Back and forth, hither and yon – whether on my habitual trajectory between Touraine and Paris or further afield… destinations, encounters, events and observations I can’t resist sharing.

Rodolphe Le Meunier, Touraine’s Champion des Fromages

May 12, 2011
Fromage de Chèvre

Along with wine making, the French cheese industry is undergoing a back to basics renaissance, marked by renewed appreciation for authentic flavor and organic process. As with natural wine production, which respects the idiosyncrasies and inconsistency of terroir, a new generation of cheese producers, refiners and sellers are putting science back in service of nature.

Rodolphe Le Meunier epitomizes the new vanguard.  At 35, he doesn’t have much left to learn about cheese.  Since 2007, he’s collected an impressive set of awards, including Meilleur Ouvrier de France, which is the gastronomic Pulitzer for food artisans, and the International Caseus Award – the Olympic gold of the cheese world.

He and his sister Caroline are the third generation to run Les Fromages du Moulin in La Croix en Touraine, between Tours and Amboise.  Instead of making goat cheese and selling it at local markets as their grandmother did, Rodolphe uses his expertise to identify the best French and European cheese, which he then ages in cold storage until it’s ready to be sold.  To guarantee that every cheese arrives at its destination in perfect condition, Rodolphe added a distribution and export business – From’europe – located in the Rungis wholesale market outside Paris.

Le Meunier has a profound appreciation for how well nature gets the job done if the conditions it requires are respected.  The title affineur (refiner or cheese ager) gives a false impression of his role, since cheese matures with or without human intervention.  His job is to create the optimum environment by controlling temperature, humidity level and air circulation, all the while carefully surveying how things are progressing.   “It’s the same with wine.  Storing it in an insulated wine cellar will produce better results than allowing it to age in a warehouse where temperature and light isn’t controlled.  Either way, the wine in the bottle continues to evolve, but one will taste much better than the other.”

Like French celebrity chefs and winemakers, Le Meunier is leveraging his reputation to diversify his business and expand reach.  Increasingly, the cheese and butter he exports to New York and Japan are marketed under the Rodolphe Le Meunier brand.  The classic package design features a label with his signature, three gold fleur de lis and the distinctive MOF medal.  Among his American clients is Wegmans, an 80-store mid Atlantic food market, ranked by the Food Network and Consumer Reports as America’s best grocery chain.

Le Meunier cheeses are produced in partnership with select cheese makers he’s identified as best in their class.  Few producers he’s approached have turned him down.  His partners are pleased to be singled out by a discerning judge in a field crowded with competitors.  Le Meunier functions as product development and marketing consultant as well as distributor.  His association permits independent producers to introduce their cheese to markets they otherwise wouldn’t have the opportunity or inclination to reach.  “There are so many wonderful French cheeses that aren’t consumed outside of France.  Certain goat, sheep and soft ripened cheese are tricky to export because they need to stay moist yet breathe in transport.  The solution is airfreight but even then you can’t risk delivery taking more than three days.”  He also sells to French supermarkets, but circumvents the distribution chain, which can be fatal for fragile cheese, by delivering direct to stores.

If you’re a cheese lover like I am, it’s an infinitely fascinating subject and I arrived at our meeting with tons of questions and a fair number of, as it turns out, wrong assumptions.  The first myth dispelled is that buying cheese with the AOC label (Appellation d’Origine Controllé) or AOP as its EU name has become (Appellation d’Origine protégée) is an assurance of quality.   “AOP tells you a cheese is made in a certain location using a particular method, but guarantees nothing in terms of quality.  It’s the quality of milk used and who is makes the cheese that determines whether it’s good. Again, like wine, there are great cheeses without an AOP label, and inferior cheese with one.”

Mold is a good sign on ripening cheese. “Fuzz is natural.  If it doesn’t grow on the skin of cheese, it’s pasteurized.  On a soft ripened cheese like Saint Marcellin, it’s so fine you don’t see it but it’s there.”   You might not like the taste, but it’s perfectly ok to eat – it’s a question of preference.  “Some people don’t like the rind on Brie, but if the cheese is a good one, it’s delicious.”

Not every cheese needs to breathe while aging.  Some washed rinds like Maroilles or Epoisses, are aged wrapped in plastic, to make them creamier.  Even so, the cold storage room for this cheese family had a particularly pungent odor.  The aroma of the goat cheese room was also memorable, but the cold chamber lined in Austrian terra cotta bricks where his pressed cheese age, was pleasant.

Le Meunier recently appeared in a TF1 television news feature, where he’s shown in the pristine lab environment of his factory turning over cheese on a rack with bare hands.  I asked if this was hygienic. “That cheese is coated in natural bacteria and has fragile skin which would stick to latex gloves.  Besides, gloves quickly get contaminated and I wash my hands beforehand.”

For Le Meunier, the danger of raw cheese is exaggerated.   Listeria or salmonella contamination is very rare in cheese other than les fromages frais like ricotta or fromage blanc, which have high water content and are intended to be consumed soon after they’re made.

Aged cheese, by definition is a vehicle for preserving milk and won’t develop pathogens once no longer liquid.  Cooked pressed raw milk cheese is aged anywhere from five months to five years without risk of contamination when stored under the right conditions.

Unfortunately, regulations imposed for production of raw milk cheese makes them much more expensive to produce and consequently they’ve acquired a false reputation for being fragile or unstable.  The bigger irony is that pasteurization kills off bacteria raw cheese uses to combat microbes that cause food poisoning, so pasteurized cheese is more vulnerable to contamination and therefore has to be stored more carefully.  Raw cheese is also more nutritious.

This isn’t to say that all pasteurized cheese is inferior.  Through judicious addition of certain bacteria, it’s possible to achieve excellent results, although the taste can’t fully replicate the full flavor of the raw milk version.  “Every country has its particular palette and if you haven’t grown up eating raw milk cheese you may find the taste too strong.  I’m not for forcing other countries to like what the French do.  I try to give clients the best product suited to their taste preferences.”

Le Meunier thinks the US has fantastic potential as a cheese producer because of the quantity of excellent pastureland and the growing interest in organic produce.  As for creating new cheese varieties here or there, Le Meunier admits that the options have been fully exploited over the centuries.  “In France, there are only two ways to create a new cheese since everything’s been done – using a new shape or adding herbs, alcohol, fruit, other natural flavoring.”  He helped to create a new herb encrusted goat cheese called Tomme de Fontenay.

When it comes to presenting and serving cheese, Le Meunier is dismissive of cheese etiquette in general, whether it be the ideal composition of a cheese plate for a dinner party, correct way to slice each variety or how many selections one should take.

If he’s entertaining people he doesn’t know well who might be self conscious serving himself or herself in front of someone who won a gold medal for presentation and service, Le Meunier pre cuts each cheese into a variety of serving sizes.  Guests are sometimes surprised by his non-conformist approach.

When selecting cheese for a meal, he suggests serving cheese that complements what was eaten before.  A hearty main dish calls for robust flavor whereas more subtle cheese can follow a lighter, more delicate dish.  Most important is to select cheese that is both in its prime and in season.  Certain varieties like Brebis, won’t taste as good in December as September.  Chèvre is best in summer, and St Nectaire in September.  In general, he rates autumn the best season for cheese.

When composing a cheese plate for a meal, take into consideration the number of people you are serving with the goal of all or most of the cheese being eaten.  If you are serving Brie for eight people, buy a wedge with 8 to 10 portions. That way you can cut off the rind, so guests are free to cut off the nose and cut into it from any angle. As for slicing, the key is to minimize drag.  He tends to use a ‘lyre’ wire cutter or a cheese knife whose blade is punched with holes.

Le Meunier may be a proud Frenchman, but readily acknowledges that his European neighbors also produce excellent cheese, several of which he stocks and distributes.  His favorites are Gorgonzola and Parmesan from Italy, English Stilton and Belgian Herve – a washed rind cheese that resembles Maroilles.

Maybe its because he’s an accomplished jazz pianist, but Rodolphe Le Meunier clearly relishes experimentation and improvisation.  If the continued health and expansion of the French cheese industry demands respect for tradition married to a quest for innovation, a new generation is taking on the challenge.

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