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!

Thursday, October 21, 2010

What's Up With Torta del Casar?

Let's take a peek inside the mailbag.  Ooh!  It's my first official question!  And a good one, at that.  Shall we?  Let's go see how we can help our cheese friends today!

Hey Cheese Snob!

I bought a piece of "Torta del Cesar" from [a discount cheese place] (so, naturally I assume by its deep discount that it was probably slightly past its prime.)  It was a soft and oozing cheese.  It smelled pretty bad, and tasted bad as well.  From reading online, this cheese is supposed to smell bad and has a sharp taste.

How do I recognize a "smelly" cheese that is supposed to smell that way, and one that is just bad?



Dear Amanda,
That's a great question, and one that cheesemongers hear all the time: How do we know when our cheese has gone bad?
But first, let's discuss your Torta del Casar conundrum.  First, I want to let our readers know that Torta del Casar has a very close cousin by the name of Queso de la Serena, so all information I'm about to give can be applied to either cheese.
This cheese, made from raw (unpasteurized) sheep's milk in the Extremadura region of Spain, fits into an interesting category: it's thistle-renneted.  Whereas most European cheesemakers use animal-based rennet as the catalyst for coagulation of the milk -- the separation of the curds from the whey -- a small percentage use vegetable-based enzymes; a small percentage of these cheeses are precipitated with an extract of the cardoon thistle plant.  Thistle-renneted cheeses are most often found in Spain and Portugal, but I've also heard there are a few from Italy, as well.
Thistle seems to act like the bloomy, penicillium candidum rind on soft-ripened cheeses: it causes the cheeses to soften as they ripen, rather than firm up.  Thistle also gives a cheese a distinctly spicy flavor that intensifies as it ripens.
So, is Torta del Casar really supposed to taste and smell bad?  Well, "bad" is relative, but to those of us unaccustomed to its flavor and aroma -- especially if you're like me and you grew up in the 'burbs with individually-wrapped pasteurized process cheese food -- this cheese can be quite a challenge.
If you would like to explore its unusual flavor and expand your queso horizons, I recommend buying a small piece of Torta del Casar from a different shop.  Nothing against the shop you have in mind, but you are not likely to get information on the ripeness of any cheese there from the counter staff, let alone be offered a sample.  What you want is to find the cheese when it's younger and firmer.  An experienced cheesemonger will be able to tell you if the Torta del Casar is young, ripe, or very ripe.
If you find a young wheel, ask for a sample and go slow with tasting it.  Don't just gobble it down; really savor it and let it melt around your mouth while you inhale.  If you like it, buy a small piece and eat some every few days.  You'll note how it changes in flavor and texture.  Torta del Casar is a fascinating, complex cheese with flavors we don't find in many other cheeses.  It goes really well with chorizo, if you are into that sort of thing.

And, in all honesty, not everyone is going to love Torta del Casar.  Lucky for us, there are thousands of other cheeses out there.

I hope this helps!

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Ask Me!

Cheese can be confusing.  I am well aware of that.  When I first started working with cheese, I went from a cheese-ignorant suburbanite who knew approximately five different cheeses, to a late-shift counter-person solely responsible for taking care of and selling about 300 of them. 

My cheese life began in 1995.  That's almost my entire work history.  Most of my experience has been in a retail setting, but I've also worked with chefs and buyers as a sales rep for a wholesaler, trained cheese-counter staff, and taught cheese seminars to the general public.

In my travels, I've heard nearly every crazy question a person could ask about cheese.  Mostly, though, I've heard some really good questions. I've also heard -- and read, in national magazines, for instance -- countless half-truths and misrepresentations about cheese.

My goal for this Site is to provide a forum where you may ask about cheese and get real answers from real professionals.  I know a lot, but I don't pretend to know everything.  For that reason, I may call in back-up now and again, so expect special guests!

Okay, get those questions ready and email them to me at c h e e s e s n o b w e n d y [at] g m a i l [dot] c o m
Sorry about the spaces and weirdness in writing the address, but, well, you know...