Say Cheese!

The art of cheesemaking has evolved over the centuries. Recipes were handed down from mother to daughter, using the milk of whatever domesticated animal happened to be available. Techniques varied, depending on the keeping qualities and personal tastes of the local community. There is evidence of cheesemaking long before the written records of the Greeks and the Romans; the Bible tells us that David was on his way to deliver cheese when he met Goliath. Archaeological surveys in the valley between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers indicate that cheese was made from the milk of sheep and goats as far back as 7000 BC. Remnants of a material identified as cheese have been found in a Sumerian tomb dating to 3000 BC. According to the Greeks, cheese was "a gift from the Gods." Aristaeus, the son of Apollo, was taught the art of cheesemaking, and he allegedly passed this skill on as a "gift to mankind."

Making Cheese

IMAGE There are three fundamental steps in making cheese—producing the curd, concentrating the curd, and ripening or aging the curd. Curd is produced when the protein in milk is "curdled" by bacteria and rennet. This causes the whey and the curd to separate out from the milk. The whey is drained off, and the curd is cooked, salted, and eventually aged. Aging utilizes special bacteria or molds to give the cheeses a smooth substance with distinct flavors and textures.As a matter of fact, one way to classify cheeses is by their ripening organisms. Blue cheeses, for example, are ripened from within by veins of mold. Brie and Camembert are ripened from the outside by surface molds. Cheddar and Swiss are ripened from within by an evenly distributed starter bacteria. If an additional bacteria is added to this starter bacteria, it will produce a large amount of carbon dioxide. This produces the characteristic holes in Swiss cheese.After cheese is ripened, it is usually coated and colored. In past times, carrot juice and marigold petals were used as dyes. Today, synthetic beta-carotene and bixin, both plant-derived colorants, are the preferred dyes for cheese.

Types of Cheeses

Cheese can be made from any milk. In North America, the majority of cheeses are made from cow's milk, but goat and sheep (ewe) milk are also widely used. The most popular goat cheeses are collectively known as "chevre". And contrary to what you might think, the Greek "feta" cheese is actually made from sheep's milk, as is Roquefort cheese. The number and variety of cheeses are too lengthy to list. France has boasted of producing a cheese for every day of the year, but now produces almost double that number.

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