McDonald’s France promo pairs “baguette” burgers with famous cheeses

In a move that’s either sheer genius or…a sign of the Apocalypse, McDonald’s France is giving their cheeseburgers a serious makeover. From February 15th through March 27th, customers will be able to get their burgers on a baguette, with a choice of four different French cheeses–three of which are prestigious Protected Designation of Origin (PDO; formerly known in France as Appellation d’origine contrôlée, or AOC) products. These cheeses are under strict production guidelines and can only be made within a specific area in their region of origin. Ooh la la!

According to culture: the word on cheese (full disclosure: I’m a contributing editor), the cheese selection consists of Cantal, a buttery alpine style; Fourme d’Ambert, a creamy, spicy blue; Saint-Nectaire, an earthy semi-soft number, and “generic” chèvre, aka fresh goat cheese.

The cheesemonger/writer in me is thrilled to see something other than processed orange crap on a hamburger, and in France, I think this concept will fly. I don’t think America is ready for le gourmet burger with cheese yet, but it will be a great day when fast food actually consists of real food.

Video of the day: a goaty guide to pronouncing foreign cheeses

The holidays are Cheese Season. At no other time of the year are cheese and specialty food shops as thronged by dairy-seeking customers. They’re hungry for a fix or searching for a gift, recipe ingredient, or the makings of a cheese plate. Cheese is love, and one of the easiest, most elegant ways to kick off a cocktail party or conclude (or make) a memorable meal.

With that in mind, the folks at Culture: the word on cheese magazine (full disclosure: I’m a contributing editor) have produced this clever (and utterly adorable) video to aid you in pronouncing some of those delectable but tricky foreign cheeses from France, Spain, and Switzerland. Happy Hoch Ybrig, everyone!

European cheeses: holiday entertaining with the taste of travel

I work part-time in a cheese shop, and I’m also a contributing editor at culture, a consumer cheese magazine. I can’t help noticing that, despite a still-sluggish economy, people don’t want to do without their cheese. Especially if they’ve fallen for a specific type during their (usually European) travels.

Not everyone who bellies up to the counter is a globetrotter or a cheese geek, but they’re all eager to try new things and learn about the animals and cheesemakers responsible, and what, if any, cultural role certain cheeses play in their country of origin. It got me thinking: why not show Gadling readers how to do a bit of armchair travel to Europe via their local cheese shop?

Cheese has long been associated with revelry, in part because of its cozy compatibility with beer, wine, Champagne, and certain spirits. With the holiday season upon us, I put together a list of some delicious, versatile, affordable European imports that will make any small party more festive. The best part? You don’t need to be any kind of cheese wunderkind to put together a banging cheese plate (suggestions coming up).

[Photo credit: Flickr user cwbuecheler]

I usually allow about an ounce of each cheese per person, assuming there’s more food. If you’re throwing a big party, it may not be financially feasible to purchase certain products (and there’s nothing wrong with serving a mass-produced Gruyere or Gouda). Note that some styles of cheese are less dense than others, so depending upon price, you can get more dairy for your dollar.

If you can’t find these cheeses at your nearest grocery, Whole Foods (which have generally excellent cheese departments), or specialty shop, try online sources Murray’s Cheese, Cowgirl Creamery, Formaggio Kitchen, and Artisanal Premium Cheese. Click here for a national cheese retailer directory by zipcode.

In addition to picking some of my own favorites, I turned to one of culture’s co-founders, cheesemonger Thalassa Skinner of Napa’s Oxbow Cheese Merchant, for advice:

The Cheeses

Langres (cow): Traditionally served with Champagne poured over it (those decadent French!), this well-priced washed-rind is a little bit stinky, with a dense, creamy interior and tangy lactic finish. From the Langres plateau in the Champagne-Ardenne region.

Ewephoria (sheep): Nutty, rich, with a hint of crystallization, this butterscotchy Gouda will convert even the ambivalent into cheese aficionados.

Appenberger (cow): This buttery Alpine-style cheese from the Schweitzer Mittelland region has a faintly grassy tang. A surefire crowd-pleaser.

Robiola due latte (a blend of cow and sheep or goat’s milk): A rich, mold-ripened number with a slightly sour, mushroomy finish, from the dairy-rich Piedmont and Lombardy regions. Top imports include those by Perolari due Latti, Robiola Bosina, and Robiola delle Langhe.

Leonora (goat): A loaf-shaped, mold-ripened cheese from the northwestern village of León. Creamy, tangy, and delightful, with a blindingly white, dense, chewy interior.

Azeitao (cow): Yeasty, full-flavored, with a slightly bitter finish; a beer-lover’s cheese. From the village of the same name, in the Arrabida Mountains, near Lisbon.

Stilton (cow): Colston-Bassett makes perhaps the finest version of this historic, earthy blue cheese. It’s a classic British holiday treat, produced in Derbyshire, Leicestershire, and Nottinghamshire. Stichelton is the equally delicious, raw milk version; it’s a bit more fruity and crumbly. But for another British tradition, go for a robust Cheddar. Keen’s (cow) is buttery, with a horseradishy bite.

Coolea (cow): This dense, buttery, Gouda-style from County Cork has a sharp, grassy finish. Unusual and delicious.

Wavreumont (cow): A smooth, full-flavored, monastic-style washed rind. Trappist beer, anyone?

Cheese Plate 101

K.I.S.S.: This is a fun little acronym I learned in culinary school. It stands for, “Keep it Simple, Stupid.” A foofy, cluttered cheese plate with too many accompaniments just detracts from the headliner. You can keep sides as simple as some plain crackers or a baguette, or add toasted almonds, walnuts, or hazelnuts, and some preserves, or honeycomb or dried fruit or grapes or slices of pear or apple (in summer, use stonefruit such as peaches or cherries, or berries).

You can also go the savory route with dry-cured or green olives (Picholine are my favorite) and some salumi (add grainy mustard, cornichons, and a hearty rye bread for a winter supper). Forget the sundried tomatoes, pickled onions, pepperoncini, artichoke hearts, tapenade, stuffed peppers, or whatever else the local deli has in its antipasti bar. It’s overkill.

Stick to three to four cheeses that increase in intensity of flavor. You can do whatever you want: all blues, or all goat cheeses. For a diverse, well-rounded plate, try: One creamy/mild; one semi-soft or semi-firm with some kick, or a washed-rind/ surface-ripened; one hard-aged; one blue or something really punchy (taste this last, because the stronger flavors will obscure your palate). Your cheesemonger can help you pick things out and explain these terms to you, or click here for a glossary.

When pairing cheese with beer or wine, a rule of thumb is to match the intensity of flavor of the cheese to that of the beverage. The following are some suggestions for some of the more tricky, assertive cheeses.

Goat cheese: A good rosé will almost always work, as will a light German beer like Hoegaarden.

Big, stinky washed-rinds: Pair with sweet bubbly; the effervescence will help cleanse the palate and won’t compete with the flavor of the cheese. If you’re drinking beer, go with a light pilsner or lambic.

Blue cheeses: Go for a sweet dessert wine (not Port) or Lambic beer with fruit, such as framboise.

For additional cheese plate ideas, click here.

[Photo credits: Neal’s Yard, Flickr user foodmuse; Gouda, Flickr user manuel/MC; cow, Laurel Miller; grapes, Flickr user lakewentworth; goat, Laurel Miller]

Where Swiss cheese lovers must go:

Swiss cheese is not all full of big holes like the stuff you see in American grocery stores. That’s a specific regional cheese called Emmentaler (from Emmental). Despite its holey reputation, some of the hundreds of varieties of Swiss cheese have no holes at all.

Appenzeller cheese falls somewhere in the middle; it’s a cheese with a few small holes per wedge. The holes are controlled by the amount and type of bacteria used to make the cheese. This is just one of the things I didn’t know I didn’t know about cheese production when I visited the Appenzeller cheese dairy in Stein, Appenzellerland, Switzerland (above). It you’d like to visit yourself, click here to make arrangements. It makes a great outing for families or fromage-o-philes like myself — they have a full free exhibition you can walk through, a video presentation, a gift shop and restaurant and, of course, a cheese shop. And yes, that’s a giant, wooden wedge of cheese bigger than my NYC apartment out in front. You can go inside it.

Now, onto what you’ll learn about the 700 year old Appenzeller cheese, renowned as the “spiciest cheese from Switzerland:”

The milk.

The dairy guys get to work at about 4 AM to receive and test the milk brought in by local farmers. They test it to ensure that the cows ate nothing but hay and meadow grass. If farmers bring in bad milk once, they get a warning; twice and they are banned.

To create a consistent product, part of the milk is skimmed, then slowly re-added to the whole milk to ensure an exact fat content. This is a practice older than most cheese dairies. Some of the milk gets sent to another dairy to be made into “dairy butter,” a regular Swiss grocery store item, and the rest is divided into Bio and Regular. “Bio” is the word they use for free-range and organic in Switzerland. Here’s an interesting fact: free range cows have to have their horns (humanely) removed so that they don’t hurt each other. Also, the prize cow of the bunch gets to wear this ginormous bell (right).

%Gallery-93805%From here, you may know the basics: milk is poured into a copper kettle and stirred with lactic acid bacteria and then rennet (a natural curdling agent made from the stomach of calves), it curdles into granules which are then pressurized into cheese molds, then the molds dry and are given a salt bath. After that, it’s all about the aging and the mysterious rind.

The rind.

The rind, technically created by the salt bath, is treated with a secret marinade of white wine and herbs. Only two living people know the recipe for Appenzeller’s famously spicy brine.

Appenzeller makes an assortment of different cheeses, and the different flavors are determined by aging, fat content and the amount of the marinade used.

The cheese passport.

Every Appenzeller cheese wheel bears a unique passport, saying the place and date it was made. The date stamp doesn’t include the year, because you should definitely not be eating unpasteurized cheese (meaning the milk was never heated to 75 degrees Celsius) that wasn’t made within the year.

The cheese passport is a very serious business for the Appenzeller folks, as it’s one of the things that helps them protect the quality of their reputation. If one of the dairy guys accidentally breaks or loses a cheese passport, he has to pay about $30 for it. This is to prevent them from the temptations of trafficking counterfeit cheese — one could make a pretty penny labeling cheap cheese with the Appenzeller passports. Appenzeller not only makes their cheeses meticulously, but they only sell the very best ones.

What happens to the waste?

Part of the reason that Appenzeller cheese commands a good price is that it is guaranteed to be of extremely high quality. They test cheese from each batch rigorously, rating it on a number of different variances. Cheese that doesn’t score top marks gets made into grated cheese, packaged cheese or it gets sent off to be put into sauce mixes.

As for the waste created in making the cheese, it all gets made into pig slop — it’s actually quite good for the pigs. That’s the kind of eco-friendly practice that made as much sense 700 years ago as it does today.

Photos by Annie Scott.

My trip to Switzerland was sponsored by Switzerland Tourism, but the ideas and opinions expressed in this article are 100 percent my own.