Every European country has their own classification of cheese and the more cheese they have the more complicated they are. So when I started Jeroboams the Wine & Cheese Shop I decided to create a system that made sense to me and worked for all cheese wherever they came from. With wine it’s easy – they can be classed by grape variety and then by how and where they are made but it’s not so clear cut with cheese because in reality every cheese is unique!
Fortunately however, unlike the cover of a book or the skin of an animal, the rind of cheese tells you a great deal about what’s beneath and with a little experience you can determine the basic character of all but a handful of cheeses. From its strength of flavour to its age and even its condition.
How can it be that easy? Because the moisture in a cheese determines not only its texture but also the type of rind or mould it will develop allowing even a beginner to reduce the terrifying array of cheese in a cheese counter into some semblance of order.
NB I have used European classics as examples as they are most widely known but Britain, USA and Australasia are now producing some amazing iconic examples that reflect their own terroir.
1 - FRESH (No Rind)
TYPICALLY 19-24% FAT
Classic Examples: Ricotta, Mozzarella, Cottage Cheese
No rind so they look the same inside and out!
Typically only a few days old they are easy to recognise because they are too young to have developed a rind and with their high moisture content the texture feels wet and mousse-like, stringy like authentic mozzarella or, if pickled in salt becomes firm but crumbly like Feta. They are bright white, mild, lemony or lactic with just a hint of the potential flavour of the milk. Some are wrapped in chestnut leaves, rolled in ash or covered in herbs.
2 - AGED FRESH CHEESE (Wrinkled White to Grey-Blue Rind)
TYPICALLY 19-24% FAT
Classic Examples: St Maure, Sancerre, Crottin de Chavignol, St Marcellin, Perail
These are “Fresh” cheeses, almost always goats’ milk, that have been allowed to grow a thin almost transparent rind. As the cheese shrinks the pinky-white rind wrinkles and a dusting of delicate blue grey mould develops. If allowed to dry out the wrinkles become crevasses, the blue mould darkens and eventually the interior becomes almost brittle and the flavour intense and very goaty.
3 - SOFT WHITE RIND (White Fuzzy Rind)
Typically 24-26% fat
Classic Examples: Camembert, Brie de Meaux, Chaource, Chevre Log
These grow a fine white crusty rind of penicillin candidum mould, which helps ripen the cheese and prevents the soft, voluptuous interior from drying out. Mild, sweet and buttery with a hint of mushrooms when young, they can develop a robust savoury aroma like mushroom soup made with beef consommé with just a hint of sherry on the finish. Some artisan cheeses will develop reddish-brown ferments or yellow moulds.
Some are made with added cream producing a rich, creamy double or triple cream cheese. The extra cream means they will not run like a Brie and may be eaten fresh [no rind] or mature.
Classic Examples: Brillat Savarin, Explorateur, Pierre Robert Typically 45% fat
4 - SEMI-SOFT (Fine to Thick Grey-Brown Rind or Orange & Sticky)
Typically 26-28% fat
Classic Examples: Edam, Reblochon, Port Salut, Raclette, St Nectaire
The curd is lightly pressed to remove whey and create a rubbery, elastic texture. They attract a variety of grey, white and brown moulds which are regularly brushed off, gradually building a fine leathery rind. Some like Edam have a barely formed rind and are generally mild, buttery and sweet. Those with a thicker, mould-encrusted rind are denser and taste stronger, more earthy.
Some are repeatedly 'washed ' in brine [often finished with alcohol!] which encourages the orange, sticky, bacteria to develop. The result is a feisty, pungent flavour and aroma.
Classic Examples: Munster, Milleens, Stinking Bishop, Langres, Taleggio
5 - HARD (Crusty, Grey, Often Polished, Waxed or Oiled)
Typically 28 - 34% fat
Classic Examples: Cheddar, Pecorino, Beaufort, Manchego, Gruyere, Parmesan
Hard cheese are pressed for hours or even weeks to remove the whey and compact the curd. Traditional hard British cheeses like Cheddar or Lancashire were wrapped in cloth while in Europe they tended to be soaked in brine; both were to seal and protect the cheese from drying out in the curing cellars where they remain for months or even years. They attract a masterpiece of white, blue, grey, even pink or yellow moulds but most are brushed off during ripening resulting in a thick, smooth and polished rind like Parmesan to barely formed like Cheddar. As they have a low moisture content they take longer to mature and are typically more complex and stronger in flavour.
6 - BLUE (Gritty, Rough, Sometimes Sticky Rind)
Typically 28 - 34% fat
Classic Examples: Stilton, Gorgonzola, Roquefort, Picos de Europa
Blue penicillium mould is sprinkled into the vat before the milk has curdled then the curd is cut, piled into moulds and drained. The blue however needs air to develop so the cheese is pierced allowing air to penetrate the curd along the tunnels created and in the gaps between the curds. The spicy taste is due to the reaction between the curds and the blue mould as they age together. Blue brie style cheeses with their soft white rind are milder and much creamier.
7 - FLAVOUR ADDED (Various)
Typically 28 - 34% fat
Classic Examples: Gouda with Cumin, Lancashire with Chives, Pecorino with Truffles
Hard cheeses like Gouda, White Stilton, Wensleydale or Cheddar.to which a variety of flavours like nuts, fruit or herbs are added. Those made where the ingredients have been added to the cheese from the beginning are infinitely better than blended cheeses made by combining a young cheese with various ingredients in a blender then pressing them into a “shape”.
Today’s cheesemakers are not controlled by tradition or regulations so they can make whatever they like using whatever milk they like and play around with traditional recipes to create their own unique cheese. So they can make “Cheddar” with buffalo milk, Mozzarella with cows' milk and “Brie” with goat milk and they can mess around with the cultures and moulds they use. Consequently not every cheese will fit into these categories.
BECOMING A CHEESE BORE
With experience you will find the categories need to be expanded but for 99% of all the cheeses you meet around the world the system works! It will help you and your staff or friends understand cheese better and to start to recognise the good the bad and the downright wrong! But please encourage cheesemakers not to use the names of the great European cheeses. They can never copy the soil, the climate, the grazing, the breed and the microclimate where they are made. Instead they should be proud of what they have created and give it its own unique name and stand out from the crowd
Use the system and it will make cooking with cheese easier and more successful because each type of cheese behaves in a certain way …. But that another class! You will be able to identify when a cheese is in good or not so good condition and you can start to understand the nuances that make a cheese great. Have fun and tell me about your journey or come and share it with fellow cheese lovers at one of my classes.