When I was a kid, cheese was a no-no. Unlike the typical American family, the only cheese we had was of the soy variety; my mother was allergic, and my father just thought it wasn’t nutritious enough to be a mainstay in our refrigerator. So, in those rare visits to family members, especially during the holidays, I became enamored of cheese—the variety, the textures, the flavors, the applications. When I was old enough to purchase cheese of my own volition, I made it a personal goal of mine to experience as many cheeses as possible.
You’d think that I’d be tired of cheese, but that’s far from the truth. In fact, the more I think I know about cheese, the more I discover what I don’t know. One of my son’s first foods was goat cheese, followed by Jarlsberg; now his favorite is Dubliner. At four he’s already sampled more cheese varieties than I did by the time I was eighteen. I consider that a definite leg up on life in general. He’s also fearless when it comes to tasting cheese, and considering the many varieties–and sometimes tongue-numbing curious flavors in the cheese realm–that will come in handy as he grows up.
And the particularly good news is that, when eaten in moderation of course, cheese is good for you. Chock full of protein, calcium, phosphorous, and fat, it’s a great snack to keep you from eating junk food and a compliment to a myriad dishes. Cheese has been consumed around the world for thousands of years because of its longevity and nutritional benefit. Eat up! Think of it as part of your world heritage.
So in the spirit of all things cheese, I thought I’d share some of my favorite cheeses, sprinkled with some interesting facts and notes that might help you the next time you want to venture into this culinary Eden. Or should I say, culinary Edam?
Brie – This is the smooth, sultry sister in the cheese family. Brie, originally named for the now renamed provence of its origin, is a soft cheese, pale in color, with a distinctive hard “mouldy” rind that can be consumed. You most often see it served with crackers, sort of slathered on top, and its got a very distinctive flavor—sometimes it can be very mild, but it can have quite a bite depending on the individual process. Two bacterium are responsible for the flavor and texture of brie, which is typically made of cow’s milk or goat’s milk, depending on the recipe: Penicillium candidum or Penicillium camemberti and/or Brevibacterium linens. Personally, I like Brie straight up; just a slice will suffice. But it’s divine wrapped in phyllo and baked, spread on a sandwich in lieu of mayonnaise, or melted over a prime piece of steak.
Jarlsberg – According to Wikipedia, Jarlsberg can be traced back to the 1850s, and it’s called after its namesake, Jarlsberg, Norway. With curious little holes throughout, it’s a mild cheese, somewhat similar to Swiss but with a lot more flavor. But just because the recipe is relatively old, doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot of planning and science behind Jarlsberg. In fact, today’s Jarlsberg is the result of research by the Dairy Institute at the Agricultural University of Norway, and that recipe has been used since the 1960s. Who says cheese has to have a rustic pedigree to be perfect? Jarlsberg is one of my favorite all-purpose cheeses; it melts beautifully, compliments any sandwich, and is perfect for snacking.
Dubliner – Dubliner cheese might be named after the famed city, but it’s made in County Cork. Still, this mature cheese (called as such since it spends over a year aging) takes taste and texture to another level. It’s got a bright flavor, and is often interspersed with calcium lactate crystals amidst the pressed curds. The result is a subtle crunch. If you want to make some killer quiche, Dubliner adds depth of flavor and smoothness. Or grate some over your morning eggs. Marvelous!
Wensleydale – Prefered by cheese connoisseur Wallace as well, Wensleydale is the perfect confluence of creamy and tasty—similar to blue cheese in texture but without well, that stink (which I happen to addore). Wenslydale is also rather crumbly, partly due to its relatively short aging time (3-6 months). There are a variety of Wensleydale cheeses, but they are all produced in the town of Hawes, found in Wensleydale, North Yorkshire, England. And although it has an English name, this famed cheese has got a French pedigree: in fact, it was first made by French Cistercian monks who arrived from the Roquefort region (another famous cheese place) in the early medieval period. By the 14th century the cheese was no longer made with sheep’s milk, and was made with the cow’s milk. Particular varieties include Wensleydale with cranberries and, one of my favorites, with apricots. Crumble it on salads, spread it on a cracker, or just place it directly in your mouth; you can’t go wrong with this wondrous cheese, Gromit, cheese!
Halloumi – If you’re interested in grilling something other than meat this summer, consider some halloumi cheese. Yes, that’s right. You can grill this cheese without worrying about melting all over the grates. Originating in Cyprus, halloumi dates from the Middle Ages, as well. While it’s often compared to mozzarella in terms of texture and appearance, it has a much higher melting point. You can get it nice and brown on the grill or the skillet, and garnish it in a variety of ways. The reason the melting point is so high is due to its curds being heated before being shaped and brined. Another similar cheese is Egyptian hâlûm, which can be found infested with fly larva to enhance flavor. Personally I’m quite happy to eat my cheese without any living interruption—you know, other than what I can’t see with my naked eye. Still, halloumi is great for vegetarians feeling lonely at the grill, though it tends to be a little expensive.
If you’re a little worried about trying cheeses, or buying them before knowing if you’ll like it, make friends with your local cheesemonger. Even large natural food stores like Whole Foods and Earth Fare typically have staff members well-versed in the language of cheese. Costco has a great selection, too, and often has samples for you to see for yourself–not to mention satisfaction guaranteed. You can always return it if it doesn’t work out!
So, I’ve shared my my top five cheeses. What are your favorite cheeses? Know any particularly geeky cheese facts? Have you ever tried a really wacky cheese? Do you live in an area of the world that makes particularly intriguing cheeses? I’m always on the lookout to learn more!
[Image: Guillaume Paumier / Wikimedia Commons, CC-by-sa-3.0]