SAY CHEESE with François Robin
Cheesemonger! Now that is not a profession that I ever knew existed, that is until François Robin came to Dubai to promote French cheeses. Son of a Cheese maker, François is a Un des Meilleurs Ouvrier de France – Classe Fromager 2011 title holder – there are only 22 such recipients of the title alive today – so you are guaranteed you are meeting someone who knows his cheese. What I loved about meeting François is that our chat opened up a whole food specialty of which I knew very little. So now when I walk down the cheese aisle or counter at the supermarket or specialty stores, it is with greater appreciation and understanding of how it came to be. The French have a way with words – and I loved François’s take on stinky cheese. While walking out, François beautifully summed up cheese – It’s easy to make cheese. But so difficult to make good cheese.
Name: François Robin
Title: Un des Meilleurs Ouvrier de France – Classe Fromager 2011 – (in English it would translate to ‘One of the Best Craftsmen of France – Cheesemonger Category 2011)
Profession: Independent Cheesemonger and a teacher at the Cheesemonger school in Lyon
Cheesemonger career spanning: 10 years
From: Western Part of France
What exactly is a Cheesemonger?
Let me start off by differentiating a cheese-maker from a Cheesemonger. A cheese maker is a person who milks and makes the cheese and also ages it. Sometimes it could happen that one farmer milks but another person makes the cheese and yet another person ages the cheese. So to put it simply, a cheese-maker is the person who turns milk into cheese. A Cheesemonger is the person who selects the cheese for their shop and he is behind the counter helping people make the right choices according to what they want. In France we have shops that only sell cheese, you have nothing but cheeses – usually between 100-200 different cheeses at the same time in the shop, so sometimes for people it could get a little bit confusing. So the Cheesemonger is there to help them to pick up the right cheeses – in terms of taste, texture and age. Our job is not just to select and sell cheese, but also on how to cut properly, take care of the cheeses and to know everything about the cheeses – a little bit like a sommelier for wines (a sommelier does not make the wine itself)
How does one become a Cheesemonger?
You can do that just by learning hands on or you can go to school – that’s what I did – I went to the Cheesemonger school in Paris. Age is not a factor when it comes to becoming a Cheesemonger. To be a cheesemoger it would take about a year. This year in the class that I am teaching, the youngest is 19 years old and the oldest is 52.
How did you become a Cheesemonger?
I was born and raised on a goat farm – those are my roots. I studied biology but life is what it is and I worked in the show biz industry – I became a manager of a venue which held gigs and also a place where they showcased contemporary art. But when I turned 30, I felt a little tired of it and in need of a change. So I decided to go back to my roots. My father was a cheese maker so I was literally born into the world of cheese and I wanted to make something meaningful – and I thought cheese would be the right choice for me. The best way for me to do this was to go to Cheesemonger School in Paris which was a one year course. You learn to taste, you learn to age, you learn to cut and wrap, you learn to give good advice – it’s not that complicated – but if you are curious the cheese world can be a huge universe. It’s an infinite world of knowledge and surprises as new cheeses are created everyday while some of them disappear (we are trying to not let that happen). For me this is more of a passion than a job.
What do you love about being a Cheesemonger? And what do you absolutely not like about the job?
I love to see people smile when they eat cheese. I also love to talk with farmers because my job is to be the link between the farmers and the customers. So when they are both happy that’s what I love the most.
I think we have lost touch with what nature is and I don’t like that. People have lost a bit of common sense – that is to say winter is different to summer in France, you have different kind of grazing and you cannot find all the products all the time – you have seasons – and people forget that and you have to educate people as to what it is to make a cheese. In France people think they know everything about the cheese because they are French – and it’s not true. We need to educate French people as well. But, there is also a cheese explosion across the world in the last 10 years and I don’t know why. It certainly could be because it is a sustainable product, its ok for vegetarian people, it’s easy to share – you don’t have to cook and it’s always a friend sharing good moment. But we need to continue educating people – for example nobody knows how many litres of milk is required to make one kilo of cheese – the answer is 10 litres of milk.
Any advice you would give to someone who wants to take being a Cheesemonger as a profession?
Have some passion. Sometimes its not easy to go to a Cheesemonger school as there are not too many of them around but you can always learn hands on, by reading and by tasting. I would recommend them to visit as many farms as possible so you can understand and know better. The qualities you need to be a Cheesemonger are – you need to be polite, you need to always smile because you are a salesman, and you need to have some physical edurance because you are always standing and it’s a long day – you start early and finish late – and a long week – you work Saturdays and Sundays. If you are ok with all that, then its easy to become a Cheesemonger.
THE CHEESE DIARIES
What should a novice cheese buyer look for when selecting a cheese?
If there is a person in charge, ask him. He should know at least a little bit. If there is nobody, then trust yourself – that is to say trust your taste buds. But if you don’t know about the cheese, then buy a little piece, try it and trust what you eat. You can also keep your eye on a trademark which says ‘PDO – Protected Designation of Origin’ – it’s a European label that guarantees you that the cheese has been made in a particular area using the milk of a special breed and following traditional techniques. For example, Parmesan has a Protected Designation – it is Italian – so all Parmesan cheese must be made in Italy, it cannot be made for example in France. The Italians cannot make Roquefort cheese – this is protected and can only be made in France. So if you buy protected cheese you are sure they are made according to the traditions. Trust the labels and yourself.
What’s the difference in flavour between cow’s milk cheese, sheep’s milk cheese, and goat’s milk cheese?
Usually people are not scared about cow’s milk because it’s not that strong and more familiar. Some people are scared about goats milk but if they try it they can’t figure out the taste. IN terms of taste, there is a different between cow, goat and sheep. The cheese made of goat, smells a bit like a goat, more animal if you like, a little bit wilder in taste. Cheeses made of goat’s milk are sometimes acidic. The sheep’s’ cheese are a bit different because the milk is richer so you have a better texture – its creamier, richer – even if it’s a hard cheese you will have a more melty texture. The cow is regular, the goat is tastier and the sheep is richer in texture. To give you an example, a cheese made of cow’s milk is Comté – this is hard paste, probably the most PDO that is sold in France, cheese made with sheep’s milk can be Roquefort – its 100% sheep, it cannot be anything else. And for a cheese made of goat’s milk you could chose Chabichou.
What is the right temperature to serve cheese?
It’s room temperature. For me room temperature is around 18⁰C. Since Dubai is hot, it is important not to bring the cheese out of the fridge too soon otherwise some of the cheeses will run, or some will get a bit oily on the top. So I like my cheeses when they are at 18⁰C so that when you put a piece on your tongue there is still a little bit of cold.
Why are some cheeses so expensive?
Behind any cheese there is a lot of work. Let me take examples of three cheeses we have touched upon. For example, the regular Camembert takes about 6 weeks of aging from Day 1 – when you turn the milk into curd – it can be longer, but the longer you age it the stronger it will get. Roquefort will be at least three months, most of the time it’s between 4-6 months. Comté is minimum 5 months and it can go up to 3 years, max 4 years. This is important to understand when you are paying for something, you may say it is expensive, but it’s a lot of work. Weekly, if not daily the cheeses must be flipped and hand cured to make sure the cheeses are aging properly.
What makes stinky cheese stinky?
Well that is subjective. The ‘stinky smell’ is because of the life on the cheese – that is to say the bacteria, yeast, mushrooms – call it whatever you want, but for me its life. Life is needed if you want to have some taste. If a cheese is lifeless there is no taste or smell. So the smell of the cheese is because its kind of controlled fermentation and that can sometimes be a bit aggressive to some people. So yes, some cheeses like Munster stink, but in France we say that it ‘smells like the feet of an angel’. But most of the ‘skinky’ cheeses when you eat them are milder than what you thought.
What makes cheese organic?
Organic in Europe mostly means that the animals are fed on non-GMO food, food that is not mixed with synthetic chemicals and the animals are not cured with synthetic medicines but with natural cures. That’s what organic means – there is no chemical inside the milk or the cheese. That does not mean that the cheese is good. I as a cheesemonger do have organic cheese, but I don’t promote them as organic, I promote them as ‘good’ cheeses. The taste for me is more important than the ‘organic’ label. I am not selling ‘health’, I am selling ‘food pleasure’.
What cheeses are lactose-free?
Totally lactose free is hard to say. But most of the cheeses have less lactose than the milk itself. You can be intolerant to lactose, you cannot be allergic to lactose – you are allergic to milk proteins. A third of the world’s population is actually intolerant to lactose it’s because you lose the habits to digest the lactose. You lose that habit, because as a kid you had a lot of lactose in your mother’s milk, growing up you lose the capacity to digest the lactose. Most of the cheeses, while the milk is turned into cheese, you have life inside that is eating the lactose and producing lactic acid – which is good, it’s perfectly normal and in most of the cheeses you have less lactose than the milk itself. So most of the time it’s easier to eat cheese than have milk for lactose intolerant people, especially the goat cheeses.
How should cheese be stored at home? How should I store my cheese?
The best condition is to have a natural cave with 13⁰C – but nobody had that. So I guess the answer is the fridge. Don’t freeze your cheeses. You have to keep the cheese wrapped in the original paper – the one you have been sold the cheese in. It’s better not to cling film the goat cheeses. Cling film will keep the humidity on the surface sometimes and can bring a little bit of bitterness.
How long can I keep cheese?
It depends on the cheese and it’s written on the labels behind. In case you have lost the label and are still trying to figure out when it’s time for the cheese to be thrown out, remember mould is life. If you see a gray dot on a white cheese, it does not mean you have to throw it away. It’s certainly a natural mould that is good. If you fear the dot, then take the rind off, the middle is still edible.
Is it okay to freeze leftover cheese?
I don’t recommend that.. NO
Any advice for serving cheese?
When you eat the cheeses you must start with the mildest one and to finish with the stronger one because if you start with the strongest, you will not appreciate the taste of the other cheeses. If you are in Dubai, it might be nice to bring on a cheese platter some dates and fruits in order to sweeten the cheeses a little bit. For families who do not drink alcohol, but would like to enjoy cheeses I recommend serving a cheese platter with juices like apple or pear. Orange juice is a little bit too acidic, and pineapple juice just won’t work.
Well, that’s that! Thank you. Thank you. Thank you!