Author: Leonid Gelibterman
But radiant Aphrodite
Nursed them well
On cheese and luscious honey
And heady wine.
They say that the great Dali once claimed that if one can’t find at least fifty kinds of cheese in a country, this country is on the verge of ruin. We aren’t going to argue with his statement, but even the most patriotic of us will hardly be able to quickly name even just two dozen varieties of cheese produced in our country. And yet selecting the right cheese is a process no less exciting and creative than choosing wine. There are hundreds of kinds of cheese in the world, and knowing which to match with a particular meal or wine is its own art form. Leonid Gelibterman joins us to lend his expertise in this subject.
There are more than four thousand varieties of cheese in the world. Cheese is mentioned as early as in the papyrus scrolls of Ancient Egypt, and here people have known how to make cheese since 3,000 BC. Goat and sheep cheese are also mentioned in the Bible.
Most historians agree that cheese originates from the Middle East, but the Ancient Greeks were quite fond of cheese as well. According to Greek mythology, either Artemis or Aristaeus, the son of Apollo and the nymph Cyrene, taught the mortals how to produce cheese. Homer wrote that the Cyclops loved cheese as well, and one of their prominent representatives, Polyphemus, even made cheese himself.
The Romans treated cheese with a great deal of respect: we know about more than 10 different kinds of Roman cheeses, apart from the cheese they imported from Bythinia in Asia Minor, Crete, Gallic blue cheese (the predecessor of Roquefort), mountain cheese from Helvetia, and horse milk cheese from Phrygia. The Romans thought cheese to improve digestion, and even used it as an antidote.
The Greeks and Romans started the mass production of cheese from cow milk. The Romans were the first to use a press to separate curd from whey, thus making hard-pressed cheese. They also invented smoked cheese and numerous cheese dishes. As early as the 1st century AD, Lucius Columella wrote: «The Romans produce cheese blocks weighing up to 40 kilograms. Rich houses have their own special cheese cookeries. They commonly curdle cheese with a lamb’s or a kid’s runner (rennet) or fig-tree milk.» The Romans also brought their knowledge of cheese-making to their dependent territories, including Gaul, Germany and Pannonia (modern Hungary).
In Italian, cheese is called «formaggio,» and in French «fromage,» both having roots in the Latin «forma,» as a cheese mass in those times was placed into special wooden forms to age.
Until the 15th century, cheese was considered a vulgar food, and only after the example of Charles, duke of Orleans, did the nobility started to serve cheese at their meals. In the 15th century, Dutch and Swiss cheese were quite popular in Europe. The nobility mostly used cheese to make various dishes and sauces.
Starting from the 17th century, King Louis XIV started to send wine, pate and cheese as an annual gift to the royal families of Europe, ushering in the era of French cheese. The works of German chemist Justus von Liebig, who investigated the process of milk souring, French biologist Louis Pasteur, who investigated methods of heat treatment, and Russian scientist Ilya Mechnikov, who created «prostokvasha» (soured milk), determined the development of mass production of cheese.
In Russian, the word for cheese («syr») was coined from the word meaning «raw» («syroi»). This is owed to the fact that in Ancient Rus, they didn’t heat milk up to sour it, but instead set it to sour in a natural, «raw» way. Peter the First brought cheese to Russia from Germany, where he was enchanted by Limburger cheese. The brother of the famous Russian artist Vereshchagin, Nikolay Vereshchagin created the first association of cheese producers in Russia, as well as the first school of dairy farming.
Cheese can be made from various kinds of milk, including cow, sheep, goat, horse, Buffalo, yak, deer, camel and many others. There are different classifications of cheese in different countries, which is why in this article we are attempting to adopt a relatively comprehensive system.
Fresh (white) cheese. Soft and moist cheese resembling curds, often with added spices. Made from cow, sheep or goat milk. Fresh cheese doesn’t ripen in cellars, and is only slightly pressed. Moisture content is 60-85%. Cheeses of this variety have a short expiration date. They are often used to make sauce, sweets, and baked goods. The consistency resembles that of curd cheese. Some typical examples are Rondele and Fontainebleau.
Soft cheese with a moldy rind. Cheese of this type has a white, thin rind of mold (Camembert, Brie). It can be made with cow, sheep or goat milk. The milk is soured using rennet, and then slowly, without stirring, the whey is strained off. The resulting cheese mass is placed into special wooden moulds. When the mass has dried a bit, the cheese is removed from the mould, slightly salted, after which penicillin mold is added to it, and the cheese is placed in a cool, moist drying room. The next day, the cheese is turned on its other side, and this process continues for one month. At first, the rind on the cheese is white, but with time its color takes on a golden hint.
Washed-rind soft cheese. Gourmet cheese made from cow milk, with a golden-hued, sometimes reddish-brown rind. This cheese can be produced from both raw or pasteurized milk. The production process is very time-consuming. The cheese is curdled twice: both lactic-acid bacteria and some rennet is added. In order to speed up the process of whey separation, the cheese mass is cut, stirred and sometimes ground. After the cheese is removed from the moulds, it is salted by hand. Then the cheese is placed on tables and colored with annatto (natural food coloring, derived from the seeds of the achiote tree Bixa orellana) for a brick red color.
The cheese is then aged in a drying room for three to six months. While the cheese is ripening, it is regularly rinsed with brine with the addition of beer, cider and sometimes wine distillate. At the end of the ripening process, the rind on the cheese becomes smooth, shiny and slightly sticky. The texture of cheese is soft and has a very particular taste. The most popular brands of such cheeses are: spicy Epoisses and Epoisses de Bourgogne, Livarot, Belgian Herve, created in the 8th century in the monasteries of Liege, Munster cheese, Vacherin Mont-d’Or, Pont-l’Évêque, and French Maroilles (which first appeared in the 10th century).
Pressed, non-heated cheese. One of the most ancient varieties of cheese, known since Roman times. The cheese mass is ground and placed into moulds, where the whey is strained off. Then the cheese is dried, removed from the mould, soaked in brine while periodically adding salt, turned and rinsed. This cheese is made mostly from cow milk.
It is very popular in Russia, and cheeses with the highest calorie and fat content fall into this category. Hard Dutch Edammer, Maasdam, Mozzarella (originated in the Italian province Campania, and the only cheese there with DOP certification), Saint-Paulin, Moosbacher from the Pyrenees, Tilsberg, Oltermanni, Atleet, Tilsit, English Cheddar, Dutch Gauda, French Reblochon and Cantal (from the Auvergne region), Radamer, Raclette, Saint-Nectaire cheese (one of Louis XIV’s favorites), Salers, Rossiyskiy, Poshekhonskiy and Kostromskoy.
Heated pressed cheese. This variety of cheese was invented by highlanders, who needed nutritious food with a long shelf life. A lot of milk is needed to produce heated pressed cheese, which is why highlanders opted for community cheese production. The introduction of milk pasteurization favored the industrial-scale production of such cheese varieties as Comte (according to appellation rules, cows can graze only in meadows located at an altitude of 1,400 meters above sea level), Emmental (France and Switzerland argue for the title of its country of origin) and Beaufort. Most of these cheese varieties come in blocks of a wheel shape, with some blocks weighing up to 80 kilograms.
The production process is as following. First milk is heated to 32 °C, and a mixture of lactic-acid bacteria and rennet is added in. After the milk is soured, the curd is cut into small pieces to extract the whey. Then it is mixed together and heated for a short period of time, after which the whey is removed. The rest of the curd is put into moulds and pressed for several hours to make it homogeneous and shaped. Curd becomes sour during sour-milk fermentation.
After pressing, the curd is immersed into brine, and then the cheese is moved to cold cellars for two to three weeks. During this period, it is regularly cleaned, rinsed and turned from side to side. Over time, a hard rind, the distinctive feature of this cheese, is formed. Then the cheese is placed in a warm cellar for six weeks.
The bacteria consume the lactic acid and form a gas in the process, which is how the holes in the cheese are formed. When the cheese is ripe enough, it is moved into a cold cellar to stop the release of gas and finish the ageing process. These cheeses include classic Swiss Gruyere, which appeared in the 12th century; Swiss Emmental, made with raw milk (often referred to as the King of Hard Cheeses), German Allgäuer Emmental, Beaufort from Savoie, French Comte (one of the most sold cheeses in the world), Cheshire cheese, Parmigiano-reggiano aged 10 years and more, and Fol-epi, Tête de Moine.
Blue cheese. This cheese has blue or green mold on the rind or sometimes inside. In order to get streaks of blue mold inside the cheese, the unboiled and not yet pressed cheese mass is punctured with long needles during production. Varieties of this cheese include sheep milk Roquefort, Valmont, Stilton, Alpen-blu, Montsegur, Bleu d’Auvergne, Bleu des Causses, Bleu de Bresse, Bleu du Haut-Jura, Bleu de Laqueuille, Gorgonzola, Bavaria blu and Danablu. The famous Casanova was a fan of blue cheese.
Processed spreadable cheese. This cheese is made by melting together pressed cheeses of one or more varieties with the addition of milk, butter or sour cream. It can be just plain cream cheese, or have other ingredients added (spices, mushrooms, shrimps, etc.). Processed cheese differs according to its fat content. Cream cheese has 60%, fat has 40-55% and semi-fat has 20-30% (Rambol, Viola, Yantar, Druzhba, Leto, Korall).
Cheese with a naturally formed rind. Sheep and goat milk cheese. These include Spanish sheep milk Roncal and Samorano, and Portuguese sheep milk Serra de Estrela. There are more than 90 types of goat cheese registered in France, 8 of them with AOC status. Twenty percent of French goat cheese, fromage de chevre, is produced on small farms.
Fresh goat cheese. The milk is curdled, the whey is strained off, and the resulting cheese is slightly salted. Cheese is ripened for one or two days, after which it is sent out for sale. This variety of cheese is soft, with a moisture content of 80-90% (Cabrette de Perigord, Bouchee de Chevre).
Soft goat cheeses have a bit more salt and are aged for a longer time.
Many countries have special quality control systems for cheese according to the region of origin. In France it’s АОС (аppellation d’origine controlee), in Spain it’s called DO, in Italy DOC (denominazione di origine protetta), and gU in Germany (geschutzte ursprungsbezeichnung). In Great Britain, the best cheese in its category is awarded the title «Supreme Champion.»
Europe produces one-third of all cheese in the world, about 5.7 million tons per year, 1.83 tons of which comes from France. The largest number of cheese appellations is registered in France — 40, but there are also 30 in Italy, 20 in Greece, 11 in Spain and Portugal, 9 in Great Britain and 6 in Austria. The leading consumers of cheese per capita are the Greeks, with 27.5 kilograms per person annually. The French eat about 24 kg, the same as the Italians. Germans eat only 23 kg per year, the Russians — 4.2 kilos, and the Japanese only 1.4 kilos.
There are more than 500 varieties of cheese in France. Forty of them have AOC (27 made from cow milk, 10 from coat milk and 3 from sheep milk). Roquefort is sheep milk cheese from Rouergue, named after the village Roquefort-sur-Soulzon in the south of France, northwest of Montpellier. Local citizens here received from King Charles VI monopoly rights on the production of their cheese in 1411. The name Roquefort is considered the first registered and protected trademark in the world, and a royal act was even issued to protect the title of origin. In the Southern Pyrenees, one can find so-called Caves de Roquefort, a valley full of cheese cellars. Bleu des Causses is Roquefort made from cow’s milk.
Epoisses is a classic soft cow milk cheese from Burgundy (appellated since 1991), which has been produced since the beginning of the 16th century. It has a pungent spicy flavor and light orange rind. It is cleaned with local white wine or marc. Its name originates from the village of Côte-d’Or, west of Dijon. The famous Burgundian cheese and apple pie is made with Epoisses. Excellent Burgundy wine is a good match for this cheese.
Bleu d’Auvergne, АОС is blue cheese from the Auvergne region. It is hard, non-pasteurized and non-pressed blue cheese made from cow’s milk. It first appeared in the middle of the 19th century.
Comte, AOC is hard pasteurized pressed cheese. In has been produced since the 11th century in the department of Jura, and is one of France’s most awarded cheeses.
Camembert, AOC is the most famous cheese of Normandy. The first historical mention of Camembert dates back to 1680. The legendary creator of this cheese is considered Marie Harel from the Norman village of Camembert. For this invention, her fellow countrymen built her a monument as a token of gratitude. Napoleon III tried Camembert once and loved it. In 1891, an engineer named Ridel devised a special box for Camembert, made from poplar. Thanks to this box, Camembert became famous in France and around the world. Some manufacturers started to make Camembert outside of Normandy, which caused the Norman producers to form the Camembert of Normandy Makers Syndicate in 1909. According to the regulation of the Syndicate, «Real Camembert is a soft cheese that has undergone the natural separation of whey and curd, not pasteurized, not pressed, not stirred, and slightly salted with a mold rind, formed in a round shape, with a maximum weight up to 350 grams, 10-11 centimeters in diameter, and produced only from «Vaches Normandes» cows.»
In 1938, Norman Camembert received AOC status. Pasteurized Camembert is produced industrially and does not have the right to seek AOC appellation. The ripening period for Camembert is a maximum of 20 days.
Maroilles cheese was first produced in the area of Lille in the 7th century. Its place of origin is Maroilles monastery. This is one of the first ever varieties of what is referred to as «monastery cheese.» Cellared for two to three months, this cheese is quite firm, with small holes, a strong flavor and sweet and sour taste. It combines well with beer and brut champagne.
According to legend, Munster cheese, AOC, was invented in the Benedictine monastery in the valley of the Munster River. Peasants who lived there were even allowed to pay taxes with this cheese. In the 16th century, Munster became a popular exported product. The ideal gastronomic pairing for this cheese is local Gewürztraminer wine.
Recommendations for cheese lovers
Here are some general notes that are particularly important:
- Cheese and wine from the same region pair well, as a rule.
- The stronger is the taste of a cheese, the fuller-bodied wine it demands (not necessarily red).
- The stronger the flavor of cheese, the finer must be the aroma of wine, and vice versa.
- Cheese does not go well with hints of oak and vanilla, which is why wine aged in new barrels isn’t the best option.
- Spicy cheese demands wine with a high acidity. Sometimes sweeter wine goes well too.
- The more tannins there are in your wine, the softer tasting cheese you should choose.
- Hard, slightly sweet cheese is a good match for rough red wine.
There is a popular Argentinian joke that «wine tasting should be accompanied not by cheese, but by a woman’s kisses.» If we talk seriously, cheese tasting should start with milder varieties, and proceed to those with stronger and spicier flavors. Don’t eat cheese right after you take it out of the fridge, instead leave it out for a couple of hours at room temperature. The perfect temperature for storing cheese is 6-8oC. After being cut, cheese loses its best qualities quickly. Don’t store different varieties of cheese in the same packaging. The best place for cheese is the lowest shelf of the fridge or its own special container. It is also recommended to wrap your cheese in tin foil.
Serve cheese on a wooden, glass or marble surface (never on silver or stainless steel). Compose your cheese plate from three to five varieties of cheese with different textures and taste. You can also add fruits and nuts, and don’t forget to place a cheese knife nearby. Cheese can be accompanied by dry crackers. And remember the old French proverb: «A meal without cheese is like a pretty girl without an eye.»
About the author
Leonid Gelibterman is the chairman of the Moscow (national) branch of the International Wine&Food Society (IWFS). International arbiter of wines and hard liquors. President of the International Center of Wine and Gastronomy. Vice President of the Federation of Restaurateurs and Hoteliers of Russia. Member of the expert council on gastronomy tourism of the UN World Tourism Organization (UNWTO). Chevallier of the French Association of Gastronomy Chaine des Rotisseurs. Accredited tutor on sherry wine (Spain).
Author of «Wine ABC,» «The Big Book of the Traveling Gourmet,» and more than 150 articles and interviews on alcohol, food, tourism and management for media outlets in Russia, Bulgaria, Great Britain, Germany, Greece, Georgia, Israel, Spain, Latvia, Mexico, Portugal, Senegal, Serbia, the USA, Uzbekistan, Ukraine, the Czech Republic, Chile and Estonia.
Professor and author of the «Enogastronomic etiquette and protocol» course for the Executive MBA program at the Institute of Business and Administration of the Academy of National Economy at the State University of Management and School of Business and International Relations of MGIMO.