I’ve never really been a fan of soft-ripened cheeses – brie, camembert and the like – with their white mouldy rinds and mushroomy odor. I never enjoyed the squidgy consistency, the earthy flavor, or the squeaky chew of the bloomy rinds.
In my life, there have only been 1-2 occasions when I’ve been blown away by one of these cheeses, but those occasions have been so few and far between that I’d pretty much written off this kind of cheese in favour of my mainstay – a sharp, flinty, aged cheddar.
However, I recently saw one such soft-ripened cheese on the cheeseboard at a brunch at the Westin Mina Seyahi that mesmerised me with its creamy, runny centre oozing out of its bloomy casing.
It looked so inviting that had to sample it, despite being completely stuffed from the previous 5 plates of food I’d consumed. Bottom right, just a smidge.
And thank goodness I did. It was so amazing – the flavor, the texture, the consistency – that I got a second (bigger) helping (top right), which I wolfed down so fast that I can’t even recollect the exact taste; I only have this euphoric memory of being in cheese heaven. I even ate the bloomy rind.
This particular cheese was labeled Gortnamona, which means peat field in Gaelic. I later came to discover that it’s a handmade, Irish farmhouse cheese made from goat’s milk by Cooleeney Farm, a family-owned artisanal cheese producer from Tipperary Country in Ireland, an area well known for its green pastures and dairy farming.
The Bridgestone Irish Food Guide also clearly likes Cooleeney Farm’s cheese – they describe them as “some of the most effulgent, lurid and insolently powerful cheeses in Ireland; something so good you could walk a county mile in the rain to eat it again.” Now that’s a compliment.
After exchanging a few tweets with @CooleeneyFarm, I came to realise that I have been missing out on this epicurean pleasure for the better half of my life – and I must have previously been eating my soft-ripened cheeses well underripe.
I’ve since learned a thing or two about soft-ripened cheeses:
- Cheeses are alive! They are living, breathing and ageing and therefore they need a bit of air, moisture and love. Some suggest storing your cheese in the vegetable drawer of your fridge, which is usually warmer and moister than other areas.
- The white rind is formed by spraying an edible mould, such as Penicillium Candidum, on the cheese before it’s left to age.
- Soft-ripened cheeses ripen and mature over 6-10 weeks, with the flavour and consistency changing depending on how ripe the cheese is. You can use the Use by Date to determine the ripeness you prefer – cheese aficionados generally recommend that you enjoy a soft-ripened cheese closest to the Use By date.
- About 4-6 weeks before the Use By date is considered young and unripe, the cheese will have a chalky centre and a firm texture
- About 3 weeks before the Use By date is considered ripe – there is no chalky centre, the cheese will be very soft and barely hold its shape when cut, but won’t be runny
- 1 week before the Use By date is considered mature and will have a creamy, runny, oozing centre – this is how I like it!
- Give it a squeeze – if you squeeze the cheese in the centre and it gives, then it’s ripe. If it feels firm or stiff, then it’s not yet ripe.
- Soft-ripened cheeses ripen from the outside in. The ripened part will soften and transform into a creamy, liquidy texture. Depending on when you cut your cheese, you may see a few distinct layers.
- To get the best taste from your cheese, leave it out at room temperature anywhere from 30 minutes to 2 hours before eating.
- Once a soft-ripened cheese is cut open, it stops ripening. If you cut a soft-ripened cheese too early and it’s firm and chalky inside, it will remain that way.
- The white bloomy rind is edible and is part of the cheese. Unless you’re allergic to penicillin, in which case you want to beware.
- If your cheese smells like ammonia, it’s overripe. Though it may still be safe to eat, if you so happen to dig that kind of taste. Cheese aficionados advise against eating a soft-ripened cheese more than 1 week after the Use By date. If the rind develops a slimy, pinkish-reddish mould, throw it out.
- The more moisture in a cheese, the more perishable it is. Depending on the age of the cheese at date of purchase, a soft-ripened cheese may last from three to six weeks.
- Soft-ripened cheeses should be consumed within a week once opened. If you don’t have specialist cheese paper, you can wrap your leftover cheese loosely in parchment, covered in a layer of plastic wrap to provide the optimum micro-climate for your cheese. And if you’re really keen, place this in a plastic container in the warmest part of your fridge. Avoid wrapping your cheese in plastic wrap alone or in an airtight Ziplock bag.
- There’s a word for the person who ages cheese, and this is a very important profession. (Affineur, in case you were wondering!)
I’m specifically referring to the handmade, traditional farmhouse cheeses varieties. Mass-produced cheeses may react differently than handmade traditional-style cheeses. Some mass-produced varieties will stay firm at room temperature and won’t change composition much at all. But I know which one I’d rather have!
If you’ve previously written off soft-ripened cheese, you may have eaten it at sub-prime ripeness so it may be worth another try. After all this talk about cheese, I’m going to Waitrose to get some cheeses to eat. Goodbye!
To find out more about Cooleeney Farm’s Irish homemade cheeses, visit www.cooleeney.com
If you’re in the UK, you may be able to find some varieties of Cooleeney Farm’s cheese in Marks & Spencer or you can order it online from Paxton & Whitfield.
If you’re in Dubai or the UAE, Cooleeney Farm cheese is not available in retail outlets, but you can sample it at select restaurants, one of which is Blue Orange at Westin Mina Seyahi.
What’s your favourite soft-ripened cheese?