Cheese – understanding the main styles

About 8 years ago, I shared an office with a nice American lady, and we got to the subject of cheese one day (doesn’t everyone, eventually?). The conversation was largely based around the lack of variety in US supermarkets. From memory the breadth of the offering (for most American consumers, apparently) amounted to Montery Jack, Cheddar, and Swiss, all of which seemed to be based on the recipe for Kraft single slice cheese.

My office friend told me it got better than this and that you could in fact get “Cheez Whiz” (sic) in a can (UHT cream style), spelt thus so as not to sully the name of the real stuff. Cheez Whiz is made by Kraft, coincidentally. We think this squirty cheese was invented for pasting onto saltines (crackers for the English), but we’d love some clarification.

I’d heard of evil food in my time (baconnaise, meat in a cone etc), but this took the (savoury) biscuit. My friend actually brought me back a can of Cheez Whiz back from a trip to USA. It terrified me on a number of levels.

The world of artisan cheese making is a world way from Cheez Whiz. One of our favourite pastimes is selecting cheese ranges for our wine tasting events and for our fine food tasting game, The Epicurean. What though, is the best way to get to grips with all the different varieties of cheese out there?

Charles de Gaulle had it about right when he asked how somebody could govern a country which has 246 varieties of cheese alone, and he was just talking about France. There are many different ways to classify cheese, but our favourite methods are below. Note we are concentrating specifically on the classifications which determine texture, flavour and appearance – the most important bits!

TEXTURE

There are many different types of texture from hard (Parmesan, Mimolette), to semi hard (Cheshire), to soft (Mozzarella).

STRENGTH

A cheeses strength is most famously determined by age (longer maturation=stronger flavour) or treatment (i.e. how the cheese is produced). Some retailers helpfully provide a chart for their cheeses to help their customers understand what to expect.

RIND

Many people classify cheese this way, but in our experience it’s not the most useful categorisation, as it’s not terribly descriptive.

Bloomy rind cheeses are your Bries, Camemberts, Chaources etc. This bloomy rind is the light fluffy outer casing that generally implies the cheese within is soft.

Natural rind cheeses include Stilton, and (typically) different types of goat’s cheese.

Washed rind cheeses refer to cheese that is washed and brushed in liquid to give it a particular flavour and piquancy. A particularly well known example in the UK is Stinking Bishop, whose rind is washed with Perry.

MILK TYPE

This is important, because each milk type gives identifiable characteristics:

Cow’s milk – the most used milk type, gives hard, typically dense and often full bodied cheeses, high in fact content.

Goat’s cheeses are sharper in style, with more tang, and often a mouth coating quality.

Sheep’s milk cheeses (our personal favourites) often have a famyardy, nutty quality.

Buffalo milk is most famously used in true Mozzarella, and in this instance tends to produce a delicate, lactic, creamy style.

AREA OF PRODUCTION

Like wine and whisky, the area of production is also important in cheesemaking. Milk has different characteristics depending on its source, and this will carry through to the end product.

One of the most enjoyable elements of cheese appreciation is experimentation. The more you taste, the more the above classifications become rounded out. The next time you are in a cheesemonger, ask for a sliver of something new..