Published on December 17th, 2007 | by Stephanie Evans0
Organic and Artisan Cheeses
No one knows for certain when cheese made its debut into the world, but estimates place this defining moment somewhere between 5,000 and 10,000 years ago. By the time Rome had established itself as an empire, cheese was already an everyday food for its people, and the artistry of cheesemaking was well underway.
From Rome, cheesemaking techniques spread throughout Europe, with rich, unique, and varied traditions in all locales. Cheese recipes were perfected to suit local climate, geography, and resources—be it milk of goat, sheep, or cow—that cheesemakers had at their disposal. And that is the story of how so many types of cheese–more than 1,400 varieties today—have come into existence.
Factory cheese production overtook traditional cheesemaking around the mid-1940’s, and factories have been the primary source for cheese in the U.S. and in Europe ever since. To this day, more processed cheese is consumed in the U.S. than any other kind of cheese. These processed cheeses, made in assembly-line fashion, have none of the subtlety, richness, or finesse of cheeses made by hand according to traditional methods, and they contain a number of potentially harmful additives, preservatives, and food colorings.
As it is true that the character of a wine is influenced by the geography and wine-making traditions of the region where it comes from, so will the character of a cheese be informed by the quality of the grass and soil consumed by the animal that produced it.
The Artisan Cheese Revival
The good news is that, over the past several years, the U.S. has seen tremendous growth in the number and variety of artisan and farmstead cheesemakers. This has resulted in an abundance of delicious cheeses, distinctively marked by the unique characteristics imparted by each individual region and technique. Artisan cheeses are now widely available, and can be found in gourmet food stores and farmers’ markets all over the country.
By definition, artisan cheese is cheese that is produced primarily by hand in small batches, using traditional aging and production methods. Farmstead cheese goes one step further by producing artisan cheese on a farm and using only organic dairy products from that particular farm’s herd of animals. On these farms, the animals eat only organically grown pasture grasses and feed, and are not treated with antibiotics or artificial milk-stimulating hormones. Their frequent use of sustainable farming techniques, such as crop rotation and composting, do much more than conserve water and encourage biodiversity of wildlife, they build and maintain healthy, rich soil that can be used again and again.
The French have a word to describe the regional quality that a food or wine possesses, and this word is terroir. There is no word in English that aptly translates the full meaning of this word—the closest word we have to it is terrain. But unlike terrain, terroir concerns what occurs below the surface rather than on it. As it is true that the character of a wine is influenced by the geography and wine-making traditions of the region where it comes from, so will the character of a cheese be informed by the quality of the grass and soil consumed by the animal that produced it. In other words, it will have its own “fingerprint.” The specific “fingerprints” of cheeses around the world are indicative of the regional and cultural factors that formed them over many centuries.
Depending on the type of milk used, the length of aging, and the method in which a cheese is made, it may be firm or soft, moist or dry, mild or strong.
How to Buy Cheese
When buying cheese, it is best to find a source you can trust. A nearby market that specializes in cheeses, your local farmers’ market, or an artisan cheesemaker’s Web site are all great sources, since you will often have an opportunity to converse with either the actual cheesemaker or someone who knows a good deal about cheese and the area’s local purveyors. Whenever possible, taste cheeses before you buy them, and be on the lookout for undesireable aromas of ammonia or sour milk. Do keep in mind, however, that some very good cheeses smell terrible! As you learn more about cheese you will be able to decipher the differences between them, as well as learn their various subtleties when paired with wines and other foods.
It is best to buy cheese in relatively small amounts—don’t buy more than you’ll be able to finish within a few days. If your cheese is wrapped in plastic when you buy it, rewrapping it in waxed or parchment paper when you get it home will keep it fresher longer.
For the lactose intolerant, goat cheese and sheep’s milk cheese are wonderful alternatives that are more easily digestible than cow’s milk cheeses. For those who follow strict vegan or raw food diets, a wealth of cheese substitutes abound in health food stores and specialty markets. Soy or nut-based vegan cheese substitutes are typically lighter in texture and lower in fat than regular cheese, but tend not to melt half as well. For those who eshew animal products for ethical, religious, or dietary reasons, non-dairy cheeses offer a way to enjoy the flavors of “cheese”-based dishes without the cheese.
If you have dietary concerns or restrictions, check labels for the type of milk (cow, goat, sheep) from which the cheese was made, whether it is a pasteurized or raw milk cheese, and whether it uses animal, vegetal, or microbial rennet. While cheese has long been a staple for vegetarians, not all cheeses are vegetarian-friendly. Many cheeses are traditionally made with animal rennet, an enzyme that comes from the stomachs of slaughtered calves, lambs, or pigs. Rennet is necessary to the process of cheesemaking, as it is the substance that separates milk into curds and whey.
Happily for the vegetarian, many modern cheese artisans are now making vegetarian organic milk cheeses with vegetable or microbial “rennets” derived from certain plants that also contain enzymes capable of curdling milk. Thistle, mallow, fig, and melon all contain these enzymes. In addition, microbial rennets are also increasing in popularity—these enzymes are derived from the growth of pure cultures and molds like Mucor miehei, Bacillus subtilis, or Bacillus prodigiosum. There is no difference in taste between cheeses made with traditional animal rennet and vegetable or microbial rennets. Many cheeses are clearly labeled as vegetarian, but if the label doesn’t say, ask your cheesemonger. A good cheesemonger should be able to tell you and to point you toward choices that are neither genetically engineered nor animal-derived.
Article Contributors: Julie Reid