ready to run – yes, I said run – all over the counter. With notes of nut and butter, and more than a hint of mushroom, Lillé Coulommier is déjà vu for me. The cheese is becoming a store favorite. Lillé can be purchased young and then ripened under special care so it can be sold at peak condition.
Vermont Farmstead Cheese
There’s a nice story about the manufacturer, Vermont Farmstead Cheese. The farm and beautiful land they now use for cheese production was almost sold for a more commercial use that would have changed the landscape and beautiful nature of the area. According to Vermont Farmstead Cheese, fourteen neighbors joined together to keep the dairy from being repurposed so they could maintain the beautiful landscape and farm. Using sustainable dairy farming practices and creative cheese makers using old-world recipes, they now make award winning artisanal cheeses. They produce an excellent selection of unique cheeses along with providing great care for the herd of cows and the farm land. They use only Vermont milk and have accomplished much to elevate the state’s dairy industry.
If you remember great tasting, runny Brie style cheeses, you will love Lillé Coulommier. Try serving it on a crusty French baguette with a little honey comb or fruit chutney. It pairs well with white wine or champagne.
By Paul Partica, The Cheese Shop of Centerbrook