For the aperitifs and in the hampers for Christmas, we provide a selection of British cheeses from the finest cheesemongers in London. To know a little bit more about these great cheeses, we asked a few questions to one of the famous cheese expert in London...
1. Could you explain us how the cheese is made?
A simple explanation is, cheese is milk without the water. By taking out the water and keeping the solids (fats, proteins…) we make milk last longer than a few days. The more water left in the cheese the softer it is. The drier the cheese the longer it will keep. Rennet is what separates milk into curd (the solid) and whey (the liquid).
Milk needs to be warm and acidified for rennet to work. There are many recipes depending on the style of cheese you want to make and it’s easy to get too detailed and technical but the main points are, warm soured milk will set with rennet. Once the cheese is made it needs to be salted. And there you have it! A simple fresh cheese ready for eating.
2. What is the process to mature a cheese?
Maturing was originally done out of necessity, to store food during winter when there was no milk for cheese making as the animals were between lactation cycles.
In colder climates it’s possible to mature cheese for months or even years. This is much more difficult in hot climates so the cheeses tend to be younger.
It’s also easier for a cheesemaker to sell 3-4 different types of cheese (fresh, ripened, hard) than if they only made a single cheese from all of the available milk.
3. Could you tell us why some cheeses are hard and some others are soft?
Soft cheeses have more water left in them. The good thing about soft cheese is it’s ready to eat quicker and you get a greater yield. With soft cheese you get 1kg of cheese from 10l of milk. The downside is, they don’t last beyond a few months.
Hard cheeses can last for years but the yield is smaller, you’ll only get 1kg of cheese from 20l of milk.
4. How do you recognise a good cheese compared to an industrial cheese?
By this I don’t mean just the strength, plenty of industrial cheese can be strong. How complex is the flavor, how many things can you taste, how long does that taste stay with you?
Finally, if a cheese is too visually perfect it usually means it’s made to look good rather than taste good.
5. Could you explain us what is an animal rennet used as a coagulant when making cheese?
Animal rennet is an enzyme that all mammals have and is the natural coagulant for milk. It makes the best cheese and produces the best flavor.
There is a man-made coagulant which is significantly cheaper to produce and means the cheese can be sold as vegetarian. The downside of vegetarian coagulant is that it produces bitter flavours in mature cheese.
6. Sometimes, there are some cheese surplus. Could us tell us where does it come from?
It’s simply a case of a shop selling less cheese while a cheese maker continues to produce everything they can. They must use all the milk, after all if they don’t the milk will spoil. So unless it’s made into cheese it will be wasted. But the shop or wholesale needs to sell that cheese too, if they don’t, we have cheese surplus!
7. Could you tell us why there are some mould on some cheeses?
The rind of the cheese is a living eco system of moulds and yeasts. They are encouraged to grow by the cheese maker and maturer. They allow the cheese to keep longer and aquire bigger, stronger, more complex flavours.
8. How do we know if we can eat the rind of a cheese?
If it’s a natural rind you should absolutely eat it! It’s a question of taste only, whether you like it or not. If it’s an artificial rind like cloth or wax, then no.
9. What should we be looking at when selecting a cheese?
The first thing is whether you like the cheese! However if you’re more experienced I would look at whether a cheese was made from raw milk and animal rennet. The first is a sign of great animal husbandry and the second, of cheese making with the best intentions in mind. Finally, where does the milk come from. Usually the best cheese are made from the farms own milk (freshness and lack of travel).
10. What about seasons? Are there better cheeses for each season? If so, what are some great cheeses for autumn?
The UK is less seasonal than the Alps (for obvious reasons) so my recommendation is to go for stronger pungent cheeses as the weather gets colder. Washed rinds are a good examples, cheese like Durrus and Milleens from Ireland or St Cera and Rollright from England.
11. How do you recommend people store cheese?
You should store cheese in the salad drawer (stuffed with other veg to keep the humidity high) wrapped in wax paper. Don’t leave it unwrapped or it will dry out. Don’t wrap it in clingfilm as it will sweat. My advice would be to buy a piece that you’ll finish in a week or two, then go back for more! Fresh is best!
Credit photo: Neal's Yard Dairy