WHAT IS CHEESE?
Cheese is concentrated, fermented milk. It consists of fat, minerals, vitamins, and in fresh cheeses, carbohydrates and water – the amounts of each vary depending on the type of cheese. There is a legend of how cheese was discovered thousands of years ago by an Asian nomad on a journey by horse or camel. In his carrying milk in a leather pouch made of calf’s stomach. After many hours in the heat the nomad was thirsty, but when he looked inside his saddlebag the milk had turned to curds. He must have found the product pleasing because from then on cheese became a way of preserving surplus milk.
HOW IS CHEESE MADE
Cheese can be made from the milk of several different animals such as cows, ewes, goats and buffalo. There are four main steps involved in teh cheese making process:
Bacteria that produce lactic acid are infused into the warm milk to produce acidity for the action of the rennet.
Coagulation. Rennet (a substance extracted from the stomach lining of unweaned animals such as calves, lambs, kids) causes the casein (milk protein) to coagulate and then saparate into curds (solid) and whey (liquid).
Cutting and draining. The curds are either made into fresh cheese or stirred, kneaded, cut or cooked. They are then put into molds (sometimes a bacteria culture is added) and left to drain. This is promoted by salting (wither on the surface or by being immersed in brine).
Ripening. This process allows the bland and crumbly or rubbery curds to turn into a smooth substance with pronounced flavour. The cheese is left out for varying amounts of time in a damp or dry atmosphere.
FAMILIES OF CHEESE
A cheese can be classified in many ways: by process or recipe used to make it; by the type of milk used; by its texture; or by the appearance of its rind. Here are the basic families of cheese:
Fresh Cheeses: are uncooked and unripened curds – usually very moist and mild. Their flavour is characterised by a pleasant tartness. Some include cream cheese, cottage cheese, ricotta, chevre and marscapone.
Bloomy Rind (soft ripened): have a semi-soft consistency and have been surface ripened which means they ripen from the outside to inside. Their crusts are thin, white and velvety/bloomy. Bloomy rind cheeses have a mild flavour, some examples of which are: Camembert, St. Agur, Brie de Meaux, and Cambazola (which is a pierced cheese).
Washed Rind Cheeses: cheeses that are ripened by washing their rinds in either a salt and water solution or an alcohol solution such as brandy or eau de vie. Theses cheeses have a strong, pronounced flavour and often their rinds are moist, sticky and orange in colour. Some examples include: Epoisse, Langres, St. Marcellin, St. Felicien, and Carre de l’est.
Natural Rind Cheeses: theses cheeses have self formed rinds – usually a thick ‘shell’ – are denser in texture than other cheeses and usually aged longer. Some examples include: Beaufort, Comte, Tomme de Savoie, and Mimolette.
Blue Veined or Pierced Cheeses: The most notable trait of these cheeses is that they are marbled with bluish green mould. The cheese is pierced with a rod to allow air to low to the interior creating the blue veins; the longer the cheese ages, the more ‘blue’ it becomes. Some examples include: Roquefort, Gorgonzola, Stilton, and Shropshire Blue.
Uncooked Pressed Cheeses: these are made from curd that has not been heated (or cooked) to solidify it. They are pressed to aid the drainage of whey to achieve a specific firm texture. Some examples include: Morbier, Tomme de Savoie, Italian Montastic, and Spanish Manchego.
Cooked Presses Cheeses: a cheese made from a curd that has been heated or cooked before pressing out the excess whey. Examples include: Gouda, Gruyere, Emmenthal, Cheddar, and Parmesan Reggiano.
Processed Cheese: a cheese by product made from a combination of natural cheese, vegetable based gums, dyes, emulsifiers and stabilizers. It usually has a smooth spreadable consistency, a chemical like flavour, and a long shelf life. Most popular examples are: Cheez Whiz and Velveeta
Buy cheese from a reputable shop, but also be sure to check the quality of the cheese by looking closely and asking for a taste. The store should be clean and preferably the cheeses should be covered or wrapped. Strong scented cheeses should be kept separate from the mild ones so as not to infect them with flavour, and most cheeses should be kept refrigerated; hard cheeses can be kept out if the temperature is cool.
Different families of cheeses also have different characteristics to lookout for. Pressed cheeses should look firm and not have dry or cracked surfaces or mouldy flecks. Blues should look moist and the marbling should be pleasing: if a blue is old it gets a dry, granular, cakey look. It is particularly important to taste Roquefort before buying because it can be over salty. Other important tips to keep in mind: Swiss cheeses must have Switzerland printed on the rind; Parmesan must have Parmesan Reggiano printed on the rind to be authentic; and soft cheeses should be springy to the touch and evenly soft from centre to edge. If cheeses have an ammonia smell they are past their prime.
It is best to store cheese in a cool room but this is hard to find here in North America. The French shun keeping cheese refrigerates and say that it is only because of North America’s fear of germs that we do so. The best temperature to store cheese at is between 35–38 F. Cheese must be well wrapped to keep moisture in and to keep invading odours out.
Cheddar and Parmesan can last for months if well wrapped in plastic, foil, or a damp cloth. The cloth will not adhere as well as the plastic but it restores the moisture a cheese loses. Firm and semi-firm cheeses have a longer life than soft and are safe to buy in large quantities. The cheese may form a surface mould over time, but if it has been well wrapped this can be cut off and the cheese underneath will be fine.
Blue cheese should be wrapped in a damp cloth to permit air to reach it. It should be covered by a glass or plastic dome to keep it from losing too much moisture while still ensuring sufficient airflow. The blue veins should continue to develop flavour while refrigerated and the flavour will become stronger the longer the cheese is kept.
Soft cheeses should not be kept for long periods of time. If a Brie has been allowed to flow after being out at room temperature, it should not be refrigerated again.
Enriched cheeses seem to hold their flavour and texture longer than soft cheeses. They can be brought to room temperature and refrigerated again without deterioration of flavour.
Fresh cheeses should be bought in small quantities and kept away from foods with strong odours.
Leftover, dry pieces of parmesan rind can be stored in the freezer and are an excellent flavour addition to soups and stocks. Leftover pieces of blue cheese can be mixed with equal amounts of butter, moistened with brandy and worked into a delicious spread: stored in a small crock it will keep indefinitely.