Drunken cheese

It doesn’t take 16 years of artisan cheesemaking to know cheese and alcohol have been established as one of the classic food and wine pairings.

It doesn’t take 16 years of artisan cheesemaking to know cheese and alcohol have been established as one of the classic food and wine pairings.

However, not many people may be aware that this isn’t merely limited to pairing a sweet sticky wine with a pungent salty blue or combining a crisp sparkling white with a rich buttery triple cream. There is, in fact, an almost untapped world of cheeses whose very creation involves being dipped, submerged, bathed and cloaked in booze.

European cheesemakers have long been washing young curds with their regions’ famous brews. It’s no small surprise that few people are aware of these gorgeous cheeses, as some of them hark from some of the most remote places in the world. The Trappist Monks are known for being a highly solitary group who wash their cheeses in their world famous brews. Many believe, however, the Swiss Alpines are the home of this breed of cheese and where the practice of bathing cheeses in marc (leftover pressings after the juice has been extracted during winemaking) was perfected.

Some of the Swiss cheeses are tommes (large wheels), which have been thrown in wine barrels and covered in marc to, essentially, ferment. These cheeses, commonly known as Tomme de Marc (funny that), are unveiled up to six months later. They emerge transformed, boasting a flashy purple-red stained rind as they have soaked in the flavour, colour and texture of the marc. The heat caused by fermentation in marc adds a complexity to the ageing or ripening process. Many a funky thing goes on inside these barrels as the paste of the cheese tightens and becomes viscous and the sweet groggy taste of the marc permeates through the cheese.

It’s not about making a cheese taste like wine though,it is a whole lot more than that. In fact, the up-front flavours of the wash, whether it is beer, wine, cider, whiskey or marc, often disappear after ripening, so you won’t end up with a beer-y or wine-y cheese. Rather, the alcohol’s yeasts, bacteria and sugars create a complexity on the cheese’s surface, a microbial playground in which other cultures grow and flourish. A favourite, and most likely the best known of these cultures, are the Brevibacterium linens.

They impart a reddish, orange hue and a distinctive aroma – meaty, grassy, bacon broth, barnyard, even ‘sock-y’. These classic washed-rind cheeses such as Munster, Époisses or funky, custardy Italian Taleggio all have been washed to encourage these cultures to grow on the rind. They all have feral aromas too (a great way to find a good cheese). We have been lucky enough to be collecting marc from our local winemakers with hopes of producing a similar marc-studded wonder.

Admittedly, this is not a high priority for winemakers in the midst of vintage, but there is really no other time to get it – I may have harassed them a little… The wineries benefit too, though. Several winemakers in the Adelaide Hills region were excited about the prospect of serving a winecheese in their cellar doors – bridging the gap even more between local wine and food, and providing an interpretation of their terroir.

It is such an interesting way of extending this truly wondrous fruit and the celebration of vintage. This is great progress for our cheese and wine regions and I am excited by the prospect of bringing terroir through grapes and cheese to the table.

Kris Lloyd is Woodside Cheese Wrights’ Head Cheesemaker

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