Lessons in Cheese: Part 1: Know Your Cheese

by Robert J. Aguilera

In my nine years of experience in artisan cheese—retail, production and education—I am most often asked about the art of cheese pairing.  I’ve found the simplest and most reliable way to enjoy and pair artisan cheese is by understanding its flavor and the processes used in creating the cheese.

In truth, there is more to learn about cheese than can ever be fully taught, and some of the best artisan cheese makers in the world admit they are still learning every day. As with beer, wine and bread, cheese making brings together living elements to create something unique.  The best cheeses are those that are alive, those that overwhelm all of your senses with flavors that can change from day to day or mature with the seasons.

The framework I most often use is based on seven categories: Fresh, Earthy, Cooked, Bloomy, Blue, Stinky and Wild. These seven categories refer not only to flavor, but to the process of cheese making itself, and evolve from simple to complex.

So, what is cheese? Simply, it is curdled milk drained of its liquid. All cheese starts with the separation of solid curd from liquid whey, most often initiated by heat, a process called “floclulation.” It is followed by “coagulation” to fully form the solid curds that become cheese. Coagulants are usually in the form of rennet (an enzyme derived from the lining of calf ’s stomach or from vegetable blossoms and sap, such as cardoons), manufactured microbial powder, lemon juice or even vinegar.

The artisan cheese maker then corrals these two basic processes with time management, temperature regulation, mixed microbial culture, acid balance, salting, aging conditions and air exposure to create the vast array of cheeses we enjoy today. As a result, no two wheels of cheese are exactly identical, even factory-produced products.

How does the artisan choose a process from the seven categories listed above? When you think “fresh,” think of fresh goat cheese, ricotta or farmer’s cheese—a simple separation of curd and whey. Now press out all of the liquid and age the curd in a damp room with a little ventilation, and you’ve made an “earthy” tomme. Or next time, add a little whey and heat the curd to caramelize the flavors and shrink the curd size. With a little more processing and aging, it becomes a “cooked” gruyere, cheddar or parmigiano.

Now go back to the milk, add penicillin mold that is white or blue, salt the outside of the new wheels, and if left in a damp room with high air velocity for a few weeks, you will have a “bloomy” brie or if you choose to pierce the cheese with air holes during aging you will have a “blue” veined cheese. Or, at the milk phase, add bacteria that are activated by moisture and salt. Brush the outside of the wheels with the moisturesalt mixture throughout the aging period. You’ve now made a “stinky,” sticky, washed-rind cheese.

If you make any of the cheeses above, but introduce herbs or coat the rind with cocoa, wax, wine or beer, you’ve created a “wild” cheese by adding to the personality of a traditional style. So, now that the process is clearer, what about flavor?

To create the perfect cheese plate, use a sampling or all of the following categories, incorporating a variety of flavors, textures and animal milks:

1.   Fresh: Simple cheeses, milky in texture and bright in flavor. This basic method is used to make ricotta, mozzarella, fresh chevre, queso fresco and farmer’s cheese. The cheeses in this category can be identified by their white color, lack of rind and milky flavor. They are typically made year round from available milk and their flavors tend to be similar day to day due to their lack of maturation period.These are best enjoyed as they are, usually at breakfast, and require little pairing or preparation, but are versatile enough to be used with a variety of food flavors. I particularly like pairing fresh chevre with jam, toast and tea.

2.   Earthy: A simple process results in a rich, complex flavor with a soft but elastic texture. Some maturing rooms create a natural grey mold on this cheese, with a soft pale yellow center. Some rooms foster a pale yellow yeast growth. The earthy tomme is usually longer than it is tall.  Fresh versions are about the size of a cupcake. Aged versions are typically 2 to 4 inches in height and, when cut in half, resemble a book lying on a table. Tomme de Savoie, Raschera and Twig Farm Tomme are good examples. These cheeses are traditionally made year round, but with notable variations through out the year. The best wheels are made from milking animals grazing on spring and summer pastures and as these cheeses are aged up to 6 months, they are enjoyed in the fall. These are best enjoyed with braised duck and pork dishes, apples and pears and a glass of Pinot Noir or pint of Saison beer.

3.   Cooked: Cheddar, gruyere and parmigiano-reggiano fit here. All three have flavors that are nutty, fruity and with varying degrees of sharp bite. They are generally made in wheels over 30 pounds, a  process that creates complex flavors and textures. The best variations of cooked cheeses have vibrant yellow and orange interiors, as they are made in the summer months when animals graze on lush mountain pastures that deepen the flavor and color of the milk. These cheeses are usually aged over 1 year due to their size and are born out of survival: Mountain villages used to pool their milk together to create these large cheeses to then share with one another during the winter months. These are best paired with grilled meats, stone fruits, a glass of Chardonnay or your favorite pint of IPA beer. These cheeses are complex enough to pair with more challenging spirits like grappa and absinthe as well.

4. Bloomy: Soft, creamy cheeses, like brie, camembert and robiola. Butter, mushroom and floral flavors are usually present here. If you add more cream, you create a triple crème like Brillat Savarin. These cheeses are usually no larger than 7-pound wheels and are meant to be eaten after aging only a few weeks. Traditionally, the best versions are made from late winter and early spring milk. These luscious pearls are best paired with fresh root vegetable dishes, a glass of Champagne or a pint of German Pilsner.

5. Blue: Veined, crumbly cheeses with a piquant flavor. There are yellow cheeses with blue streaks and a brown or white rind, such as Stilton. They usually have flavors of nuts, spice and cream. Blue cheeses that are stark white with blue veins and no rind have flavors of citrus, metal and earth. Roquefort Blue cheese best fits this description. Both options present endless flavor combinations. Traditionally, blue cheeses are made whenever milk is available. In the case of Roquefort, it is produced over a 4- to 6-month period, depending on the flock of sheep. These are best paired with desserts, particularly with figs, dates and chocolate, a glass of Port wine and a pint of Stout or Porter beer.

6. Stinky: Rich, washed-rind cheeses that you can smell from a mile away. The “wash” keeps the cheese moist, forms a rind by way of the salt, and encourages the growth of bacteria that bring forth the unctuous, footy, lusciously decaying odor that stays in your home for a week. The bacteria also decompose the interior to create delicate but exceptional floral, bread, fruit and nut flavors. The rinds of these cheeses are usually bright orange, brown and red and are also quite sticky. The best examples of this are muenster, epoisse, taleggio and winnemere. These can be made all year round as they mostly rely on cow’s milk, with slight variations from season to season as the bacteria development drives their core flavor notes. These cheeses are great when paired with roasted poultry and roasted vegetables, a glass of Riesling wine or a pint of Belgium Trappist beer.

7.Wild: Often colorful and textured, and born from instinct and survival. These cheeses can be purple, a result of storage in barrels coated with wine grape must, perhaps in effort to hide cheeses from ruthless soldiers during World War I. Wax-covered cheeses evolved from the need for food preservation during lengthy sailing trips during European exploration of the NewWorld.Wild cheeses are a nod to our ancestors and a pleasant surprise. In most cases, the colorful cocoa- or herb-covered cheeses are quite light and lovely in flavor and texture.
The pairings here are always to the liking of the person tasting.

In fact, that is a good rule for all of the cheeses we’ve been talking about. There are many ways to pair the cheeses above. Be brave with all of the styles and see what works for you.Make sure you give beverages like coffee, tea and cocktails a try with your cheese plates. You’d be surprised at the cheeses that pair with gin, vodka and scotch.

This article represents a brief introduction to the vast and complex world of cheese, but one that will provide a good foundation. It has for me. An important understanding about artisan cheese that I have touched on lightly is the seasonality of cheeses. That is the next part of our journey together. Keep in mind that the type of animal milk used in making a cheese traditionally determined the availability of certain cheeses, which is a true for real handmade cheese today. Cows give milk all year round; sheep and goats have shorter milking periods that begin in large part around the time these animals give birth. In future articles, I hope to explore each category in more detail, and tie this to our local seasonal offerings. I can’t wait. In the meantime, find and eat real cheese.

Robert J. Aguilera learned about cheeses while working at Formaggio Kitchen in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and then at Farmsteadinc in Providence, Rhode Island. He now distributes cheese making and packaging supplies to cheesemakers across the United States. "I hope to continue to help the cheese landscape in America in any way I can." Robert can be reached at rja279@hotmail.com.

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