How do you make the world’s best cheese? For one answer, I turned to Marc Druart, master cheesemaker and senior director of R&D for Emmi Roth USA. Roth’s Grand Cru Surchoix scored highest (98.882 points) at this year’s World Championship Cheese Contest, which makes it the World Champion Cheese. I wanted to know how you transform cow’s milk into a wheel that’s just one point shy of perfect.
Last week, Druart walked me painstakingly through the recipe and the science. (We spoke for two hours.) He’s the engaging chemistry teacher I never had, adept at crafting analogies that make abstract concepts clear. At one point—this may be a stretch—he compared the way rennet makes milk proteins clump to how people find like-minded friends on Facebook. Well, it worked for me.
Grand Cru Surchoix, a Wisconsin cheese in the Gruyère family, has auspicious roots. Emmi, the large Swiss dairy company that owns Emmi Roth, has deep expertise and deep pockets. Its Kaltbach Le Gruyère is impeccable, an exemplar of Swiss cheesemaking know-how. It is, of course, a raw-milk cheese because that’s what the PDO (the EU’s protected designation of origin status) requires.
For Surchoix, the company targeted “a flavor profile that the American customer tends to prefer,” says Druart—sweeter, less brothy, less pungent than Gruyère. Different cultures were necessary because Surchoix starts with thermised (heat-treated) milk. It’s not pasteurized, but it’s not raw.
“If you ask me what made the Surchoix a winner, I would say that the special blend of starter cultures is likely the biggest contributing factor,” says Druart. He cited some other key elements as well: fresh milk with a low bacterial count; a skilled cheesemaker who hits the moisture and salt targets; an affineur who makes sure the rind develops properly; and expert graders who monitor the aging wheels and can tell when a batch peaks. “The rest is just like watching grass grow,” says Druart. Yeah, right.
Other major players:
- The copper vat: This efficient heat conductor is important for a cooked-curd cheese like Surchoix. And copper is bacteriostatic. It slows the growth of milk microflora without killing them. The Swiss like those barny/eggy/oniony aromas that raw-milk microflora can produce. Emmi Roth has a different goal. “We don’t want too much NSLAB profile,” says Druart, using shorthand for the native bacteria.
- The proprietary morge, or smear, painted on the wheels as they cure. A mixture of brine, bacteria and yeasts, the smear contributes greatly to aroma over time.
Ah, yes, time. The winning wheel of Surchoix was about a year old and showed some crystallization and deep caramel notes, says Druart. I didn’t find either of those characteristics in the wedge the creamery sent me, which was not from the winning wheel and was likely two to three months younger. It was delightfully silky, with aromas of cream, pineapple and walnut and just a whiff of cooked onion. The flavors were balanced and mellow, but without the intensity and heightened beefy notes that I love in the Kaltbach and in extra-aged Roth’s Private Reserve, a similar cheese from the same creamery.
Look for Grand Cru Surchoix at select Whole Foods nationwide. You can also find it in some Safeway stores in Northern California; some Ralph’s and Gelson’s locations in Southern California; Harmon’s in Salt Lake City; and Cheese Addiction in Long Beach, Calif. Open a malt-forward beer like a porter or bock or pair with a rich Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, Madeira or off-dry sherry.