I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve written about American food products catching up to (and sometimes surpassing) the benchmarks from Europe. The most recent American big dog is triple-cream cheeses, which is a group as rich and decadent as it sounds.
It comes as no surprise that the French have long dominated this category of buttery soft, ultra-rich and gently sweet cheeses with legendary names such as Brillat-Savarin, Explorateur, and Pierre Robert. And to some extent they still do. But last year, for the first time in the history of the World Cheese Awards in London, an American cheese, Marin French Cheese Company’s Rouge et Noir Triple-Cream Brie, took the only gold medal awarded for a Brie.
Admittedly, Brie is typically a double-cream cheese, less silky and luscious than a triple-cream. Still, beating the French at cheese—and in a category named after a region in France where the cheese was created—is huge. “The French were thinking ‘We lost the Tour de France six times to an American. Now we lose to an American cheese in a category we thought we owned. What’s next?’ “said Marin French Cheese owner Jim Boyce.
Marin’s Brie wasn’t just an American triple-cream one-shot wonder, either. At the 2004 World Cheese Awards, Fleur-de-Lis Triple Cream from Bittersweet Plantation Dairy—in Louisiana of all places—won one of two gold medals in the soft cow’s milk category, beating out a cheese from France’s Loire Valley.
The success of American triple-creams is not lost on American consumers. “Triple-creams are real crowd pleasers and they’re also very wine friendly,” says Sue Conley, an owner of Cowgirl Creamery in Point Reyes Station, CA, which makes Mt. Tam and Red Hawk triple-creams.
Most cheese is made from whole milk right out of the cow. But that milk doesn’t have enough fat for a triple-cream or even a double-cream cheese. So before the milk is processed for cheese, cream is added. Then the cheese is made like most other cheeses, though triple-creams are more lightly processed than most other cheeses, which is why they are so delicate.
Triple-cream cheeses are 75 percent or more butterfat. Double-cream cheeses are between 60 and 74 percent. The rest are less than 60 percent, most being between 40 and 45 percent.Because they are younger than 60 days when sold, American triple-creams must, by law, be made from pasteurized milk. While the French may use unpasteurized milk for domestic consumption, they must pasteurize milk for triple-creams sold in the United States, which is one reason why that French triple-cream you had in Paris tastes different from the same brand you had in New York.
The young age of triple-creams and the travel time to the United States also means that French triple-cream cheeses are susceptible to being past their prime. “Triple-creams are normally ripe in two weeks,” Conley says. “At the store, French triple-creams are normally six weeks old and already deteriorating.” Over-the-hill triple-cream cheese will have an ammoniated smell, though some people like a touch of ammonia in their cheese much the same way some wine drinkers like the barnyard quality a little brettanomyces (a spoilage yeast) gives to wines.
John Folse, the owner of Bittersweet Dairy Plantation, likes the idea that his Fleur-de-Lis can be eaten at one of several stages, depending on the preference of the consumer, who can tell how old the cheese is from the “birth” date on the container. “From that date, the cheese will live for seven weeks,” Folse says. “For the first two weeks, the cheese will be firm. By the seventh week, it will be totally molten.”
I tried Folse’s Fleur-de-Lis both ways and preferred the molten stage, which reminded me of the French Vacherin Mont d’Or. It was deliciously gooey with some pleasantly grassy notes. I was less enthralled with his Fleur-de-Teche, a firmer triple-cream with a layer of vegetable ash. While the vast majority of triple-creams are made with cow’s milk, Bittersweet Dairy Plantation makes two from goat’s milk. Evangeline has a beautiful balance of goatiness and creaminess. Ash-covered Gabriel was less creamy and more like a traditional goat cheese.
The Marin Triple-Cream Brie was luxurious with an irresistibly creamy texture. I didn’t think the other Marin triple-cream cheeses—Rouge et Noir Petit Crème, Blue and Marin Gold—were on the same level. Mt. Tam was as good as anything I’ve had from France. Utterly delicious, it was creamy and buttery with some nuttiness and a nice clean finish. Because it has a washed rind that promotes bacteria growth, Red Hawk is a more pungent cheese with a distinctive orange color.
The French triple-creams were no slouches, however. My favorite was Le Delice de Bourgogne, a thick, unctuous cheese with incredible mouthfeel and a nutty, slightly barnyardy quality. Pierre Robert was extremely buttery but not as complex. Brillat-Savarin was rich and silky with some earthy notes. After some initial bitterness, Explorateur opened up nicely like tannins softening in a big red wine. St. Andre was dense and buttery but rather one-dimensional. Belle Etoile is a French triple-cream Brie that I found very comparable to the Marin.
The simplest—and maybe the best—way to serve triple-cream cheese is slathered on a sweet baguette, which I prefer to heartier breads. When his Fleur-de-Lis is particularly runny, Folse cuts off the top and gives his guests spoons to dig in and spread the cheese on toasted croutons, accompanied by Grand Marnier.
Juliana Uruburu, cheese manager at Market Hall Foods in Oakland, CA, likes dried rather than fresh fruit with triple-creams. “I’m not a big fan of fresh fruit with cheese,” she says. “It can be too sour.” After trying fresh raspberries, cherries, apples and grapes versus jumbo black and green raisins and dried cranberries, I concur. At The Loft at Montage Resort & Spa in Laguna Beach, CA, cheese sommelier Starr Cornwall fancies homemade strawberry-lavender jam with Mt. Tam in particular and Marcona almonds or cashews drizzled with honey with almost any cheese.
As for more savory presentations, Uruburu is particularly fond of matching caviar with Brillat-Savarin instead of crème fraiche. At Cornwall’s suggestion, I tried a few kinds of triple-creams (and some grated Parmigiano) on baked pasta with wild mushrooms and on pizza with garlicky spinach, both with satisfying results. “It’s also amazing melted on steak instead of butter or blue cheese,” she says.
Chris Coon, wine director at The Loft, says that low tannins and good acidity are the most important characteristics for matching wine with triple-cream cheeses. For those reasons, he says, “you can’t go wrong with Champagne.” But the bubbly doesn’t have to be dry, or from France. A demi-sec Champagne, Brachetto d’Aqui from Italy’s Piedmont, even Asti Spumante can work under the right conditions.
Among other whites, I liked an Alsatian Riesling (with the Red Hawk), a slightly off dry SouthAfrican Chenin Blanc and Sauvignon Blancs, except two I tried from the Loire, which were too steely. Red wines are more limited with triple-creams. An Oregon Pinot Noir matched up rather well with Le Delice de Bourgogne and a Cru Beaujolais handled that pasta dish nicely. Belgian beers, particularly the fruity lambics, are also a good choice.
As much progress as the United States has made with triple-cream cheeses, it still has a way to go. When I asked the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board to tell me the names of triple-cream cheese producers in the state, the answer was, “We don’t have any.”
How to Get It
Artisanal Cheese Center, New York, NY, 877-797-1200 www.artisanalcheese.com
Chef John Folse & Company, Gonzalez, LA, 800-256-2433, www.jfolse.com
Cowgirl Creamery, Point Reyes Station, CA, 866-433-7834, www.cowgirlcreamery.com
DeLaurenti, Seattle, WA, 206-622-0141
Ideal Cheese, New York, NY, 800-382-0109, www.idealcheese.com
Formaggio Kitchen, Inc, Cambridge, MA 888-212-3224, www.formaggiokitchen.com
Marin Fresh Cheese Company, Petaluma, CA 800-292-6001, www.marinfrenchcheese.com
Murray’s Cheese Shop, New York, NY, 888-692-4339, www.murrayscheese.com