The Pyramids of France


No not the one at the Louvre!

We are talking about cheese, my friends, and more specifically, goat cheese.

The heart of France, below Paris and south of theLoire river, is known for its goat cheese and is our focus for this month.

The cheese for this month is called Pouligny St Pierre, a goat cheese in the shape of a pyramid missing it's top, and is a very historic cheese in it's region. The production remains very traditional even though it has called upon a bit of modern dairy science to assure a high quality through the process.


This is a cheese for those that have ironed out a few of the cheese making bumps. There is a lot of detail here, and I do suggest reading through it all to get a feel for what the cheese can be and how it develops. I would encourage even the startup cheese makers to continue reading because this is a very exciting cheese, very traditional, very old, and one of the first AOC designations in France.

For those willing to take this one on, with a trial or so you may find that you are earning your 'Local Hero' award at your next social gathering or market presentation.


About this Cheese:

The Pouligny St Pierre is an unpasteurized, natural-rind cheese made from goats milk. It has an elongated pyramid shape, with a soft, wrinkled, ivory-colored, natural rind. As the rind dries out in aging, the wrinkles deepen, and gray, white and blue moulds gather. The cheese takes its name from a local village. The rind is soft and ivory-colored when the cheese is young. As it ages and dries, the rind becomes reddish-orange, providing a magnificent contrast to the firm, pure white, and slightly brittle interior.

The traditional French version has very thin rind. It does not have these same mold growth as brie/camembert but a light coat of Geotrichum with some spotting of Penicillium (traditionally P.album) and in later weeks it may develop random blue spotting. The rind should not be snow white and no paste transformation under the rind like Brie/Camembert. They should become dry, brittle and flaky. The final cheese becomes very dense in texture and flavor.

The Pouligny St Pierre is said to have started out looking more like real pyramids at one time but now they all seem to have a little bit missing off their tops.

The story of the missing top is that Napoleon saw to this minor redesign following his less than successful campaign in Egypt. Following a dinner with Tallyrand and the presentation of the cheese, it was said to be too much of a painful reminder of his Egypt failure, and out comes his sword and off goes their heads. I am sure a goodly amount of wine preceded the show though. The cheese remains this way today.

However, as much as I love a good story, the practical side of me says that no one was going to try to balance the cheese forms on that little point for draining in the first place.

I know I will probably get questions about the pyramid form but the best I can find is that folks say it represents the top of the church roof in the village of the same name. Others of a more practical nature say that it is just a good shape for draining well in the molds. So just pick one because I really do not know.

A Bit of History:

The Loire river marked the northern extent of the Saracen advance as they moved through Spain and into France during the 8th century, where they reached the southern banks of the Loire River. One of the great contributions from the Saracens was the introduction of their goats to the region and their methods of making cheese that came with them. Goats, rather than sheep, were the most sensible choice for these travelers because of the range of pasture they could adapt to and the ease with which they could be moved.

Most of the invaders were later repelled, but some remained with their goat herds, ultimately providing the foundation for their famous goat cheeses or chèvres, which means “goats” in French. This influence remains strong to this day.

Today, this region is one of the worlds great producers of goat cheese. Of the 48 AOC cheeses in France, 6 are goat cheese from this region, south of the Loire (the first 2 on the list are modified pyramids):

  • Pouligny St. Pierre (AOC 1972)
  • Valençay cheese (AOC 1998),
  • Crottin de Chavignol (AOC 1976)
  • Chabichou du Poutou (AOC 1990)
  • Selles-sur-Cher (AOC 1975)
  • Sainte-Maure de Touraine (AOC 1990)

Variations in Style:

The final cheese can vary considerably in presentation. The biggest reasons for this are:

  • The balance of proteins and fat in the milk. The fat is the flavor component and the protein provides the structure and texture of the final cheese. Too much fat makes for a difficult draining and high moisture.
  • Final moisture after draining and drying. This will be affected by the solids and conditions as the curds are moved to the mold, as well as in the salting and drying stages before moving to the aging room. The higher moisture cheeses have a very pronounced wrinkled surface from the geotrichum growth and shrinkage.
  • Time and conditions of aging. There is a wide time frame in which these are presented for sale. The fresher ones may be only a week to ten days old and snow white in appearance with a creamy paste. The older ones (5-8 weeks or longer) tend to dry out and the surface dries to a darker condition. These develop much more character and can be quite brittle when cut.
  • The natural molds or those added by the maker. The traditional molds that developed on these cheeses were all regional dairy molds. Always dominated by varying Geotrichum strains, but also may have a Penicilium strain P.album, different from the other strains in that it will turn a blue/grey surface as it develops and not the traditional snow white of the modern P.candidum strains. This is considered to have been the original mold developed on brie and Camembert but now replaced in favor of the snow white mold cover.

I include some photos and descriptions of these variations below:

12
#1&2 show a very moist cheese showing the wrinkles/ridges typical of the geotrichum at high moisture
note the amount of breakdown in the paste just inside the rind when cut.

34 5
# 3 is a cheese that is quite young and a bit drier than the ones above.
Spots of blue are beginning to form on the ones to the left. Perhaps more moisture in the tops of these.
Remember that they drain top down so the last residual moisture may remain there
compared with the one to the right
#4 shows the development of the P.album blue grey mold mentioned above.
#5 shows a very matured cheese that has dried down well.
Not enough moisture left at the surface to support the molds and it dies down

The Process:

A brief Game plan here before we begin the actual make:

  • The Pouligny St Pierre is essentially a lactic cheese, meaning that the curd formation is primarily from the lactose conversion and acid production. This is a long coagulation of 10-12 hours before ladling to forms and another 10-12 hours of draining in the forms.
  • Once the curd has formed, there is essentially no cutting but instead the curds are ladled to the forms trying to break the curd mass as little as possible. This may take several revisits to ladle the remaining curds as the forms drain. They are not normally ladled to cloth as a pre-drain because this breaks the curd excessively.
  • The forms are essentially an inverted pyramid with a slightly flattened point, and the rational that I have heard is that it is a better draining mechanism than straight sided forms since gravity plays a part in releasing the expelled whey and directing it out of the forms rather than down the inside.
  • The forms when removed from the molds are inverted again onto their wider bases and natural yeast and some added Geotrichum mold will begin to form on the surface. Traditionally there was a Penicillium mold that turned a blue grey (P.album) when developed that naturally found its way to these cheese. Today this mold has been isolated and may be added to the milk and/or sprayed on the surface.

A Recipe for making your own French Pyramids

Before you Begin:

You will need:

Everything needs to be clean and sanitized.

Acidifying and heating the milk:

Begin by heating the milk to 72F. Since I am not cutting and stirring much or heating the curds before molding I keep things simple. I do this by placing the milk (still in its travel container since it has a very wide opening for ladling) in a large pot of very warm water. The milk comes in at 36F and my water is 120F, so that in less than an hour I am ready to go with the milk at the perfect temp.

Once the milk is at 72F the culture can be added. To prevent the powder from caking and sinking in clumps sprinkle the powder over the surface of the milk and then allow about 2 minutes for the powder to re-hydrate before stirring it in. Let this rest quiet for about 1 hour while the culture begins to work.

Coagulation with rennet:

Next add about 4 drops of single strength liquid rennet. Remember this is a lactic cheese so very little rennet.

The milk now needs to sit quiet for 2-3 hours while the culture works and the rennet coagulates the curd. At this point you will find that the milk has begun to thicken (the initial flocculation). Continue to allow the milk to sit quiet for an additional 8-9 hours for a total of 9-11 hours from adding the rennet.

The curd is ready when it has shrunk away from the edges and perhaps cracked in places with about 1/2 or more of whey on the surface. The curd should taste quite tangy at this point.

During this long wait make sure you prepare your molds and transfer area by sanitizing everything.

Cutting curds and releasing the whey:

When the curd is ready, there is actually no cutting, instead the curd is removed with a ladle and carefully placed into the molds to avoid breaking it. Fill the mold to the top and wait for settling before topping up, you may need to do this in a few cycles.

Draining the whey:

The filled molds should be allowed to drain for the next 10-12 hours (overnight) at a moderate room temperature (72F). The next morning should find that they have settled in the molds by about 25-30%.
Once the whey drainage has essentially stopped, they can be removed from their molds and inverted onto their broader bases for salting and drying.

Now having mentioned the shrinkage above, I had always wondered how they got the full mold height for the cheese in France at the end of draining until I visited a small operation in the area of production several years ago (see below for more on this).
I find this hard to do here so I am happy to make these to a bit smaller height format.

Salting:

Once the whey stops dripping the cheese can be salted. At this point I measure the weight of the fresh cheese at about 3.2-3.5lbs from the 2 gallons of milk. I always salt by weight and use about 2% by weight of cheese as it comes from the mold. For this cheese it came to a bit over 1 ounce. I place the 1 oz. of salt in a shaker and evenly distributed this over the fresh forms. Allow these to rest while the salt dissolves and is absorbed into the cheese.

Aging:

After the molds have been removed and the cheese salted, it is given 2-4 days of initial drying at a cool cave like temp of 52-56F but a drier 65-70% moisture.

You should then age it for about 14 days (same cave temp but increase moisture to 85%). At this point you should see a dry surface with a light white cover and perhaps some spots of blue may begin to develop.

Notice the typical reticulation developing on the surface. This is a typical effect of the geotrichum growth and some drying of the surface and is found to varying degrees on this style of cheese. See another example above .

You can now move it to a refrigerator at 38-42F. You can wrap it at this point as well. After another 1-3 weeks the cheese will mature more and the cheese will be ready for the table.

I decided to wrap some of these and leave others unwrapped to see if it made a difference. I did find that the wrapped cheeses developed a more homogeneous white surface based on geotrichum while the unwrapped cheese developed a more colorful mantle with some blue (most likely a form of P.glaucum) dropping in. They were both delicious.

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#1 was wrapped in our 2 ply cheese wrap ... #2 was allowed to go wild with no wrap ... #3 was a wrapped cheese after allowing it to go au natural for another week

Note the difference between these natural rustic looking cheeses and the snow white pristine puppies below that we saw being made in pretty much 100% sanitized area

The Cheese as it is made in France:

Several years ago we took 12 cheese makers to France with us, where our friend Ali Haidar (at the time working for Alliance Pastorale) arranged for a VERY INTENSE series of cheese visits for 10 days throughout France.

Among the visits was one for the making of Pouligny St Pierre at the Lactic Cheese Center
"Ferme des Ages Caprine Centre" in the Pouligny St Pierre AOC region.


Evenings milk is held at 52F overnight and bacteria added but working very slowly.
the next AM the warm milk is added to bring to active working temperature.
Rennet is added and then the wait for firm curd.
Note the vertical cuts and using the metal scoop called a 'pelle'. Thin layers of curd are added in this manner.


This is how they manage to fill the forms right to the top with little settling.
The forms are set close together so that the curd can be ladled directly into them.
The trick to having full forms is to add a frame on top to hold excess curd while it drains so that as the moisture drains the excess curd settles into the forms. The curd on top then settles into the forms as the curd below drains
Note the use of the metal squeegee to level off the surfaces after a period of draining.


Once the curds are well drained the forms are inverted and removed.
The cheese is then allowed to dry before dry salting is done.
Say hello to our friend Ali in the last photo near the window.


Next the dry salting and movement to the aging room.


Finally nothing goes unnoticed on our visit and the board gives us more clues through their daily notes.
The finished cheese after aging, labeling, and ready for market.

More Recipes
Jim Wallace
August 2015

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