Truly one of life’s great pleasures, who doesn’t like cheese. Stack it on your burger, add it to a sandwich,eat it plain, mix it in casseroles and that all-time favorite, mac and cheese, there is a type for every taste bud, age and budget. Dating back thousands of years B.C. cheese was first created by populations who herded milk-producing animals. The art of cheese making was refined over the centuries until it became a staple of Western Europeans, from the poor to the royals and everyone in between. Whether you’re an aficionado of fine gourmet cheeses, or an unapologetic fan of Velveeta, there’s nothing quite like it. Pity the lactose intolerant who have to pass on cheese..
Well, this time the Chinese were out of the loop. Cheese clearly was created in areas of Europe which are now Poland and its environs, possibly as far back as 7000 B.C. In all fairness, the Chinese did not use dairy and presumably didn’t herd milk-producing animals, so they had no hand in creating cheese or milk products at all.
Ancient herders discovered that milk solids could be turned into a cheese-like substance, and since cheese lasted far longer than milk, which easily spoiled, it was a popular food for travelers and shepherds. But early cheeses were undoubtedly bland, liquidy and probably resembled our present day cottage cheese. As cheese making processes were refined and different varieties created, this wonderful food took on a whole new persona. Greeks embraced cheese, which they made with sheep and goat’s milk, and their cheese tended to be crumbly, similar to present-day feta. Adding a few herbs to the milk mixture gave it flavor, and cheese traveled well, providing a good source of protein for their ancient armies.
Soon royalty had their chefs pursue the art of cheese making, and it spread through Western Europe, quickly embraced by the Roman Empire. Monks joined in, understanding that along with their staples of bread and wine, cheese provided a substantial meal in the monasteries. Once it reached France, a country synonymous with the word “cheese”, the French took it to a whole new level, enjoying the creamy textures and creating cuisine around the various varieties they produced (think Camembert, Brie and Roquefort). Today, every region of France boasts their own particular cheese.
And speaking of Roquefort, how many of us get confused by the different varieties and the interchangeable term “blue cheese?” Let’s clear this up. Blue cheese is basically a generic term. There are three major types: Roquefort (French), Gorgonzola (Italian) and Stilton (British). The U.S. was kind of left out with this variety, (but don’t tell that to people in Wisconsin). Roquefort and Gorgonzola are two variations of blue cheese. Roquefort is French, made from sheep’s milk, and Gorgonzola is Italian, made from cow’s milk. Roquefort has a sharpness, but not as strong and robust as Gorgonzola. And then there is Stilton. A popular British version, but considered to be a poor cousin in the eyes of cheese connoisseurs.
Originating in the village of Somerset, England, cheddar cheese is a hard, off-white, sharp-tasting natural cheese. (The orange color is added.) It is probably the most popular type in the U.S. and is what the so-called American cheese (which isn’t really cheese at all) is modeled after. Europeans enjoy cheddar in its natural white color and frequently end a meal with a plate of room temperature cheeses and fruits. Most foodies eschew American cheese, which adorns our fast food cheeseburgers and our beloved mac and cheese. And then there’s Velveeta, considered the bottom of the barrel (but great for cooking).
Not to be slighted, Switzerland caught up with France and created their own wonderful versions. Their most popular are Gruyere and Emmental, which is called Swiss cheese in the U.S.
With the popularity of wine these days, what better accompaniment than cheese? Whether you favor a sharp cheddar, a smooth Gouda, a tangy Swiss or a creamy Brie, there’s just no getting around it: say cheese!