white mold 101

“Do you eat the rind?” 

It is one of the most common questions customers ask me at the market stand when they poke a sample of Witchgrass with their toothpick and inspect it with a skeptic's eye.

My response is always the same:

“It’s the best part.”

Some shy away.

But most people, even if wary at first, delight in the adventure of the initial bite.

Whether white, blue, green or brown, in cheese, mold means flavor. It’s what contributes to the character of a cheese. If it weren’t for the ashen grey and white mold rind of the Witchgrass, it would be something more similar to a cream cheese than a Valencay (the French cheese that inspires it). 

Said white mold, and more specifically, penicillium candidum, delivers earthy, mushroomy, and some might even say a barnyard flavor to the palate after a certain age. I have even heard the descriptor “ripe laundry.” Without exactly knowing what "ripe" laundry is, I understand completely.

Moldy rinds do two wonderful things for cheese. First, they cover it with a protective layer to help preserve it. Once the integrity of the rind is compromised, so is the nature of the cheese. It’s at its best within a week or two of slicing into it, but can keep for several weeks and even months when the rind is kept intact. 

Second, white mold works on the surface of the cheese to ripen it from the outside-in. A few weeks into the process, the cheese paste closest to the rind starts breaking down into a runny, oozy consistency much like a brie or camembert. This is why I sometimes describe Witchgrass as an under-developed brie: it is enjoyed at its youthful four-week age when the paste of the cheese is still fresh, while the surface is beginning to age. I like this convergence between fresh cheese and aged because I like the bright, tanginess of the fresh sheep's milk, while the Francophile in me relishes the flavor of a developed white mold rind.

White mold cheeses begin their rind development in a controlled aging environment for the first two weeks of their life. The mold wants warmth and moisture to grow. At the Milkhouse, the white mold aging space fluctuates somewhere between 48 and 55 degrees and 80 to 95 percent relative humidity (the latter percentage being preferable but only sporadically achievable when the water-soaked rag chooses to hold up its end of the bargain). Only a couple of months into production, I need not even inoculate milk with white mold: it thrives naturally on the cheese's surface because the mold spores are thriving in the air of the aging space.

When a thick and fuzzy blanket of white mold has sufficiently covered the cheese’s surface, it gets wrapped in ripening paper that allows specifically for moisture retention and air exchange. If a Witchgrass has ever made its way into your market bag, you know this paper. And if you were to keep the Witchgrass in your fridge, in its ripening paper, for several weeks, without cutting into it, its body would convert into the oozy paste of a brie. With this continued ripening comes not only a decadent paste but a more developed flavor.

So…yes. That is also recommended. 

For any skeptics out there who have not yet dipped their toes into the sea of moldy cheeses, you’re missing out on the action. It’s time to get a mold on.

Posted on July 3, 2014 .