I was a self-proclaimed cheese obsessive long before I actually knew anything about cheese. I enjoyed it in all its forms and levels of funk, but my appreciation for cheese reached a new level when I became a cheesemonger at London’s famed cheese shop, Neal’s Yard Dairy, which was also the jumping off point for my recently published book, "Cheese, Wine, and Bread: Discovering the Magic of Fermentation in England, Italy and France."
After working behind the cheese counter, I lived on a goat farm in rural Somerset, England, making goat’s milk cheese every morning, and I traveled around the U.K. interviewing and apprenticing with cheesemakers. I became intimately familiar with making everything from cow’s milk to sheep’s milk cheeses, from blue cheese to sticky, strong washed-rind cheese and the whole gamut in between.
My love of cheese deepened into actual appreciation after these experiences, and the most delightful byproduct of valuing this product is that every cheese plate I have put together, and every dish I make that includes cheese, has drastically improved.
So, let’s get started with understanding — and therefore appreciating — good cheese, and then we can move onto tips for how to plate it and cook with it.
How cheese is made
To put it simply, cheese is made from milk. Depending on the animal it comes from — cow, goat, sheep, buffalo, etc. — its hue and flavor will be impacted. For example, cow’s milk cheese will always be slightly yellower and nuttier than a whiter, more herbal goat’s milk cheese.
As a rule, the higher the quality of milk, the more delicious and nuanced the resulting cheese will be, which is why milk from pasture-raised, humanely treated animals results in a more delicious cheese than milk that’s been sourced from factory farms.
The magic of fermentation occurs when the milk is coagulated, which means separated into curds and whey (Little Miss Muffet taught you all about that!). This coagulation can happen in a few different ways — with the addition of rennet, an enzyme, and/or a starter bacteria (lactic acid bacteria). Cheesemakers choose one or the other, or both, depending on the kind of cheese they will be making. For example, a hard Alpine cheese like Gruyère relies heavily on rennet, whereas a crumbly goat cheese can be made with a lower quantity of rennet and a higher percentage of a lactic acid bacteria starter.
Once the curd is set (meaning that the coagulation has happened successfully and to the stage the cheesemaker wants it to be, which depends on the kind of cheese they’re making), then the curds and whey are separated. The cheesemaker focuses on the curds while discarding the whey, and the curds are put into their molds, salted and aged.
The cheese has been made, so now it just needs to ripen to its ideal stage — called affinage — then it’s ready to eat!
The families of cheese
Much of the specifics of the cheesemaking process depends on the kind of cheese the cheesemaker wants to make. Each little decision — from temperature and acidity to moisture and salinity — helps nudge the curds in the direction of that final wheel of brie, cheddar, Stilton … whatever the case may be.
The types of cheese can be broken down into the following categories:
- Fresh (soft)
- Bloomy-rind (soft-ripened)
- Washed-rined (smear-ripened)
- Semi-hard and hard
What to look for when putting together a cheese board
When I worked as a cheesemonger, I fielded countless questions about how to put together the “perfect” cheeseboard. I’ll tell you what we told our customers: “The first rule is that there are no rules.” And it’s true! Cheese, like all foods, is a personal thing; it’s subjective and therefore the perfect cheese plate is different for everyone. For example, I know a blue-cheese–lover who has made entire cheese boards with just a variety of blue cheeses. (Try it: Get a Gorgonzola, a Stilton and a Roquefort, and have fun taste-testing!)
Traditionally, though, a common three-cheese platter would include a variety of categories of cheese, such as: a soft cheese, a hard cheese and blue cheese.
The soft cheese could be a goat’s milk cheese, or bloomy-rinded cheese (such as a Camembert of brie-style cheese) or a washed rind cheese (like taleggio).
The hard cheese could be a young or mature cheddar, Asiago, Gouda or Comté.
The blue cheese could be one of the cheeses I mentioned above (Gorgonzola, Stilton or Roquefort).
If you are putting together a bigger cheese plate, you can widen the subsections within those three categories by selecting:
- A soft cheese: a goat’s milk cheese (e.g. a fresh and lemony St. Tola)
- A soft cheese: a bloomy-rinded cheese (e.g. a mushroom-y, melty Brie-style Baron Bigod)
- A hard cheese: young Alpine-style cheese (e.g. a milky, nutty Comté)
- A hard cheese: a sheep’s milk cheese (e.g. a buttery, salty manchego)
- A blue cheese: a cow’s milk favorite like Stilton, or you could have fun and get a goat’s milk blue (like Harboune Blue from the U.K.)
Once you’ve got your cheeses, additions to the cheese plate like nuts, dried fruits, olives and crackers are always welcome accompaniments.
Cooking with cheese: The best melting cheeses
If you’re looking to cook with cheese rather than present them on a cheese plate, it’s helpful to consider how the cheese will melt with applied heat. Age, moisture and protein structure affect a cheese’s meltability.
Generally speaking, younger, wetter cheeses (think: mozzarella) will melt the best. A goat’s milk cheese or a feta cheese, on the other hand, will get a bit creamier when heated, but due to its tight protein structures, won’t melt like a mozzarella.
Here are some of the best melting cheeses for your consideration:
- Cheddar (young, rather than mature)
- Gouda (young, rather than mature)
I’ll leave you with this piece of wisdom from my first boss at the cheese shop: The only way to get to know cheese is by tasting it — a lot of it. You will enjoy cheese so much more once you have a handle on the variety of cheeses available and a sense of what kind of cheese really makes your heart sing. The only way to have a handle on that is to taste, taste, taste. It’s not a horrible dictum, as far as homework is concerned.