Cheeses are like snowflakes, except maybe more diverse. This, at least, is how Stephan Buchholzer describes it. ‘Cheese depends on so much: the type of milk, the animal’s diet, the region, the altitude… two bakers may have the same recipe, but their baguettes aren’t going to taste exactly the same.’
Knowing these basics is a good way to work out if you’re going to like a cheese or not, so Buchholzer helped us draw up a little cheat sheet.
There are three different types of milk primarily used in cheese: cow’s, goat’s, and sheep’s. Each lends the respective cheese a distinct flavour and texture. ‘Goat’s milk has less fat, meaning the cheese will be
drier and more crumbly,’ explains Buchholzer. ‘The taste is also more acidic and less sweet than cow’s milk, and it tends to get spicier as it ages.’ Cow’s milk, though usually creamier, tends to have a larger range of flavours, depending on age and climate. Sheep’s milk (used for making feta) has a fresher, grassier flavour. ‘Sheep’s milk smells and tastes a bit like moss, whereas goat’s kind of smells like rancid hay.’ Though not the most appetising description, it is, oddly, accurate.
Fresh cheeses, such as mozzarella, don’t have a rind, and tend to be soft, sweet and subtle. If you like punch, though, you’ll probably want to look to the rind. There are three main types: bloomy, washed and natural.
‘Bloomy-rind cheeses, such as brie and camembert, are usually soft and creamy, and are flowery – almost sweet – when they’re young,’ explains Buchholzer. ‘Washed-rind cheese is stronger and has more body and flavour, and a stronger smell,’ he adds. Natural-rind cheeses, such as parmesan, tend to be harder in texture and pungent in flavour.
Location probably has the biggest effect on how a cheese is going to taste.‘Higher altitudes have less humidity, and cheese that comes from these regions will be drier,’ explains Buchholzer. Different countries also have different specialities. ‘A lot of wonderful sheep’s-milk cheeses come from Spain. In Italy, they have a lot of dry cheeses, like provolone and parmesan, and a lot of creamy washed-rind cheeses. In France, it depends on the region. In the north they specialise in bloomy rinds, while in the south they have a large variety of goat’s milk.’
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Try something new
Why stick to your cheesy favourites?
If you like mozzarella, try Beaufort This fresh cheese (aged a mere eight months) has a mild, grassy flavour. It’s semi-firm and supple, with a taste that’s similar to brie, but not as strong.
If you like stilton, try picón
This Spanish blue cheese comes wrapped in a leaf. It is aged in caves, so has a wetter consistency than Stilton. It is also extremely tangy.
If you like brie, try Vacherin Mont d’Or
So runny it dribbles, this pungent, creamy cheese is best consumed with a spoon. It’s not for weaklings, as it packs a powerful punch to the palate, though it has a rather forest-like flavour.
If you like parmesan, try Fiore Sardo
This crisp cheese is slightly more intense than parmesan, and its consistency is also creamier. There are sweet, caramel-like notes running throughout it as well. It tastes great shaved over a bowl of fresh pasta.
If you like goat’s cheese, try Pouligny Saint Pierre
Even for a goat’s cheese, this variety is dry and crumbly. The scent is a bit sweeter, and the taste is distinctly nutty. By and large, though, it’s a mild cheese.