The Art of CHEESE



1.     Cheese has been valued as a food since before Roman invasion of Britain.  It was recognised by the Romans as a valuable source of energy and was provided regularly as part of their soldiers rations.  It is likely that prior to this time the ancient Britains made cheese of acid curd origin.  Certainly within three hundred years of the occupation cheese making was a well established aspect of agriculture in Britain and was widely available as a popular and nourishing food.


2.     Cheese is a solid product made from milk.  It is produced by coagulating the protein (casein) in milk so that if forms curds, usually by adding rennet* (or a vegetable equivalent extracted from certain fungi) and a “starter” made from a culture or bacteria.  After draining off the liquid (whey) the resultant curds are then pressed and formed into the particular shape required for the cheese variety, then stored for ripening.  As cheese undergoes the ripening process it changes in taste, texture and appearance and each variety takes on its own special characteristic.  Most cheese is made from cows’ milk with a small amount of specialist cheese being made from ewes’ or goats’ milk.  The type of milk and also the milk itself, (whether it is morning or evening milk or full cream or skimmed), combined with the different techniques used to separate the curds and whey (solids and liquids) and ripen the cheese, result in the many different types of cheese now available to us.

*Rennet:  A preparation made from the stomach membrane of a calf.

3.     Much of the popular cheese varieties we buy are produced in large quantities under factory conditions (Cheddar cheese particularly lends itself to this process) using pasteurized* skimmed, semi-skimmed or whole milk from various sources.  They are also available as a “farmhouse” product, made by traditional methods on the farm and using unpasteurized whole milk from a single herd of cattle.  The process is the same except that farmhouse is allowed to mature for longer than factory produced cheese, which gives an improved, more mellow flavour and a richer cheese.  It therefore follows that farmhouse cheese will often cost more than the factory product.

4.     Special varieties from certain areas cannot be produced in large quantities under factory conditions due to local climate seasonal changes and the type of feed required for the animal from which the milk is obtained.  These varieties are not available in such quantities as the more popular cheeses and are bound to be more expensive and sometimes more difficult to obtain.

* Pasteurization:  A process of heat treatment used to destroy bacteria in certain food products, particularly milk, invented by the French chemist Louis Pasteur.


5.     Semi Hard And Hard Cheese.  These are made by removing an amount of whey from the curd.  This involves the curds and whey heated then textured and milled.  The curds are then cut into blocks and piled repeatedly until the correct acidity is reached.

6.     This is done by the process known as “cheddaring”; the cutting, piling and turning causes the whey to drain from the curds to achieve a texture of curd not unlike chicken breast meat.

7.     The blocks are then pressed, salted and moulded before being ripened.  This process, as the name implies, is used to make Cheddar cheese.  The name has also been adopted for the process of making all cheeses manufactured in a similar way.  Not all cheeses are “cheddared” and it is this variation of the recipe that gives cheese its different texture and consistency.  Hard cheeses often undergo a further heating and shrinking process to remove whey and are then left to mature for longer than semi hard cheeses.  Examples are: Semi hard: Cheddar and Edam, Hard: Parmesan and Gruyere

8.     Fresh And Soft Cheese.  True soft cheese is made by coagulating unpasteurized milk with rennet and, before that, a “starter” (a culture or bacteria) which gives the cheese a clean and acid flavour.  The cheese is not textured, milled or pressed and they whey is allowed to drain naturally from the curd.  The majority of soft cheeses are  foreign in origin and are sold either in the fresh state or when fully ripe and mature, when the flavour is strongest.  British soft cheeses are usually sold “fresh” or unripe, when they have a milder flavour but can be ripened in the same way as foreign cheeses.  Some soft cheeses are made from semi skimmed milk to give a low calorie, low fat product.  These cheeses have a smooth, yoghurt like texture and are bland with a slightly acid taste.  Examples are: Fresh British: Lymeswold, Foreign: Camembert and Brie, Low Fat: Fromage Frais.

9.     Cream Cheese.  Cream cheese can also be classified as a soft cheese but is best regarded separately due to its particular nature.  It is manufactured in a similar way to soft cheese but is made from cream instead of milk.  There are two recognized varieties of cream cheese made with either single or double (or, in some cases, triple) cream.  A typical cream cheese is a soft bodied, unripened cheese which has a rich, full and mildly acid flavour.

10.   It may sometimes have a granular texture but with a buttery consistency and creamy appearance.  Usually, it is moulded into small cylindrical, square or rectangular shapes of varying sizes.  Cream cheeses are sometimes coated with herbs or nuts or flavoured with liquor, herbs or garlic.  Examples are: Single cream: French Demi-Sel, Full cream: Scottish Caboc and French Boursin.

11.   Acid Curd Cheese.  Acid curd cheese is sometimes classed as a soft cheese but the process of forming the cheese is quite different.  Acid curdling is brought about by the addition of lactic acid* which reacts upon the protein in the milk.  This action yields a curd of high acidity with quick drainage properties and a granular texture.  The resultant cheese has a clean, acid flavour and a soft, spreadable quality.  Cottage cheese is a perfect example and is made from skimmed milk.  After processing, salt, single cream and sometimes herbs fruit and even vegetables are added to alleviate the bland taste and add to the smooth velvety texture of this cheese.

*Lactic Acid: A clear, odourless, syrupy acid formed in sour milk.

12.   Low Fat Cheese.  Low fat hard cheeses such as Cheddar and Cheshire have been produced in response to the need for fat reduced cheeses which are useful in diets.  They are made in a similar way to traditional hard cheeses but with half their fat content and the consequent reduction of calories.  Also, vegetable rennet is often used so that the cheese can be used for those on a vegetarian diet.  Low fat cheese tends to be mild in flavour and when used for cooking can be improved with the addition of mustard or, longer storage than usual, which will allow the flavour of the cheese to develop and mature.

13.   Processed Cheese.  These are made by combining cheese with a number of other ingredients such as flavourings, herbs, spices and cream and are manufactured using a “melting” process (literally, the cheese is melted then the other ingredients added and the cheese allowed to set to the desired shape).  Processed cheeses are mostly sold in portions.  They can be either wrapped in foil and shaped into triangles or cubes or, first shaped then thinly sliced and wrapped in pre-portioned packs.  They are useful in making sandwiches, as an addition to a packed meal or, as a portion control ingredient for hamburgers and appetizers.

14.   Blue Cheese.  Although not strictly a cheese type, blue cheese varieties are quite different and are best explained in this section.  Some cheeses develop veining during the ripening process.  This veining is caused by a bacteria in the cheese which may occur naturally or be introduced.  The mould induced by the process is a species of Penicillin roqueforti and is nowadays incorporated in the milk or the curd during manufacture.  The curd is soft and velvety and conditions throughout manufacture and maturing are conducive to the growth of the blue mould which provides the distinctive flavour and character of the cheese.  All blue cheeses are pierced with stainless steel needles at least once during the maturation period.  This allows air to penetrate into the body of the cheese and mould growth to develop more quickly.

15.   Stilton is perhaps one of the best known of the blue cheeses.  It is the only registered generic variety of traditional English cheese and is made only from whole British milk and produced in the three countries of Leicestershire, Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire.

Even with todays modern methods of production, a perfect Stilton will take four months or more to mature and cannot be mass produced as it needs individual attention, thus production remains traditional and labour intensive.  There are many other varieties of blue vein cheese, some of which are:  English:  Blue Cheshire, Lymeswold, French:  Roquefort, Blue De Bresse, Danish:  Danish Blue, Italian:  Gorgonzola, Dolcelatte.

16.   Farmhouse Cheese.  In Britain, cheeses made on the farm in particular areas have become very popular in recent times.  They are sought after for their special qualities and flavour.  Some are, in fact, quite rare, as only small amounts are produced and not freely available in supermarkets.  However, they can sometimes be found in specialist cheese shops or delicatessens when the search for them is definitely worth it.

17.   Blended and Additive Cheeses.  These are cheeses made form two or more cheese varieties or cheeses that contain an additional ingredient other than cheese.  They have been produced to meet the demand for greater variety than the standard produce.  Some cheese manufacturers and even some farm producers now market a wide selection of cheeses that are blended with many and various additional food items.  Cheese making remains a far from static business, with new varieties coming into production (and some disappearing after test marketing).  As an example, a British cheese Company made international headlines when it introduced a Cheddar blended with beer:  teetotallers complained it would corrupt the young!  This publicity started an export trade that has never looked back.


18.   When buying cheese, check that it does not look sweaty or excessively runny.  Freshly cut cheese should look fresh with no dried areas or beads of fat on the surface.  Cut pre-wrapped cheese should have no evidence of mould, moisture or greasiness inside the packaging.  If there is this indicates that the cheese has been stored at too high a temperature.  Vacuum packed cheese keeps longer than loosely wrapped cheese and the date code or use-by date will give an indication as to the length of time the cheese may be kept before consumption.  If this date code is some weeks ahead it may mean that the cheese is immature and is still to ripen.  When buying whole cheeses of hard, semi-hardor soft varieties, the outer crust or rind should be whole and without cracks, dry to the touch and, in the case of most cheeses, of a pleasant light brown or beige to white colour, depending on the variety (the exceptions being those cheeses that are coated in either a coloured wax rind or a cloth).


19.   Soft cheeses will not keep for long and are best stored in a refrigerator or a cold place, kept covered and eaten within a few days of purchase.  Hard cheeses will keep well in a refrigerator for as long as a month, providing the cheese is in good condition when purchased and is wrapped properly in cling film or foil.  Vacuum packed cheeses will keep well, unopened, in a cold place, for several weeks.  Freshly cut or vacuum packed cheese which has been opened should be wrapped in cling film or foil.  Close wrapping will keep the cheese moist and protect it from absorbing the flavours from other foods but beware of allowing the cheese to become warm when wrapped in cling film as this will induce sweating.

20.   Correct refrigeration should not harm the flavour of cheese but will inhibit it, especially if eaten straight from the refrigerator.  For dining room service, cheese should be removing from the refrigerator at least one hour before serving to allow the flavour of the cheese to return to normal.  Cheese can be frozen but as it is plentiful, reasonably priced and best eaten fresh, it should not be necessary to freeze it.  Also, freezing in bulk will take up valuable freezer space best used for those food items that must be frozen.  If freezing, the higher fat content hard cheeses, such as Cheddar, freeze better than others.  The texture is altered somewhat and cheese becomes crumbly when defrosted.  To offset this, allow the cheese to remain at room temperature for 12 hours after thawing before consuming.  If freezing for eventual cooking only, cheese is best grated then packed in handy amounts in plastic freezer bags.


21.   The variety of cheese and the style of its service will depend very much on the particular function, what type of clientele, any customs or traditions and, last but not least, the type of menu being served.  Cheese is a versatile product which can be cut in a variety of ways or styles to show the cheese at its best.  Indeed, it can form a very attractive display, cut in different ways and served with various accompaniments such as fresh fruit and different types of biscuits or breads.  It can be cut into convenient sized wedges or slices and placed around a display of fruit, or, it can be left whole for slicing and cutting as required; as in the traditional way of serving a whole Stilton or a wheel of Brie.  At what point to serve cheese at meal is no longer a case for tradition.

22.   The British custom is to serve cheese after the sweet.  This gives a savoury end to the meal and, for many, the tradition of serving Stilton with port wine is a most agreeable way to end a meal.  The French way of serving cheese before the sweet has become popular in some circles as it allows the diner to continue drinking red or white wine with the cheese.