Nature's Bounty: Cheese Whiz

It has such a long history as a delectable—anywhere from 10,000 years, when sheep were first domesticated, to 5,000 years—that the origins of cheese are shrouded in its own creation myth. A nomad carrying milk in a pouch made from the stomach of an animal, it is said, discovered that it had been transformed into curds and whey by the rennet from the stomach. Happy accident or not, cheese concentrates and preserves the nutritional power of milk while adding myriad flavors, textures, and extraordinary culinary versatility. As legendary editor Clifton Fadiman put it, cheese is "milk's leap toward immortality."

By the beginning of Roman civilization, cheesemaking was already a sophisticated enterprise, and cheese was shipped to legions stationed throughout the empire. Cheesemaking flourished and vastly diversified in the middle ages with the establishment of self-sustaining monasteries and feudal estates.

Today, virtually every country in the world produces some kind of cheese, with milk from reindeer (Lapland), buffalo (Australia), and yaks (Bhutan) as well as sheep, goats, and cows. Over 2,000 types of cheese present nuances of flavor that reflect not only the grasses, herbs, and flowers on which the animals grazed but the makeup of the soil, the breed of animal, the season in which the animal is milked, the climate, and the talent of the cheesemaker.

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Terroir is at least as much a characteristic of cheese as it is of wine. "How can anyone govern a nation that has over 246 different kinds of cheese?" Charles De Gaulle once said of France.

Image: Hunk of blue cheese
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Only four ingredients create the extraordinary variety of cheese—the milk, which may or may not be pasteurized; rennet, or other curdling agents (it can be an acid or bacterial culture), which bind the protein and the fat; salt, to stop acidification and slow the expulsion of whey, a step crucial to determining the final texture of the cheese, and to prevent the growth of spoilage bacteria; and microbial cultures, which shape the flavor of the cheese. Once the curds are separated from the watery whey, they are placed into molds, usually pressed and shaped, and, after the salting, placed in a cave or cold room to age. Time is a fifth ingredient of cheese.

Rich in fat as well as flavor, cheese is integral to both French and Italian cuisine and their pleasures. Often it is the note on which a meal ends. "A dessert without cheese is like a beautiful woman who is missing an eye," the French gastronome Brillat Savarin wrote.

Despite relatively high rates of fat consumption, the French have notably low rates of heart disease, a situation dubbed the French Paradox. Current research attributes the heart health of the French to significant intake of red wine; its rich content of antioxidants, such as resveratrol, specifically protects the heart and brain as people age, studies show.

But along comes a nutritional game-changer, a study showing that we've been thinking about cheese all wrong. It simply isn't the dietary villain it's long been assumed to be. Consumption of cheese, unlike butter, has no effect on cholesterol levels, Danish researchers find—even when people get 13 percent of their calories from hard cheese.

While there's some evidence that the calcium content of cheese (and other dairy foods) boosts the excretion of fats and even promotes weight loss, the researchers single out fermentation as cheese's protective factor. The microbes present in cheese act in the gut to promote whole-body—and mind—health in ways that are only now being recognized.

The bacterial organisms used in cheesemaking don't just provide a preservation method for milk, they favorably influence the makeup of fatty acids in the digestive process. They may dismantle cholesterol. Dietary advice to restrict cheese intake, even among those with high cholesterol levels, the researchers contend in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, "may need to be revised."

So consider ending—or beginning or wholly creating—your next meal around a plate of cheese. There are many types to choose from, and early spring typically brings cheeses that, after several months of aging, carry the pasture-rich flavor of summer milk to the table.

Roquefort, the king of blue cheeses, is a semi-hard variety made from sheep's milk injected with Penicillium mold that thrives along the fissures of the crumbly curds. It is aged for three to five months in limestone caves in the southern France town of Roquefort-sur-Soulzon. With every element of Roquefort's production protected by law since 1411, the distinctive microbe is raised in large loaves of rye bread itself left to mold in the same caves.

Parmigiano-Reggiano may be the most versatile of all cheeses, consumable on its own, combined in innumerable savory dishes and sauces, or grated or shaved over vegetables, pastas, and soups. Made from the part-skim milk of cows raised in the northern Italian Emilia-Romagna region on fresh grass, hay, or alfalfa, depending on the season, it is started with whey culture and calf rennet. The precipitated curds are shaped in steel forms, then brined in salt for three weeks before being aged for at least 12 months. Traditionally, the whey from the cheese-making is fed to the area's pigs, yielding the prized prosciutto di Parma.

Emmentaler, the savory Swiss cheese, is the product of raw milk from small herds of cows summer-grazing on high alpine meadows abundant with wildflowers and herbs, all of which imbue the cheese with flavor. Over the warm months, the farmers pool their milk to create huge wheels of slow-ripening cheese, before returning their animals to the valleys for winter. Three types of bacteria develop the cheese by consuming its lactic acid, and the bubbles of carbon dioxide they release create the characteristic holes. The highly elastic, medium-hard cheese, low in salt content, is aged at least four months and is best when warm or even melted.

Feta is a firm but crumbly cheese made from the milk of goats or sheep grazing on grass and clover in the rugged mountains of Greece. Neighboring countries produce similar cheeses, but since 2002, the name and recipe are protected by law and restricted to Greece. The rennet-precipitated curds are compacted into large blocks that are submerged in brine for several months and retain a salty tang. The cheese is eaten fresh, often drizzled with olive oil, crumbled into salads, or cooked in pastries and savory dishes such as spinach pie.

Cheesy Facts

  • The natural presence of the sugar lactose allows milk to be fermented.

  • Some species of lactobacillus, a microbe commonly used to start the acidification process that turns milk into cheese, have been shown to alter the brain expression of neurotransmitters.

  • Cheese made from goat's milk is lower in fat and feels lighter than that from other animals.

  • Sheep's milk, higher in fat than both goat and cow milk, feels richer and "rounder" in the mouth.

  • Cow's milk is made into the greatest range of cheese styles.

  • Cheese needs about an hour at room temperature to develop its fullest flavor.

  • The higher the moisture content of a cheese, the softer it is and the shorter its life.

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