UNDERSTANDING how a cheese is made will help you understand how it's going to taste. Here are the ABC's:
What is cheese? Preserved milk. The milk is curdled, so the protein and fat collects in curds. Sugary water, called whey, is drained away. With soft cheeses, fresh curds are ladled into molds and left to form cheeses under their own weight. With hard cheeses, curds are cut, salted, sometimes cooked, before being poured into hoops and pressed into drum shapes.
As formed cheeses age, water evaporates and flavors concentrate. Enzymes slowly digest proteins and fats, essentially cooking the cheese from within. Molds deliberately applied to the surface of the cheese will have yet another effect, both by helping form a protective surface and, in some styles, by slowly ripening the cheese from the outside.
What about the type of milk? Cow and sheep milk have the most fat and protein. Cow milk is the only one to carry traces of beta carotene, so cheese from it will be most likely to have the warm, buttery hues. Goat milk is best for light, young summer cheeses but is most prone to taint if mishandled. Pasture-fed animals will ingest minerals and plants that affect the flavor of the milk. The French call this terroir.
What are fresh cheeses? Milky young cheeses, barely formed and drained, are sold in summer and used in salads, including feta and chevre.
What about blue cheeses? The most famous blue, the French sheep's-milk cheese Roquefort, has been made for so long that Caesar and his legions ate it in the 1st century BC. It comes from Rouergue, in southern France near Gascony, where local caves have always served as cheese-aging cellars. Here, a native mold, penicillium roqueforti, caused ripening cheeses to develop delicious blue veining. Today, the mold is deliberately added during cheese-making, then the cheese is aged in the caves. English Stilton and Italian Gorgonzola, perhaps the most famous cow's milk blues, are routinely needled during the aging process to allow air inside the cheeses to promote the bluing.
Cheese monger-turned-author Juliet Harbutt warns that blue cheeses are not saltier than other cheeses but that wrapping in plastic can draw salt to the surface. She advises patting the cut surface with a damp cloth just before serving.
What's a bloomy rind? Soft young cheeses such as Brie and Camembert are formed by curds spooned into molds, then left to drain under their own weight. The young paste is chalky but soft. Newly formed discs are exposed to a mold, most commonly penicillium candidum, which will form a protective white skin. As the cheese ripens from within, the skin will begin digesting, or ripening, the cheese from the outside in. Sometimes this is coated with ash, to arrest ripening.
What's a washed rind? These can include bloomy rind cheeses, along with semi-soft and relatively hard cheeses, such as aged Gruyere. They have been washed with a brine mix including special bacteria, B. Linens. This can redden the rinds and trigger a process that produces the complex pungent flavors of Epoisses or Muenster. Or, in the case of Gruyere, the effect can be restrained.
What about hard cheeses? These have been pressed then aged from 60 days to four years. The older they are, the harder, and the more concentrated the flavors. Classics include Parmigiano-Reggiano from Italy, cheddar from England, Ignacio Vella's Aged Dry Jack from California, Manchego from Spain, aged Gouda from Holland. Some, such as English Cheshire and French Mimolete, will be a glorious orange from the addition of annatto, a natural dye from seeds.
How best to store cheeses? Cover the cut face with plastic wrap but open and re-wrap every day to prevent moisture build-up. However, the best policy is eating a cheese within a day or two of buying it.