Sun, 11 Jun 2000

Le Meridien holds another cheese festival

By Tim Cooper

JAKARTA (JP): It's not always easy to find great cheese in Indonesia. The annual Cheese Festival at Le Meridien Hotel, is therefore a popular event. By the number of people who attended the launch party of this year's festival, held from the June 6 to June 14, looks as if it will be no exception.

This is the fifth time the hotel has hosted the event and the third time that this year's festival Cheese Master, Claude Lauxerrois, has brought cheeses to Jakarta.

The 30 cheeses which Lauxerrois is presenting were chosen according to season, his own taste and experience of local taste from previous festivals.

Cheeses available here are not as strong as they might be. Lauxerrois admits that due to Jakarta's lack of exposure to strong cheeses, he has toned down the smell, flavor and even coloring of his selection this year.

Nonetheless, many of them give off a heady aroma and some are still extremely pungent to taste or leave a strong aftertaste. According to Le Meridien general manager Jean-Louis Ripoche, most cheeses we buy from the shops are, by legal necessity, pasteurized. However, he said: "You say pasteurized to a World Cheese Master and he turns blue" because the process kills much of the bacteria that are necessary to produce flavor.

Brice Borin, executive chef at Le Meridien says, "These special cheeses are only fit to be eaten within a short period of time, perhaps four weeks. It takes a master who understands the complete process of cheese making -- fermentation, bacteria growth etc., -- to tell by touch, smell or taste what the right time is", especially when the cheeses then have to be packed up and carted halfway around the world before they are eaten.

Lauxerrois, who is one of the top ten Cheese Masters in the world, said that this year's festival will be different from last year's because there are now spring cheeses (for example, Vacherin, Comte and Emmenthal) which are prepared in different conditions to the autumn cheeses which were available last year (the 1999 event was held in October).

The selection is available at La Brasserie, which is open from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. for lunch and 6:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. for dinner. A full buffet lunch, including cheese, costs Rp 99,000, or if you like you can just have the cheese at Rp 75,000.

Dining is accompanied by the affable strains of organ grinder, Gilles Butin's, traditional French street music.

And so to the main attraction.

The cheeses are grouped according to family and there is a wide variety to suit every taste.

There are the blue cheeses, the excellent Roquefort, for example. This is the most expensive cheese on the list because, like any real Roquefort, it is made only from sheep's milk which you get less of per animal than from cows or goats.

There are several smelly goat's cheeses, for example Chavignol and St. Maure which is rolled in ash for extra smell and flavor. The wood used for the ash is a secret (as indicated by the Cheese Master tapping the end of his proud Gallic nose).

There are two brash and coarsely-textured Corsican cheeses (also rolled in ash and in herbs) as perhaps befits the products of Napoleon's birthplace.

For the more delicate palate, there are some delicious creamy cheeses such as Pont L'Eveque, Livarot and (Butin's favorite) Chaource.

Then, of course, there are traditional and much-copied favorites like Brie and Camembert.

A unique cheese, favored by Borin, is the Epoisses from Burgundy. This is left to soak in a few drops of local white grape liquer giving the crust a particular flavor. The inside is very soft, however, and has such a delicate texture that it will start to run after only a few hours out of the box in a warm room, so be quick.

There are also the harder cheeses such as Emmenthal and Comte. These cheeses are full of flavor, but watch out as they can leave a powerful aftertaste.

It is a pity that, having been asked to come all the way from Europe to present 30 cheeses, Lauxerrois should not bring some samples from other countries apart from France. You could be forgiven for arriving at a cheese festival expecting to sample a lovely mature Cheddar or an Italian dolcelatte.

Certainly, the French theme, especially the music, adds fun and color to the event, but perhaps Le Meridien could include an international section next year.

Borin replies: "Because we are a French hotel, we promote that. Besides the French are always very pro-French, if you go to a regional restaurant you only get cheese and wine from that area."

This minor detail aside, the selection here is a cheese lover's delight. Why not finish your sampling with the Cheese Master's own favorite, the Brie Coulomiers (not surprisingly, it's from his region), washed down with a delicious, light Bordeaux from the Brasserie list?