Saturday, 30 December 2017

Say Cheese! with Francois Robin and The Cheese Collective


It was the most gorgeous setting on a glorious winter day. Frenchman François Robin had invited a small group at Lodi – The Garden Restaurant to talk about all things cheese. As a cheese specialist he was awarded the Best Cheesemonger in France. This means that while he trades in a variety of cheeses, his work also involves selecting and at times even aging certain cheeses before they are sold. He also travels all over the world introducing people to different cheeses of Europe. For this workshop François teamed up with Mansi Jasani, founder of Mumbai-based The Cheese Collective. Besides being an artisanal cheese maker Mansi also curates cheese from cheese makers across India, conducts cheese appreciation and pairing workshops, makes customized platters and sets up cheese tables for events. 

The gorgeous setting at Lodi - The Garden Restaurant.

Blind Tasting
Our cheese appreciation started with a blind tasting. “You don’t necessarily need to be educated about cheese to enjoy it. Give the cheese a chance,” said François adding that cheese is not out of anybody’s reach. Although some cheeses are considered gourmet, most are not as exotic as some other foods (like foie gras, for instance). All you need to do is “find your cheese”!

“There’s a difference between eating and tasting – start with exploring the cheese, use your senses, be focused, but above all be sincere! Rely on your personal memories and go by your personal feeling,” he said as we wore the blindfold and plugged our nose with a nose clip. After blocking our senses of sight and smell a plate is placed before us with four types of cheeses placed in a circle. One by one we felt each piece of cheese for shape (rectangular, triangular and so on) hardness (hard or soft), texture (smooth, sticky or ridged), edges (does it have a rind or not) and finally tasted it.

Top: Francois Robin and Mansi Jasani.
Bottom: The table is set for blind tasting.

1. The first one was dense, semi-hard and rectangular without a rind. It was mildly salty – Comté. It is a French cheese made from unpasteurized cow's milk in the Franche-Comté region of eastern France. It is made in discs of about 40 cm diameter and contains only 1%salt.
2. Next came a soft, creamy triangular piece of cheese with a soft rind – Camembert. It is very similar to the slightly milder, buttery Brie.
3. The salty, sticky, crumbly soft cheese without any rind turns out to be goat’s cheese – Chèvre.
4. Finally, comes the pungent cheese that is easily recognizable – Blue cheese. This one is saltier than the rest. When we remove the nose plug we can instantly smell the pungent aroma that comes from the natural fungus that grows in it.

Although I knew all the cheeses that we tasted, the blind tasting and the following discussion helped to understand them better. That’s what cheese appreciation is all about, I guess!

Simple Pairings: Comte with pomegranate molasses and naan;
Chèvre with coriander and toasted black sesame on parantha;
Brie with Gujarati aam ka chunda on French baguette;
Brie stuffed mascarpone, dried pomegranate and pistachios.

Cheese Trivia
- Cheese is a milk concentrate thus it’s colour can tell the type of milk it is made with. Cow’s milk is usually yellow while goat’s and buffalo’s is white.  
- While there are no rules as such for a cheese tasting, always start with milder flavour and progress to the more intense ones.
- To know if it'll melt well press it between your fingers. If it's soft and sticky or greasy it will melt evenly. That’s why parmesan cheese is usually grated on top of dishes since it doesn’t melt well. 
- Cheese is an aroma catcher. So do not place with very strong smelling foods in the refrigerator.

Simple Rules For Pairing Cheese
- Whatever you pair a cheese with, do not over power its flavour with other ingredients and ensure that cheese remains the star. 
- Balance of sweet and savoury flavours is important. You can, however, find your own balance according to personal preference.
- Add various textures to enjoy cheese to the fullest – think fresh fruits, dried fruits, crackers, nuts, chutneys and preserves. The options are limitless. Just have fun!

Pairing European Cheeses with Indian Food
-       We tried the Comte with pomegranate molasses and naan bread. Since the cheese is not very sharp, the acidity can be added with a pomegranate/balsamic glaze.
-       The Brie is paired with a Gujarati pickle called chunda, made with shredded mango, chilli and sugar, atop a crunchy French baguette.
-       The goat cheese is mixed with fresh coriander, placed on mini paranthas and sprinkled with toasted black sesame.

And remember: cheese is shareable and best enjoyed with close friends.