Goat Cheese with Ash Info

The Goat, the Vine, and the Fire

The history of ash in cheese making goes back hundreds of years to its use as a method to protect the surface of young cheese. As years passed, they later discovered that it also greatly improved the surface molds and how they grew on fresh cheeses for ripening.

In earlier times, this was ash from the burning of the grape vine clippings in the Loire Valley of France which was even then noted for their wealth of fresh goat cheese.

Today, however, the surface is normally covered with an activated charcoal mixed with salt.

Ash is Edible?!

Many folks may look at this ash/charcoal addition and say: "I am not interested in eating dirt with my cheese."

Well, the reality is that this is not barbeque charcoal and it is not a gritty ash. It is a finely powdered, food grade component actually revered by the medical world for its ability to control and absorb toxins.

Currently, smoke, ash, and fire components are the rage in culinary circles and should also lead to some great additions in cheese making. As long as the ash/charcoal is not overdone, it will really enhance the cheese and many folks will not even notice the difference in taste. They will, however, have no clue as to how it has improved the development of the cheese. They may simply pop in with "Wow! This is much better than before. What did you do different?"

I can also imagine incorporating a little bit of smoke to the ash for a subtle kicker. Your imagination should be your only limitation with this new tool of ash and charcoal in your cheese making chest.

A Bit of History

Since the beginning of cheese making, the preservation of the fresh cheese surface has always been the next major concern after the cheese has left the brine bath or dry salt table. This wonderful rich and aromatic surface has always been just as attractive to the ever-present microbes and mold spores as it has been to us and hence, the race begins. How do we keep the cheese surface in good condition until the cheese has aged enough for the table, whether this was a few days or a few months? Before the invention of the wax or plastic coat and definitely before the present permeable plastic wraps of today, there were far fewer options.

Initially, it was common to just let it go au naturale and accept whatever ambient growth took place, but at times this became a bit too coarse for even the most basic cheese.

Then, at some point long ago, someone had the bright idea of coating the surface with the fine grey ash that was readily available from burnings. This seemed to preserve the cheese by discouraging the flying hoards and the "floaties" from settling and setting up housekeeping on the surface of their cheeses. It also soon became apparent that the ash tended to dry off the surface as well, making it less habitable for the uninvited.

As more time passed, other variations have developed such as the Italian cheese Sottocennere (under the ash) which is buried in a grey ash inside large terra cotta clay pots and aged for months. In France, the Selles sur Cher is another fine example of a young cheese ripened with a layer of ash.

Another example is the Morbier cheese from France with a distinctive black line running through the center of the cheese. The story behind this cheese stems from a time when varying milk sources left cheese makers with half filled molds until the next milking. The problem here was the drying of this surface and the problem with flies and other particulates landing on the surface. The solution was a hand dipped in whey and then rubbed on the surface of the wood fired and heavily carboned vats and transferring this to the surface of the cheese. When the next cheese was made, the new curds were added leaving this distinctive black line through the cheese center.

In the commercial version today this is simply a matter of the traditional appearance. It serves no functional purpose.

Why Goat Milk Cheese?

If you have seen ash covered cheese already, it may have been a goat's milk cheese because most of them are. Why goat's milk?

The primary reason for this is that these cheeses are most often lactic in nature and therefore they have very soft surfaces and very weak bodies. Certain surface treatments such as rubbing, brushing and oiling as used on firmer natural rind cheeses will not do well with these fragile surfaces. Therefore, a common treatment for these rinds was to develop a natural mold cover. This could be either a natural mixed mold rind or, for more aesthetic presentation, the bloomy white rinds.

Since this style of lactic cheese develops a high level of acid and the white mold is slow to grow with this, the ash or charcoal was added to reduce the acid as will be explained below, thus allowing the mold to grow quicker and more evenly to begin the ripening process. Usually this is done by adding salt to the charcoal or ash and applying this after the cheese is well drained.

In addition, the use of the ash with goat's milk provides a very aesthetic and unique presentation with the snow white milk contrasting with the black lines around the surface or through the center.

What does Ash or Charcoal do?:

  • ASH --When wood or any other vegetable matter (mostly cellulose) is burned in open air, all that remains is a fine grey particulate which is largely comprised of an alkaline (high pH) salt. This is a true ash.
  • CHARCOAL -- When it is burned with a limited air supply we have charcoal which is mostly carbon along with some of the alkaline salts. In addition, the charcoal structure is a solid with many small pores in its structure. These small pores are capable of absorption or collecting unwanted components such as contaminates from air and water.
  • ACTIVATED CHARCOAL -- If the charcoal undergoes special treatment (heat, chemical etc.) it can become Activated Charcoal or Super Charcoal. This will contain much finer micropores and therefore its ability to absorb will be much greater.

When any of these are used on the surface of a cheese with a high acid surface such as a fresh lactic cheese:

  1. the surface acidity will be neutralized by the alkaline salt.
  2. The excess moisture and acidity will be lessened by the absorption of the charcoal

In both cases, the cheese surface becomes less acid and this creates a more attractive surface for molds such as P. candidum (the white mold of Camembert) to develop more quickly. This also dries the surface a bit and keeps the rate of mold activity from becoming excessive.

The most effective of these products is the activated charcoal because it does more of the absorption than either charcoal or a simple ash.