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Tastings Gourmet Market


Tastings Gourmet Market
>Home > Cheese Facts

Cheese Facts

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Welcome to the world of artisanal cheese! If you walk into a specialty cheese shop you’ll often find a large selection of cheeses that you’ve never heard of or seen before. While the experience can seem a little daunting at first, once you begin to taste all the varieties you’ll start to develop a good palate and be on your way.

At Tastings Gourmet Market, we believe the best way to learn about cheese is to taste it.

THE CHEESEMONGER OR FROMAGER

WINE AND CHEESE

CHEESE TYPES


THE CHEESEMONGER OR FROMAGER

What exactly is a Cheesemonger or Fromager? The cheesemonger is a specialist in cheeses-including sourcing, selection and purchasing of cheeses from around the world, knowledge of the characteristics of cheeses, such as proper storage, affinage, and wine or food pairings. Typically, you'll find a cheesemonger in a cheese shop or the cheese section of a specialty foods store. One can't just become a cheesemonger overnight; some formal education is usually required, as well as considerable experience in working with cheeses.

Why are cheesemongers so useful? A knowledgeable, enthusiastic cheesemonger makes a wonderful guide to the sometimes mystifying world of cheeses. He or she can help you match cheeses with wines (or beers!), find something new that you really like, or recommend cheeses for a cheese plate or gift. You'll likely pay more money for cheese at a specialty foods store or cheese shop; however, because the cheesemonger is an expert, you can trust that they'll have good-quality, properly handled and stored cheeses and can impart some knowledge.

Simply owning a cheese shop or managing a cheese department doesn't always equate with knowledgeable or enthusiastic. How will you know that your local cheesemonger is worth the trip? Here are some things you should look for when assessing the quality of your local cheese purveyor:

How are the cheeses packaged and displayed?

  • If all you see are pre-cut, plastic-wrapped wedges, go elsewhere! In this day and age, when convenience and speed are over-emphasized, it's almost mandatory that even the best cheese retailer will have to stock some pre-cut wedges, due to consumer demand. But what you're looking for are uncut or partially-cut wheels, a sign that this retailer will cut a cheese to your specifications. As a rule, pre-cut wedges of cheese dry out much more quickly than cheese that's still part of a wheel or block.
  • Do the cheeses look dried out, especially at the edges, or are they still fresh-looking and appetizing? Look for cheeses that appear fresh with smooth wheels and enticing interiors that are not dried out or moldy. Are there cracks in the exteriors of the wheels? Exterior cracks in wheels are to be avoided at all costs, as they indicate improper handling or storage.
  • Is there mold on the cut side of any wheels? While mold on the exterior of a cheese is often a very good sign, there shouldn't be mold on the interior surface of a cheese. The exception to this rule is cheese from the blue family, or the few cheddars that occasionally develop interior mold. Pick up a few pre-cut wedges and sniff them. While some cheeses naturally have a strong or earthy aroma, you should not smell ammonia, a scent typical of an overripe cheese or one that's been poorly cared for.
  • How is your cheese cut and wrapped? Plastic wrap, seen so frequently at the supermarket cheese counter, can suffocate a cheese, causing loss of flavor and texture. Butcher paper or heavy-duty waxed paper are usually better for preserving cheese quality.

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How does the cheesemonger relate to customers?

  • Is he or she willing to answer any questions you may have? Does the cheesemonger make specialized suggestions when you ask about gifts, or pairing the cheese with wine or other foods? ("That wine would go well with a bleu cheese" might be O.K., but "this cheese is best prepared with Italian faro. These local seasonal grilled vegetables would be the best side dish. It would pair wonderfully with this red wine which comes from the same terroir." is much better.)
  • Can the cheesemonger tell you which cheeses are in season? (yes, some cheeses go in and out of season!)
  • Does he or she offer tastes of suggested cheeses? Tasting a cheese you're thinking about buying is very important. Most likely you won't appreciate every cheese you see: if you're thinking of spending a significant price for a chunk of DOP handmade Italian sheep's milk cheese, it's a great advantage to be able to try it first. This isn't possible with every cheese. Some cheeses are sold in small, whole wheels and really can't be cut without rendering them unsaleable. However, most cheeses can be sampled from the case. Of course it is appropriate to ask to taste a cheese if the cheesemonger doesn't offer to let you do so.
  • Does your cheesemonger follow up to address any concerns? Does the cheesemonger give you specific instructions for storing and serving the cheese? Both are important for preserving cheese quality and showing off the cheese you've so carefully selected to its best advantage. Does the cheesemonger offer you information about future selections, events or specials? You should have a friendly relationship with your cheesemonger, highlighted by excellent customer service.

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Health Benefits of Cheese

Americans are consuming more cheese than ever before. Between1990 and 2000, per capita consumption of cheese increased by more than 21%. The demand for cheese is attributed to its great taste, versatility, convenience, and nutrient content. To meet consumers' ever-changing demands, American cheese makers have introduced numerous new varieties of cheese in various flavors and forms.

Cheese contains a high concentration of essential nutrients, in particular high quality protein and calcium, as well as other nutrients such as phosphorus, zinc, vitamin A, riboflavin, and vitamin B12. In 1999, cheese provided 25% of the calcium available in the U.S. food supply, a six-fold increase from 4% in 1909. The composition of milk used and the manufacturing process (e.g., manner of coagulation, length of aging) influence the nutrient content of specific cheeses. For individuals monitoring or reducing fat in their diet, many reduced fat varieties of cheeses are available. Also, individuals can include cheese in a fat reduced diet by making dietary trade-offs, for example, by balancing higher fat foods with lower fat foods.

In addition to its nutritional contribution to the diet, cheese has several health attributes. Certain cheeses such as Cheddar, Swiss, blue, Monterey Jack, and process American cheese, among others, have been demonstrated to reduce the risk of dental caries. Although the anticariogenic effects of cheese are not completely understood, several potential mechanisms are proposed. Consuming cheese may stimulate the flow of saliva, which has caries reducing properties (e.g., increases buffering capacity and promotes food clearance). Milk proteins in cheese have been demonstrated to neutralize plaque acids through their buffering capacity. Cheese appears to prevent acid demineralization and enhance remineralization of tooth enamel. To help reduce tooth decay, health professionals recommend eating cheese immediately after meals, or as a between-meal snack.

Many cheeses, particularly aged cheeses such as Cheddar and Swiss, contain little or no lactose. For this reason, cheese is an important source of calcium and many other nutrients found in milk for lactose maldigesters or persons who have difficulty digesting lactose or milk's sugar.

Because cheese is a calcium-rich food, its inclusion in the diet may help reduce the risk for osteoporosis. In addition, cheese, in moderation, is included in the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet designed to reduce the risk of hypertension. This diet, which includes 3 servings/day of dairy foods (e.g., lowfat and fat free milk and yogurt, regular and lowfat cheeses) and 8 to10 servings/day of fruits and vegetables, has also been shown to reduce other risk factors for heart disease, specifically blood levels of total and low density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol and homocysteine.

Cheese's high nutritional value and its beneficial roles in health make this food an important dairy food to include in a healthful diet.

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WINE AND CHEESE

The 3 Wine & Cheese Pairing Challenges

  1. Texture - The softer the cheese the more it coats the mouth, blocking many wine sensations.
    Solution - White wines tend to have more refreshing acidity and therefore a more appropriate cleansing effect on soft or creamy cheeses.
  2. Sweetness - Some mild cheeses taste slightly sweet and make dry wines seem acidic, tart and devoid of fruit. This happens whenever a food is perceived to be sweeter than a wine served with it.
    Solution - In general, semi-dry and sweet wines are more versatile with cheeses than are dry wines.
  3. Flavors - Very ripe, spicy or pungent cheeses have overpowering flavors that eclipse most wines.
    Solution - Strong cheeses require strong wines. Red wines (packed with fruit, acidity and flavor), sweet or aromatic whites and fortified wines like ports and Sherries have the best chance with extreme flavors.

General Guidelines For Wine And Cheese Pairing

The possibilities of pairing cheese and wine are endless. There are so many wines and so many cheeses. Here are some ideas:

Young, mild, and milky cheeses such as fresh goat cheese pair well with light, fruity delicate wines such as Sauvignon Blanc and Beaujolais

Assertive, strong-flavored cheeses such as Provolone pair well with young, robust red wines such as Chianti and Syrah

Aged mellow cheeses such as Parmigiano and Gouda pair well with older, robust wines such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel

Strong, pungent cheeses such as Pont l'Eveque or Taleggio pair well with young, full-bodied wine such as Merlot or sweet dessert wines such as late-harvest Reislings and Sauternes

Soft-ripened cheeses like Brie and Camembert pair well with full-flavored Chardonnays or Champagne

Tangy strong goat cheeses such as Crottin di Chavignol pair well with Burgundies

Blue cheeses such as Roquefort and Stilton pair well with sweet dessert wines like Port or Sauternes

Soft, rich cheeses without overpowering flavors are best with fine, older wines.

When what you're drinking melds with what you're eating, something magical takes place in your mouth, in terms of a sheer sensory experience.

Texture: A cheese’s texture is the most important characteristic when looking for a compatible wine partner because the texture of a cheese gives you a clear idea of its flavor. Is the cheese velvety and creamy or firm and dry? By matching the texture in a wine you can rule out some obvious clashes. For example, a triple crème brie like Brillat-Savarin, with its fluffy, whipped cream texture, pairs well with a light Champagne or other sparkling wine. The bubbles also provide a nice palate-cleansing contrast to the creaminess of the cheese. On the other hand, a dense, lip-smacking cheese like a Vintage Gouda requires backbone in a partner. A thin, light wine would be crushed by the complexity of this aged cheese. Rather, choose a full-bodied “heavy” wine like Zinfandel or Syrah that has some age to it as well. A “meaty” cheese, such as a wash-rind Morbier, is full, plump, flavorful and creamy. You can instantly recognize it by the line of ash running through the middle of the cheese. Choose a soft, round red wine such as a French Pinot Noir or Côtes du Rhône and experience bliss.

Intensity: When it comes to harmony in the cheese-wine relationship either component should taste as good, if not better, with the pairing as it does on its own. Trust me you’ll know instantly when you have a bad marriage; the wine can become bitter and the cheese can become sour. A simple guideline is to pair light wines with light cheeses and heavy wines with heavy cheeses. A light cheese is typically classified as a fresh or semi-soft cheese and is aged less than a month. Younger cheeses lack the complexity that older cheeses have acquired over time and would be better suited with a younger wine. Young wines are usually defined as crisp, higher in acidity, lower in alcohol (10%-12%) and exposed to very little oak. The higher the acidity, the more crispness you will taste in a wine making this pairing ideal. The amount of alcohol in a wine gives you an indication of the body of the wine. The higher the alcohol percentage, the more body and less likely it will go with lighter cheeses. Younger wines are not typically aged in oak barrels for very long so they lack that heavy, buttery, toasty notes of aged wines. An example of a good pairing based on intensity is chèvre, or fresh goat cheese, with Sauvignon Blanc or Mozzarella with a light Sangiovese. Likewise, Pecorino Vecchio, (a.k.a. Pecorino Grand Old Man), aged 16 months is packed with mouthwatering flavor and should be paired with a vintage Brunello di Montalcino. The only exception to this rule is pairing a big red wine with a bold blue cheese. One sip and you will know that this was a bad idea.

Fruity Wines Shine: Fruitiness in wines, either red or white, makes it easier to pair with most cheeses. For the cheese-wine relationship to stand a chance stay away from bone-dry, tannic or over-oaked wines. These finicky partners can wreak havoc on your experience. Either the cheese or the wine will suffer. The salty and lactic flavors of the cheese can ruin a dry wine, but can provide the right balance to a fruity wine. Cypress Grove’s Midnight Moon, a semi-hard, aged goat’s milk cheese, walks the line between earthiness and fruitiness. The wine for this cheese should do the same. On the white side, a Gewürztraminer pairs very well because it has similar characteristics. On the red side, a Pinot Noir or medium bodied Merlot shines.

What’s important in all of this is to keep it simple. You’ll know you have a perfect pairing when you can't find where the wine ends and where the cheese begins. To bring these two ethereal pleasures together only requires you to have fun and be open to experimenting. Read more about cheese and wine pairings in The Cheese Course.

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Classic Parings

  • Pouilly Fume and Sancerre with the goat cheeses from Touraine
  • Rich, old chardonnays with Camembert
  • Champagne with Brie
  • Amontillado sherry with Manchego
  • Chianti with Pecorino Toscano
  • Spanish Rioja with Cabrales
  • Sauternes with Roquefort
  • Champagne with rich triple creme cheeses such as Brillat-Savarin or Explorateur

CHEESE TYPES

Fresh Cheeses: Uncooked and unripened lactic curds, usually moist and mild, drained, like Cream Cheese, or undrained, like Ricotta.

Soft-ripened or bloomy rind: Semi-soft consistency with surfaces exposed to molds that cause them to ripen inward. Bloomy rinds (Brie, Camembert) become creamy as they ripen. The higher butterfat cheese often found in this group, including double and triple-cremes (St. Andre), produce the richest, creamiest cheeses.

Washed-rinds: Treated or cured by being brushed, rubbed, washed or immersed in brine of salt, wine, beer or grape brandy to promote desirable exterior mold that produce a "smelly" quality with a pronounced flavor (Pont L'Eveque, Alsace Munster).

Natural rind: Self-formed rind, no micro-flora or mold or washing of their thin exterior. The natural rind takes the appearance of rock covered with splotches of lichen (Stilton, Cantal, Tomme de Savoie).

Uncooked/pressed cheese: Curds remain uncooked. Whey is removed by pressing the cheeses to complete drainage, thus achieving a firm texture (Saint Nectaire, Tomme de Savoie).

Cooked/pressed cheese: Curds are heated till they solidify before being pressed. (Gouda, Cheshire, Cantal, Gruyere, Parmigiano Reggiano, Appenzeller, Emmental).

Semi-hard and Hard: These are also cooked and pressed, with or without rinds, and either smooth textured (Cheddar) or "holey", open textured (Swiss Emmental). Usually aged 1-2 years, even up to 6 years such as aged Gouda.

Blue-veined: These are marbled with blue-green mold throughout the interior and are intensely flavored (Gorgonzola, Roquefort, Stilton). Made from all major types of milk, they are sprayed or pierced with penicillin mold spores and usually aged in caves and cellars.

Pasta-Filata: Pulled cured cheeses of Italy (literally "spun paste"). The curd is bathed in hot whey, then kneaded and stretched to it's proper elastic consistency. Examples range from soft Mozzarella to firm Provolone.

Cheese is a living, breathing substance and is in a constant state of change. Every cheese ripens in its own way depending on its style and every cheese has a “window” of peak ripeness. The more you understand about cheese styles and the ripening process the easier it will be to navigate the cheese counter and select great cheeses at their peak.

Cheeses can fall into one of these categories: Fresh, Semi-soft, Soft-ripened, Surface-ripened, Semi-hard, and Hard.

Think of most fresh cheeses as having two flavor characteristics: either milky or salty. The word “fresh” in this case simply refers to cheeses that are not aged and are instead, made to be consumed within a few weeks of production. Their color should resemble the fresh milk from which they were made, either off-white from cow’s milk or bright white from goat’s or sheep’s milk. Usually there’s not much aroma so if you find one that is pungent, it’s best to pass on it. Look for uniformity in the cheese with no blemishes or discoloration. Cheeses in this category include mozzarella, fromage blanc, Chèvre, and Feta.

Semi-soft cheeses are mild but anything but boring. Aged only about two months, it’s the suppleness in their texture that most people crave. Think of a perfectly cooked grilled cheese sandwich that coats your mouth and lingers with flavor. The aromas are usually earthy or floral; you’ll know if it’s past its prime if it smells musty. Made from all milk types or blended milk, the paste is almost always white to light ivory in color.

Soft-ripened cheeses are unmistakable due to their soft, white rind. Because this cheese ages from the outside in the paste just beneath the rind turns practically translucent while the interior remains firm and chalky white. It’s like having two cheeses in one. Brie, Camembert and Montbriac (a blue-brie) fall into this category. The rind should always be supple so avoid any that are hard or have cracks. The aroma should have either buttery, floral, or mushroom tones so pass on any that are pass their peak and smell of ammonia.

Surface-ripened cheeses are some of the most interesting looking cheeses because they come in so many shapes and the rind is delicate and wrinkled. The paste can either be firm or creamy but should never smell of ammonia. This category includes Chevrot, Brunet, Rocchetta and Langres.

The largest category of cheese is Semi-hard cheese and the flavor profiles run the gamut as well. They can be aged anywhere from two months to two years. The paste should be firm but not so hard that it doesn’t give when pressed. And when you put it in your mouth it should start out firm but then give way to a nice creaminess and linger for a while. Many cheddars, gouda-style, and pecorinos fall into this category and a favorite in many cheese shops is Prima Donna from Holland.

Hard cheeses are just that – hard. Because they’ve been aged from 12 months to 8 years they’ve lost a great deal of moisture along the way. They pack a punch and a little goes a long way. Try a chunk of five-year aged Gouda and this butterscotch-flavored, lip-smacking cheese will make you think you’re eating candy. Hard cheeses usually have little white flecks or crystals that are responsible for making your mouth salivate. Stars in this category are Parmigiano-Reggiano, Mimolette from France and Serena from Three Sisters Farmstead in the U.S.

Remember that cheeses age and taste best when they are properly cared for. Many can be enjoyed at different stages of ripeness and understanding the various styles will only enhance your experience. Shop at stores where cheesemongers are passionate about their cheese and never be afraid to ask for a taste.

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How Do I Store Cheese?

When wrapping cheese you want to maintain moisture while allowing the cheese to breathe. Use aluminum foil, wax paper or plastic wrap (least favorable). Wrap securely and store in consistent temperature, preferably in the bottom drawer of the refrigerator.

  • Fresh Cheeses, such as cream cheese, are fragile and highly perishable-eat them quickly. They are best kept in airtight containers.
  • Soft-ripened and triple crèmes will keep at least a week refrigerated in plastic, but waxed paper is better if you can keep out the air.
  • Semi-soft cheeses such as Taleggio should be wrapped with plastic (stinky, washed-rind cheeses like Alsace Munster should have their wrapping changed often.)
  • Semi-firm cheeses such as Comte and Fontina should be wrapped securely to maintain moisture. In some instances when the cheese is crumbly and moist like Caerphilly, wrap it in a slightly damp cloth.
  • Avoid letting hard cheeses like Parmigiano-Reggiano dry out; keep them securely wrapped in wax paper or foil.
  • Wrap Blue cheese securely in foil and refrigerate.
  • With individual chevres (eg. Valency, Crottin de Chavignol), avoid plastic wrap. Opt instead for foil, wax paper, or sealed containers. This allows the cheese to breathe, retaining moisture as it ages, and developing flavor and texture for up to two months.
  • Pasta Filata such as Mozzarella and Provolone are very fragile cheeses and should be consumed quickly, if fresh. Avoid letting harder versions dry out by wrapping securely.

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What is cheese rind?

Rind is a cheese's protective coating - it keeps the cheese from drying out, among other functions. Some rinds are edible (and quite tasty); some are not. Fresh cheeses have no rind.

Types of Rinds:

Natural Rinds: Many cheeses are marked by natural, permeable rinds hardened by simple contact with air. These include the blues and most goat cheeses. Among the other varieties with natural rinds are semi-hard cheeses like British farmhouse Cheddar, Cheshire and Gloucester. Also included are harder, mountain cheeses like Emmental and Comté. Semi-firm sheep's milk cheeses like pecorino and cow's milk cheeses like Asiago and Parmigiano-Reggiano sport natural rinds as well.

Bloomy Rind: The so-called "bloomy" rind of many soft French cheeses is produced through the introduction of mold - mold is the "flower" or "bloom" of certain bacterium. P. camemberti, for instance, is responsible for the classic bloomy-rind cheese Camembert. These cheeses are distinguished by an almost fuzzy, white coating, one of the defining characteristics of Brie and the divine triple-crèmes Explorateur, Brillat-Savarin and Pierre-Robert. The tomme cheeses of France's Savoie region also belong in the bloomy-rind category.

Washed-rind: Washed-rind cheeses are just that; their exteriors are bathed in a variety of catalysts, among them water, brine, wine and beer. This process frequently produces a bacteria called B. linens that gives these cheeses their flavor complexities (and the rinds their orangey, pink or reddish tints). Standout washed-rind cheeses include Chimay, Epoisses, Livarot, Munster and Taleggio.

Ash, Leaves, Herbs, etc.: Artisanal goat cheeses are regularly protected by a layer of vegetable ash, leaves (chestnut, walnut, grape) or herbs (rosemary, chives). Keep in mind that some cheeses can fall into more than one of these rind categories; Brie, for instance, is bloomy but may also enjoy the benefits of B. linens as it ripens. Indeed, some of the most highly prized cheeses in the world resist easy pigeonholing.

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