It has been said that cheese is milk’s attempt at immortality and, like all of us, age does wonderful, and not so wonderful things to cheese. It is the job of the cheesemaker and the affineur to make sure that the cheese matures and ages properly. Today’s cheese is one where aging has created a much improved cheese but, perhaps for cultural reasons, the aged version is somewhat rarer than the more common version.
Bethmale is named after the village near to where it made, in the Couserans region, in the Pyrenees. It is an ancient cheese which can apparently be traced back to Moorish times in the early 8th century CE, when the Moorish invasions reached as far as Tours before being defeated by Charles Martel, father of the excellently named Pepin the Short. Bethmale was also much loved by the equally excellently named Louis the Fat, who apparently died of dysentery brought on by too much good cheer. I suspect that Louis the Fat, being so obese that he need special carriages to ferry him around, enjoyed a lot of cheese, and since Bethmale was his cheese of choice, then perhaps this is a regicidal cheese.
Now for the technical bit. Bethmale is a pressed, uncooked cows’ milk cheese. This means that it is pressed once it is put into its mould. This gets rid of any excess whey and ensures that the cheese is quite dense. An uncooked cheese has not had its curds cooked, although the milk often has to be heated as part of the coagulation process, it does not have to be heated again. Another example of a pressed, uncooked cheese is Cheddar.
The cheese has a good, dusty thick, cracked crust that suggests that there are cheese mites [cheese mites are our friends] present during the maturation. This is one rind that I am not too fussed about eating. Normally Bethmale is aged for around three or four months at the most and you end up with quite a mild, creamy cheese. The one I have has been aged for about 18 months. The paste is pale yellow and is very much like a proper mature cheddar. It has a few eyes [the little holes you sometimes see in cheeses, caused by carbon dioxide produced during the maturation process] and is quite crumbly but not really hard.
It’s a strong, piquant, salty cheese with a good hint of mustard. The taste is not as long as the black brie from the other day but it fills your mouth without burning your gums like a potent cheddar can do. Since, this cheese is from the south west of France, why not have some red wine from around here too? Maybe a nice Madiran. Go on. Just not too much.