About 20 years ago, a small group of French shepherds who supplied sheep’s milk for Roquefort decided to break away and establish their own creamery. A risky venture, certainly, but they were unhappy with the Roquefort system and thought they could bring more value to their milk if they made their own cheese.
Today their cooperative, known as Bergers du Larzac (“the shepherds of Larzac”), is a successful enterprise, producing more than 20 types of sheep’s milk cheese. And thanks to Rodolphe Le Meunier, the respected French affineur (cheese ager) and exporter, we can enjoy one of them. Lou Bren, a pungent washed-rind wheel produced by the cooperative, is one of the most compelling cheeses I’ve tasted in months. I had to laugh at one online translation that described the cheese as “laundered.” On the delicate cycle, I hope.
Lou Bren is Provençal dialect with multiple meanings. The bren (or brun in French) is the husk of the wheat seed, the brown part, a reference to the caramel-colored rind on this cheese. But it also translates, roughly, as “the cute little one,” appropriate for a wheel that initially weighed 500 grams (a little over one pound). The creamery now also makes a seven-pound disk, which is what we’re getting. It’s the Grand Lou Bren, or the big little one.
Think of it as a sheep’s-milk St. Nectaire, says Le Meunier. Made with heat-treated (but not pasteurized) milk, Lou Bren is washed three to four times as it ages with a mixture of brine and annatto—the plant-based dye that gives the rind its dark golden hue. It spends 45 days at the creamery, long enough to develop a moist, tacky exterior and a beefy aroma. Although Le Meunier is an affineur, he doesn’t mature this cheese himself; the creamery selects batches for him based on the characteristics he specifies.
I love everything about this cheese: its handsome appearance, its seductive aroma, its tender texture. The interior is uniformly ivory, with a few tiny openings; the damp rind is dusted plentifully with white mold, a sign to me that the cheese is alive. Sometimes cheeses of this type are dense and sticky inside, which turns me off, but Lou Bren is amazingly light. It smells of cave, aged meat and mushrooms and a little bit of roasted peanuts. Please do eat the rind; its briny crunch is part of the sensory experience, like a sprinkle of fleur de sel on an egg.
I wish more merchants were carrying this cheese; ask for it and let’s make that happen. Look for it at Say Cheese in San Francisco; Good Earth in Fairfax; Oxbow Cheese Merchant in Napa; Oliver’s Market in Santa Rosa (Stony Point and Montecito); and Sacramento Natural Foods. Corbières would be the red wine of the region, but for me, this is beer cheese. A saison or farmhouse ale, like Boulevard Brewing’s Tank 7, would be my choice.