Cheese 101

Posted by Lauren Dashwood

Cheese is suddenly everywhere. A myriad of different cheese types are popping up on menus and in grocery stores everywhere. Unusual world cheeses are likewise appearing in a variety of recipes from desert, to breakfast to fondue. Cheese is vogue, and it's really no wonder. Cheese is wonderfully versatile, can occupy a fundamental place at every meal, and ranges from run of the mill orange cheddar to the unique and stunning such as the pungent French Epoisse. Here are some bare guidelines and pointers, which can help to decipher the basic questions.

Hard cheeses have been aged longer, so they lose more of their moisture. Even cheeses within this category can vary greatly in firmness between semi-hard (like younger Asiagos or Cheddar) to hard (a Gouda or Gruyere) to very hard (like a true Parmigiano-Reggiano). Examples of hard cheeses include the ubiquitous Cheddar, Parmesan, Asiago, Gouda, and Gruyere. But also look for these lovely, if harder to find, kinds such as Appenzeller, Marechal (my personal, all time favourite), Beemster, or Pecorino Romano.

A soft cheese has retained a lot more of its moisture than a hard cheese, which is what makes it gooey and often spreadable. A soft cheese is typically surface ripened, which means it ripens from the outside in (the white rind is actually called a 'bloom', which is part of the bacteria culture aging the cheese.) While the cheese is ripening, or aging, it is stored in a controlled temperature environment. This allows the bacteria, enzymes, and acids to age and develop, which give each cheese its individual qualities. Brie and Camembert are probably the most famous examples of soft cheeses, but others to look for include Reblochon, or Saint-Marcellin.

Soft cheeses can also have a wash-rind, which means they are washed with an acidy liquid - for example, some cheeses are 'washed' with beer or wine. Washed rind cheeses are delicious but can be extremely stinky. Examples include the Canadian Oka, or the German Munster.

Brie versus Camembert
The difference between Brie and Camembert all comes from the size of the wheel. Brie is made in a large round, while a Camembert comes in small rounds. That's it. Brie was originally made in the once pastoral farmlands around Paris. Wars ravaged this area from the Franco-Prussian War in 1870 to World War Two; the destruction of these wars along with a growing industrial boon, eliminated the pastoral farmlands. The original lands and recipe producing Brie were mostly lost. Try Brie de Meaux or Camembert de Normandy for two high quality and dependable examples of these cheeses.

Goat and Sheep
Although cow's milk is probably the most popular, there are many, many wonderful goat and sheep milk cheeses available. Goat and sheep milk cheeses can be blue, hard or soft. The milk provides a slightly sharper, or more 'herby' flavour than cow milk, and people who are lactose intolerant may have an easier time digesting sheep or goat cheese. Look for Spanish Manchego, or any cheese called 'percorino' (which simply means sheep in Italian) for excellent examples of wonderful sheep milk cheeses. Look for the creamy chevre, or the name controlled Crottin or Valencay from France for delightful goat milk cheeses. Cheese can be made from any milk, and there is the delicious mozzarella di buffala made in Italy, which is made from Black Water Buffalo's milk.

Blue cheese has pencillium bacteria cultures introduced during the aging process, which results in the visible blue mold veins. Again, blue cheese can range from hard, soft, goat, cow to sheep milk cheeses. It also ranges in strength, from the milder Roche-Baron to the ragingly strong Roquefort. Look for other famous types including Stilton, Gorgonzola, Cashel or Cabrales.

Try this simple recipe for a Swiss Three Cheese Fondue or, this stunning recipe for a Baked Camembert.