The History of Cheese
Cheese has been around long before humans kept record of their activities.
The root word for cheese is “kwat” a proto-Indo-European word that means “to make sour, to ferment.” Evidence of this has been found in all corners of the world, such as ancient Mesopotamia, Egypt, Rome, Greece, and Asia.In ancient times, it was an important part of the menu for emperors and kings. Most of the cheeses, however, were salty or sour, or crumbly. With increased trade and advancements in processing, cheesemakers found new techniques to create hundreds of different types of cheese.
Some countries have become famous for a particular type of cheese, such as Holland (Gouda), France (Brie and Camembert), Greece for Feta and goat cheese, England for cheddar and Italy for hard cheeses like Parmasan, Asiago and Marscapone. Canada has become a leader as well, known for its own brand of goat cheeses, tripe cream brie, oka, gouda and others.
Every type cheese has a distinction and a complexity, either via texture, aroma, or flavour, or a combination of all three. Some of the world’s most popular cheeses have a stinky aroma or a strong taste. Your taste buds, mouth, and nose will determine what type of cheese fits your personal taste, but remember, even the smelliest cheese may lend a pleasant surprise to a salad or starter, main dish or dessert. Experimentation is half the fun. To become a true cheese connoisseur, practice is where it’s at.
Take your time discovering new cheeses, and allow the cheese to grow on you, so to speak. Don’t be shy in asking for samples in a monger’s shop, and don’t be afraid to buy a little at a time, just to see how you can incorporate it into your everyday menus.
Cheeses classes, such as soft, semi firm, hard, all have particular appearances, melting points, storage requirements, and blooming (ripening) stages, colours, rinds, and consistencies. When checking out a cheese, examine it with your eyes, notice the colour, touch it with your finger gently (assuming it’s packaged in parchment, or plastic wrap.) You can test the consistency of a cheese by pressing piece between your forefinger and thumb.
When slicing, does it crumble, stick to the knife, or is it meaty and solid. When tasting, notice how the flavour starts on your tongue (salty, sweet, savoury, sour), how it feels (soft and sticky, dry, creamy) and how it finishes, (wood, herb, ashen, butter, floral, fruit).
Quality domestic or imported cheese isn’t cheap, that’s for certain, so weigh your options well. Since some cheeses have so much flavour, a little can go a long way. Liken this to chocolate. A whole bar will set you back $1, and give you a mild appreciation. Whereas an exclusive chocolate that sells for $1 a piece, you’ll savour every bite and distinguish the quality immediately.
Cheese mongers are a different breed. They’re not the type to slice up cheeses in cute little cubes and arrange them in a fan formation. They also treat cheese with respect and care, making certain storage temperature and packaging maintain the integrity of the product.
When it comes to serving cheese, the practice is similar to admiring a piece of art—it should be presented in a natural state, with a bit of drama, then slowly savoured in dignified pieces. Of course, going back for seconds and thirds is always encouraged.
Feel free to use those special platters you’ve stored away, or for a more natural presentation, try presenting crackers and cheese pieces of stone, slate, or tile (make sure to wash them first, and brush a layer of cooking oil or simply lay down some interesting lettuce, banana leaves, or other safe greens.
Many grocery stores feature a selection of cheeses, but don’t normally carry the variety you expect from a cheese shop. A monger will boast at least 150 cheese or more, and can be specially cut, ordered and arranged to suit a private dinner, public event, wedding, wine, beer or scotch tasting, or any other special occasion.
The best mongers are the ones who take great care in storing and displaying cheeses, and will help you choose the right cheeses for any occasion. The best part is that they won’t serve a cheese that isn’t ready to enjoy—such as degree of ripeness.
They also know what goes best with your purchase, including breads, wines, liqueurs, olives, oils, and where they fit in any type of prepared dish.
There are seven stages of ripeness for mostly semi-firm or soft cheeses. They include:
Stage I: You don’t get a lot of personality out of a baby, so don’t expect much from a freshly born cheese. Some start as a liquid, and need to set properly , while others, like a tripe crème brie, start out semi-firm, and need to bloom and soften.
Stage II: This is a time when flavours are starting to occur, especially in pressed or harder cheeses (where the whey is literally squeezed from the curd), but time, proper storage, and patience is still required.
Stage III: Sure, the cheese looks tasty, has some fantastic smells, and a pretty white rind, but it’s still not quite ready to enjoy fully. The cheese may be too moist, too hard, or crumble too quickly.
Stage IV: Now is the time to start taking advantage of the flavour of the cheese. This is the peak moment, when the scents get a little funkier, the rinds a little softer and start to sink in a bit. You might start to smell the yeast blooming in the cheese, and hard cheeses don’t crumble, but slice beautifully.
Stage V: Delicious, but get to it quickly, as the peak moment has passed, and the quality of the cheese will start to fade. Rinds might start to harden on the edges, soft cheeses run a bit too much, and the veins in Stilton and Bleu will take over.
Stage VI: The last stage of edibility. Some cheeses will start to leak out the remaining whey, mould will start to form, and or they’ll just dry up altogether. Salvage what you can by trimming, and use them in dishes or appetizers that will be enhanced by the pronounced flavours.
Stage VII: Time to call it quits. The flavours are too far gone, the smell is awful. The rinds are collapsed, soggy, and hard cheeses are rock solid. Best to ditch it and run to your monger to get some more
Storage of Cheese
A great bone of contention with mongers and cheese enthusiasts everywhere is how to keep cheese fresh in the best conditions. The ideal scenario is buying cheese when it’s already ripe and ready to eat. But if you happen to be buying ahead of time, or even a little too late, we’ve got some tips you can use to prolong the enjoyment.
Temperature: Most cheeses do well stored between 10 and 15 degrees Celsius (45-60 degrees Fahrenheit). Blues and softer varieties need cooler temps and higher humidity, while washed rind and hard, aged cheeses prefer warmer.
Humidity: Cheese loves moisture, so much so, it does best within the 80 to 90 per cent humidity range. Most fridges are normally set at around 38 per cent moisture—a harsh environmental condition. A vegetable drawer with adjustable humidity is best. You can even store the cheese in a cool dark basement with good air circulation, and away from little hands, pets, or insects.
Wrap: A little air and clean wrap helps keep the cheese breathable and aids in the ripening process. Too much plastic wrap can trap moisture, as well as speed aging and spoiling. Two-ply paper wrap, or parchment/wax/butcher paper works well. For hard cheeses, leave the wrap off the rind (such as Gouda). If your soft cheese comes in a box, keep it there. If cheese feels wet on the bottom, switch it up. Blues need to be tightly wrapped in plastic and foil when stored in the fridge.
Cheese News, Links and Resources
Want to know more about cheese? Click on these informative links:
3,500-year-old cheese discovered in China
Canadian Dairy Association
Wikipedia List of Global Cheeses
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