Cheese is a great unifier. Bring out a cheesboard and a glass of wine and hear the conversation flow! It is surely the simplest form of entertaining – and yet the making behind it is really skilled and labour intesnive. Blessed are the cheesemakers!
Cheese making starts with milk, salt and a coagulant such as an acid or rennet. These ingredients are heated to form curds and whey. In its simplest form, the curds are stirred, stretched or pressed to make fresh cheese that is ready to eat immediately if not in a day or two. Think bocconcini, paneer and goat’s milk chevre. For Part 1 click here of my cheese culture series covers this category, fresh or curd cheese. Below I’m looking at cooked cheeses – both semi-hard and hard.
There are a few extra steps taken when making semi-hard and hard cheeses. First up, the curds are heated prior to pressing and shaping and secondly, this type of cheese is aged. Historically ageing occurred in dark caves; these days modern cheesemakers prefer a more controlled environment. Cheeses can also be wrapped in cloth or wax for ageing. The level of ‘hardness’ is disproportionate to moisture retention. That is, the more moisture the cheese loses, either through pressing or ageing or a combination, the harder it becomes. Less moisture generally means more shelf life too.
Did you know?
- It seems each European country has one or two semi-hard specialties named for their geographical origin: England’s Cheddar; Holland’s Gouda and Edam; Switzerland’s Gruyere and Emmental; Norway’s Jarlsberg, France’s Comte and Spain’s Manchego to name a few. Some cheeses names are regionally protected by name in the same way wines like Champagne are. Known as PDO or protected geographical indication or PGI (protected geographical indication) or TSG (Traditional specialities guaranteed. Interestingly, cheddar is not so protected as it became widely popular as a generic term and so an application for protection could not be made afterwards, though it did originate in the English village of Cheddar. DOC (controlled designation of origin) and AOC are other terms used (see below for Parmigiano-Reggiano).
- Semi-hard cheeses were traditionally made for cooking due to their good melting qualities although they are enjoyed as table cheeses too.
- A nutty flavour and crumbly texture often characterises this style.
- Don’t be alarmed by white spots, these are calcium deposits which denote age.
Australian semi-hards to seek out
- Hunter Belle Cheddarbelle: Having been aged for at least eight months, this cheese is full of flavour with traditional cheddar crumbliness. Hunter Belle is the only artisan cheddar producer in NSW.
- Yarra Valley Dairy’s Bulls Eye: this cows’ milk cheese is both sweet and earthy. Make a fondue!
- Hunter Belle Belleyere – isn’t it great they create their own name! A Swiss Gruyere style cheese it is smooth with a sweet, nutty aroma.Pyengana has a range of cheddars from a milk (4 – 6 weeks matured), traditional (3 – 4 months matured) to a taste, matured for 12 – 15 months, 16 – 24 months or 2+ years.
Hunter Belle Cheddarbelle
These cheeses are known for their dry, granular texture due to longer ageing as well as the fact that the curds are heated to a higher temperature than semi-hard cheese during the cheesemaking process. The effect is twofold – concentrated flavour and low moisture. Well known examples are parmesan and pecorino.
What about different milks?
- Pecorino is an Italian cheese traditionally made from sheep’s milk, often flavoured with peppercorns or dried chilli for added punch. Even though pecora means sheep in Italian, many pecorinos are now made with cows’ milk. Pecorino is usually aged for around eight months.
- Greek cheese Kefalograviera is usually made from a combination of goat and sheep milk. It can be very salty and is often enjoyed breaded and fried. I like mine with a squeeze of lemon.
- World famous Parmigiano-Reggiano is the subject of Denominazione di origine (controlled designation of origin) and as such must be from the Parma or Reggio regions of Italy. This cheese must be made from cows’ milk and aged for a minimum of two years. After one year, each wheel is inspected by the Cheese Police, known as Consorzio Parmigiano-Regiano, who even have their own website!
Romano is not an Italian cheese. It was developed by American marketers as a hard cheese brand to be used primarily for grating and, I suspect, as a competitor to its Italian counterpart, parmesan.
Australian hard cheeses to look out for
- Wholemilk Continental Cheese has a wide range of pecorinos, including a few flavoured with herbs and spices
- Bruny Island Cheese Company’s C2 raw milk cheese, aged for up to 12 months and rubbed weekly to aid bacterial growth, has a sweet and nutty taste and a chalky texture.
If in doubt, the Sydney Royal Cheese & Dairy Produce award results are a great resource.
A quick note on storage and serving
Air and moisture are the enemies of cheese, though different cheeses need different wraps. Best bet is to keep in the original wrapping or else wrap in waxed paper before storing in the fridge. The vegetable compartment is ideal as it has slightly higher humidity. And please please please take cheese out of the fridge an hour before you want to eat it, unless the weather is very hot in which case only 30 minutes. Put in a cool place, unwrap and cover with a clean damp cloth until ready to serve.
If you love cheese in all its forms, don’t miss Cheese Lovers Festival at Hunter Valley on Saturday 25th June. Where I will be doing a cheese workshop at 10:30am. The best thing about my workshop is that it is FREE!! Also make sure you get your tickets for either the Dinner I will be hosting on Friday 24th June or Lunch Saturday 25th June. For more details about the Cheese Lovers festival click here