Cheese: Part One of The Lucy Bee Guide

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Guest blog by Sam Hadadi,

Cheese: The Lucy Bee Lowdown

I have to say, cheese is my weakness – it’s not the first time I’ve gone to the fridge to cut off a wedge, just because I’ve fancied it!

Britain, it seems, is with me. We are a nation of cheese lovers, with a whopping 98 per cent of households indulging every now and then, with 700,000 tonnes of the good stuff eaten every year1.

Blue cheese – love it or hate it?

In fact, we’d wage that whether you’re a lover of strong, Blue cheese, or you like mild and creamy Mozzarella on top of your pizza, or tearing off chunks of a baguette to dunk into Camembert, chances are there’s a cheese for you.

Yet, should we really be eating all of that fromage on a healthy diet? Popular advice says that we shouldn’t but is that true? Is cheese really that bad for us? Plus, what’s all the fuss about raw cheese?

If you want to know more about our beloved cheese, then read on. We promise we’ll try to stay mature….!

History of Cheese

Given how much we love our cheese, it’s surprising to know that no one quite knows where it came from, or who made it first. This is probably because cheese is one of the oldest foods on the planet and it’s thought to predate recorded history – 4,000 years, or perhaps even longer.

Legend has it that it was discovered by an ancient Arabian merchant. The story goes that he had set out on a long, arduous journey across the desert. To keep himself energised through the journey, he stored his supply of milk in a homemade pouch – a handy sheep’s stomach.

Come night, the merchant settled down around his camp. However, he soon realised that the combination of searingly-hot sun and rennet in the sheep’s stomach had caused the milk to separate into curds and whey. Rather than look at his milk in disgust, the merchant was said to find that the whey satisfied his thirst, while the cheese-like curds tasted delicious and quelled his hunger.

Whether or not this story is true, one thing we can be sure of is this: cheese has been on the menu for a long, long time and it’s even written about in the Old Testament.

It seems that we’ve always been a planet of cheese lovers, then. There are ancient Egyptian drawings of cheese on tomb walls that date back to 2000 BC, while Homer’s Odyssey sees the Cyclops made cheese from goat’s and sheep’s milk.

Cream cheese with smoked salmon is a popular snack

Cheese was also a popular feast for the ancient Romans, who were thought to bring the art of cheese making over to us in the UK. The Romans loved their cheese so much that the richest of them all, even had a separate kitchen just for the making of cheese.

Later on, fromage became popular among monks in the monasteries. For example, cheese-feasting French monks have been making Roquefort since 1070. Over in the UK, our beloved cheddar dates back to about 1500 in England, while Italy has been producing Parmesan since 1597, and the Dutch have been making Gouda since 1697.

However, cheese as we know it took a little longer to make its way onto our tables. In fact, until the 1800s, it was only produced by small, local farms. Fast forward to 1815 and the world’s first cheese factory opened in Switzerland, producing gruyere to sell on commercially.

By 1851, a New York dairy farmer by the name of Jesse Williams started making assembly lines of cheese and 1868 saw the production of the world’s first commercial cheese (limburger) in Wisconsin, the U.S.’s most celebrated cheese state.

Our love for cheese was growing…

What is Cheese?

From gooey, oozing Camembert to creamy, salty Feta, there all kinds of different cheeses. Hundreds, in fact. But what does all cheese have in common? What the heck is it, and how does it differ from other dairy produce such as milk, butter and cream?

Well, the main ingredient in cheese – pretty much all cheese – is milk. In fact, whether the milk comes from a cow, sheep, water buffalo, cow or camel (even reindeers!), cheese’s primary ingredient is milk, containing water, lactose (or “milk sugar”), fat, protein (both casein, which makes up the solid part of the cheese, and whey) and minerals.

How is Cheese Made?

No matter where the cheese comes from, or how strong it tastes, it’s made following the same basic steps.

For starters, cheese – in pretty much any form– is made from the pressed curds of milk.

Of course, depending on the cheese you’re eating, the steps will have followed a few tweaks and twists of their own. Yet, read this, and you’ll get the cheese-making gist…

Cheese making follows the same basic steps

First of all, the milk is warmed to activate the starter culture, and boost those healthy, gut-loving bacteria. This then helps to ferment the milk’s lactose (the natural sugar found in milk), turning it into lactic acid. Then, special enzymes such as rennets, which are found in the tummy of milk-producing animals, are added to the milk. Essentially, these clever little enzymes work on the casein, and helps the milk to coagulate and turn to curd.

As the milk turns, the curd gets cut up. The smaller the particles of curd, the less water it holds, so drier cheeses, such as our British cheddar, will be cut up into smaller particles whereas wetter varieties, such as Brie, need to be handled more carefully. Some cheeses will also be heated, stirred and cooked, which releases even more whey, making them drier still.

Once our artisan cheesemaker has reached the perfect texture, the cheese will be salted (this can continue to draw out whey) to boost flavour, form rinds, and keep any nasties away from the cheese. It will then be left to age, sometimes for years and years – as a cheese ages, microbes and enzymes intensify flavours and even change textures.

Et voilà! The cheese is ready for our plates…

Different Types of Cheese

Whether you love your Gouda, your Blue cheese, or your Parmesan grated over a handmade lasagne, you’ll know that there’s a cheese for just about any recipe.

In fact, there are hundreds of different kinds of cheeses, with the aptly-named cheese.com listing 1,778  different varieties. In fact, The British Cheese Board states that there are over 700 named British cheeses produced in the UK alone.

While we would love to fill you in on all the delicious cheeses you can try and buy, we fear we wouldn’t have the space! So, instead, here is our ‘legen-dairy’ list of the types of cheeses lining the shelves – and what they really mean.

Of course, there are all sorts of different ways to categorise cheese. However, we’re doing it by texture. Enjoy!

Fresh Cheese:

If you love spoonsful of cottage cheese, or mixing fromage frais into your foods, then fresh cheese is the one for you.

Florentine Galette Pizza with Mozarella

Essentially, fresh cheese is ready to eat in a heartbeat and is your creamy, delicious cheese that you toss onto pizzas, or into recipes – think ricotta and mozzarella, as well as cottage cheese and fromage frais. These cheeses will often be full of moisture and aren’t aged. This also means that their shelf life is quite short – usually only 5-7 days

Soft Cheese:

As you can probably guess, soft cheese, such as Brie or Camembert, has a very soft texture, and some need plenty of time to reach maturity and develop their full flavour.

These cheeses are also often high in moisture and so have a shorter shelf life. Some soft cheeses, such as Brie, are white mould cheeses and are sprayed with penicillium candidum to help the cheese to ripen from the outside, right the way in. These are easy to spread on crackers or biscuits.

Semi-Hard Cheese:

Sitting happily in the middle of soft and hard cheese, these cheeses will often have a rubbery texture and include Edam and Port Salut. Many of these cheeses are fairly unique and will have their rinds washed with beer, wine or even fruit juice to add character and flavour as they mature.

Hard Cheese:

Amazingly, there are two types of hard cheeses: there’s firm, and then there’s crumbly.

The firmer hard cheeses have been pressed and squeezed as much as possible to remove the whey and moisture, meaning a much longer shelf-life.

These cheeses include Cheddar (which can be matured over anything from 12 weeks up to two years), Red Leicester, Double Gloucester, Parmesan and Manchego. As they are full-flavoured, they are perfect for grating over pasta or using in vegetable bakes.

The crumbly, delicious hard cheeses are often from the UK – Wensleydales and Cheshires. While these cheeses are also pressed to remove moisture, they are sold when they are still fairly ‘young’ (around four to eight weeks), and so crumble easily and taste fresh.

Blue Cheese:

These are your typically stinky cheeses that tend to have that certain odour when opened…However, you can often buy blue cheese versions of many of the different cheeses we listed above.

The only difference is that Blue cheeses will have a special mould added to them (penicillium Roquefort) at different stages of making. This mould is pretty clever and can make the cheese mature quicker and faster than ever, resulting in strong, full-flavoured cheeses within just months. Examples include Blue Stilton (although you can even buy Blue Leicester!), Roquefort, Gorgonzola and Danish Blue.

Blended Cheeses:

These special blended varieties are the ones that find their way onto shelves in supermarkets at Christmas. They’re the classic, beloved cheeses which have been mixed with other ingredients, such as fruit or herbs. Some of our favourites include Wensleydale with cranberry, white stilton with apricots, and double Gloucester with chives.

Part Two of our Guide to Cheese is available here and looks at the health benefits and also the healthiest cheeses.

  1. Top Cheese Facts

About Lucy Bee Limited

Lucy Bee is concerned with Fair Trade, ethical and sustainable living, recycling and eating close to nature with additive free products for health.

The views and opinions expressed in videos and articles on the Lucy Bee website/s or social networking sites are those of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect those of Lucy Bee Limited.

Please note you should always refer your health queries to a qualified medical practitioner.

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Sam Hadadi is an ex-BBC journalist and now a freelance writer specialising in fitness and food. Sam is co-founder of a great blog, www.iamintothis.com.