I think of cheese as one of the most exquisite culinary pleasures. Whether served with fruit after a meal, paired with a glass of wine, enjoyed on its own with a chunk of crusty bread or included in the process of preparing a dish, cheese is a captivating flavour and texture element in culinary experience.
Wine and cheese have a lot in common. Both in a way are living organisms, created by their own Terroir and no two are exactly alike. Just as Terroir is important in shaping the style, flavours and aromas of a wine, so is terroir important in creating the distinct character of the cheese. The climate, temperatures, soil, vegetation and minerals in the pastures where cows feed, presence of molds, humidity where the cheese is aged and other factors all combine to create a distinctive character in each cheese. This is why there are many blue cheeses but only one Roquefort, many hard cheeses, but only one Parmigiano Reggiano. These cheeses are unique to their location and cannot be duplicated in the same way elsewhere. Just like wines can be different even from neighbouring vineyards, so can cheeses taste different from neighbouring farms. Just like old vines make more concentrated wines, old pastures make more distinctly flavoured cheese. Just like wine, cheese has to be fermented and aged. Just like making wine, making cheese is a cross between art and science, a labour of love and a part of culture and history.
France and other European countries have established an appellation of origin (AOC) system for their cheeses, structured much like the wine appellation system. It regulates the production of cheeses and protects authenticity of top regional cheeses. Roquefort was the first cheese to receive an AOC designation, meaning that no other cheese can be produced under the name Roquefort and it can only be produced with that name within the designated area in France. Other European countries soon followed and the Italian Parmigiano Reggiano, Gorgonzola and Pecorino Romano also became protected by the AOC laws. The European Union (EU) has since structured three levels of appellations and although the new world has no legal obligation to comply, there is considerable economic and moral pressure to respect these designations.
The variety of cheeses available can be daunting and getting to know them all is impossible. If you are interested in cheese it’s a good idea to source a good cheese vendor with knowledgeable staff and try out their cheeses over a period of time to educate yourself and your palate. The best way to learn about cheese is much like learning about wine: you learn by looking, smelling, tasting and evaluating. Find out as much about the cheese as you can. Where was it made? What type of milk was used (cow, goat, sheep, buffalo?) Is it pasteurized or “raw”? Is the rind bloomy or washed? Is it boiled? Pressed? Stretched? I will offer more excerpts from my wine (and cheese) book with an overview of how cheeses are made later.
Most cheeses we have access to are factory made, however, artisan cheesemaking, meaning independent cheese producers operating on a smaller scale, is gaining a foothold in the cheese industry. These cheesemakers view their trade as a form of art and often employ traditional, less mechanical methods to produce their cheeses. Artisanal cheeses are made from a single milk source, often from small organic dairy farms. Artisanal cheeses have naturally formed rind and tend to be of high quality.
In Europe it is quite common to offer a cheese service at the end of the meal and it is common to see people at restaurants sample a couple of cheeses with a pear and a glass of wine after dinner. Here, although cheese is offered on most menus as part of the dessert selection it is still not the custom for diners to order a cheese course (we instead order sweet desserts and coffees). High end restaurants in Europe and New York may employ a Maitre Fromager, much like a wine sommelier, who is responsible for stocking, storing and serving the cheese course. Why not use your next fine dining experience as an opportunity to try a cheese course at the end of your dinner?