Upping Your Cheese Game

Cheese, cheese, glorious cheese. Sure, it’s a convenient way to preserve milk but it is so much more. It deserves to be celebrated, given its own basic food group and have societies dedicated to worshipping its glories. In fact, there is a local First Tuesday Cheese Club I’ve been trying to get an invitation to for a few years. With cheese’s worthy credentials established, it’s time to lay down some guidelines for improving your cheese game.

Cheese basics

The invention, or more likely discovery, of cheese will always remain in contention but it is highly probable that simple, fresh cheeses were the first man ever consumed. Milk stored in a bag made from the stomach of an animal would have separated and firmed up due to the natural rennin in the skin and the movement from transportation. There are as many cheeses in the world as there are names for pasta (this may or may not be statistically true) and they can be roughly divided into six categories.

1. Fresh cheeses: these are the basic building blocks of cheese making. Only a few steps away from milk, they rely on a good quality fresh milk product as their base and are best consumed within a few days of purchase. Examples – Mozzarella Di Bufala from Italy, Woodside Goat Curd from South Australia

2. Surface ripened: this style of cheese ripens from the outside in, thanks to the mould filaments that penetrate inwards breaking down the texture until it reaches a creamy point of perfection. Examples – Brie de Nangis from France, Holy Goat La Luna from Victoria

3. Washed rind: dependent upon a particular strain of bacteria (B.linens) for their distinctive terracotta colour and unique aroma, washed rind cheeses are often smell stronger than they taste. Flavour variations multiply when you consider these cheeses are then washed regularly with brine solutions, alcohol, and even herbs and spices. Examples – Mauri Taleggio from Italy, L’Artisan Mountain Man from Victoria

4. Semi-hard: curds are scalded and pressed to produce a cheese with a low moisture content. The magic of this popular style of cheese comes as the cheese develops flavour and changes texture over months of maturation. Examples – Geitenkaas from Holland, Heidi Raclette from Tasmania

5. Hard: curd is cooked at higher temperatures then pressed and matured over extended periods to develop both taste and texture. Examples – Parmigiano Reggiano from Italy, Pyengana Cheddar from Tasmania

6. Blue: ripening from the inside out, these cheeses are inoculated with a blue-mould culture, then spiked to allow air to activate and feed the microbes, creating the spidery webs of mould that are so distinctive and give them their name. Examples – Stilton from the UK, Tarwin Blue from Victoria.

So what makes each cheese taste different to the next one?

Everything. One cheese from the same manufacturer will vary in taste over the course of a year as the animal’s feed also differs – new grass in spring with the odd herb or wildflower consumed will produce different flavours in the milk compared to winter feeds such as hay and silage.

Cheese, particularly cheese made from unpasteurised milk, reflects its terroir, which refers to soil, season, pasture and more. At every step of the cheese-making process from milk, through addition of starters, heating/cooking, draining, pressing and salting to the maturation of the product allows for variation of flavour.

What do I need to know about buying cheese?

Finding a cheesemonger you like and trust is a great first step in buying good cheese. Someone who is willing to share their knowledge and to push you further than you may have thought you wanted to go makes for a great cheesemonger. Don’t be afraid to ask questions as a skilled professional/curd nerd will revel in the opportunity to take you over to the dark side of cheese life.

Well-labelled products will give a good foundation of knowledge – who makes the cheese, where it is made, what type of milk it is made from and how aged it is.

The best time to buy your cheese is as close as possible to the time that you wish to consume it.

What do I need to know about storing cheese?

The best way to store cheese is in the paper it is wrapped in, assuming you’ve bought from a reputable providore. If you need it for a few occasions, ask for a few extra pieces. Don’t plastic wrap it to within an inch of its life. Cheese is alive and needs to breathe. Standard domestic fridges are too cold and too dry. One of the best places to actually store your treasured product is in the vegetable compartment, as it is slightly warmer and more humid than the rest of the fridge. Eat your fresh cheeses first. Harder, cooked cheeses will last longer. Washed rinds can have a pungent smell so be mindful of buying these too early.

What do I need to know about serving cheese?

Ambient temperature is one key point to consider when serving cheese. A hot summer’s day requires different considerations to a cooler environment. Most cheeses can take time out of the fridge, and in fact often benefit, but one to watch is blue cheese. In the heat, blue cheese can develop overly spicy flavours. Love your Roquefort, but keep it cool.

Variety of flavour and texture is important when designing your cheese platter, but don’t over complicate things. Sometimes one big statement cheese is the answer. A whole Camembert, perfectly ripe and unctuous, is a better idea than three meagre portions of a soft, a hard and a blue cheese. Allowing 50-60 grams of cheese per person per cheese is a good guide. Unless, of course, it happens to be a Friday which means cheese is obviously the main meal.

What are you serving with your cheese?

When looking at accompaniments, it’s important to know that there’s more available than just quince paste. Fresh seasonal fruit such as pears and apples, dried fruit pieces and even chutneys and pickles work well with a variety of cheese. Whatever you choose, it should add to, not distract from, the cheese. Mix up the carbohydrates – think oat crackers, water crackers, lavosh as well as bread, be it rye, white or fruit.

What are you planning on drinking with your cheese?

Rarely is the answer red wine with its problematic tannins. Belgian saison beers love an earthy washed rind. Fresh goat cheeses benefit from an off-dry Riesling, hard cooked Comte loves Marsanne, Roquefort and Sauternes are a well recognised match, and farmhouse cider with Camembert de Normandie are regionally taste-matched buddies.

So go forth and buy cheese with confidence. And if you need a hand eating it, I’m just an email away.

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