On our recent trip to QuÃ©bec I was reminded of one of the few things that I was missing from living there. Cheeses! Tons and tons of varieties, the tastier the better… As with many places I have lived in the past, the cheeses available, in most supermarkets here in Mexico, tend to be bland and boring. Strangely enough, for a population that is so strongly attracted to tasty and spicy food, strong tasting cheeses are not very appreciated. It is somewhat understandable as a lot of time cheeses are used to cool off the taste of other stronger tasting ingredients, and as toppings. Most supermarkets have commercially-made high production cheeses of the common local varieties. Panela, a fresh cheese of wet rubbery consistency, Oaxaca, a tasty cheese made for melting that is available in long ribbons formed into balls, and some firm varieties, namely Manchego and Chihuahua. Strangely enough the local variety of Manchego is made with cow’s milk and is more reminiscent of a mild cheddar than the firm ewe’s milk Manchego of Spain. Of course, if you like shopping for fresh produces at the tianguis like we do, there are much tastier varieties of the same cheeses available there that have much fuller flavors as well as other small production farm cheeses. As always these cheeses have much better flavor and less of a bland taste as most large production cheeses. This is something that I have found in most countries that I have visited.
Being raised in a French household and surrounded by cheeses since infancy my understanding of the cheese culture is a bit different than most North American. My Dad’s taste for cheeses was always on the hard varieties like strong aged cheddars and a local semi-firm variety made by Trappist Monks in Oka, a small town near MontrÃ©al, and surprisingly named Fromage Oka. The later was, in its original incarnation, an incredibly pungent cheese that took a very strong stomach to approach from the smell alone, but that was of surprisingly mild and beautiful taste once you got past the smell. My own personal taste runs to the tasty, high fat, soft textured French cheeses with a mold crust like Brie, Camembert, Reblochon, but I have not met a well-made cheese so far that I do not like.
In the past 10 years the cheese industry in QuÃ©bec has evolved greatly in new directions. Still available are the high production commercial cheeses, but a new industry has developed that has created a huge variety of small-production artisan cheeses of all types and flavors that rival the French by their quality and creativity. It is too bad that they also rival them with their prices, but I guess that quality always has its price. Traditional techniques have been imported from France and, to lesser extent, other countries, and the use of ‘lait cru’, unpasteurized milk, is on the rise. As an unabashed lover of ‘lait cru’ cheeses I am very happy of the later development. By not pasteurizing the milk and letting its natural bacterial flora flourish these cheeses develop a much more interesting taste that can become very addictive.
It is common, here in Mexico, to serve some cheese as appetizers, but personally I much prefer to have a nice platter of room-temperature cheeses after the meal, to the point of replacing desserts with it. It is a fitting finish to an elaborate meal and it is normally the correct point in the evening to open the best bottle of wine. In my life, many fond memories were made over some nice runny, pungent cheeses with a fittingly appropriate potent wine bottle or three. It leads to inspiration and long lasting friendship of the best kind.
I will have more to say on cheeses in coming weeks, and in the meantime I hope that you can look for a nice piece of cheese to experiment with, for a nice bottle of wine to go with it, and more importantly for the time to relax and truly appreciate them with good friends.