Tuesday, March 2, 2010

A Buyers Guide to Cheese from Home Beautiful

Everybody loves cheese and there is nothing better to do on a cool Autumn's eve, then to settle in with a good glass of wine and and lovely cheese platter. This article from Home Beautiful Magazine by Vanessa Keys will exlain all things cheese…

"No doubt about it, Australians love their cheese. Last year, we consumed almost 170,000 tonnes of the stuff and, luckily for us, the resurgence of artisan cheesemakers who are passionate about their craft means there is now an even wider variety of cheese to try. "When cheese is produced well, the flavour and texture will change every time you eat it, much like wine," says Jana Kloots, cheese specialist at Jones the Grocer. "The natural raw material means the quality will change every season, so the camembert you had two months ago will taste very different today." Unsure of how to go about finding a good cheesemonger, or confused about whether to go with a soft or hard cheese? We've quizzed the experts and compiled a guide to picking the perfect cheese for your palate. 

Production techniques
Where does cheese come from? The simple answer, of course, is from milk - but before you cut into a crumbly cheddar or indulge in some fresh goats curd, it helps to understand the process from farm to supermarket shelf. The milk is pasteurised and rennet (an enzyme) is added to help the curds separate from the whey, which is then drained and discarded. Salt is added to draw out moisture, the curds are cut and pressed or turned in different moulds (depending on the type of cheese), and then placed in a moist, cold room to mature.

Artisan cheese is handmade by a cheese master using milk from a farm or a specific region. Original recipes and traditional ageing and production methods are used, like using animal rennet.
Farmhouse cheese is made on the site (or close to) where the milk is produced. This results in cheese that reflects the distinct character of a particular farm. Many use traditional artisan methods as a basis, but some aspects - like the use of vegetable rennet and simulated maturing rooms - are synthesised.
Industrial cheese is made specifically for mass consumption using mechanised production methods. Many ingredients are substituted and preservatives are added to prolong shelf life.

Raw milk (unpasteurised) cheese is currently banned in Australia - all milk products must be heat treated to safeguard against pathogens (see www.foodstandards.gov.au for more), although the importation of several European hard-cooked varieties is allowed, including Parmigiano Reggiano and Gruyere, as well as Roquefort. Advocates for raw milk cheese believe the flavour is heightened, while those against argue the risk of pathogens is too great. Pregnant women are advised to steer clear of all soft and blue cheeses, whether the milk has been pasteurised or not.

Cheese explain

Not sure what to ask for? Get to know your mozzarella from your gorgonzola, and you'll soon be trading tasting notes with the experts. Fresh cheese has a curd-like texture, is soft and deliciously
moist and best eaten as soon as possible after making. From the delicate consistency of fromage frais to chewy stretched-curd mozzarella and salty fetta, fresh cheeses can be tossed in
a salad, scattered on pizza or paired with honey, figs and sourdough for a mouth-watering appetiser.
Soft surface mould-ripened cheeses are developed with several strains of mould to form a soft, white rind. The most popular, brie and camembert, are often mistaken for each other but couldn't
be more different in taste. Brie exudes a buttery, mushroom aroma while camembert sports a sticky, supple centre and has a scent similar to cooked cauliflower. Also well-known are triple-cream cheeses Gratte-paille and Brillat-Savarin.

Soft surface-ripened washed-rind cheeses are regularly washed with water or a brine solution to encourage the growth of aromatic surface cultures, resulting in a rustic orange coat and a mild, oozing centre. Don't be put off by the smell - washed rind may emanate an arresting aroma but the slightly salty taste of Taleggio and the sticky interior of Époisses make it all worthwhile.
Blue cheese can be a challenge for even the most ardent of cheese lovers. Masquerading under its spongy white exterior are hundreds of crevasses, each one punctuated by spidery veins of blue mould. Characterised by an intense, salty flavour, the most famous is undeniably Roquefort, which is one of the few cheeses still made using raw milk. For a sweeter and slightly less extreme taste, Gorgonzola Dolcelatte is a smooth alternative.

Semi-cooked pressed cheese, when the curds are gently heated, piled and stirred before being pressed into form, is the most identifiable variety. Scan the supermarket shelves and this is what you'll see. Indulge in a rich English cheddar, a moist square of Colby or a smooth washed-curd cheese like Dutch Gouda.

Hard-cooked cheese is exactly what the name suggests: dense, flaky and firm to touch. Rich with a sharp, full-bodied flavour, hard-cooked cheese can be kept for periods of up to two or three years, making it ideal to keep on hand as an accompaniment to pastas and soups. Parmigiano Reggiano is universally loved for its moist and buttery sweetness, while the equally popular Swiss Le Gruyère has a sweet, nutty and condensed taste, making it ideal for toasted sandwiches.

Vive le fromage!
Ideally, the best place to purchase cheese is from a specialist cheese shop or a farmers' market. "Ask what's in season," advises Victoria Lush, sales manager for providore Simon Johnson. "All good handmade cheese is affected by seasonality, so it's important to know when the cheese was made and the quality and source of the milk." Sonia Cousins, the manager of the GPO Cheese & Wine Room, explains: "Good cheese shops have knowledgeable and enthusiastic staff who will be able to make recommendations based on the meal being served as well as the time of year. You'll be able to
buy a small portion to meet your exact requirements, and the cheese can be sliced to order, rather than being pre-packaged. Never leave a cheese shop without trying your purchases."
Don't shy away from supermarket cheeses. "Make sure you select one that is very fresh and use as close to the ‘best before' date as possible - it indicates the date the cheese reaches peak ripeness," says Sonia. Cheese will continue to ripen after the ‘best before' date and grows stronger in flavour afterwards. "Soft cheeses should be bought whole, rather than a pre-cut wedge, as all cheese begins to deteriorate after being sliced. Don't buy the cheese if there is a strong smell of ammonia; this indicates that it's beginning to decline," advises Sonia.

Perfecting the cheese plate

A cheese plate is a simple yet sophisticated way to end a dinner party. In between filming episodes of hit TV show Cheese Slices, fromage connoisseur Will Studd gave us his top tips to cheese plate perfection:

1. "Try before you buy. Don't get your heart set on a particular cheese; you should be guided by what's in season and most flavoursome. You should always buy a little, and often. A good rule is 25-50g per person."
2. "Two to three hours before serving, remove cheese from the fridge, except for fresh cheese, which should stay in the fridge until serving. Place on a cheese board with a damp tea towel over the top. This allows the cheese to come to room temperature without drying out."
3. "Fresh cheese is best served before the main meal, so it doesn't overwhelm the palate, while richer, more robust cheeses should be served after the main meal, before dessert."
4. "Choose cheese that will complement the wine. Soft cheeses and light-bodied reds and whites are a match made in heaven, while cheddars should be served with full, earthy red wines and sparkling shiraz. Blues are sensational with sticky dessert wines."
5. "Pair cheese with accompaniments that enhance the quality rather than detract from it - most often the cheese is perfect just the way it is. Bread is the ideal match but if you do go with crackers, make sure they are water based so they don't battle with the cheese. Pick seasonal apples and pears, or fresh figs and muscatels."

Check out Cheese Slices by Will Studd ($79.95, Hardie Grant Books).


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