The story of cheese is almost as old as the story of human civilisation itself. Shards of ceramic pots carrying milk fats found in Anatolia (modern-day Turkey) and the Levant area of the Fertile Crescent and dating back to approximately 6500 BCE have been established as the earliest evidence of cheesemaking, and other finds in Eastern Europe suggest an even more ancient heritage.
But of course, with that much history comes much complexity and the world of cheese can seem daunting to some (many), especially to those who have not grown up in a “cheesy” culture (and even to some of those who have).
This is a shame because it is a delicious world, with much to explore, but understanding a little of the lay of the land can help to guide you, especially when you realise there are really only seven broad types of cheese which embrace almost all of the cheeses that are out there.
This family classification chiefly relates to the methods of production and lengths of time for which a cheese is matured, and includes Fresh Cheeses, Ripened Fresh Cheeses, Soft or Semi-Soft Ripened Cheeses, Cooked Hard Cheeses, Uncooked Hard Cheeses and Blue Cheeses.
With no ageing involved, soft, white and a mild, slightly lemony taste are the defining characteristics of these cheeses, which can sometimes be eaten from the same day they’ve been made. Carrying a lot of moisture, these cheeses don’t last long (unless they’re preserved in brine or oil), and have a creamy or crumbly texture which makes them easy to spread and work well in sandwiches, salads, light sauces, gratins and tarts. The most recognisable of these include mozzarella, mascarpone, feta, ricotta and halloumi, but the category also includes fromage frais and cottage cheese. Markets in France abound with examples of locally made farm fresh cheeses that represent a true taste of the surrounding landscape.
Ripened Fresh Cheeses
When left to age and dry out naturally, a traditional farm fresh cheese that has been treated with acid and rennet starts to develop a wrinkled, mottled rind coated with a medley of moulds and yeasts that give these cheeses their distinctive look. As the cheese ages, the texture takes on a crumblier, drier aspect and the flavour becomes more pronounced. These cheeses are most commonly made with goat’s milk, though creamier, sweeter versions made from sheep’s milk are also produced.
No cheeseboard can be considered complete without one of these cheeses, though they’re also delicious sliced on to a piece of baguette and toasted under a grill. You’ll find some of the most famous examples of these cheeses at Khéma, including Saint Maure de Touraine, Charolais Crottin de Chavignol, and Bûche de Chèvre.
Soft or Semi-Soft Ripened Cheeses
These are cheeses whose texture softens as they mature, some are almost liquid when ripe, and exterior rind that can either be bloomy — as with Camembert de Normandie, Brie de Meaux, Coulommiers or Chaource — or washed — as with Époisses de Bourgogne, Morbier and Reblochon (all available at Khéma).
The bloomy white cheeses tend to have a mushroomy flavour and slightly grainy but loose texture. These are the cheeses for which France is most famed, and a soft, mellow Brie may be the world’s favourite “gateway drug” to the world of French cheese. Meanwhile the washed rind cheeses are loved for their creamy, yellow colour and sweet, nutty to floral flavours. Some, like the Époisses, develop a highly pungent aroma, which utterly belies the (relatively) milder taste and smooth, velvety texture. Instantly recognisable thanks to the distinctive black line running through the centre of the cheese (which used to be made of ash, but is today more commonly made of vegetable dye), Morbier has a firmer texture with fruity, yoghurt, vanilla and even fudge flavours.
Cooked Hard Cheeses
Heating the milk to a higher temperature during production helps the curds to expel the whey more efficiently. The resulting curds are then pressed to create a firm, dense cheese that can be supple or crumbly. The best-known examples of this type of cheese include most of the “Swiss-type” of cheeses, as well as Parmesan (Parmigiano Reggiano) and France’s beloved Beaufort. These cheeses tend to be strongly — but not overwhelmingly — flavoured, with delicious fruity and nutty elements.
Uncooked Hard Cheeses
Uncooked cheeses are also heated during production, but not as much. Once cooked, they are cut and stirred before pressing, which results in a lighter, more supple cheese with a slight granular texture. The flavour is milder than cooked hard cheeses, with delicious nutty notes. As they age, they can take on sharper, tangier notes and a firmer, crumblier texture. Unlike cooked hard cheeses, it is not common to eat the rind. The most famous example in the world might be Britain’s cheddar cheese, but other hugely popular examples include Ossau-Iraty, Tomme de Savoie and the distinctive Mimolette, all of which are available at Khéma.
Rich, creamy, sharp, tangy and salty. What more could you possibly ask for? Blue cheeses tend to be all of these, thanks to the introduction of a penicillin mould during production. Blue cheeses tend to have an open, crumbly structure which allows the mould to develop as the cheeses is matured, though some, such as Roquefort, tend to be creamier with a high moisture content. Roquefort’s joy comes in the combination of the sweet, caramel flavours of the sheep’s milk from which it is made, combined with the salty, tangy flavours produced by the mould. Absolutely delicious with a sweet white wine in hand.