There are a few things one learns pretty quickly as a cheesemonger. Among them are that brebis generally come from the Pyrenées and small-format goat cheeses are closely associated with the Loire Valley. Of course, there are exceptions but, as general rules, these guidelines have served me pretty well.
According to Juliet Harbutt in her “World Cheese Book,” the first goats to the Loire Valley arrived in the 8th century, brought by the Saracens, the same folks who launched the region’s cheesemaking tradition. The Loire Valley has optimal terrain for raising goats. Healthy amounts of rain and warm summers combine to make the fertile banks of the Loire excellent grazing land for ruminants.
One of the goat cheeses most closely associated with the Loire Valley is called Sainte-Maure. This cheese has a distinctive look to it – it is log-shaped and can come in varying lengths but it generally tends to be about 1.5 – 2 inches wide. For the AOC version of the cheese, the length is specified between 16-18cm and the width to 4.5-5.5cm. A particular feature of a traditional Sainte-Maure is the piece of straw that runs through the middle. When this cheese is young, it is very moist and the straw helps to keep the cheese together while also allowing air to move through the center of the cheese, assisting with the aging process. As an added bonus, the straw also provides a unique visual when the cheese is cut.
So, who was the Sainte Maure after whom the town of Sainte-Maure-de-Touraine and the cheese are named? In researching for this post, it was difficult to find any definitive information about the saint in question. What I did discover, however, was that she apparently (along with a Sainte Britte) was a patroness of the parish in Sainte-Maure-de-Touraine. In the town, there is a church called La Chapelle des Vierges that was reconstructed in the 19th century on the remains of a 15th century chapel. It is dedicated to the “patronnes de la paroisse” Sainte Maure and Sainte Britte.
Sainte-Maure has been made for over 1,000 years and the cheeses made in the Touraine region (known as Sainte-Maure de Touraine) are particularly well-known and were granted AOC status in 1990. Touraine was broken up across different areas when French government departments were reorganized and, as a result, the geographic area of the appellation includes the department of Indre-et-Loire and the neighboring cantons of Loir-et-Cher, Indre and Vienne. Among the AOC regulations that apply to Sainte-Maures de Touraine are ones that specify coagulation should be predominantly lactic (i.e. using only a small amount of rennet), that drainage be natural and that the cheese be ashed and salted. No frozen curds are allowed. In 2009, Sainte-Maure de Touraine was the top-produced AOC goat cheese with 23% more produced on a tonnage basis than the second most produced AOC goat cheese, Rocamadur.
It is perfectly possible to get Sainte-Maures from other (non-AOC-protected) parts of the Loire Valley such as Berry and Poitou and, at the shop, we also carry a version of the cheese that is made in Belgium. The only requirement is that none of the cheeses made outside of the Touraine area can be called Sainte-Maure de Touraine. Instead, they are simply called Sainte-Maure or, as in the case of our Belgian version, Sainte-Maure Belgique. As with all young goat milk cheeses, the best time of year to buy them is during the months when the goats are being milked – generally from spring into early fall.
At the shop, the main difference between the French Sainte-Maure that we get in and a Sainte-Maure Belgique is that the former arrives ashed – they are young and moist but not dripping wet. With the Sainte-Maure Belgique, we get both a natural and an ashed version but the Belgian cheeses arrive super wet. At that stage, they have almost a yoghurt-y taste to them, they are that fresh! On the cheese counter, we can distinguish the Belgian version of this cheese from the French by the simple fact that the Belgians opted not to imitate the signature straw of the Loire Valley cheeses. So, strawless means Belgian, straw-in means French.
Jess, a cheesemonger and cheesemaking instructor at our shop, has experience making cheese both here in the States and in France. Recently, she has started supervising what happens in our caves and has kind of assumed the unofficial position of head affineur. Always open to experimentation and seeing how we can do things better, she began working with our Sainte-Maures Belgiques to see how we might age them and develop rinds on both the ashed and natural cheeses.
After several rounds of experimentation, she seems to have found the perfect equilibrium – 1.5 to 2 weeks of aging at 55-60°F and 83% humidity. Now, every morning, the cheesemongers who are opening the store are responsible for flipping the Sainte-Maures kept in the goat reach-in (a temperature controlled refrigerator specially kitted out with a humidifier). This ensures that the rinds develop evenly and prevents the moisture in the cheese from settling on one side. Most cheeses get flipped or rotated as they age – with something as moist as these Sainte-Maures, it is important to do it daily.
After oohing and ahhing over the beautiful rinds that Jess had elicited from these cheeses, I finally took one home the other night. All I have to say is: “Dang! That girl knows how to age cheese.”
The rind was delicate and supple with a slight ooze from underneath where the cheese had begun to break down. The interior paste was still moist but could hold itself together, unlike the logs when they first come in – at that point they are a bit prone to breaking apart. As for the taste? Soft, creamy and more-ish. I mentioned above that the super young version of this cheese is almost yoghurt-y. Age mellows this cheese and it loses that sharp acidity of youth and a slightly vegetal taste began to come through – kind of like asparagus with a lovely creamy sauce. The rind too is lovely – not overly dominant – and it does not have the bitterness that can occasionally crop up in bloomy-rinded goat milk cheeses.
If you love a good goat cheese, I highly recommend getting a hold of a Sainte-Maure and a baguette for an easy summer lunch or dinner. If you are doing a tasting with friends, getting a young and an aged version is a lot of fun – that way folks can see what happens to a cheese as it ages and can discover which version they prefer. And, if you live nearby and have the opportunity to try a Sainte-Maure Belgique aged by Jess, all I can say is that you’re in for a treat!