We have tried to cover everything you wanted to know about cheese – so here goes. There is evidence to prove that cheese dates back almost 4000 years when people started to breed animals and process their milk. They noticed that if milk was left in warm conditions it curdled and coagulated to form a ‘cheese’.

The most common varieties of cheese, particularly in the UK, are made from cows milk; but the milk from sheep, goats, buffalo and even yaks, camels and reindeer is also used for cheese-making around the world.

The milk can be raw, skimmed or pasteurised to give specialised flavours and textures but most importantly it is the bacteria which give each cheese its character. Fresh cheese is mild and it matures with age as the bacterium develops. The bacteria can grow inwards and provide the mould on the outside, as in Brie, whilst for others it is the interior organisms which give the flavour, sometimes creating holes to form, as in Jarlsberg.

Blue cheese is made by inserting the bacteria on skewers; they are pushed at intervals through the whole cheeses and left to mature and develop, thus producing blue veins as seen in Stilton.

Today of course cheese is produced in carefully controlled conditions, each variety carefully checked for its appropriate maturity. Soft and mild cheeses will take approximately 3 to 6 weeks, whilst blue cheeses need 3 to 6 months. Hard cheeses need maybe a year to develop their rich nutty flavours. Nowadays, with the continuing quest to satisfy discerning tastes, new flavours are introduced by adding ingredients into the cheese like herbs, caraway seeds, wine or maybe truffles.

Some cheeses are ‘smoked’ or, as with soft cheese, they are rolled in grape pips, nuts, and peppercorns, or enclosed in vine leaves. It is hardly any wonder therefore that there are hundreds of varieties to savour.

Cheese is available in many different types depending on region, the animal milk and ingredients used, as well as the cheese-making process.

FRESH CHEESES

The consistency of fresh cheese varies, it can be very creamy similar to yoghurt or slightly firm.  It should always be moist, but not sloppy, have a good light colour and have a sweet aroma.   Some fresh cheeses are very high in fat like Italian Mascarpone whilst others such asQuark has a low fact content. Refrigerate tightly covered for up to 7 days, but do not freeze.

Popular varieties of fresh cheese are:

Cottage Cheese; Fromage-frais; Cream Cheese; Mascarpone; Ricotta; Fromage Blanc; Boursin; Scottish Crowdie; Cremina;  Fromage de Fontainebleau 

SOFT CHEESES

Choose a firm but not dry rind with a soft centre. Soft cheeses are good everyday cheeses, if made with pasteurised milk they will keep refrigerated for about a week, unpasteurised for about 3 days. They generally melt well and are therefore ideal for cooking.

Examples of soft cheeses are:

Camembert; Fontina; Mozzarella; Port Salut; Limeswold; Monteray Jack; Pont l’Eveque; Brie; Milleens; Oka.

BLUE CHEESES

Blue cheeses all share a zesty flavour, produced mainly by the blue veins of mould running through them. However, each variety has its distinct identity. They vary from a firm blue such as Stilton to the softer creaminess of Gorgonzola. Choose a firm, but not cracked, rind, moist and creamy inside, well marbled with blue, and a zesty but not sharp smell. Wrap well in foil, to retain moistness and to prevent the mould spores spreading to other foods. Store in the refrigerator for 1 – 2 weeks.

Well known blue cheeses include:

Stilton, Danish Blue, Gorgonzola; Roquefort; Dorset Blue; Cashel Blue; Bresse Bleu; Bluefort; Castelmagno; Dolcelatte.

HARD CHEESES

Almost every country has its own hard cheese, be it English Cheddar or Italian Pecorino Romano. Ideal for cooking and grating, good quality cheese is essential for flavour. Avoid rindless or artificial rind and choose a dry rind, the surface of the cheese should be moist but not damp, and it should have a nutty aroma. Store, loosely wrapped, in a cool place or refrigerator for up to 2 weeks.

Among the hundreds of hard cheeses are:

Cheddar, Parmesan; Jarlesberg; Emmenthal; Double Gloucester; Gouda; Bola; Comte; San Simon; Caerphilly.

SHEEPS, GOATS & BUFFALO CHEESES

The main varieties of cheese are made with cows milk, but several other animal milks are used to make a range of famous cheeses.

Sheeps cheese is now very popular with a medium fat content but varieties vary in texture and flavour, such as, Feta; Roquefort, Scottish Lanark Blue.

Goats cheese can be eaten in several stages of ripeness, from fresh and soft to crumbly and dry.  Goats cheese is generally produced on a small scale and popular names are Chabichou and Crottin de Chavignol. Usually made locally, many English and Welsh varieties are becoming readily available such as Satterleigh and Hawkstone.

Buffalo cheese, the best known being the whey-drenched Mozzarella, as well as Provatura, Scamorza and Provola all come from Italy. Unfortunately there is such a shortage of buffalo milk that these cheeses are scarce and often now produced using cow’s milk which lacks in the richness and quality of the originals.

PROCESSED CHEESES

These are made by melting and blending one or more cheeses, adding butter, milk, cream, and perhaps flavouring. They are usually used for pre-sliced sandwich fillings or spreads.

SERVING & STORAGE

Cheeses are usually sold ready to eat, so you do not need them to mature further, most are best stored in temperatures of around 50F/10C.

Cheese should be wrapped according to its variety – whole hard cheeses in a slightly damp cloth, individual pieces loosely in cling film, soft cheeses loosely in waxed or greaseproof paper and blue cheeses wrapped in foil to prevent them drying out.

Once cut cheese should be eaten as soon as possible, especially soft delicate cheeses which lose subtlety and fragrance within 12 hours.

Soft cheese can be stored in a fridge for about 3 days.

Hard and blue cheese can be stored in a fridge for about a week without losing texture or flavour.

If cheese is grated it does mould quickly if moist, but should keep in a refrigerator for a few days.

Cheese can be frozen for up to 4 weeks, it will lose some flavour and possibly texture but it is ideal for cooking.

It is important not to let cheese dry out, the living organisms need air.

Always keep blue cheese exceptionally well-wrapped, and away from other cheeses, as the mould spores will quickly spread.

Cheese should not be stored near strong smelling foods because it will absorb other flavours and odours.

Mould on cheese is not harmful, although the taste will be affected around the mould so remove it by slicing to a depth of about ¼” to ½”.

Remove cheese from the fridge for about 2 hours before serving to develop the flavour for eating.

CUTTING CHEESE

A selection of cheeses can be presented on a platter with fruit – perhaps grapes, figs, apple slices or celery – and maybe walnuts. Plain biscuits like cream crackers, water biscuits or digestives, or perhaps chunks of granary or French bread are an ideal accompaniment. Guests cut their own portion but etiquette suggests varieties and shapes are cut such that everyone has an equal share of the inside and outside of the cheese.

A wooden board is best for slicing cheese, with separate knives for different varieties, e.g. blue, hard, soft, in order to not transfer flavour.

A wedge of cheese should be cut into smaller wedges lengthways to give some rind, and blue cheeses likewise to give a section of the ripe centre.

A block of cheese should be cut lengthwise.

Round cheeses are sliced like a cake.

A log of cheese should be sliced across to provide a ‘round’.

A larger roulade is sliced, and then halved across the diameter to provide an individual portion.

Truckles can be sliced horizontally, and the slices divided into wedges as required, although a slice may be a serving from a very small truckle.

Very large whole blue cheeses, such as Stilton, can have a round top cut-off to act as a ‘lid’ and then cheese can be scooped with a spoon, thus by leaving the rind around the cheese and replacing the ‘lid’ it will prevent it drying out.

A large whole hard cheese, such as Cheddar, should have the top removed as a ‘lid’ and then horizontal slices cut, which can then be divided into wedges

CHEESE & WINE

A most pleasurable way to enjoy eating cheese is with the accompaniment of good wine or port. Everyone has their own personal taste but recommendations are:

White wines go better with most cheeses -surprising and contrary to popular belief, but should red be your preference choose a fresh, fruity and light wine.

Cheese with bloomy white rinds – champagne.

Salty cheeses – a wine with good acidity.

Cheese with high acidity – sweet wine.

Fatty cheese – a slightly oily wine.

Goats cheese – dry fresh red wine.

Stilton – port wine.