I was always fond of cheese but living in London took my cheesy passion to ridiculous heights. I ate platefuls of Welsh rarebit made with butter, beer and Lancashire cheese, I went round the English countryside on arcane cheese tours, devoured entire wedges of creamy, salty Brie for dinner. I grew to be quite militant about cheese sandwiches - heaven forfend a sandwich made with Feta or Parmesan! More importantly though, I began to acquire a little bit of technical fromage knowledge.
The Different Kinds
The world of cheese can be as intimidating to navigate as wine. The type of milk, its country of origin, the time taken to age it, cooking concerns, its tasting notes are all things a cheese connoisseur needs to keep in mind. But at their most basic level, you can categorise cheeses into the following groups:
Fresh cheese is cheese that hasn’t been aged. It typically doesn’t have rinds and tastes a lot simpler than its older brethren. Think mozzarella in its water bath, chèvre, feta and even paneer. Try them in salads, paired with olives, spinach, watermelon, sun-dried tomatoes and herbs. Of course, springy mozzarella's most famous use is in pizza but my favourite among these is salty feta which tastes sublime with light rosés, Beaujolais and pinot noirs.
One scale higher are the semisoft cheeses like certain Goudas and Monterey Jacks. These taste delicious in grilled cheese sammies (or anything that requires melted cheese), and aren't very pungent. They're the perfect gateway cheeses for those wary of robust flavours.
Onwards to my favourite Bries and Camemberts - these are soft and creamy, the rind is delicious and I eat them any which way. That is, I cut slices off and eat them as is, on sturdy rye crackers or sometimes I bake them so the rind remains hard but the limpid paste within (that's cheese-speak for the interior of the cheese) oozes out. But little Brie is quite the crowd-pleaser and really, it goes with everything from apples to light reds.
Surface-ripened cheeses are generally goat cheeses, with an ashen, thin, wrinkly rind. The wrap may look distasteful but its belly yields scoops of moreish umami-flavoured goodness. The Piemontese La Tur is my favourite from these - tangy, salty and runny, it is irresistible with a crusty loaf of bread.
Then there is a sea of semihard cheeses - Manchego, Emmental, Cheddars, younger varieties of Goudas, etc. These smooth, supple cheeses pair excellently with red wine and pork or chicken. But perhaps the ones with the most complex notes are the hard cheeses like an-aged Cheddar, a Parmigiano Reggiano or Caerphilly. They are usually extremely salty and nutty in flavour and are the easiest for grating. You won't be able to slice them; instead, they'll fall away in velvety chunks.
These are easily the most durable and can be kept in the fridge for up to three weeks. Sometimes, they may develop a little mould which is fine. Simply scrape it off and eat as per usual. A Parmigiano tastes excellent with a fruity white wine or a medium-bodied red like a Merlot. Try it with dry fruits or grated over pastas or soups.
Let us now turn to the plangent blue cheese, the most odoriferous of the lot. If you can look past the smell, so to speak, your taste buds will be suitably rewarded. There are a lot of different types of blue cheese; soft, hard, creamy, crumbly, salty, with or without rinds but they have one uniting force - the rills of blue mould surging through them. Try a sprinkle of blue in a leafy, fruity salad. Blues are also delicious with sweet wines like port, dry whites or a sparkling Asti Spumante, but who's to say you can't serve them with brandy?
A sub-category of blues are the washed-rind cheeses like Raclette and Taleggio. They're pretty stinky but are of more temperate taste. How can you tell the difference? They are blanketed in rust-coloured rinds and pair superbly with fruity wines like Rieslings.
Finally, the scourge of all cheese-geeks, the insipid processed cheese. Processed cheeses are regular cheeses into which a bunch of chemicals (flavour enhancers, stabilisers, emulsifiers, colouring etc.) have been upended, for uniform tastes and longer shelf lives. Even though I avoid processed cheese, I do fall prey to the classic Kraft cheddar especially in a juicy burger. Although I hear that in the US, processed cheeses don’t even qualify as cheese. They can only be called cheese foods or cheese products - quite grim.
Once I started cooking with cheese, I found that different cheese had different melting properties. For instance, softer, creamier cheeses (Emmental, Cheddar etc.) melt at around 55˚ while harder, drier ones like Parmesan take longer and crumbly feta-like cheeses don’t melt at all. In Heston Blumenthals' hefty tome, Heston Blumenthal at Home, he writes "Go much above a cheese's melting point, and its proteins will start to tighten into clumps and squeeze out the fat they contain (rather like wringing water out of a towel), so that the cheese becomes grainy and oily. So controlling the heat during cooking is particularly important. Cheese should be exposed to heat as little as possible. Add it to a dish as late as you can and keep the temperature well below boiling."
Now that you’ve selected the cheese of your choice, here are a few and final tips for keeping it fresh. Once a wheel of cheese is cut, it starts dying almost at once i.e. losing moisture. So ideally buy only what you can polish off in a week, eat cheese at room temperature and never use plastic to wrap it (foil, waxed paper etc. is better), because cheese needs to breathe and evaporate. Oh and often, you can eat the rind. Rind is delicious!
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