I romanticize food constantly, really its almost a problem. As someone who eats for sport, when I eat fine foods, I am transported to my happy place. For me, Cheese has become the most romantic of all my food obsessions. The smell, the satisfying taste, the history, cheese hits all my high notes as a food lover.
I would say that I have always loved cheese, but when first beginning work for Aimme Olexy, the cheese goddess of the east coast, at Talula's Garden, I was immediately schooled in the art of cheese making. It's importance in the realm of food, was a top priority at the garden. Employees were given cheese manuals, offered a series of classes, and treated to some of Aimme's extra special stash through her infinite connections in the cheese world. My time at Talula's was a crash course in fine local foods, and am forever grateful for the exposure to amazing American cheeses and the precedence it took in our food program is unlike any others I have ever encountered.
My 'gateway' cheese, was discovered at Talula's. Vintage Gouda. A 5 year aged cows milk gouda from Holland with tyrosine (amino acids of casein) sugar crystals (think parmesan's crunchy bits). The butterscotch and carmelly tones of the deep golden orange colored gouda tasted like candy, and paired with a salted carmel, I knew I was hooked for life.
Whether you are a connoisseur or just a fan, cheese is something most people have a deep obsession with. It not only represents the passion of the dairy farmers and the cheese makers but it also holds an immense and incredible history of human survival. Think about it, as the mongers a Di Bruno Bros. will drill into your head, what do you think people did before the invention of the refrigerator? Cheese has been around for roughly 7,000 years. The fridge? A puny 100 years. Before we were able to store dairy in the state of the art systems we have today, there were caves, ice boxes, fermentation, and preserving methods. Milk, as you know is, extremely perishable, the only way to use all the milk your herd could produce was through preserving it and thus cheese making has evolved into what we know today.
As a champion of healthy food, cheese was something that I had always considered to be healthy, despite it's impressive fat content. I know there are diet heads who scream that fat is the enemy and prescribe eliminating it in every way possible, but there are such things as healthy fats, and cheese is so much more than just that.
Cheese is in fact incredibly good for you, in a number of different ways. Given that artisan cheese makers have extraordinarily high standards for their dairy, the milk these cheese makers use, wether it be goat, cow or sheep, is incredibly nutritional. They normally are grazing in beautiful terroirs, feeding off the land, and are treated with respect and loved by their owners. This practice within the world of cheese making represents a true rejection of the mainstream factory farming methods that dominate the dairy and livestock industry in this country.
This nutritious milk or as someone once explained to me this "predigested" (i.e., the animal eating nutritious grass, and then digesting it to make milk) food nutrient, is then made into cheese with the help of various types of bacteria and rennet (depending on the cheese type, more on this later...).
Cheese supplies proteins, sugars, vitamins, minerals and trace elements. In Mastering Cheese, Max McCalman and David Gibbons explain that a 4 oz. slice of farmstead cheese supplies "more than half the adult nutritional requirements of protein, fat, calcium, and phosphorus" and also has significant amounts of vitamins a b2 and b12. Aged cheese, for example, contains twice as much protein as eggs and about 1/4 the cholesterol. Cheese concentrates the nutrients of milk and this 'predigestion' of nutrients means that the process of breaking down these proteins, fats and sugars has already begun well before you eat the stuff.
as adapted from the Talula's Garden Cheese Manual
What is Cheese?
Cheese is a way to preserve the two main insoluble components in milk (casein and fat).
Types of Cheese
Fresh- Self explanatory. These types of cheeses are generally meant to be consumed within 2 weeks of production. They are not aged and are generally very creamy.
Example- Mozzarella, Burrata, Chèvre, Mascarpone
Bloomy Rinds- Crowd pleasers. Creamy, rich and peppery. Tend to be on the gooey and wrinkly, sometimes brain-like.
Examples- Brie, Camembert
Washed Rinds - These tend to be STINKY, yeasty, boozey, and salty. These cheeses are washed with brevibacterium linens, which give them there signature flavor.
Examples: Epoisses, Winnimere
Semisoft - Mellow, inbetweeners, usually squishy.
Examples: Some Goudas, Fontina
Firm - Very popular snacking cheese. Sweet, nutty and sometimes crumbly.
Examples: Cheddars, Gruyere, Machego
Hard/Grating - These aged cheeses have had all the moisture taken out. Very rich and salty.
Examples: Parmigiano, Aged Goudas,
Blue - These cheese are well, Blue! With their signature blue molding due to Penicillium and
Brevibacterium linens. Blues vary from creamy and mild to meaty and pungent.
Examples: Stilton, Roquefort, Gorgonzola
Cheese has been produced for 7,000 years.
Artisanal cheese making began in the 12-13th century
Industrial cheese making emerged in the late 19th century.
Cheese within the United States
The first cheese cultivated in the United States was a fresh chèvre around 1620 at the the first Thanksgiving in Plymouth, Massachusetts!
New York was the first major producer in the United States during the diary boom in 1700s and early 1800s.
Wisconsin and California followed suit in the mid-1800s.
Artisan Cheese making began in the early 1970s most notably by food pionners:
- Laura Chenel & Alice Water of Chez Panisse, produced fresh Californian chèvre
- Bob and Letty Kilmoyer- Westfield Farm, Massacusettes.
- Judy Shad- Capriole Dairy, IN
- Mary Keehn- Cypress Grove Creamery
Over 1,200 are registered Cheese Producers through the American Cheese Society.
Key Cheese Terms
One of the things I constantly hear from newbs to the cheese scene, is 'whats with all the lingo?' or 'I feel like its all a foreign language'. Well pish posh! Its all just fancy talk, and I bet you that half of those people are faking and making it up as they go along. Its all about confidence, and when it comes to tasting cheese there are not wrong answers! Like the saying goes, fake it till you make it! When I first started tasting cheese, I was blown away by the stuff that would come out of peoples mouths, "I taste dirty socks...penicillin... mushrooms...earth", now that to me now obviously sounds like a wonderful blue cheese, but to someone whose never talked out loud about cheese that sounds like a bunch of bull and grosse!
When it comes to tasting cheese its all just about what the cheese is doing when its on your palette. How it hits you and what flavors it reminds you of, and how it finishes. When people are doing tasting, they are not necessarily trying to figure out whats in the cheese, (as if there were dirty socks in cheese!) its just that certain flavors indicate certain things about the cheese. As with flavor, the look of the cheese also can tell you a great deal about it, such as what type of milk its made from, what style it is, and the bacteria thats in it. Now, I'm not going to lie, there is a lot of jargon, but once you get down these few key terms you'll be a cheese wiz and remember, fake it till you make it!
Artisanal- A debated term. The concept should mean that the creamery has exceptional animal husbandry practices and a notable terroir. Milk sourcing is local, if not on site. The integrity of the milk is maintained and manipulation is minimal.
Terroir- "the land" in French, the concept in cheese making refers to the fact that good milk and good cheese reflect that of 'the land' itself. Terroir in terms of cheese is reflected in what the animal graze on, the laceration cycle of the animal and the quality of the breed.
Farmstead- Essentially means the animals are raised and milking is done on the farm and the cheese is made on the premise.
Raw Milk- A highly controversial issue in the land of U.S. cheese. Raw milk, refers to milk that is NOT pasteurized. Within the United States cheese that is not pasteurized must be aged for a minimum of 60 days. The process of pasteurizing milk eliminates the chance of the presence of Listeria, a deadly bacteria found in spoiled milk. Raw milk is considered superior in the world of cheese because it hold more of the natural terroir and flora of the milk, however in large co-op dairies pasteurization is preferable, as it produces a more consistent product.
The 60 days a raw milk must age to be sold within the U.S. is in response to the fear of the presence of listeria, which will be killed off after aging.
*Pregnant women or those with compromised immune systems are advised to avoid raw milk in that the risk of listeria is too great, as they might not be able to recover. However the chances of this are EXTREMELY low, and farms that practice produce fine raw milk cheeses are hyper aware of the chance of contamination.
Oh Cheese Vocabulary, one of the silliest parts of the cheese world. This is a bit of a loaded and screwy section, full of eyebrow raising terms, that seem odd, but in practice are actually right on point. Cheese vocabulary is one of the best ways to communicate with others the flavor of cheese instead of just fumbling, saying things like "its kind of like, you know, that thing...ya know what I mean?", well no in fact we don't, so use your words!
Color/Hue- Color can tell you a lot about cheese. It can tell you things like the age of the cheese, the milk type, and even things about its flavor.
-Brown, Golden, Ivory, Gray, Pink, Orange, Yellow
My favorite, Vintage Gouda, is a wonderful golden color, almost like deep carmel. This tells you a lot of things about the cheese. Firstly off that its aged, most cows milk cheeses do not appear this shade unless they've spent a few year maturing and developing those wonderful sugars, I'm so taken with. Also in terms of goudas, this color is a sure fire sign that this gouda is a firm cheese. Fresher goudas, tend to be pale in color and squishy.
-Uniform, Bright, Dull, Uneven, Pale, Shiny
When you see a cheese sweating as it comes to temperature, this is a good sign of a high fat content. Often found in sheep's milk cheeses, like a manchego.
Texture-Compact, Dense, Firm, Hard, Liquid, Runny, Semi-Hard, Semisoft, Soft, Tight
Airy, Crumbly, Dry, Elastic, Flaky, Granular, Leathery, Satiny, Spongy, Springy Ombutous
Astringent, Bubbly, Smooth, Acidic, beefy, Buttery, Caramelly, Cabbagey, Chalky, Floral, Fruity, Garlicy, Grasssy, Herbal, Lactic, Meaty, Minerally, Mushroomy, Musty, Nutty, Oniony, Salty, Savory, Spicy, Tangy, Tart, Yeasty, Harsh, Milk, Pronounced, Rich, Strong, Weak, Aggressive
Complex, Concentrated, Gentle, Luscious, Loud, Powerful, Ruch, Robust, Sharp, Simple, Timid, Unctuous, Zesty.
How to Taste Cheese
Visuals- What does the cheese look like on the plate? What does it look like texturally? Is it shinny wrinkled, smooth, crumbly etc.?
Smell! What does it smell like? Smell is half of the flavor. Is it stinky, odorless, sweet etc?
Taste! What is the cheese doing on your tongue? How does the cheese first hit your palette? Is it sweet, sour, creamy, salty etc.? How does the cheese finish? Does it linger in your mouth after? Is it stronger on the finish? Is it smooth?
Reflection, for the serious cheese nerds. This mostly consists of note taking, which is the most important part! A good tasting journal will help you remember subtle notes about the cheeses. Murray's sells a wonderful pre-made one available here.
My Favorite Cheese Shops in Pennsylvania:
Di Bruno Bros.
Reading Terminal- Fair Foods/ Downtown Cheese /Valley Sheppard