When you think about cheese producing nations then France or Switzerland immediately spring to mind. However, in Belgium you will also find several hundred different cheeses, many from artisanal cheese makers. The news about the quality of Belgian cheese is now filtering through to the retail and gastronomy sectors.
You will come across more and more Belgian cheeses as part of a refined cheese selection. Some award-winning restaurants now offer only Belgian cheese.
The current trend towards celebrating 'terroir' – produce from your own region – is having an impact on cheese as well as beer.
This is all great news, but how do you assemble the ideal Belgian cheese board? Are there specific rules? No-one is better placed than Belgian cheese 'affineurs' Fréderic and Michel Van Tricht.
Father Michel has been in the trade for 40 years and he sees an increasing popularity of Belgian cheeses, to his immense satisfaction. His advice is to provide six types of cheese: white rind; goat’s cheese; sheep’s cheese; semi-hard and hard cheese; red cheese; blue cheese. Also, he recommends that you respect the rules of building flavour: from mild to strong.
If you start off with a strong cheese, a blue cheese for example, then its aroma will threaten to overpower the flavour of the lighter ones, which you then won’t be able to taste.
Michel Van Tricht personally is in favour of presenting a single cheese after the meal rather than an assortment.
He’d rather have one perfectly ripe cheese paired with the right beer than a huge range and variations of cheeses with beers that don’t actually suit them. Same as with any beer and food pairing, balance is everything....Who are we to discuss with one of the country's top cheese specialists?
Achelse Blauwe - Grevenbroecker
- Blue Cheese
The Catharinadal dairy sits on a site that for many years was inhabited by Franciscan nuns. The Achelse Kluis abbey, which brews the eponymous Trappist beer, is also nearby. Catharinadal produces, in a time-honoured way, the Grevenbroecker, also known as the Achelse Blauwe.
This lushly creamy, unpasteurised blue cheese was awarded the prize for Best Regional Cheese in the World in Lyon in 2009. The high quality cow’s milk is provided by Maas-Rijn-IJssel cattle.
This bovine breed, unfortunately threatened with extinction, produces milk that is eminently suitable for this unique cheese as its milk is less bitter than that produced by the traditional Holsteins.
The cows graze in wonderful meadows at a farm 3 kilometres from Catharinadal in a green oasis.
Bert Boonen oversees the farm’s operation and his brother Peter is in charge of producing the Grevenbroecker and around 150 other types of cheese. This cheese is best enjoyed after a maturation period of eight weeks. It is not injected with a particular bacterium, rather, slabs of curd are cut and layered on top of one another to start off the development of Penicillium Roqueforti, the blue mould that produces this beautifully marbled cheese.
This blue cheese has a very low salt content, is very mild in taste and spreadable at room temperature. An ideal blue cheese for beginners.
- Beer Pairing Tips: Savour this unique cheese with a nice dark beer that is not too sweet, overly strong or overpowering in taste.
- White rind cheese
Since 1974 Ferme Grodent has been producing organic, unpasteurised milk cheeses and dairy products in the village of Burnenville in the heart of the Ardennes using the cheese maker’s own cows. They graze in the lush Ardennes grasslands with their rich covering of flowers and neighbouring woodlands.
According to the cheese maker, this cheese has a “soul” typical of the region and the farm where he first saw the light of day. Bernister Fleuri is made only from untreated organic milk without any artificial additions.
Only natural curdling agents and sea salt are used. The taste of this cheese, made on the farm, is pleasantly mild and its texture beautifully creamy. As the name indicates, the Bernister Fleuri is covered in a white downy layer, the Penicillium Candidum mould. The cheese is soft and tender and its delicate aroma testifies to its Ardennes provenance.
Ferme Grodent is a guarantee of both durable agricultural traditions and transformational beliefs: respect for people, the environment and society are far from hollow phrases here.
- Beer Pairing Tips: Try this cheese with a light blond beer or saison.
- Blue Cheese
Bio Bleu was conceived at the request of cheese affineur Van Tricht to be the baby brother of the Pas De Bleu. It is a zesty blue cheese made from organic raw cow’s milk. The cheese is produced by the co-operative 'Het Hinkelspel' dairy in Sleidinge.
The milk is sourced from a number of farms in the Westhoek region and the cheese will mature for six to eight weeks.
The added souring agent will have plenty of time to work on the cheese, hence its zesty character.
The Penicillium Roqueforti mould goes to work on the fats and proteins and will provide the distinctive taste and creamy texture. The Bio Bleu is made from unpasteurised milk and matured using bacteria. After two months’ ripening the cheese is wrapped in aluminium foil to slow down the mould’s growth and limit further development of the crust.
At a low temperature (2° to 4°C) this wrapped-up cheese can continue to mature for a number of months. Bio Bleu is ideal for consumption when it is three to four months old. If you leave it to ripen for longer it will become zestier. The milk used for this cheese is sourced from the Ypres region.
- Beer Pairing Tips: Enjoy this 100% organic cheese with a nice Belgian fruit beer of choice.
Blankaart - 'Keiemse Witten'
- White rind cheese
This is a variety of the 'Keiemse Witten' that has been produced in a square shape at the request of cheese affineur Van Tricht so the affinage or aging could be done differently. This organic cheese is produced from organic raw cow’s milk by cheese makers ’t Dischhof in Keiem close to Diksmuide, West Flanders.
Enzymes remain intact in the raw milk and during maturation the Blankaart develops a deep, rich taste and a full-bodied aroma.
All 'Dischhof' cheeses have a covering of sea salt, which has a more balanced composition than refined kitchen salt. Modified bacteria are used in the rennet. Blankaart is a very mild cheese with the chalky structure of a Chaource from French Burgundy. This soft cheese with a white mouldy rind has a fresh, slightly sour flavour. It is produced with cow’s milk, fresh every day, a quarter creamed off to keep the fat content down. It’s good to know that you can eat the crust, as you can with other white rind cheeses.
In fact, the crust enhances the flavour, provided the cheese has been matured with care.
- Beer Pairing Tips: Nice to enjoy with a dry old Gueuze, the acidity of the beer works very well with this cheese.
- Goat milk cheese
It is not often you come across a goat’s cheese with a rinsed crust, but the Cabriolait is the exception to this rule. The Cabriolait is produced in the same way as the Pas de Rouge. Its slightly dryer texture, finer and less fatty, is quite noticeable and is thanks to the fact that the molecules of fat and protein in goat’s milk are smaller than in cow’s milk.
The cheese maker procures his milk from white Saanen goats that have been crossed with the alpine breed. This milk is delivered day-fresh from the farm and is used immediately.
This results in a very tasty product. The red bacteria, which works through the crust, give a slight hazelnut aroma and a subtler finished product. Cabriolait is a characteristic product of the cheese dairy, 'Het Hinkelspel', in Sleidinge.
The cheese is guaranteed free from preservation or colouring agents and during its production process raw material and energy waste is avoided. Cheese affineur Van Tricht will leave this goat’s cheese, made with unpasteurised milk, to mature for a minimum of three months so it loses some of its characteristic sour taste.
- Beer Pairing Tips: Savour this goat cheese with a fruity, strong Belgian blond beer.
- Goat milk cheese
Chevrin is a white mould cheese with an ivory centre made from raw goat’s milk. The Gros Chêne farm, owned by Daniel Cloots, is located in the heart of the Ardennes in the village of Maffe near Méan. This village is a star on the cheese map with its four traditional cheese makers.
Daniel has been producing beautiful artisanal cheeses since 1976, some made with organic milk. At Gros Chêne they don’t skimp on production time and leave the cheeses to acquire their full flavour.
Milk quality and respect for the environment take centre stage. Every third Sunday in September, Ferme Gros Chêne takes part in the Route du Fromage, a weekend event with dairy visits, tastings and film shows. The Chevrin is a cheese of the Camembert type. Its initial taste includes hints of milk and mushrooms.
Further maturation results in a creamier texture and a more complex taste. Very ripe cheeses may even develop truffle aromas.
- Beer Pairing Tips: Enjoy this with a fruity, slightly hopped Belgian blond beer.
Chimay à la Bleue
- Semi-hard/hard cheese
During maturation the Chimay à la Bleue cheese is rinsed in the Trappist beer of the same name. This gives a strong flavour to the cheese, evening out the slightly bitter hop aromas. The tastes of malt and yeast from the beer are beautifully balanced, most notably in the naturally edible crust of the cheese.
As only the crust of the cheese is in touch with the beer, it is here that you will find the best aromas from the Chimay Bleu.
Master affineur Jean-Marie Boch says: “For our cheeses we use the milk from small and medium-sized regional farms.
“The bacteria and enzymes in the brine bath will give the cheese its typical flavour,” Jean-Marie Boch emphasises. After the bath, the cheese is drained completely and dried. During the affinage, the aging process, in the maturation cellar (about two to three weeks) the cheese will be rinsed with beer.
- Beer Pairing Tips: Belgian Beer chef Hilaire Spreuwers personally finds that the Chimay à la Bleue is best enjoyed with a Chimay Bleu beer.
- Semi-hard/hard cheese
De Vierhoekhoeve farm has been producing beer cheeses for a number of years. The difference with traditional beer cheeses is that, instead of simply rinsing the crust in beer, the beer is used as an ingredient in the cheese itself.
The result is that you can taste the beer throughout the cheese and not just around the crust. Michel Van Tricht has worked with De Vierhoekshoeve to create a range of beer cheeses.
For example, De Vierhoekhoeve has been producing the celebrated Duvel cheese for a while, in addition to De Koninck cheese and Liefmans cheese, named after the well-known Belgian beers brewed by the Duvel Moortgat brewery. 'Duvelkaas' is made from unpasteurised milk, which is used in the cheese-making process immediately, while it is still warm.
The main difference to other beer cheeses is that the beer is added during the production stage so the taste runs through the cheese. Thanks to the low salt content of the raw milk the taste of the beer – yeast, malt and hops – is perfectly preserved. This cheese feels perfectly at home on a cheese board with artisanal mustard, with a Duvel, in a roll...
- Beer Pairing Tips: This cheese pairs up very nicely with a dark abbey or abbey styled beer beer or dry fruit beers.
- Red Cheese
Herve is the best-known Belgian cheese and also the only one with an AOP-label, which guarantees its provenance. In the 15th century this cheese was better known under the name of Remoudou, which comes from the French verb ‘remoudre’ which means ‘milking again’.
In fact, this was a clever tax-dodging technique employed by the farmers. After the tax inspector’s visit the farmers just carried on milking their cows.
Madeleine Hanssen of Ferme du Vieux Moulin in Herve produces cheeses from unpasteurised, full-fat milk on her traditional farm. In the cellars a variety of cheeses mature. You will find mild flavours as well as zesty cheeses made from unpasteurised milk, which have been resting for over two months, as well as Herve cheeses rinsed in beer. During ripening the cheese maker will rinse the square cheeses in slightly salted water two to three times a week. The zesty (piquant) Herve undergoes more rinses than the mild (doux) one.
The Herve cheese develops it characteristic taste through the working of yeast cells and bacteria that are unique to the Herve region near Liège.
In Herve and the surrounding region the Herve cheese is enjoyed on a slice of rye bread covered in 'Luikse stroop/Sirop de Liège'.
This is a very typical and very popular dark sugar syrup made mainly with Belgian pears and apples and a recognised regional product of Aubel, a small village also situated in the Herve region.
- Beer Pairing Tips: Goes well with stronger beers brewed with roast malts (amber to dark and very dark beers, for example) .
- White rind cheese
This is a very mild cow’s milk cheese with a mouldy crust, a very subtle taste and with a limited salt content. A variant is the 'herbed' Keiems bloempje with chives, garlic and parsley. This organic soft cheese originates from Keiem, a rather small village near Diksmuide.
The Keiems Bloempje is reminiscent of Camembert but has a milder taste.
A souring agent is added to the milk before curdling. The curds are then cut and water is added. This gets rid of the lactic acid and the sugars before the curd is placed in small baskets.
When it has drained, the cheeses are salted briefly. They are then injected with a white mould which starts off the maturation process. After just over two weeks a white crust of mould has formed and the cheese has acquired a rich and full taste.
- Beer Pairing Tips: Try Keiems Bloempje with a light blond beer, strong dark beers will overpower the cheese.
Le Petit Lathuy
- White rind cheese
In Werbomont, the heart of the Belgian Ardennes, the Fromagerie des Ardennes collects its milk three times a week from the nearby organic farms. You’d be hard pressed to find milk fresher than this. The cows graze in the lush Ardennes meadows and produce the rich, high-quality milk that gives the cheese its exceptional taste.
The Petit Lathuy is an organic soft cheese made from unpasteurised milk. It is shaped like a small wheel with a diameter of 12 cm. It is 3 cm thick and weighs around 300 grams.
Its crust, with the white flora very apparent on the surface, is composed of very special moulds that form during maturation in the cellar. The variety of mould is identical to that of Camembert.
Le Petit Lathuy is a supple, creamy, delicate cheese which is lightly salted. In 2004 this cheese was awarded the Crystal Cockerel at the international Libramont agricultural fair.
In 2005 it was crowned Cheese of the Year at the Walloon cheese competition held at Harzé Castle. The Bioferme dairy is located in Lathuy village, which gives its name to this cheese.
- Beer Pairing Tips: Pair this one up with a sligthly sweet blond beer preferably not to high in alcohol percentage.
Li P’tit Rossê
- Red Cheese
This cheese dairy is located in a typical agricultural region in the heart of the Belgian Ardennes. Fromagerie des Ardennes sources its quality milk from local farms and uses it to produce a number of organic dairy products. Li P’tit Rossê is a beautifully mild, small square cheese with a rinsed crust.
Fromagerie des Ardennes in Werbomont, founded in 1996, now have a new building in which only artisanal cheeses may be produced using the highest quality mould capable of being labelled organic.
This is how the cheese makers are able to fulfil the ever more stringent European requirements. Li P’tit Rossé is a zesty cheese based on unpasteurised, organic cow’s milk. The taste is not dissimilar to a mild Herve cheese. Its orange-coloured crust is covered in a white downy layer indicating that various moulds have been at work.
In 2000 this cheese was awarded a Crystal Cockerel at the Libramont international agricultural fair. Le Grand Rossé is its big brother.
- Beer Pairing Tips: Enjoy this with a strong blond Belgian beer.
Mamé Vî Bleu
- Blue Cheese
This organic cow’s cheese, made from unpasteurised milk, comes from a village in the Liège area. The Mamé Vî Bleu – Walloon dialect for old blue mould - is one of the few Belgian blue cheeses.
It ripens for two to three months and has a very pronounced, powerful taste.
At his small dairy, cheese maker Daniel Cloots of Gros Chêne in Méan produces star-quality cheeses from fresh cow’s or goat’s milk from nearby farms.
The cheese maker only sells his produce at the local market or to exclusive cheese shops.
The Mamé Vî Bleu is a very dry blue cheese. The Penicillium Roqueforti curdling agent is added to the curds in powder form.
The cheese will then mature for a number of weeks in the dairy’s cellar having been pierced a number of times so the veins can develop.
In 2009 the cheese was awarded a gold medal at the Walloon Fromawall contest. Daniel sells his cheese at the Saturday morning market in Place du Palais de Justice, in Namur.
- Beer Pairing Tips: Pair this bleu cheese up with fruit beer like an "oude kriek".
- Goat milk cheese
Neteling is a farm-produced small goat’s cheese made with raw milk from the Kempen region. This cheese was developed by Michel Van Tricht together with Veerle Minsaer and Paul D’Haene of Polle goat farm in Lichtaart. Paul is a familiar face in the Antwerp area. Every week you can see him at work at the popular Saturday market in the centre of Antwerp.
To create Neteling the cheese maker took his inspiration from the French Valençay.
The pyramid-shaped goat’s cheese is sprinkled with salted charcoal ashes, which after maturation give a beautiful grey and blue flora on the crust. The Neteling was named after the river Nete which flows close to the dairy. In time, the cheese will acquire a silver patina. The Neteling is a tasty and accessible goat’s cheese. Polle’s cheeses have won awards: in Rome, the cheese maker from the Kempen won two gold medals.
The Neteling was crowned not only the best goat’s cheese but also the best international entry by the Italian Chamber of Commerce.
Paul has 500 dairy goats on his farm and besides cheese, Veerle and Paul produce quiches, cheese croquettes, ice cream and yoghurt from their milk.
- Beer Pairing Tips: Taste the Neteling with a slightly hopped Belgian blond beer.
Pas de Rouge
- Red Cheese
This semi-hard cow’s cheese, a type of abbey cheese, has its origins in the Ghent region. This cheese owes its fully-rounded taste and its reddish colour to the red bacteria, Bacterium Linens, which is present in the brine used for daily rinsing.
The Pas de Rouge takes four to five weeks to mature. The longer it is left to mature, the stronger and more pronounced the taste will be.
Traditionally, abbey cheeses are made from raw cow’s milk and have quite a soft centre with a sensitive crust. In the maturation cellars moulds and bacteria will form on the crust.
When the cheese maker rinses the crust in brine the red bacteria will become more active and the cheeses will take on a beautiful, reddish-brown colour.
The curds are finished off with the utmost care to produce strong lactic acid fermentation and a very mild, subtle dairy product. Pas de Rouge is made using raw organic cow’s milk which meets the highest standards. The only added ingredients are souring and curdling agents, sea salt and Bacterium Linens. Het Hinkelspel dairy first saw the light in 1982 when three students started making cheese as a hobby.
Since then they have grown into a real trendsetter amongst artisanal and organic cheese makers in Belgium. Het Hinkelspel was originally based in Ghent but production has since moved to Sleidinge.
- Beer Pairing Tips: This cheese goes perfect with an Orval Trappist beer
Vieux Moinette affiné à la bière
- Semi-hard/hard cheese
Brasserie Dupont embodies Belgian beer culture. Brewing here began in 1844 and has not stopped since. The brewery is primarily known for its saison, a typical seasonal beer that was traditionally brewed on farms in winter for consumption during the busy summer months.
It is less widely known that Dupont also produces cheeses. The brewer’s wife is responsible for this semi-hard abbey styled cheese, made with thermised milk, which has been heated to a temperature between raw and pasteurised.
She rinses the crust with Moinette beer. But the cheese owes its additional beery character to two brewing ingredients that are added to the curd: hops and malt. These give a light and slightly bitter touch to the cheese.
The brewer-cheese maker is located in an idyllic village lost amongst the fields. Time passes more slowly here; now and again you will see a cyclist or a car stopping to pick up some beer. Finding these brilliant products in-store requires considerable sleuthing skills. Olivier and Pascale De Deycker are carrying on a family tradition and will continue to produce their delicious beer and cheese on a small scale.
The Dupont beers are gaining more and more international acclaim thanks to its unashamedly traditional character.
- Beer Pairing Tips: Nice to have with a dry blond beer that doesn't overpower the cheese, type saison.
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