Indians have welcomed cheese into their kitchen and their cuisine, but it’s only the cheddar variety that’s at the forefront even today. Having spent close to a decade of my life as a Chef in Italy, let me take you on a ‘cheesewalk’ down the lane of my experiments with other varieties.
First let’s define it… what is cheese? It’s a solid form of milk after the water is separated and removed, and all the remaining part is compressed. In short, it is an easy and light way to carry, preserve and consume milk.
It’s hard to find someone who does not like cheese at all, because there are different varieties of it available in different sizes, shapes, textures and flavours to suit every palate. Usually, it is made from cow’s milk but you can also get ones from goat, sheep, yak, and buffalo milk.
Classifying different the varieties is not that easy as it depends on the ageing process, the fat content, the quality of milk, texture and other characteristics, so to explain them better I have divided them in five categories—fresh, soft, semi-hard, hard and blue.
Fresh cheese is mostly uncooked, unaged and slightly compressed where some watery part of the milk [whey] is still retained. This is not given any specific shape using a mould and neither does it have any rind. It is characterised by its soft and creamy texture. Cheese like Ricotta, Mozzarella, Mascarpone, Crème cheese, Squacquerone, and goat cheese come under the category of fresh cheese.
Soft cheese includes the ‘stinky’ variety and is semi-soft and buttery in texture and it has more flavours as compared to fresh cheese. The strong odour that it gets is after it has been washed in beer, apple or pear juice, wine or salted water to encourage mould and bacteria growth. This process helps to give it the unique flavour and taste. Some of the varieties of soft cheese are Taleggio, Brie, Robiola, Camembert, Limburger, and Reblochon. Here is my quick tip to identify the smelliest of the cheese—if it is soft, sticky and has an orange rind it will smell real bad! In fact, in France Epoisse has been banned from being carried on a public transport. That’s how strong the stench it emits! This is certainly the smelliest cheese that I have come across [yet, it is also one of my favourites, together with Gorzonzola and Cazu Marzu].
If it always smells so foul, how do you know when the cheese had gone bad? Well, this cheese has a very limited shelf life and if it smells strongly of ammonia, the bin is its destination. But if it smells like a sock which has been worn for a week—get some toasted baguette, dig in and enjoy!
Semi-hard cheese include Gruyère, Gouda, Montasio, Comté, Fontina, Emmenthal and Cantal.
Hard cheese includes Pecorino stagionato, Parmigiano Reggiano [also known as king of the cheese], Manchego and Mimolette. The dense and compact texture is obtained by packing them in moulds. Depending on the pressure and ageing time, you get hard or semi-hard cheese.
Blue cheese is basically soft cheese with bluish-green veins crossing through it. This gives it a marble effect. During the making process, mould cultures are inoculated, and as the cheese ages, the mould grows within, creating blue or pale green veins. This is how the cheese gets its name and its distinctive flavour. Gorgonzola, Roquefort, Maytag blue and blue stilton are all types of blue cheese.
It is well known that the major and most important varieties of cheese arrive from only two countries—Italy and France; but the highest consumer of cheese in the world is Greece, while the biggest producer is USA.
The most expensive cheese is made from moose milk in Sweden and sells for a 1000 euro a kilo. Also, one of my favourite varieties, Cazu Marzu [literally meaning rotten cheese] from the island of Sardegna, is made by introducing cheese fly’s larvae in it. This cheese can contain thousands of maggots in it. These larvae feed on the cheese and the acid coming out from their digestive system break down the fat contained in this hard cheese and makes it very soft. For the real taste and experience, it needs to be eaten with the larvae. You say yuck; I say yum!
Need ideas to make a dish with your favourite cheese? Here you go—the famous Italian dessert, Tiramisu needs Mascarpone. Fancy baking a pizza? Mozzarella is a must. Eggplant parmigiana? The name says it all. And remember, cheese gives the best optimal texture and flavour when consumed at room temperature.
The best way to store your cheese once it’s out of the packing is to wrap it in parchment or cheese paper. Remember, if it’s the smelly variety then you may want to place it in a zip lock pouch so that the smell stays restricted to the cheese only. Cheese needs to breathe, as the process of ripening never stops! So wrap them in a wet and properly wringed kitchen cloth or leave them in their original wrapping until they are ready to be consumed. Once sliced then they can be wrapped in a loose cling wrap in order to avoid the bacterial growth [consume in a week]. Home refrigerators are not the best place to store cheese as they are dry and airless but not everyone can have a special cheese shelf in their refrigerator so I recommend to keep them in the vegetable compartment with a small bowl of water in order to create more humidity. If there are other leafy salads in the same compartment then you can do without the water bowl as the humidity level will be high anyways. This advice goes for all soft, fresh, semi-hard and blue cheese. For the hard cheese like Parmigiano or Mimolette you can wrap it directly with a cling wrap.
Final tip: when you have all the last small pieces/slices of leftover cheese just cling wrap and freeze them… you can make a nice fondue or a flavourful “quattro formaggi” sauce for your Maccheroni pasta with all the cheese that remains!
This was first published in the October 2013 issue of Complete Wellbeing.
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