If you're a cheese maker, there's no better souvenir from France than the recipe for the decadent and silky smooth French cheese Reblochon. Three years ago, Ontario cheese maker Elisabeth Bzikot spent 10 days apprenticing in the Alpine region of Provence under the tutelage of French cheese maker Brigitte Cordier who taught her to make a Reblochon-style cheese using raw sheep's milk.
Recipe in hand and Reblochon-size cheese moulds in her baggage, Ms. Bzikot returned to Canada. Today, at Best Baa Dairy, which Ms. Bzikot owns with her husband Eric, this transplanted version of the great French mountain cheese is named after her French creator.
Brigitte is a soft, washed rind cheese that's aged four to six weeks before hitting the market. It starts off with a supple paste that softens as it ages. You know it's at its peak, according to Ms. Bzikot, "when you cut it and instead of the knife making a straight line in the surface, the cheese bulges when the knife goes in." The wheel I had was still young and the flavours muted. After several hours at room temperature the paste loosened up, revealing luscious salty, meaty and sweet flavours akin to the savoury seduction of a bacony chip dip.
One of the key ingredients of the AOC-protected cheese Reblochon is the rich milk of the indigenous abondance, tarine and montbéliarde cows that graze the alpine pastures of the Rhône-Alpes in summer and eat hay only from those pastures in the winter to keep the milk sweet. Traditionally, Reblochon was made from the afternoon milking of the cows, which produces fattier milk and complex sweet and savoury flavours in the cheese. Sheep's milk is higher in fat than cows' milk and has a sweet, nutty quality, giving Brigitte the raw material to emulate this French classic.
Ms. Bzikot has stuck with the French techniques she learned. "For me it was quite an eye-opener going there. Some of the methods were very different than in North America where they talk about looking for the "clean cut" in curd," explains Ms. Bzikot, "which means when the curd is firming and you put your finger in it, if it cracks with a clean line it is ready for cutting."
Instead of the clean-cut criterion, French cheese-makers wait for "flocculation" to occur - the point when the milk starts to separate into curds and whey. They then use a formula to calculate how long to wait before cutting the curd mass, which changes depending on the type of cheese.
When comparing the two cheeses, you must acknowledge the different milk and terroir. Reblochon, made with raw milk, has more complexity and features tangy, crème fraîche characteristics. Brigitte is like a mellow younger sibling.
As for Ms. Bzikot's opinion, "I try Reblochon once in a while and I'm always pleased to see I prefer my own. But it is hard to know if it is just the particular wheel of Reblochon I try," she adds modestly.
But don't take Ms. Bzikot's word, due diligence calls for a side-by-side comparison. After all, the proof is in the Reblochon, or is it?
On the block
Look for Reblochon in most specialty cheese stores. Farmstead Reblochon will have a green label on its rind, while factory-made wheels have a red label. For its Canadian cousin, see below.
Producer: Ewenity Dairy Co-Operative and Best Baa Farm
Origin: Conn, Ont.
Owner: Bzikot Family
Cheese Maker: Elisabeth Bzikot
Milk: pasteurized sheep
Type: semi-soft, surface ripened, washed rind
Shape: 200-300g wheels
Distributor: Provincial Fine Foods and direct from www.ewenity.com
Toronto: Thin Blue Line Cheese, Nancy's Cheese, Leslieville Cheese Market
Toronto Markets: Evergreen Brickworks, St. Lawrence Market, Dufferin Grove
Elora: Elora Farmers' Market
Fergus: Best Baa Farm Store
Dundas: Picone's Specialty Fine Food Shop
Sue Riedl studied at the Cordon Bleu in London.