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Cheese, please, Louise!

Hunkering down for the winter with a good chunk of cheese is just what the doctor ordered

Okay, so it’s not quite the shortest day of the year (winter solstice officially starts Dec. 21 at 4:42 a.m. PST). But with most of the sun’s heat and light already directed down south, ’tis the season, or at least pretty close to it, for caloric binging and just plain gratuitous eating in general.

Never mind the sweet treats. As time passes, the seasoned (read: aging) palates around this household seem to be edging more and more toward a parallel universe, and reaching for those other entities that often improve with age. My vote this year is for cheese – good cheese, in all its myriad forms – as the hibernation food of choice.

When it comes to cheese, please, you could write a book or seven on the stuff and gain about 20 pounds tasting all the samples therein it. But for now, this zine-sized primer to the ins and outs behind this age-old favourite might suffice to broaden your appreciation of the big cheese, whether it’s from Hawkins Cheezies or a great Stilton.

Cheese is the curd that forms naturally when milk coagulates – ergo its appropriateness for winter holiday feasting since it is flavourful, satisfying and highly nutritious. In a nutshell, or whatever, here’s what happens: when the milk sours, it forms an acid curd which releases the watery fluid called whey; when the whey is released, it leaves behind a semi-solid curd that is cheese.

Once upon a time the whole process was natural. Today, cheese makers enhance the natural process through time-honoured techniques, which, by tradition, are jealously guarded secrets. Suffice to say, they now add micro-organisms to supplement those in the milk, then cut, cook, salt, press and finally age the curd just so, until they have the perfect cheese they are after.

Unfortunately, pasteurization is great for humans, but not for cheese. While most aficionados prefer cheese made from raw milk, that’s hard to come by these days, thanks to everyone’s paranoia about, well, the world in general. But in Quebec, you can still feast on raw-milk cheeses, if you’re lucky or well connected, via a sort of underground, homespun supply network.

Cheese making probably originated soon after people first took milk from wild or domesticated animals. Milk from cows, and presumably other animals, was used for cheese making by about 1000 BC. The ancient Greeks and Romans valued cheese, as did early peoples in northern Europe.

For early peoples cheese making was a preservation technique and one that could consolidate large volumes of milk into easier-to-carry packages – about 10 volumes of milk can be stored as one volume of cheese. Keeping quality is enhanced by a variety of procedures, including heating and kneading (Italian Provolone) and soaking in brine (Egyptian Domiati).

Almost as many varieties of cheese exist as tribal-sized clusters of humans. They start with the many kinds of milk – cows, goats, sheep, water buffalo, mares, llamas and yaks. Add in the many different treatments of the milk, the adjustment of its fat content, the heating or pasteurizing, and the addition of enzymes or cultures of bacteria, moulds or yeasts and you get the idea.

The various categories boil down to something like this:

Fresh cheese

is essentially uncooked and unripened curds, that may or may not be drained of whey (ricotta is undrained, while cream cheese is drained). Cottage cheese and Italian Mascarpone are also fresh cheeses.

Soft-ripened or bloomy rind cheeses

have a semi-soft consistency. Their surface has been sprayed or exposed to moulds so that they ripen from the rind inward. These include French Brie, Camembert, and triple-crèmes, as well as Italian Paglia-style and Toma cheeses.

Washed-rind cheeses

usually have orange-coloured rinds. They’ve been washed or rubbed during the ripening process with a solution of brine, wine, beer or grape brandy to produce a desirable exterior mould. French Pont-l’Evêque and most Trappist or monastery-style cheeses are washed.

A cooked, pressed cheese

is made from curd that’s been heated (or "cooked") before pressing. Examples include Dutch Gouda, English Cheshire, Italian Parmigiano-Reggiano and French and Swiss Emmental. Processed cheeses, such as La Vache Qui Rit and American cheese, are cheese by-products that are, well, not quite cheese.

You can learn as much about cheese and how to enjoy it as you can about wine. For best advice, seek out a dedicated cheese monger. The staff at La Grotto del Formaggio, on Commercial Drive and East 2 nd , are keen and helpful. Steven Jenkin’s Cheese Primer is a great source, too.

Pick a few favourites, then add a good wine, some decent crusty bread, perhaps olives, nuts or a tangy chutney and get ready for a happy hibernation this winter.


Cutting the cheese right

• While first glances don’t count for much in relationships, they do with cheeses. Natural rinds, buffed, polished, washed or covered in cloth hold much promise. Don’t expect much from exteriors of wax, plastic or paint.

• Cheese is best when it’s cut for you. In our modern world, it’s hard to avoid the pre-packaged, pre-wrapped, pre-weighed product, but try.

• Cheese is also best when stored in your fridge as close as possible to the bottom – the fruit or vegetable compartment is ideal. Wrap it in aluminum foil, waxed paper or plastic wrap so it can further develop without drying out. Whatever you do, keep your cheese out of the freezer. You wouldn’t freeze a nice wine, would you?

• Most cheeses taste best aged past their bland youth, but before they’ve reached sharp maturity. Those still blushed with youth are not very interesting; overly sharp aged cheeses are good as condiments and not much else.

• Bring cheese up to room temperature before serving to bring out its finest texture and flavour. Leave it cozily wrapped while it warms up.

• Choosing the right cheese/wine partnership is not a big deal. Neither should overwhelm the other. Simply put, a great cheese will make an average wine seem fantastic, while an average cheese will relegate a great wine to mediocrity.

The big cheese

in 1802, a cheese maker after "big publicity" delivered a round of cheese weighing 1,235 pounds to U.S. president Thomas Jefferson. People took to calling it the "big cheese", a name that has stuck for something important.


Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning freelance writer and editor who could never bring herself to say "cheese" when her photo was snapped.