Valençay Cheese and the Role of Ash in Cheesemaking

Valençay Cheese and the Role of Ash in Cheesemaking

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Fresh goat cheese is simple to make and so delicious. But with just a few more steps and a little bit of waiting time, you can make an aged goat cheese that will impress your family and friends even more. Valençay is a distinctive, pyramid-shaped French “bloomy rind” goat cheese that is sprinkled with an exterior layer of ash which helps to firm up the rind and aids in ripening. It has a fruity, complex flavor and is delicious at any stage of ripening. When fresh, you can slice it and serve it with fruit and bread or crackers. When dry and hard, you can grate it over your favorite soup, salad, or pasta dish.

Now, before I go over the recipe and instructions, I want to explore the use of ash a bit further. Besides being a pretty addition to the cheese and striking contrast against the snowy white goat cheese, ash has a long history with cheesemaking and plays an important role in how this cheese will mature. 

The early cheesemakers in the French countryside had a plentiful supply of fresh goat milk during the spring and summer and so they would often make very large wheels of cheese each morning right after milking. Then they would make a second big batch after the evening milking. But when winter arrived, and the milk supply dwindled, the curds from the morning milk was only enough to fill their forms about halfway. In order to keep insects, microbes, and molds from setting up shop on the layer of draining curds until the evening milking when they could make a second half-batch of curds, they often sprinkled a layer of ash on top of the cheese as a sort of protective layer. This ash may have been from the soot that had accumulated on the bottom of their copper cheesemaking cauldrons, or from the burning of grapevine cuttings in their wine vineyards. Either way, the ash was left in place when the evening curds were added to the form, thereby producing a beautiful line in the center of the cheese. You may be familiar with a few cheeses that have this line of ash such as the French washed-rind cheese, Morbier, as well as the very popular goat cheese, Humboldt Fog from the Cypress Grove Creamery in Northern California.  Humboldt Fog is basically a Valençay type of recipe but it is made in a round form and in addition to the ash on the surface, it also has that layer of ash running through the center.

Nowadays we have other ways to preserve and protect our draining curds, but ash is still used because it’s not only pretty, but it also aids in the aging process. The ash increases the pH level or decreases the acidity, and that helps to allow the cheese to ripen and mature more evenly and for a longer period of time without getting too sharp or acidic. Most of the ash that is used today in cheesemaking is vegetable ash or activated charcoal ash. 

The bloomy rind that is characteristic of this cheese, as well as other commonly known varieties such as Brie and Camembert, is formed by the addition of a white mold powder, Penicillium candidum, and a yeast powder called Geotrichum candidum. Together they will form a white, bloomy rind which will only grow where it gets air. It is added to the milk at the beginning of the recipe and since it needs air to grow, it won’t develop inside the cheese but rather only on the outside edge. It does require some “tending to” in order to develop properly, but with a little practice, home cheesemakers can perfect this technique and make some stunning homemade cheeses.

Valençay Cheese

One gallon will make four pyramids so if you only want one, use 1 qt of milk, 1/16 tsp of culture, just a pinch of the mold and yeast powders, and 1/16 tsp of rennet.

  1. HEAT MILK: Heat 1 gallon of milk to 72 degrees F.
  2. CULTURE: Sprinkle 1/4 tsp of Mesophilic or Flora Danica culture, 1/32 tsp of Penicillium candidum, and 1/64 tsp of Geotrichum candidum onto the milk. Let hydrate for a minute or two and then stir it into the milk.
  3. COAGULATE: Dilute 1/8 tsp of liquid rennet (or 1/8 crushed tablet) in ¼ cup cool, non-chlorinated water and add to the ripened milk. Stir, cover, and let set at room temperature for 18 hours.
  4. SCOOP CURD: Scoop thin layers of the curd and place gently into the pyramid forms that are placed on a draining rack. Let drain at room temperature for about 48 hours. (Note: You can carefully flip the form about halfway through the draining, using a cheese mat on the open end, if you want to help it drain more thoroughly.)
  5. SALT: Once the cheese has drained to the point that it will hold its shape when removed from the form, remove it and apply salt liberally on all sides (about 3/4 tsp salt per pyramid).
  6. ASH: Using a small sieve or a salt shaker filled with ash, dust the cheeses with a thin layer of ash. (You might want to set them on a paper towel before doing this to aid with clean-up.) 
  7. AIR DRY: Let the pyramids continue to drain and dry for another 24 hours at room temperature.
  8. AGE: Place the pyramids in a container with a draining mat in the bottom, close the lid, and begin aging at approximately 50 degrees F and 85% humidity for about two weeks. Flip them daily at first, and every other day after that until you notice a nice, even layer of white rind on all sides. If too much moisture builds up in your container, wipe the sides and the lid, and then leave the lid cracked for a few days. 
  9. WRAP: Once you see a nice even layer of rind on the entire pyramid, you can wrap it with a two-ply cheese wrap and place it in your regular refrigerator. You can eat it now, or in a few weeks, or let it age and dry out further for up to 10 more weeks.

For detailed instructions on how to make this and other cheese with your fresh goat milk, you might like to consider my virtual cheesemaking classes at www.theartofcheese.com. These bloomy rind cheeses are a little tricky to get the hang of at first, but once you learn what to look for and how to respond to your unique conditions, you’ll be wowing your friends and families with this delicious aged goat cheese.

Originally published in the January/February 2021 issue of Goat Journal and regularly vetted for accuracy.

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