When I grew up my exposure to cheese was limited to grilled cheese sandwiches and macaroni and cheese, made with Velveeta American processed cheese. The selection of cheeses in grocery stores was limited and gourmet delis were nonexistent. Gradually American palates have become more sophisticated and we have a global selection of fine cheeses now available to us. My travels have allowed me to sample Gruyere fondue in Switzerland, caprese made with fresh mozzarella di buffalo in Italy, and Stilton in the United Kingdom.
Cheese predates written history, but is believed to have been discovered accidentally by an Arabian merchant who put his supply of milk into a pouch made from a sheep’s stomach, as he set out on a day’s journey across the desert. The rennet in the lining of the pouch, combined with the heat of the sun, caused the milk to separate into curd and whey. That night he found that the whey satisfied his thirst, and the cheese (curd) had a delightful flavor which satisfied his hunger
Ancient Egyptians loved cheese so much that depictions of the cheese-making process were painted in tombs in 2500 BC. Homer’s Odyssey talks about how Cyclops stored his cheese. The Greeks and Romans used cheese as a delicious currency. The Romans love to dine on fresh cheese with figs, but they also used it in salads. Cheese, olives and raisins made up he meager rations of the Roman soldiers. Cheese is even mentioned in the Bible. Between the eleventh and fourteenth centuries, monasteries dominated cheesemaking replacing stone or clay containers that had been common until then with copper kettles.
Many cheeses today are still produced via traditional methods and recipes, although processing has become easier with the advent of mechanization.
Cheese can be made from the milk of any mammal. The makeup of milk varies with the animal, and the variations are what make sheep cheese and goat cheese different from cow’s milk cheese. On the average, cow’s milk consists of 87% water, 3 ½% protein, 3 ¾% fat, and almost 5% lactose (milk sugar) by weight, along with water-soluble vitamins, such as A, B complex, and D. It is the protein and the lactose that are most important in cheesemaking.
Sheep’s milk contains almost double the fat content of cow’s milk and has a higher lactose content which gives it a slightly more acidic flavor. Examples of cheeses made from sheep’s milk are Italian Pecorino and Greek Feta.
Goat’s milk cheeses are known as chevre. The characteristic aroma derives from specific fatty acids which are formed soon after milking, although modern processing methods have helped to minimize the strong smell. Goat’s milk produces very small curds which is the reason why it is produced and sold in small packages.
To make cheese from milk, two things must occur: the lactose must convert into lactic acid, which is lower in acidity, and an enzyme must be added to trigger the clumping together of the casein molecules which causes curds to form. When that happens, the whey is drawn off and the process begins. The curds are cut, are slightly reheated for some varieties of cheese and salt is added to help draw off moisture. The hard cheeses are pressed, molded and air-dried. The final stage is aging or allowing the cheese to ripen.
It is through ripening that a cheese develops its varietal character. Cheeses ripen according to their shape, size, age and type. The temperature and humidity also affects the type of cheese made.
The best, most flavorful cheeses come from fresh, raw milk, but the USDA forbids the importation of raw-milk cheeses aged less than 60 days. Currently, more than one-third of all milk produced each year in the U.S. is used to manufacture cheese.
Would you like to try to make your own cheese at home? You can order supplies to get you started from the New England Cheesemaking Supply Co. (www.cheesemaking.com ) or for a more extensive program, get your cheesemaking certification from the University of Vermont’s Institute for Artisan Cheese.
Fresh Cheeses – essentially uncooked and unripened curds ready to eat directly after being made, like ricotta, cream cheese, farmers cheese, cottage cheese, Italian Mascarpone and French fromage blanc.
Soft cheeses – soft spreadable consistency, surface ripened (sprayed or exposed to molds so that they ripen from the rind inward), like French Brie and Camembert.
Semi-soft cheeses – Slightly less water content than soft cheeses. Examples include French Reblochon, Italian Taleggio, el Paese, German Butterkase and semi-soft cheeses with mold on the inside such as Roquefort, Gorgonzola, Stilton and a variety of blues.
Semi-hard cheeses – These cheeses have an elastic, firm texture and are easy to cut and usually have a wax, paraffin or plastic coating. What semi-hard cheeses have in common is the slight heating of the curd during the production process. Examples include Dutch Gouda, French Gruyere, German Tilsit, Swiss Appenzeller and Emmental.
Hard cheeses – made from curd that has not been heated or cooked to solidify it, but are pressed to complete the drainage of whey. They ripen evenly throughout and have a long shelf life. Examples include English Cheddar, Spanish Manchego and Italian Parmiggiano Reggiano, Pecorino Romano, Provolone, and French Morbier.
Processed cheese – a by-product made of natural cheese, vegetable-based guys, dyes, emulsifiers and stabilizers.
Carroll, Ricki. Home Cheese Making.
Hastings, Chester. The Cheesemonger’s Kitchen: Celebrating Cheese in 90 Recipes.
International Dairy Foods Association (www.idfa.org )
Jenkins, Steven. Cheese Primer.
Roberts, Jeffrey. The Atlas of American Artisan Cheese.
Smith, Tim. Making Artisan Cheese.