To borrow a quote from the immortal Monty Python film, Life of Brian,“blessed are the cheesemakers.” Joking aside, cheesemaking is a veritable craft that has been around for thousands of years, with historical accounts attesting to the richness and popularity of cheese among different cultures and epochs. Roman author and philosopher Pliny the Elder wrote about the unique flavor of blue cheese more than 1,900 years ago, and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, or rather a grated mountain of it, was fancifully imagined by Bocaccio in his medieval collection of novellas, the Decameron.
Today, it’s hard to pin down exactly how many different cheeses exist in the world. As Professor Bart Weimer of UC Davis said in my “QUEST” science of cheese story, “cheese is evolving.” New cheeses are being created through the masterful brushstrokes of artisan cheesemakers who mix and match colonies of mold, yeast and bacteria to coax new shapes, textures and aromas into the canvas of the cheese curd. A “British Cheese Lovers Society” Facebook page, set up in association with the British Cheese Board, claims that there are over 700 varieties of cheese – in Britain alone.
The poet T.S. Eliot once quipped, “Never commit yourself to a cheese without having first examined it.” But that’s a tough task to accomplish, given the thousands of cheese available for savory consumption. So is there an intimidation factor when entering a crème-de-la-crème cheese shop like the Cheese Board Collective in Berkeley, where a blackboard lists the du jour cheese selections, from an Abondance semi-hard raw milk French cheese to Yarg, a semi-hard English cheese? (The goat and sheep’s milk cheese listings are equally prodigious).
San Francisco cheese author and educator Laura Werlin certainly thinks so, “because we didn’t grow up with cheese on the table or a variety of cheeses”, she said. “There’s very little cheese education, if you will, in this country,” she added, “and that makes it tough to know where to start.”
So to navigate this crumbly, creamy and fragrant labyrinth of cheeses, Werlin came up with a classification system to break down all the varieties of cheese into easily digestible styles: fresh, semi-soft, soft-ripened, surface-ripened, semi-hard, aged, washed rind, and last but certainly not aromatically least, blue cheeses.
“I’ve broken it down into eight different families, the idea being that if you understand a few characteristics that are particular to each of those families, then you can understand pretty much every cheese that’s in the case,” Werlin said.
“For instance, if you like brie, and you see a cheese that looks like brie but it isn’t labeled brie, try it, because it’s going to have some of the same characteristics, the creaminess, a little bit of salt, that you might be familiar with. And then you’re on your way to trying a whole new set of cheeses, but not in a scary way,” she added. Brie is an example of a soft-ripened cheese, one that has a ‘bloomy’, edible rind created by the addition of a mold, typically penicillium candidum.
Of the eight families, I find the washed rind cheeses to be the most intriguing. These cheeses are submerged in a solution of salt, wine or beer to break down the natural rind that would normally form around the cheese, thereby facilitating the growth of new microbes, like the B. linens bacteria that is essential to the flavor and look of Cowgirl Creamery’s triple-cream Red Hawk cheese. The bacteria in a washed rind cheese not only gives the cheese a pungent aroma but it also produces the tell-tale orange, red or pinkish rind, as seen in an Epoisses or Taleggio cheese.
Laura Werlin also offered her expertise in answering the vexing age-old question, ‘to eat or to not eat the rind?’ “There are what are called natural rind cheeses (cheddar and gruyere, for example), and then there are wax rind cheeses, which I don’t recommend eating. And then there are what are called bloomy rind cheeses, which are the white rinds that you find on brie and other cheeses like brie,” she said. “And so with those cheeses, you can eat the rind. The natural rind cheeses, you really shouldn’t eat. There’s nothing wrong with them; it won’t hurt you. It’s just diminishes the overall flavor. So the thing with rinds to remember is that unless it’s an inedible material, like wax, it is edible. You can eat it. But you won’t know whether or not you should or whether you like it until you try it,” Werlin said.
So a spirit of gourmet adventure is in order next time you are at the cheese counter and wondering if that artisan cheese with the strange name and even stranger appearance is going to make your tastebuds do a somersault of unexpected, flavorful joy.