Like many people, I’ve aways loved cheese since childhood. A favorite evening snack as a kid was cheese, crackers, and fruit, often enjoyed with my dad while watching PBS. The cheeses I ate as a kid were largely limited to American, Cheddar, and the like; it wasn’t until I got older and started to encounter new flavors and even later when traveling to France that I was able to really start exploring into the wonderful world of cheese. Years later, I found myself teaching cheese classes at a gourmet cheese shop.
Okay, fine, but back up–how in the world did an English professor end up teaching cheese classes? Well, it began with a book, The Whole Fromage, to be exact. I had hit upon what I thought was a genius idea–to collaborate with my local cheesemonger and bookstore to do a twist on a book club–a book tasting. We would explore not only the book’s content but would taste the cheeses written about in its pages. Let’s just say I got a lot of interest but it wasn’t in reading the book, and eventually the cheese shop asked me to take over their classes. For 3 years I taught everything from Cheese 101 to sessions specializing in countries and cultures to pairing with charcuterie and beverages to making a DIY cheeseboard. I loved working with the lovely owners and watching students discovering the delicious and fascinating world of cheese. This was a wonderful complement to my existing food studies and cultural expertise–I devoured what must have been millions of words researching the history, traditions, and processes for cheeses around the world. I tried countless combinations of cheeses and accoutrements like chocolate, charcuterie, and gourmet condiments. My knowledge base and palate were forever changed in a more delicious direction.
This new chapter in my cheese journey came unexpectedly when the cheese shop sadly closed at the end of 2019. It was a shock but I was busy prepping to lead my college’s food and culture themed trip to Italy in January 2020. On that trip, I am happy to say I had the privilege of enjoying some of the best traditional foods that Italy has to offer, including its cheeses. My favorite memory is of a cheese shop in the Trastavere neighborhood of Rome, enjoying an unbelievable fresh mozzarella with my friend Tiziana, the brine running down our hands, and the kind shopkeeper allowing us to use his apron as a napkin. Di molto! Then shortly after returning, COVID-19 struck across the globe, upending how many of us enjoy food and time with family and friends. Since then, my daughters and I have been having weekly cheese tastings, courtesy of the selections from Wegmans and Costco, delivered via Instacart and guided by my cheese tasting booklet.
Now I am looking ahead to how I might support people’s cheese education remotely in a fun and engaging way. In December, I’ll be leading a cheese tasting to benefit a local non-profit, the Upcounty Prevention Network, which works to create a vibrant and healthy community for young people. And this blog post is meant to give a friendly and focused starting point for savoring the wonderful world of cheese, which can be overwhelming at first. Many of us have explored new hobbies during the pandemic, so why not take some time to increase your cheese IQ? As with many things, it’s best to start at the beginning….
Origins of Cheese
Cheesemaking actually predates recorded history and is thought to have arisen around the same time as the domestication of milk-producing animals, especially sheep. This dates cheese to about 8-10,000 years ago and is likely to have arisen in the fertile crescent area of ancient Mesopotamia and then spread into Europe. When we enjoy cheese as modern humans, we are enjoying a food item that has crossed civilizations and continents for millennia.
But who had the idea to eat cheese, anyway? One hypothesis claims that it was most likely an accidental discovery made when storing milk in a container made from a ruminant animal’s stomach. An enzyme that helps transform milk into cheese, rennet, is naturally present in stomach linings of these animals and may have been how the first cheese was born. Another theory claims that cheese may have been accidentally created from someone salting curdled milk in an effort to preserve it. And a final claim considers the possibility that someone mixing milk and fruit juice created cheese when the fruit enzymes caused the milk to curdle. No matter its actual origins, cheese went on to be an important method for preserving milk and an in-demand trade item in the ancient world and beyond.
Whatever the style or origin of a cheese, it always contains 4 basic ingredients: milk, coagulant, cultures, and salt. Cheese can be made from any milk or blend of milks, often determined by local traditions and climate. For example, Manchego comes from arid grassland in Spain, an environment sheep are adaptable to; Brie traditionally hails from the Normandy region of France with lush pastures ideal for cows. Cheeses hailing from parts of the world that are hot will be more of the fresh variety, meant to be made and consumed daily rather than aged cheeses that are to be enjoyed months or even years later. Regardless of where a cheese is made, these 4 basic ingredients remain universal.
What is the purpose and function of each of these 4 basic ingredients? Coagulants help the milk to become solid and include animal rennet, microbial, and vegetable. The use of animal rennet in some cheese production is why certain cheeses are labeled vegetarian since the rennet is derived from animals. Cultures may be added to cheeses to produce a certain style and flavor or may be naturally present through decades of cheesemaking. For example, Roquefort cheese is made in designated caves in a small French town with specific steps in the process to ensure that the cheese is impregnated with Pénicillium roqueforti to give it its distinctive blue veins and flavor. Lastly, salt helps to preserve the cheese, control the moisture content, and develop the desired body/texture. Beyond these three building blocks, cheeses can have a variety of additional ingredients from wines and liqueurs to herbs and spices and beyond.
Types of cheese
These are the 7 primary categories of cheese used in the United States for classification. They reflect the ingredients, process, appearance, and aging period of each. If you find you enjoy a cheese in a certain category, try other cheeses in that same category to expand your cheese IQ.
Fresh cheeses are rindless and meant to be consumed in a short period of time. Examples of fresh cheeses include: ricotta, fresh chevre, and fresh
2. Soft & Bloomy
Soft and bloomy rind cheeses are a bit more aged than fresh and generally contain a Penicillium Camemberti or Geotrichum
Candidum and have a white molded rind. Examples of soft and bloomy rind cheeses include: Brie, Bonne Bouche, and Humboldt Fog.
Washed rind cheeses are orange-colored, often wet-looking with distinct aroma and flavor due to Brevibacterium linens, a result of regular washing with brine or another solution. These cheeses have some funk. Examples of washed rind cheeses include:
Epoisses, Red Hawk, and Munster.
Semi-soft cheeses are pliable in texture and great melters for cooking. Examples of semi-soft cheeses include: Tomme Crayeuse, Fontina, and Menage.
Firm cheeses have a dry and smooth paste that cracks if bent. Examples of firm cheeses include: Comte, Pleasant Ridge Reserve, and Cabot
Hard cheeses are the driest style and crumble/shatter when sliced. Examples of hard cheeses include: Parmigiano Reggiano, Mimolette, and aged Gouda.
Blue cheeses usually contain Pencillium Roqueforti and often have distinctive blue veins or coloring. Examples of blue cheeses include: Rogue
River Blue, Roquefort, and Gorgonzola.
serving & enjoying cheese
Serve cheese at room temperature
Cheese is best tasted at room temperature to maximize the flavor, aroma, and texture. Bring your cheese out 30-45 minutes before serving. Cold cheese’s flavor is diminished and the texture is solid, so plan ahead for the best experience.
Progression of Cheese styles
If serving a variety of cheeses, begin with the youngest and most mildly flavored and then move to the older and more assertively flavored. This will allow you to fully appreciate the unique flavors of each cheese. Serving cheeses listed in the 7 styles order above is a simple guide. Be sure to use a different utensil for each so you don’t mix flavors. Not sure how to best slice an oddly shaped piece of cheese? Just look it up–online resources will be your no-stress guide.
Begin by observing the cheese’s coloration and visual texture. If not in a formal environment, touch the cheese and notice its moisture content and tactile texture. Next, smell the cheese, noticing the initial scent and how it changes a bit. When ready to taste, break off a small chunk and hold it on your tongue to warm it and experience the texture with your mouth. Notice the initial flavor on your tongue, then chew and swallow, and notice the after flavor.
What to Serve with Cheese
Be sure to provide a vehicle for your cheese–neutrally flavored bread or crackers are best. Consider also serving a variety of accompaniments for your cheese: nuts, fruits, pickles, olives, honey, jam, mustard, vinegar, and/or charcuterie. You are striving for a balance of interesting flavors and textures that complement the cheese.
Cheese Tasting Notes and Wheel
You may also like to consider taking down some cheese tasting notes so you can remember your favorites and avoid those you didn’t enjoy for future reference. To take a deeper dive, try using a tasting wheel to explore the nuances of flavor and develop your cheese knowledge. This can also be a fun activity for friends and family–tasting and rating your way through a selection of cheeses. I love the colorful and interactive Cheese Flavor Wheel on the Cheese Science Toolkit website but there are many available online.
Cheeses should be stored in their original wrapper of purchase and then wrapped tightly in cheese paper, waxed paper, parchment paper, beeswax wraps, and can also be stored in a storage container or zipper bag. Don’t store different kinds of cheeses together since their flavors will blend and run together. Keep them in the coldest part of your fridge that has a steady temperature. Since cheese is a living food, so don’t freeze your cheese. The younger the cheese, the sooner it should be consumed. When in doubt, ask your local cheesemonger or look it up–there are tons of helpful cheese resources online.
Cheese Resources to explore
There is a lot of fascinating and fun information out there about the world of cheese. Start your journey here.
“A Brie(f) History of Cheese”: This TED Ed video is a quick and charming overview of cheese history.
Culture: This magazine and website is passionate for all things fromage. Check out the cheese dictionary and cheese library in their Cheese 101 section.
Cheese Science Toolkit: Geek out on the science behind cheese on this engaging website. Explore the science for cheesemaking, styles of cheese, why some cheeses have crunchy crystals and more.
“Cheesemakers Are on the Rise in Maryland”: This Baltimore magazine article is for my fellow Marylanders who would like to try some local cheeses.
The Whole Fromage: Delectable Adventures in the World of French Cheese, by Kathe Lison: The book that started it all–imagine a cheese road trip through France with your best friend, who has curiosity and humor in spades.
*Sign up for my email list or follow me on social media to receive updates about my Zoom cheese tasting in December to benefit UpCounty Prevention Network.
*Look for an online Cheese 101 course taught by me via the Udemy platform in summer 2021
*Coming soon: cheese-related items in my online shop
Thank you for reading this post–I hope it inspired you to learn more about the wonderful world of cheese–let me know what you thought in the comments. I’d greatly appreciate it if you would share this post on social media.