Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Cheese of the Week: L'Hercule de Charlevoix

The Hercules of cheese (literally) is this weeks feature at The Village Cheesemonger.

Legend has it that Jean-Baptiste Grenon, nicknamed Hercules of the North, was so strong that when captured by General Wolfe's troops in 1759 he fought hard enough that they couldn't slip the noose around his neck to hang him. His strength so astounded the English that they released the uncontrollable Frenchman.

It's an appropriate symbol for the level of determination the Labbé family cheese makers in Baie-St-Paul, Que., show in monitoring the pristine quality of their milk.

Every wheel of L'Hercule comes from a small herd of 30 Jersey cows on the Stessi farm located one kilometre from the Laiterie Charlevoix cheese making facility. Jersey milk was specifically chosen for its high protein and fat content, which imparts a smooth texture and rich flavour that becomes more complex during aging. First released at six months old in July, 2007, wheels of L'Hercule are now available further ripened to 18 months of age.

The flavour and supple texture of the cheese gives a nod to such greats as French Comté and Swiss Gruyère. The younger cheese is mild with a fruity aroma and sweet flavour, followed by a tangy finish. By 18 months the aroma is creamier and more complex, and the sharper finish has mellowed to a full, nutty finale that is enhanced by the earthy, toasted flavour of the rind. These traits and its larger wheel size (12-14 kilograms) make L'Hercule de Charlevoix a unique style of cheese in Canada.

Though the Stessi farm's Jersey cows do not graze at alpine elevations, the flavours from their milk and the production process result in a cheese reminiscent of the "mountain style" cheeses made in Europe since the middle ages.

Mountain cheeses are made with milk from cows that graze at high elevations in alpine regions. Because of the type of grasses, herbs and wildflowers growing at these elevations, alpine cheeses develop wonderful herbal, fruity and nutty flavours that reflect their terroir. By cooking the curds, cheese makers can eliminate as much moisture as possible from the cheese allowing the wheels to be preserved and aged to last families through lean winter months. Using large moulds for forming the cheese is a matter of efficiency; it's easier to transport a few large wheels (some as large as 75 kilograms) than dozens of small ones.

Like mountain-style cheeses, L'Hercule de Charlevoix is a cooked, pressed cheese that is non-pasteurized and has a dense, slightly springy paste. While ripening, the exterior is brine-washed to encourage development of its natural rind.

Beppi's wine matches

Should you have any old white Burgundies kicking around in the basement, this cheese may be a good excuse to haul them up and enjoy. An old Chablis in particular would be ideal. White Burgundy (a dry style of chardonnay from central-eastern France) tends to develop an attractively nutty tang, and that's the quality you want to look for when pairing this cheese. You can also find that flavour in white Riojasfrom Spain, which tend to be sold with a bit of age on them already and generally cost less than Burgundies (but regrettably are much harder to find). Also good would be an amontillado sherry. Among other whites, consider pretty much any dry wine from Alsace, France, such as riesling or gewurztraminer.

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