Sunday, December 11, 2011

Nacho Cheese

A friend sent me this link to an article about a smuggling attempt.  Apparently, big cans of nacho "cheese" sauce are what the kids are using to hide methamphetamine these days.  Can't blame them for trying.

But, doesn't it strike you as something from an episode of Beavis & Butthead?  Nachos.  Meth.  Not that Beavis & Butthead have ever done meth.  I think they are already stupid and hyper enough.  (Please note: I love Beavis & Butthead.)  But, considering one of their many charms is that they 1) love nachos and all other manner of processed food and 2) would probably like to do meth because they seem to want to do anything and everything a reasonable person should avoid, especially if it's considered cool by someone, somewhere... 


When my friend sent me this link, and I saw the headline, I must admit, my hopes were up.  "Ooh," I thought, "I wonder which cheeses smugglers are using to sneak drugs into the country?"  I saw a thumbnail of the picture (see below, but imagine it smaller) and could vaguely see some tall cylinders, so I thought "Stilton" or "Fourme d'Ambert".



Of "cheese sauce."

Damn you, NPR!  Your headline promised the transport of "Drugs In Cheese".  This isn't cheese!

Now I really feel like Beavis & Butthead, who, in a recent (new!) episode, were lured into a van by two "hot chicks" who were looking to score some meth, but B & B misunderstood and thought they were being propositioned for sex by the women.  Come to think of it, I feel like the women, too.  They thought B & B were "holding", but it wasn't so.  Everyone ended up feeling duped.

I feel duped, too.  Cheese sauce isn't cheese, NPR, even if it makes your headline snappier.

Sunday, December 4, 2011


This afternoon I presented a Cheese Tasting/Lecture in my home.  It was a great deal of fun and my "students" had great questions and comments. 

I hadn't taught for awhile, so I was a little nervous, but it all came back to me.  A bunch of years ago I taught a five-month series of Cheese Seminars at Zabar's -- we had them on the Housewares Mezzanine.  If you've ever been to Zabar's Housewares Mezzanine, you are probably laughing right now, wondering how we fit a CHEESE CLASS up there, with about 30 seated attendees, but we did!

This one was a lot more roomy.  I live in a small apartment, but at least we didn't have to compete with people trying to find the copper cookware.

Here's a picture of one of the cheese plates.  Every attendee got one, of course. 

The first cheese we ate is at the "three o'clock" position on this plate, as it is shown above.  That's the cave-aged, hand-ladled Normandy Camembert from Isigny.  Going counter-clockwise, at the "two o'clock" position, we have Moringhello, a rare and wonderful aged water buffalo cheese from the Lombardy region of Italy.  Continuing on, we have Vallée d'Aspe Chèvre, an aged raw goat cheese from the Aspe Valley in the French Pyrénées.  Then, we have Emmi's Kaltbach Cave-Aged Emmentaler, a raw milk cheese, aged for twelve months, nine of them in natural sandstone caves near Lucerne, Switzerland.  Finally, down at "six o'clock", we have MitiBleu, a lovely sheep's milk blue from La Mancha, Spain.

It was fun and I look forward to the next CHEEZ WHIZ.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Seasonal Cheese

A friend recently asked me about "seasonal cheese".  She was surprised there was such a thing.  I guess that makes sense.  Most people don't realize cheeses have seasons.  But, just like fruits and vegetables, they do!  Not all of them do, though.  Mass-produced, industrial cheeses don't have much of a season, because mechanized consistency is part of their appeal.  You always know exactly what you're getting, and because of the mass-production and the pasteurization of the milk, any seasonal nuances would be lost anyway.

Oh, but I'm getting ahead of myself.

So, let's talk about the seasons of cheeses, and which ones are likely to be most affected by the seasons.

Many cheeses have seasons, just like fruits and vegetables.
Fresh goat or sheep cheeses should only ever be eaten between the months of March and October.  If they are locally-made and your climate is warmer, you may have an extra month.  If it's colder where you live, the season will be shorter. 
Why is there no fresh goat or sheep milk in the late autumn, winter and very early spring?
Because of lactation cycles and agricultural seasons.  Keep in mind: just like fruits and vegetables, cheese is an agricultural product.  It comes from the land.

Goats and sheep do not breed year-round, so they aren’t lactating year-round.   Obviously, you can only get fresh milk when the animals are milking.  Because fresh cheeses are aged for, at the longest, 14 days, and because you cannot make a good cheese from old milk, fresh cheeses should only be eaten when the animals are milking.  So, when the female animals are “drying out” -- not milking -- between October and February, in preparation for next year’s round of breeding, nearly all fresh goat and sheep cheeses are made using either frozen or powdered milk or curds.  Sure, the cheeses are “made fresh”, but not from fresh milk.  The milk isn’t rotten, it’s just been processed and preserved through being turned into powder, or frozen.  This extra step in processing does not occur when the cheese is in-season.  As a result of using powdered or frozen milk or curds, the texture and flavor of the cheese will suffer.

Cows, on the other hand, have been so domesticated, they can be milked year-round, although they get a short drying-out period, too.  That said, the composition of cows' milk changes throughout the year, and during some seasons, their milk is very difficult to make into cheese.
Even if the animals are milking during the late autumn, winter and early spring, think about what they are eating.

I can tell you what they aren’t eating: bright, fresh grasses of spring; flowers and herbs of summer; the “second-growth” of grasses’ last hurrah in the late-summer and early-autumn.  All of these beautiful plants in the fields and pastures and on the hillsides contribute a great deal to the flavor of milk, and the flavor and texture of cheese.  They add complexity and life.  And they won’t be there in the winter, in any form that will provide the same nutrition and nuance as when they are plucked from the ground by a hungry animal.  During the colder months, most animals are eating silage or dried hay and grasses.  (Silage has been shown to adversely affect an animal's milk, and many cheesemakers won't make cheese from the milk of animals when they are being fed silage.)  Silage and dried hay and grasses aren't bad for the animals, but the quality of the milk -- and hence, the quality of the cheese -- won't be as good as when the animals are grazing.  This is why fresh cheeses, coming from any animal, are best during the late spring, summer and early autumn months.

Aged cheeses follow the same principle, and you simply have to count backwards.
For example, if your favorite sheep cheese is Pecorino Toscano aged for 6 months, you need to know when the sheep in Tuscany are eating the best meals of the year.  Hint: the Tuscan countryside is covered with wildflowers from April through September.   You will taste hints of those wildflowers when you eat the cheese, provided you eat 6-month-aged Pecorino Toscano between the months of October and March, when the best of those cheeses are released.  

As you know if you’ve been paying attention, October through March is when you should be avoiding fresh sheep cheese.  Mother Nature makes sure you always have a nice cheese, you just have to know when certain cheeses are best, and others are best left to people who don’t know anything.

Some cheeses are made year-round and are wonderful in any season, but may have flavor and texture variations depending on the time of year.  One example of this is Beaufort, an Alpine-mountain cows’ milk cheese made in the Savoie region of France.  It’s in the same cheese family as Gruyere and Comte.  Beaufort is made year-round.  But not all Beaufort is created equal, and they are named to tell you when they are produced.

Beaufort d’Alpage (Alpine pasture Beaufort) is considered the best of the 3 varieties.  It is made immediately after milking the Tarentaise breed of cows that graze on high-elevation pastures.  At 6,000 ft (2,000 m) above sea level, late-August grasses, herb and wildflowers are at their most abundant and most delicious, but at that elevation, they also won’t last long, so cowherds bring their animals up to the mountains to take advantage of this prime grazing.  And yes, you can taste it in the cheese!  In order to preserve the quality and nuance and flavors of the milk, the milk cannot travel any further than it has to (milk's molecules are easily damaged if they are jostled too much).  For this reason, the cowherd who minds the grazing cows is almost always the same person who makes the cheese in a little mountain hut on the same parcel of land as where the cows graze. 

Beaufort d’Alpage is far richer, nuttier and nuanced than even its close cousin, Beaufort d’Ete (summer Beaufort), which is made between June 1 & Oct 30th of milk from cows that have also dined on lovely herbs, grasses and flowers, but at a lower elevation.   Those lower pastures make a world of difference to the cheese.  Beaufort d’Ete is a lovely cheese, but it’s not quite as special as Beaufort d’Alpage.

Beaufort d’Hiver (winter Beaufort), produced when the cows have come back down off the mountains, is a fine cheese, but it has a lighter flavor and texture and is traditionally used for fondue.  The cows milked for Beaufort d’Hiver are grazing in lower-altitude pastures or are eating hay in stables because winter has come and there's nothing else for them to eat.

There are many other cheeses affected by the seasons, and a good cheese guide will help you.  But really, if you think about the best time of year for cheese to be made -- when the animals that are milked are eating the finest plants, usually between March and October -- and factor in the length of time the cheese needs to age (if at all), you will know the best times of the year to look for specific cheeses.  

Even a gigantic cheese that's aged for two years or more, such as Parmigiano-Reggiano, will have more subtle nuances if the wheels were produced in the spring, summer or autumn.  It's not like cheeses made during the winter are horrible, but if you want the best flavor and texture for your money, think like a hungry animal and consider what you'd rather eat: fresh, fragrant flowers and grasses, or dried hay.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The Gold and The Larva

Two very different cheeses have been in the news lately.

One is White Stilton Gold, made by Long Clawson, one of the largest dairies allowed to make Stilton.  (Stilton is a name-controlled cheese -- sort of like a trademark -- and by European Commission law, only six dairies are currently licensed to produce it.  Since the dairies undergo regular, independent auditing, that number could change.)

While most of us know Stilton as a snappy, minerally blue cheese, it does come in a white version, too.  The white version is fresh, has no blue veining in it, is rindless, comes in a vacuum-sealed package, and usually has various fruits blended into the paste.  If you've ever asked yourself, "Why can't cheese have dried mango in it?", White Stilton might just be for you.

Long Clawson wanted to do something special to celebrate their 100th anniversary, so they developed sort of a "golden anniversary" cheese.  They took White Stilton and infused it with 23-karat gold leaf and Cinnamon Schnapps.

On their Website, they refer to it as "very unique."

Grammatical error aside, this cheese sounds terrible.  

Gold is inert, thus it has no flavor.  So, no organoleptic issues there. 

But Cinnamon Schnapps certainly does have flavor, and not the kind that goes with even a lackluster cheese like White Stilton.

Then again, people who have £60 (about $93, at the time I'm writing this) to spend on 100 grams (just under a quarter-pound, or, slightly less than four ounces) of cheese aren't likely buying this cheese because it tastes good.

Again, proving the adage, "Money can't buy you good taste."

Or, better yet, "A fool and his money are soon parted."

People who buy this cheese will likely buy it because they can.  Because Thorstein Veblen was right.  Because some people just have way too much money, inversely proportional to their amount of common sense. I don't think anyone will buy this cheese because they think it will taste good.

To me, it's an affront to the entire cheese industry, this monstrosity of a "cheese."  Even the mightiest 80-pound wheel of Parmigiano-Reggiano, one of the most highly respected and loved cheeses in the world, has humble beginnings and doesn't pretend otherwise.  The Parmigiano-Reggiano Consortium's marketing is adamant about reminding us of this cheese's ancient origins, and how it's still made by small, artisan dairies in the plains, hills and mountains of rural Italy. 

Nearly every cheese held in high esteem by the industry -- cheesemongers, cheesemakers, chefs, food writers, etc. -- is a traditional cheese reflecting pride in the slow, steady rhythm of dairy agriculture.  Soil, grass, caves, mold.



Shame on Long Clawson for sullying the cheese world with this "luxury item."  It's bad enough most cheesemakers and cheesemongers are paid so little they can hardly afford the wares they make and care for and sell.  Now, Long Clawson is simultaneously cheapening the category, and making it stupidly expensive.

The antidote to this is the other cheese that's been in the news lately: Casu Marzu, or, as it's coarsely referred to, "Maggot Cheese."

Casu Marzu is a traditional Sardinian sheep's milk cheese.  The custom is to leave a wheel of cheese outside, with a bit of the rind removed, to attract the cheese fly to it.  The female will lay her eggs in the cheese, and when the eggs hatch, the larvae wriggle through and eat the cheese.  The wriggling, and the larvae's digestion of the cheese, causes the cheese to ferment and soften. 

When the cheese is soft enough to be considered "ready", the larvae are still alive, and some people choose not to kill the larvae before eating the cheese.  This is potentially dangerous, as the larvae can survive the trip through the cheese-eater's digestive system and cause some pretty serious issues in the intestines.  For this reason, some people who eat Casu Marzu employ various methods to ensure the larvae are dead before they eat the cheese.  But not all of them do!

Because of the questionable sanitary nature of the making of this cheese, the European Union had declared Casu Marzu illegal, although finding a black market Casu Marzu in Sardinia was no big deal.  Then, the EU reversed itself because of the traditional nature of this cheese -- they didn't want to promote the loss of a long-revered, regional foodway. 

Those of us in the United States who were either disgusted by or curious about Casu Marzu, or both, long had no way of experiencing Casu Marzu, or running away from it, unless we traveled to Sardinia.  Because the EU so recently changed its stance on the cheese, and because there's no way the FDA would ever allow Casu Marzu to come into this country -- I mean, we can't even have Reblochon! -- Casu Marzu was little more than a gross-out story to tell our squeamish customers.


Anyone up for a trip to Queens with me?

It turns out one restaurant owner in Astoria managed to get a wheel.  They aren't selling it -- that's probably how they manage to act within the spirit of the law -- but they will offer a taste to anyone who comes in and asks.  You can read about it here

I probably won't make it to Astoria in time to get a taste of Casu Marzu -- the larvae only live a few weeks, after which point, the cheese is considered past its prime -- because I don't leave the house much these days, but I'm excited it's here.  Momentarily set aside your cultural bias, and think about this:

A cheese made using an ancient recipe, nearly unchanged since inception, that has been pretty much illegal for decades, is now within subway-commuting distance to 8 million people in the United States.  It's an opportunity for us to eat or look at something we never thought we'd be able to see.  And for those of brave enough to try it, we're participating in an ancient way of enjoying food.

And now, to address the cultural biases. 

Yes, this cheese has insect larvae in it.  We are one of the few cultures in the world that doesn't consider insects as a food source.  But, we eat lobster and shrimp and crayfish, which are basically gigantic bugs that live in the water... and are bottom feeders, to make it even more yucky.

Yes, when you eat this cheese, you are eating a non-plant life-form that is still alive.  And we don't do that.  Oh really?  If you eat or drink anything with yeast in it -- bread, beer -- you are a liar.  And if you enjoy clams or oysters on the half-shell, you are a liar who enjoys clams or oysters on the half-shell.  Yeast is a living thing.  Clams and oysters are not dead when you eat them on the half-shell, my dear.  If they were, you either wouldn't want them (if they were raw), or they'd be cooked.

Okay, we're still not accustomed to eating cheese with maggots in it, and I'm right there with you.  But, considering the lame excuses for food we eat here in the United States -- blue ketchup? -- who are we to judge?

Casu Marzu may not be our tradition, unless our parents or grandparents are Sardinian, but it's a tradition worth preserving and even just talking about, because it reminds us to pay attention to and honor different people's food histories, even if we'd rather they kept their maggot cheese off of our plates.

For me, Casu Marzu is a far more important and noble cheese than gold-flecked, factory-made White Stilton.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Say What?

Dear Cheese Snob,

Why do they call it "cheese"?

Eddie Etymology


Dear Eddie,

Ooh!  I love questions like this.  Thank you for asking, because it allows us to talk about the history of cheese.

While nobody has been able to pinpoint the exact year cheese was first developed, from archaeological artifacts, we can surmise some form of dairying goes back to about 8,000 BCE, when sheep were first domesticated by nomadic hunters living in the Near East.  (By 5,000 BCE, cows and goats were also domesticated.)

According to my big Webster's New Universal Unabridged Dictionary, the word "cheese" is derived from a few languages, but the earliest is Urdu, the language derived from those spoken in the Near East during the Mesolithic age.  In Urdu, chĭz means "thing." 
How did the Urdu word for "thing" become the English word for "result of the controlled spoilage of milk"?  I don't know, I wasn't there, but let's keep going with this etymology thing. 

As the nomadic people of the Near East made their way up to the European continent, which had recently been uncovered from all the ice that had enveloped it, they stopped here and there with their animals.  During the 5th millennium BCE, nomads had gotten domesticated sheep and goats to Italy, southern France and North Africa.  During this time, humans had discovered how to make pottery, allowing greater ease in heating milk and making strainers to drain whey.

The Latin word for cheese is caseus.  While Latin itself came well after the 4,000 BCE years, it is derived from PIE, the Proto-Indo-European language, which was spoken in the region during the time some of these nomads settled and began making cheese.

As time progressed and groups of people moved throughout the European continent, bringing with them their animals, their cheese-making recipes, and their languages, we can see how the word "cheese" developed:
In Middle English, the word for cheese is chese.
In Anglo-Saxon, the word for cheese is cese.
In Late Latin, the word for cheese is casius.

Thus, "cheese."

We can look to other modern languages to see their names for cheese, too, and note the similarities.

Albanian: djathë (I know that looks nothing like the word "cheese," but go here and listen to the word being spoken.  It's a little bit of a stretch, but it does sound similar to "kaas.")
Dutch: kaas
English: cheese
Galician (a Spanish dialect): queixo 
German: Käse
Indonesian: keju
Irish: cáis
Italian: cacio (but keep reading!)
Portuguese: queijo
Spanish: queso
Welsh: caws

So, you see, this is why cheese is called "cheese"!  Aren't you glad you asked?

Okay, you might be thinking, but then what about the way in which the French, the people who seem to love cheese more than any of us in the world*, say "cheese"?  How the heck does "fromage" fit in here?
We can thank the Holy Roman Empire for that one, because they were really good at bringing their language all over the continent. 
Even though we learned the Latin word for "cheese" is caseus, the Romans also used formaticum, likely for when they were referring to aged cheeses.  Formaticum is a declension of formare, "to form." And the "form" is what the cheesemaker puts the curds into so the cheese will solidify into the desired shape.  (Another word for "form" is "mold" but not the blue kind, silly.)
So, from formaticum, we get...
French: fromage
Catalan (a Spanish dialect): formatge
Italian: formaggio

*Some of you might think you can catch me here, but you can't, because I already know the Greeks as a people eat more cheese, per capita, than anyone on the planet.  The last data I could find online was from 1997, but it shows the Greeks eat almost two pounds more cheese than the French in a year.  At least this is what the USDA Foreign Agricultural Service tells me. 

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Brie: A Counter-Proposal

Hey, Cheese Snob Wendy!

So, friends brought over a small wheel of brie for lunch today. I started talking about the "ripeness" and how you can leave it to sit for a while to make it softer and more ripe, similar to leaving fruit for a few days. Then I realized I had no idea whether what I was saying was true! But I knew who would know....

Lorraine Lunch


Dear Lorraine,

You are correct! If you leave it to sit out on the counter, and not refrigerate it, it'll ripen more quickly. I'm a little bit of a food weirdo, so I leave my brie out for a few days, but my kitchen is relatively cool.

And remember, ALL cheese likes to be eaten at room temperature.  Why is that?  Well, without putting you, dear reader, to sleep, I'll keep it simple:
"Tasting" food involves engaging your taste-buds, respiratory system and brain into detecting volatile organic compounds (aka "flavor") emerging from the food.  These compounds are released at about room temperature.

To give you an even shorter explanation: Butterfat.  Butterfat holds a lot of the flavor, and butterfat is solid when cold and unctuous at room temperature.  You want it unctuous.

Now, if you are not a food weirdo like me, and you prefer to refrigerate your cheese, please keep a few things in mind when bringing cheese to room temperature:
  1. Keep that cheese wrapped!  Or in a container of some sort!  You don't want it to dry out.
  2. The time it takes for your cheese to achieve room temperature has much to do with the temperature of your room.  Cooler room = more time.  Hot room = not too much time.
  3. The time it takes for your cheese to achieve room temperature has much to do with the texture of your cheese.  Harder cheese = more time.  Softer cheese = less time.
  4. The rule of thumb is about a half-hour to a full hour, but you may adjust according to the two rules listed above.

One more important thing to remember: Even if left out all day, your cheese isn't likely to "go bad."  Unless the cheese is something very soft and fresh like cream cheese or fresh ricotta, and you're keeping it directly in the equatorial sun, the worst that will happen is, the butterfat will become completely liquefied and rise to the surface of the cheese.  It will look like oil because that's what it is.  There is no need for alarm.  Just eat the dang cheese, already.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Does Lactose Intolerance = No Cheese?

Dear Cheese Snob,

My doctor recently diagnosed me with Lactose Intolerance.  Does this mean I can't eat cheese? 

-Timmy Tummy-Ache


Dear Timmy,

Thanks for writing!  And I have good news for you: You can still eat cheese... just not all of them.

Before we get into which cheeses you can choose, let's talk about lactose.  Lactose is, simply, the naturally occurring sugars found in milk.  (The prefix "lact-" indicating milk; the suffix "-ose" designating a sugar.)  Lactose is a necessary component of milk that ensures the survival and growth of infant mammals.  Because the infant mammal gets all of its nutrients from drinking its mother's milk, it needs a substance with a high level of carbohydrates, and milk sugar fits that bill.

Lactase is an enzyme humans produce in their intestinal villi (villi are projections located in the small intestine that extend the surface area of the small intestine, allowing for greater absorption of nutrients) that allows for the proper digestion of lactose.  People with lactose-intolerance (or, hypolactasia) do not produce enough lactase in their intestinal villi to assimilate the lactose, and, as the beneficial bacteria in their intestines do their natural job of fermenting food for nutrient absorption, the fermentation of the (unabsorbed) lactose creates an overabundance of gas in the colon.  This gas causes a variety of symptoms in the hypolactasiac person, including diarrhea, flatulence, bloating, abdominal pain, nausea and acid reflux.

Most human infants produce enough lactase to drink their mother's milk, as well as milk from other mammals (cows, sheep, goats, et al); but, with age and/or decreased consumption, lactase production decreases, rendering the human lactose-intolerant.

In the cheese-making process, milk is fermented, just like it is in our small intestines.  By adding starter cultures -- beneficial bacteria such as Lactobacilli, Lactococci and Streptococci -- to the milk, fermentation occurs and the lactose is converted to lactic acid, a substance that has no ill effect on hypolactasiacs and is easily metabolized in the small intestine.  Starter cultures are generally used to make aged cheeses, not fresh ones.  And therein lies the rub: fresh cheeses are the ones hypolactasiacs must avoid.  Not only are starter cultures seldom used to make fresh cheeses, thus leaving much of the lactose intact, but fresh cheeses contain much more whey than aged cheeses, even cheeses only aged a short while, and whey is the enemy of the hypolactasiac. 

Whey contains lactose.  Whey is the liquid part of milk left over when milk is precipitated -- i.e. the curds are solidified and separated from the whey.  The curds are the solids, the proteins.

The rule for cheese is, the harder the cheese, the less moisture -- whey -- it contains; thus, the less lactose.  A harder cheese not only has been drained of its whey/lactose, but much of the lactose has already been converted to lactic acid during the beginning of the cheese-making process.

Okay, enough Dr. Science stuff.  Now I know I can eat some cheeses.  Which ones?

It depends on how lactose-intolerant you are, but a safe place to start would be with semi-firm or firm cheeses, such as aged cheddar, gruyere, Parmigiano-Reggiano, aged pecorinos, Swiss, etc. because most have absolutely no lactose.  If you find you can eat these cheeses with no ill effect, try a semi-soft cheese, such as taleggio, your favorite blue cheese, vacherin mont d'or, etc.  You might want to try the cheese in small amounts in the comfort of your own home, depending on the severity of your usual lactose-intolerant response.  Keep Lactaid on-hand, too, just in case.  I know it sounds a little pesky, having to conduct an experiment like this on yourself, but should you find you can eat a wider variety of cheeses, your quality of life will improve exponentially.

Most hypolactasiac folks can eat nearly any cheese with no discomfort.  Remember, the harder the cheese, the less lactose it has!

That sounds good!  Now, which cheeses should I avoid?

Nearly all fresh cheeses will upset your stomach.  You want to avoid mozzarella (fresh and "pizza" cheese), paneer, cottage cheese (which is basically curds and whey, Goldilocks), fresh ricotta, fromage frais and queso fresco.  Others can tolerate fresh cheeses as long as they are made with cultured milk; "culturing" is fermenting, converting enough lactose to lactic acid to render it safe for hypolactasiacs.  Quark is one example of a fresh cheese made with cultured milk.

If anyone out there is lactose-intolerant and has helpful tips to share, or names of cheeses they have been able to eat with no discomfort, please leave a comment and share with the class!