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Basic Cheese Guide

The wide array of specialty cheeses can be a shopping and tasting challenge. Venture out to your local gourmet cheese shop with some of these helpful tips.

If you have shopped for cheese at a specialty store or visited the gourmet counter at the local grocery, you know the variety is astounding: Gouda, Baby Gouda, Swiss, Brie, Camembert, the list is endless.

How did those cheeses get here and which ones are going to taste the best?

Let's start with the basics.

Cheeses begin as a milk product, usually from cows, sheep, and goats. Each bears its own unique tastes, which can vary depending on time of year the milk is produced, and the type of food the animal is eating.

As soon as the milk is collected, the process begins with separation of curds (the milk) from whey (the water). The size of curds - the part that we eat as cheese - determines firmness; in addition, the smaller curds produce firmer cheeses. From this humble beginning, the cheese goes through processes that include pressing the cheese or cooking the curds and then pressing; heating and re-heating; shaping, ripening, and for some, injecting with mold.

The final product is a masterpiece of flavor and texture. How the cheese gets to this point is complicated and varied - based on the above processes - and depends on country of origin and the regions within.

The aging process, or lack of it, also determines how soft or hard a cheese will be.

Soft cheeses are not aged - cream cheese and cottage cheese are examples of cheeses that have only been around for about a week before they hit the grocery shelves.

Semi-soft cheeses are aged a few weeks. The Danish Havartis are semi-soft cheeses.

Semi-hard and hard cheeses may age from a few months to several years. Cheddar, the best known of all cheeses, is a hard cheese. The longer it ages the sharper it will become; the price will rise accordingly. Cheddar, which originated in England, is now produced in many parts of the world. It does not typically form its own rind but may have a wax coating instead. The cheeses in these categories should never exhibit mold.

Some cheeses have "bloomy" rinds. The surface is exposed to a mold that grows to cover the entire cheese. Brie is a creamy cheese with a bloomy rind. This mold helps the cheese ripen from the outside in and often, the part nearest the rind is the most flavorful.

Stinky cheeses may have a "washed" rind. The cheese is dipped into a brine - salt or wine, for instance, - and the mold is allowed to develop. We might have turned up our noses at the "stinky" cheeses, but the taste is what counts. Don't be afraid to try any of these cheeses and let your tastebuds make the decision, not your nose.

Stilton, the "king of cheeses," bears a "natural" rind - one that forms by itself with no additives.

Blue-veined cheeses, which also includes Stilton, also have a mold spore injected into the cheese that creates the distinctive marbling.

When you visit a cheese shop, do not hesitate to taste different cheeses. You don't want to select blindly and get them home to find you dislike them. Try the same cheeses by name, but from different countries, you'll find a wide range of textures and flavors.

Some of our favorite and best-known cheeses include:

-Emmental. This is also called Swiss cheese, but is now produced in other countries.
-Roquefort, famous for its blue mold. Specifially made in France's Roquefort region and aged in caves. It is a sheep-milk cheese.
-Parmigiano Reggiano, the popular grating cheese. Connoisseurs will turn their noses up at the types sold in canisters. Once you use the real thing, you will know what they're talking about.
-Feta. A sheep's milk cheese originating in Greece. Crumbly, it must be kept brined or will be ruined by mold.
-Fontina originated in Italy's Val d'Oasta region. True fontina is made from unpasteurized milk and is popular in true Italian fondues.

Here are a few lesser-known favorites:

-Manchego, imported from Spain and is the country's most popular sheep's cheese.
-Asiago Pressato, an Italian table cheese that is eaten after a four-week ripening period.
-Raclette. A French cheese, the name refers to how it is scraped as it is heated over a low fire.
-Queso Ahumado, a Spanish smoked cheese, blended from cow, goat, and sheep milk.
-Chevres - and entire family of cheeses made from goat's milk (chevre is French for goat).

In specialty stores, you'll find that many cheeses have only the rind for packaging. Softer cheeses may be covered in foil and placed in wooden boxes or tins. Wax rinds are acceptable for semi-soft and hard cheeses. As a whole, these protective layers prevent drying while the cheese continues to age.

Remember that the taste of a cheese will change based on the stage of ripening. If you want a milder flavor, purchase cheese in the early ripening stages; these will typically be more economical.

That is not to say we don't purchase the plastic-wrapped blocks of cheddars, Monterey jacks, and mozzarella off the grocery shelves. These are invaluable for everyday meals. However, the delectable taste of truly fine cheeses is a treat indeed.

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