Cheese Intel 101 - Beginner

Feeling overwhelmed with cheese etiquette? Not sure which cheese should go with which wine? Are you completely at a loss as to why mold is revered and hated by cheese lovers? Trying to figure out the best pairings for your cheeseboard or charcuterie platter? Which cheese knife is best for which type of cheese?

There is so much to learn, and it's all covered here! From how different types of cheese are made, to which wine to pair your cheese with, read on for an expert rundown.

CHeeseboard with swiss cheese, goat cheese, cheddar cheese and others

As with a lot of other artisanal products, cheese is gaining in popularity all over North America. The trend seems to be based on a desire for better quality products that are made closer to our homes, from ingredients that we can pronounce.

Many urbanites are reverting to market style shopping where their produce comes from a market garden, meat from a butcher, and dairy from a…. dairy. One can only hope that this trend continues, and results in artisanal quality products being affordable and available for everyone!

1. Befriend Your Local Cheese Monger

Other than reading this article, the single best thing you can do is to find a local cheese maker or cheese monger and pay them a visit. I have been on a steep learning curve lately, and was lucky enough to find some chatty cheese mongers in Vancouver that love to (I firmly believe this!!) answer my questions.

There is, admittedly, a lot to learn in the cheese world, and so I decided to approach this learning strategically. Once a week, I visit my cheese monger, ask a couple of questions and purchase ONE (this is the tough part) new type of cheese to try. Definitely don’t forget to ask for recommendations on what to pair the cheese with because fruit, preserves, crackers, wine, and proteins, all match with different cheeses. Once you do this for a couple of months and your palate develops, you will become more and more aware of which types of cheese interest you.

2. What Food and Drinks Should I Pair With My Cheese?

The basic idea for pairings is that neither element overpowers the other, but that the flavors in each enhance the flavors in the other. This can be achieved in one of two ways – pair like with like ie sweet with sweet, or contrast ie sweet and salty. You will also get bonus points if you can create a contrast in texture with your pairings – Havarti with fresh pear is an example of sweet with sweet and contrasting texture as the cheese is semi sweet and creamy, and the pear is sweet and a little crunchy.

Some things to avoid pairing cheese with are chili or anything really spicy, flavored crackers (try to use plain or salted), most plain vegetables don’t pair well with cheese, although broccoli cheddar soup is a notable exception, citrus or high-acid fruit is not a great match for cheese, and very tannic red wines will take over your palate so you can’t taste the subtleties of the cheese.

As far as wine pairing, a good place to start is to pair mild cheeses with lighter wines, and sharper flavor cheeses with full bodies wine. Here are some examples: Champagne or sparkling wine with Brie or Camembert, Chardonnay with Emmenthaler or mature cheddar, Sauvignon Blanc with goat cheese, mild cheddar or feta, Cabernet Sauvignon with Camembert, mature cheddar or blue, Merlot with goat cheese or Gruyére, Shiraz with Mature cheddar, Edam, Gouda or Parmesan, and Sweet Red or Dessert wine with blue cheese or Brie.

There is not generally one single food or wine that a certain cheese must be served with, and although some pairings are traditional and known to work, a lot of cheese experts encourage trying new things, and using bold new ingredients to find unique pairings that you love!

3.  Does It Matter Which Animal Milk Comes From to Make Cheese?

Yes, because different animal milks have different flavors, and, no, because no milk makes a ‘better’ or ‘worse’ cheese than the others. The most important factor here is personal preference based on the taste, texture and smell of a cheese. An important note here is that the type of milk used does not dictate which style of cheese can be made - almost any type of milk can be made into almost any style of cheese. Even within one animal species, the different breeds produce distinct flavors and qualities in their milk.

Cow milk is the most common for cheese making as it has a neutral flavor and can be manipulated the most using aging and flavoring techniques. Goat cheese has a tangy taste and soft texture when it is young which transforms to an earthier flavor and crumblier texture as it ages. Although it is most commonly known as a young spreadable cheese, it can be made into a hard cheese (such as cheddar or Gouda), or even a blue cheese. Sheep milk is higher in fat and protein than cow or goat milk, which means that it takes less milk to produce the cheese. The resulting cheese is very, very, very creamy and has a nutty, rich flavor. Sheep milk can also be made into hard or blue cheeses, and Roquefort is probably the most famous of these!

4. What Difference Does the Place of Origin of Cheese Make?

As with wine, ‘terroir’ (aka site specificity or location micro-climate) will affect the taste and style of cheese. Terroir refers to the unique aspects associated with a certain location, and is the absolute first building block when we look at how flavour develops. Things like the ph level in soil, species of grasses, and temperature influence it, and these aspects affect how the basic milk product tastes.

Place of origin is important, however, in Europe where they have designation of origin laws. Laws relating to designation of origin fiercely protect regional styles, such as Camembert and Asiago, and there are rigorous standards that producers must adhere to in order to receive their designation. These ensure any cheese that is from a certain place will have been produced using rigorous local standards and so will be comparable to any other cheese carrying that label.

You might be wondering whether the distinct flavors will be noticeable in the end product, and the only answer I can give is that it is not for me! A better developed palate than mine would certainly notice a difference, but terroir in and of itself is not an important consideration for me.

5. What Does Ripening Cheese Mean?

Ripening is the maturation process for cheese and it is the largest influence on flavor and texture of the cheese. If one states that a cheese is ripe, it simply means that it has aged to its peak and is ready to be eaten! A full explanation, again, would require a deep dive into the science of the enzymes, bacteria and fungi involved in cheese making, and the reactions between them. Generally speaking the ripening process involves physical, chemical, and microbiological changes to the cheese over a period from a few weeks to a few years.

Mold is used as a ripening agent, and it can be either on the surface, such as the soft white mold that coats Camembert, or internal, such as the bluey mold veins that run throughout a Stilton. The famous holes in Swiss style cheeses are formed during ripening by the reaction between two different types of bacteria in that cheese causing carbon dioxide. There are loads of techniques used during ripening to influence the flavor of cheese – turning and flipping the cheese, resting on wooden boards, wrapping to slow growth, climate controls, and air circulation are all considerations that can affect the outcome.

And here is a bonus piece of intel because this topic is close to my heart:

6. Why is Some Supermarket Cheese Orange?

Because it is dyed that color.

The reason this is close to my heart is that I come from a land of creamy, delicious, fresh pale yellow supermarket cheeses – New Zealand. I still eat copious amounts of dairy products when I go back to New Zealand (and, lol because I just claimed that I don't choose cheese based on its country of origin!!). Literally everything I consume will have cheese or cream on it, and I probably average 2 servings of scooped ice-cream a day! If you are ever in New Zealand, I recommend Tip Top Goody Goody Gum Drop scooped ice cream from a local corner store.

It took me years to accept the orange cheeses I saw in supermarkets in Canada, and I still think that one reason I always buy extra old cheddar as my go-to cheese is because of the normal color. I have read that the orange dying process hails from back in the day when a bright-ish yellow cheese was associated with a premium cheese that was made when there was lots of new growth in the pastures. Apparently the bright colored cheese actually sold for more than the paler batches, so cheesemakers started adding annatto seed dye to their cheddars to make them all of their batches a brighter color and thus, worth more.

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