A few months ago I met Jacquelyn Buchanan, the Director of Culinary Development for Laura Chenel Chevre. Even though they don't typically give tours of their cheese-making facility, Jacquelyn arranged it so I could bring our Cheesemonger-in-training (Kevin) up there on Wednesday to have a look around. As it turns out, everyone who might have normally guided our visit was busy off-site, so the actual cheese-maker, a French woman named Isabelle, took time out of her schedule to give us the tour. Jack pot!
This was one of the most informative experiences I've ever had in terms of understanding cheese-making. Since she's not used to giving tours, Isabelle decided to show us the Laura Chenel process for their fresh cheeses from beginning to end in great detail. We started outside with the truck delivering milk from one of their 15 producers where she explained all of the checks and balances they have in place to make sure they're receiving only the highest quality of milk. From there she walked us into the plant and showed us each step the milk takes on its journey to becoming one of the best goat's milk cheeses being made today: from pasteurization, to the holding tank where the starter cultures and rennet are introduced, then on to the bags where the whey is pressed from the curd, and ultimately to the room where the logs of fresh chevre are (seasoned) hand packed and labeled. As we looked at each phase of development, Isabelle allowed us to sample the milk in its varying stages so we could experience the transformation with all our senses.
Naturally we got to see the aging room where the Tome, Crottin, Taupiniere, and my favorite - Cabecou were resting. But one of the aspects of the tour I found most interesting was the way they protect the quality of their product. Isabelle showed us each check-point along the process where they monitor to make sure the milk quality is high, the temperature is perfect, and there are no contaminants. She even showed us how they keep all the equipment, trucks, and even the plant itself perfectly clean and sterilized. Whew! Seeing all this really drove home the immense amount of care required to produce great cheese, and tripled my respect for cheese-makers.
Besides showing us the entire process for their fresh chevre, Isabelle also showed us how the Tome is made. Tome is a delicious hand-made 3 - 4 lb. wheel, aged 6 months. The curd is cooked and then hand pressed to give the cheese a wonderful, semi-hard texture. The ivory colored paste has a sweet, lightly nutty flavor with a finish reminiscent of salted caramel. This cheese is great for cooking as it slices, grates, crumbles, & melts well, but personally I think it stands on its own just fine and would make a great addition to any cheese board.
After spending two hours in the plant I didn't think I could be happier, but I was wrong. We concluded our time at Laura Chenel by sitting down with Isabelle to sample every cheese they make. Although I'd had many of the cheeses before, I was introduced to a couple of exciting new ones. Melodie, made in France exclusively for Laura Chenel was my favorite. It's a mild, creamy cheese with an ivory paste and a beautiful silver rind. It has a buttery richness that I don't normally associate with goat's milk, and at the same time it's lacking that strong barn-yardy flavor sometimes present in goat cheeses of a similar type. This is a cheese you can put on any board whether you're serving neophytes or connoisseurs, and be confident that it will be a crowd pleaser. Melodie will be happily joining other Laura Chenel cheeses at our counter.
All in all, another fabulous day in the world of cheese...