Cheese 101

A comprehensive overview of cheese and its classic combinations.

Overwhelmed by the dizzying array of varieties offered at your local cheese store? Don’t worry—help has arrived. In her book Fiona Beckett’s Cheese Course author Beckett, an award-winning British food and wine writer, demystifies cheese and offers wisdom on the classic cheese board and the best pairings. Here, an excerpt:


In my view, the consistency of a cheese and the presence or absence of rind are the easiest ways to categorize cheese, together with how strong the flavor is. Here are seven key varieties:


Young goat and sheep cheeses dominate this popular style. When they’re first made, they’re light and moussey, just formed into a small flat disc or cylinder. A few days on they can be crumbled, and a week or so later, sliced. After a month on they will have acquired a protective greyish coating of mold, often described as a “natural rind.” Better-known ones are the pyramid-shaped Valençay and Tymsboro, and the herbcoated Perroche cheeses. Other well-known examples are Mozzarella and mascarpone.


Unlike other cheeses, Bries and Camembert, which are also known as semi-soft cheeses, get softer as they age rather than firmer and drier.


How hard must a hard cheese be? Some experts consider only rock-hard crystalline cheeses such as Parmigiano Reggiano truly hard, but most of us would include cheeses that were cut from big wheels such as cheddar or Gruyère.


These are the oldest cheeses you’re likely to find—cheeses so hard they’ve become almost crystalline and need to be shaved or grated rather than sliced. The best-known type is Parmesan or Parmigiano Reggiano but matured Grana Padano and Pecorino (also from Italy), Sbrinz from Switzerland, Roomano from Holland and Vella Dry Jack from California are similar.


These are described as washed-rinded because the surface of the cheese is rubbed with a brine (salt water) solution, which promotes the growth of a bacterium which breaks down the texture of the cheese, turning it soft and pliable. Well-known examples are Epoisses, Langres, Munster and Reblochon from France, Chimay from Belgium, Appenzell from Switzerland and Stinking Bishop from England.


This term refers to the downy white surface these cheeses acquire as they mature. Some bloomy-rinded cheeses are exceptionally rich and creamy thanks to the addition of cream during the cheesemaking process. Referred to as double- and triple-creme cheeses, they’re popular in France, which produces some of the most indulgent examples—Explorateur, Brillat Savarin and Pierre-Robert among them.


Cheeses develop their blue veining when a harmless penicillin mold is added to the milk or curds. Once the cheese is formed fine steel needles are inserted to expose the center to oxygen, which enables the mold to spread throughout. Favorites include Gorgonzola, Roquefort, Stilton and Cashel Blue.


The classic approach is to aim for a contrast of textures, tastes and shapes. Mild to strong, rounds and wedges, light against dark, soft and hard— it’s an aesthetic impact as much as a gustatory one. A classic selection would be a young, fresh-tasting goat cheese, a white or bloomyrinded cheese such as a Brie or a Camembert, a hard cheese like a cheddar and a blue such as a Stilton. You could also add a washed-rind cheese, a sheep cheese or a cheese flavored with herbs. What I like to do is create a miniature cheese board for two. You could have two goat cheese buttons, two wedges of Camembert or other whiterinded cheese, two slices of Beaufort and two radicchio leaves topped with a spoonful of a soft blue cheese such as Gorgonzola or Cashel Blue. Perch two small pots of fruit compote or chutney alongside or a couple of shots of grape jelly, add a few grapes or a couple of fresh figs, some small home-baked rolls or precut slices of raisin bread and some rustic artisanal breadsticks, and you’ve got a very pretty-looking board indeed.


In general, softer and sliced breads are better with harder, sliced cheeses and crustier breads like baguettes and ciabatta with soft or semi-soft cheeses. Try Scandinavian-style crispbreads with mild, semi-soft cheeses like Havarti; seeded, crisp flatbreads with creamy cow, goat or sheep cheeses; breadsticks with mozzarella; a baguette with Brie and Camembert; sourdough bread with all kinds of cheeses, particularly washed-rind cheeses and hard sheep cheeses; mixed-grain bread with cheddar, Cheshire and Lancashire; light rye with alpine cheeses such as Beaufort and Comté; darker ryes with creamy, spreadable cheeses.


In summer, take advantage of the wealth of fresh fruit and vegetables to show off your cheeses. Also, don’t be afraid to introduce a touch of spice. Chili peppers and garlic work well with cheese. One idea: Serve thinly sliced sheep cheese with grilled peppers and almonds as a mini tapas plate with a glass of fino sherry, or do as the Basques do and serve it with a cherry compote and a glass of fruity red wine. Or plate up individual ploughman’s platters with a good chunk of cheddar, some thickly carved ham, a dollop of chutney, an apple and some crusty bread.


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