Day 43: Say, Cheese!

originally published February 12, 2012

There are 309 varieties of cheese listed on Wikipedia. I could list them here, and along with this sentence I’d be a third of the way through today’s article. But where’s the fun in that?

Actually, more than 500 kinds of cheese are recognized by the International Dairy Federation, a group probably important enough to have their logo on a ballcap. Researchers Sandine and Elliker estimate there are over a thousand, which means there’s a vast underground of ‘Rogue Cheeses’ that aren’t IDF-certified. Somehow cheese just got a little more exciting.

The IDF strikes me right away as a fairly weak organization, as there is still no universal method for classifying cheeses. Some sort them by texture, by animal of origin, by length of ageing, fat content, and so on. Seems as though the IDF should toughen up, get a little more strict. Are they too busy? Is there a lot of dairy-related think-tank work that needs to be done?

Perhaps they’re too busy coming up with logical and totally non-weird promotional ideas.

The most common way of sorting cheeses is by moisture content, hence the expression, “Give me some more of that wet cheese.” Rating cheese on a scale of soft to hard is arbitrary (and also a little dirty), because a single type of cheese can be softer or harder depending on how it’s made. The factor that controls cheese hardness is actually its moisture content. Wow, cheese is sexy.

Semi-soft cheeses have a high moisture content and tend to be rather bland, like Havarti (which is delicious, but mild), and Munster (which is Fred-Gwynne-tastic!). Next you have the eye-cheeses.

No, the eye-cheeses. Eyes, as they pertain to cheese, are bubbles of carbon dioxide gas that gets produced by the bacteria in the cheese. These bubbles appear as holes, like in Swiss or Emmentaler. The bacteria that causes these bubbles also give these cheeses their pungent aroma and flavor. Stanks ‘em up, if you’d like.

Harder cheeses are packed into moulds under a lot of pressure, which either means the moulds are clamped together tight or else the guys making the cheese are doing so at gunpoint. The article isn’t really specific here. Anyway, next time you wolf down some cheddar in a grilled-cheese, it’s entirely possible that someone died to bring you that sandwich. You’ll have to do that research on your own.

Of course the hardest of cheeses, the stuff you’d grate on top of pasta, chili, pizza and ice cream (if you’re into that), stuff like parmesan and romano, gets tightly packed and aged for years. Every time you eat a baked lasagna, you might be eating a little piece of the 90’s.

Y’all know what lasagna looks like, but this article needs more pictures of gooey cheesestuffs.

Wow, an entire article about cheese. I have to pause a moment and look ahead. Can I stretch this out and make it interesting for another 550 words? I’ve already giggled about the words ‘hard’ and ‘moist’ as they apply to cheese – I may have hit the bottom of the barrel here. The Cracker Barrel. Oh man, it just doesn’t stop.

Mozzarella, which is one of the most common cheeses in these parts, is actually considered a fresh cheese. No, not because of its plucky attitude, it really is eaten within a few hours of being made in southern Italy. The stuff we get has been brined, packed, and de-freshened.

Fresh mozzarella should elicit a solid “fuck yeah” even from the most lactose intolerant among us.

Whey cheese is made from the leftover crap when other cheese has been made. The examples listed make me suspect I’ve never tried whey cheese: Anari, Gjize, Lor, Anthotyros… oh wait, there’s ricotta. If you’ve never tried ricotta then you’ve never tried a cannoli, and hence you have never truly lived. My stomach is suddenly noticing the down-side to writing about food.

Of course the easiest way to classify cheese is by the animal it original spewed out of. Most cheese comes from cows of course, but there are also a number of creamy, delicious varieties of goat cheese, as well as the Pecorino varieties of sheep cheese (or, ‘sheeze’ as I’m certain dairy farmers must call it). Feta is made from sheep’s milk in Greece and cow’s milk everywhere else for some reason. One farm in Sweden makes cheese from moose, because the Swedes just love to be different.

Yes, they have made cheese from human breast milk and I hate that I know that now.

Some cheeses are made using mold as a key characteristic. Brie and camembert are made by allowing white mold to grow on the outside of a soft cheese. Washed-rind cheeses are similar, but they are first cured in a saltwater brine, or sometimes beer, wine, or brandy. Before the Internet, some people had nothing better to do than to experiment by doing things to cheese. It was a glorious time.

Anyhow, after soaking the washed-rind cheeses they are susceptible to all kinds of wonderful, delicious bacteria. If you want to hurry things along, you can actually inoculate the curds with Penicillium Roqueforti, stab the mold right into the stuff. The mold grows inside the cheese as it ages, creating visible blue veins and a flavor that some might call ‘ass-like’. Blue cheese is an acquired taste. People that hate it really hate it, while others (who have been properly exposed to the cheese through its accompaniment with onions and barbecue sauce on a tasty burger) are passionate about it.

I’ll say it again. Fuck yeah.

Smear-ripened cheese, which sounds DE-lish, are smeared with a solution of bacteria or fungi, which gives them an even stronger flavor. There appears to be no end to the lengths people will go to make cheese taste more… loud. Sometimes they actually smear old cheese onto young cheese in order to transfer the microorganisms. This can turn the cheese slightly pink. Pink cheese. Who wouldn’t want pink cheese?

Of course if you’re not particular about the nutritional content of your food, there are always processed cheeses. While I have been advised that the molecular content of Kraft Singles is only two tiny molecules away from plastic, processed cheese is in fact made from real cheese. They add more milk, salt, preservatives, coloring, hog anus, and pure liquid obesity, and create something that melts smoothly, comes out in consistent square shapes, and sometimes aerosol cans. If you’re really a fan of this stuff, I would recommend bringing it with you to a fine Italian restaurant next time you go, and liberally applying it to your meal. Please let me know how that goes.

And so ends my first food-based article, only 43 days into this little experiment. These will probably be few and far between, unless I stop for snack breaks.

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