When you have your photograph taken in England, there is a tradition that you should say cheese to make you smile into the camera. In fact, cheese can give you a lot to smile about. It is a great tasting and versatile food, which is formed by coagulation of the milk protein casein. It is packed with protein and vitamins and minerals, especially calcium, which you need for healthy bones and teeth and also for a healthy heart. But you should not overdo it. Cheese also has a high saturated fat content and can clog up your arteries and raise your cholesterol levels if you eat too much of it, especially the high fat varieties.
There are hundreds of varieties of cheese to choose from. The flavor, texture, colour and shape of cheese is influenced by the type of animal which produced the milk and the kind of food that animal ate. Other important factors include the way the milk was treated, by pasteurization for example, the butter fat content of the milk and the unique processes of the cheese maker. There are many different types of bacteria and mould and different methods of preparing, maturing and aging cheese. Did you know that the same cheese can look and taste entirely different, depending on how old it is?
To enjoy cheese at its best, it is always preferable to buy it from a specialist cheese maker and preferably from a supplier who understands the best conditions for its storage. A lot of cheese which is widely available in supermarkets has been produce through industrial processes. This often leads to the addition of unwanted artificial additives while intense heat treatments and heavy processing can lead to a loss of nutrients.
Although there are countless varieties of cheese, some types have become especially famous. Let´s have a look at some of the most popular varieties of cheese from Europe.
Cheddar cheese from Somerset, England
The English village of Cheddar in the county of Somerset gave its name to this classic English cheese. Cheddar cheese has been produced there for at least 800 years after it was discovered that the temperature and humidity of the caves in the area were perfect for making cheese.
Cheddar is a hard cheese that is pale yellow to off-white with a rich, slightly tangy taste which gets deeper as the cheese matures. It is the most popular cheese eaten in the United Kingdom and the second most popular cheese in America after mozzarella.
The name West Country Farmhouse Cheddar can only be used by cheese makers in the area where the cheese originated, but cheddar cheese is now produced all over the world.
Good quality cheddar cheese is the base of a famous lunch dish. Ploughman´s lunch was traditionally eaten by agricultural workers in Somerset and is now served in pubs all over England. This simple dish relies on the quality of its ingredients and consists of a chunk of cheddar cheese partnered with good granary bread, a pickled onion, chutney and a salad garnish.
Parmesan is Italy´s most famous cheese, but its real name is Parmigiano-Reggiano. This cheese has also been produced for hundreds of years and it is named after the areas where it is produced around Parma and other towns in Emilia-Romagna. Although Parmesan has become a generic name for this type of cheese, only those cheeses produced around Parma are allowed to carry the special trademark name of Parmigiano Reggiano.
Parmesan is made from raw cow´s milk and the authentic process begins by adding whole milk to skimmed milk, where the cream has been allowed to rise naturally before being skimmed off. This type of cheese is always matured for at least a year, but the most highly flavoured variety known as stravecchio is matured for at least two years and sometimes for as long as three years.
Parmesan cheese is very hard and granular with a super strong taste that can make your mouth water. For this reason, it is often used grated or sprinkled over pasta dishes, or stirred into Italian dishes like risotto for a rich, tangy taste. Traditionally, Italian cooks also used to simmer the hard parts of the cheese rind in soup to make sure that no part was wasted and to add a unique savoury taste.
Camembert from France
Although it was not made until the beginning of the 18th century, Camembert is now one of the most famous cheeses produced in France. In 1855, a cheese from the village of Camembert was given to the Emperor Napoleon as a present and from that moment on, the distinctive mild cheese was known everywhere as Camembert.
This young cheese is prepared from pasteurized cow´s milk and has a delicate mild taste with a slightly salty edge. When it is first made, Camembert is soft and crumbly, but after two or three weeks it gains the creamy look and taste we associate with the cheese.
It is best eaten at room temperature and is great as an appetizer with fruit and nuts.
Manchego cheese from Spain
Manchego is a delicious hard cheese made from sheep’s milk which is produced only in the La Mancha region of central Spain. Cheese making is an ancient tradition in this part of Spain and archaeologists have found evidence that it was being produced there as early as 2,000 years ago.
The mildest cheeses are matured for just two months but the strongest manchego viejo is left to ripen in caves for a year. Mature Manchego can be used in a similar way to Parmesan, but all varieties of the cheese are wonderful paired with thin slivers of quince paste, a quintessential Spanish desert, which offers an unforgettable burst of sweet and sharp flavours.