In shops and markets around the world, thousands of cheeses tempt our eyes and challenge our taste buds. Wrinkled and mouldy, smooth and sunshine yellow, orange and smelly, or brilliantly white…various shapes, sizes, flavours and textures ranging from sublime to truly extraordinary! And all made from the basic product…MILK! What changes this simple product into something so complex and diverse?
Firstly, the type of animal yielding the milk makes a difference!
Friesian Cow’s milk is slightly sweet, Guernsey Cow’s milk is rich and pale yellow with larger fat globules than most, and Water Buffalo’s milk, which is used in Italy for making Mozzarella, is ivory white, earthy and nutty. Sheep’s milk is also mild, with undertones of roast lamb and lanolin, and slightly sweeter than cow’s milk. As sheep’s milk cheese matures, the characteristics are intensified, like we find with the hard mature sheep’s milk Pecorino of Italy or the cheeses from France and Spain; these are nutty and sweet as if the milk has been infused with brazil or walnuts, caramel and fudge, and have the aroma of lanolin – like the smell of wet wool also comes through!
The most misunderstood of all the cheeses are those made from goat’s milk. There is an explanation for this: if the milk is handled badly, the globules of fat suspended in the milk releases their contents. These impart a bitter, nasty, ‘billy goat’ flavour to the milk. If you have been close to a male goat, it is a smell you are unlikely to forget. However, if the milk is handled correctly, these globules will gradually break down and contribute to the delicious herbaceous taste of the cheese. A goat’s milk cheese tastes as though the milk has absorbed the oils and aromas of tarragon, thyme and marjoram, set against a background of dry, crisp white wine.
Sheep and goat’s milk cheeses are seasonal and is not produced while the animal is lactating! Some producers freeze their milk and continue to produce, others simply stop milking.
In some countries, cheese is also made from the milk of llamas, camels and even reindeer…adding yet another dimension to the cheese!
Of equal significance is what the animals eat. Even the most unobservant of us cannot fail to notice the smell of different grass, wild clover and spoilt meadows compared to compacted feed, silage, turnips and grass.
The seasons will affect the taste and texture of the cheese from animals that seek their own grazing and do not rely on their keepers. In spring the grass is sweet, moist and green, with lots of young shoots coming through and grazing is bountiful and varied, compared to late summer when the earth becomes hard and parched. Autumn brings the early rains and another burst of new growth, until the winter rains force the animals inside and they then become reliant on hay and prepared feeds. The flavour of the milk reflects these changes.
The soil and geology of an area also affects the milk and may even govern the types of cheeses that can be made. Clay and Limestone will support different grasses than those from volcanic soils and granite. The grass that grows will absorb different minerals, making a minute, but significant impact on the flavour of the milk. Rainfall, humidity and temperature also affect what will grow and which animals will survive.
Gradually, cheese-making arose wherever land would support grazing animals – mainly goats, sheep and cows. People found ways to press, flavour, form, ripen and cure the basic fresh white cheeses to eventually produce many different kinds.
Today, cheese is commonly known as one of the oldest and most nutritious foods known to mankind. For most of us, cheese is a favourite food we have in our fridges most of the time, and eat almost everyday, if not more than once a day!
Keep an eye out for my next blog where we will dig into grazing, soil and seasons, the cheese making process and much more!
Keep it cooking!