Ask the Cheesemonger: Ray Bair
Q: What does AOC stand for and why does it matter? A: Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée, or AOC, is a French food-labeling term that protects the style, ingredients, and origin of a product. Many of Europe’s oldest food products are protected by similar designations, such as Italy’s DOC (Denominazione di Origine Controllata) and Spain’s DO (Denominación de Origen). So you can appreciate the value of such labels, let me put AOC in context. As a child, I often heard my parents order “Roquefort” dressing on their salads at their favorite restaurant. While I knew then that Roquefort was blue cheese, I had no idea it was a specific AOC-protected blue cheese made exclusively from raw sheep’s milk and aged in the caves of Roquefort-sur-Soulzon in southern France. By the AOC rules, if cheesemakers in northern France want to make Roquefort, they have to move to Roquefort country; otherwise, they must give their blue cheese another name. And therein lies the purpose of AOC—to protect the identity of a long-established artisan food product. In so doing, the AOC rules support the livelihood of the cheesemaker, the farmer, and their community, all of whom have built a reputation over generations of making a particular food. Without the AOC protection granted to Roquefort in 1925, we might think it was perfectly appropriate for this cheese to be reproduced with pasteurized cow’s milk in an industrial park in, say, New Jersey. Moreover, because of Roquefort’s stringent AOC laws, there remain today only seven producers of Roquefort, thus ensuring that this great cheese is local, traditional, and true to form. As cheese shoppers, we can be confident that these labels help guarantee consistency and quality in the cheese we choose. Valençay, for example, is another AOC cheese that has three essential definitions: it is made from goat’s milk, used raw, with production in a specific province in central France. If you change any of these basic controls (for example, changing the milk from goat’s to sheep’s), the cheese won’t be true and authentic. An AOC label, then, is a seal of approval you can count on. Q: The rinds on cheese vary so much. Are they all edible? A: This is the second most frequently asked question at my shop, Cheese Plus. (“What’s your favorite cheese?” is first.) And the simple answer is yes—and no. It really depends on the cheese and your preference. Once while traveling in France I noticed many of the older folks at the table did not eat the rinds, stating that they really wanted to taste the pureness of the cheese. But I feel that much of the magic of cheese is what lies between the rind and the cheese, and in some situations the rind has so much flavor and character I’d hate to miss out.
But not all rinds are edible. Waxy rinds on cheeses like Manchego or Gouda are there to keep the moisture in and the bad stuff out and therefore deliver no flavor or texture benefits. On the other hand, the rind of Parmigiano-Reggiano, while hard and dry, delivers big-time flavor and is a wonderful addition to soups and stocks. Don’t be afraid of the gray fuzzy mold on certain cheeses or the sticky orange stinky stuff either—it won’t hurt you. The mold is there to protect the interior of the cheese and to add overall character to the cheese. So let your taste buds guide you—try a piece with and without the rind, and decide for yourself. Photo by Caren Alpert