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.


  1. This is unrelated, but I have some silly questions. Just wondering if there are laws for what goes on cheese labels. I bought Hannah's Choice Smoked Gouda cheese, but realized that nowhere on the package is there any indication of which animal provided the milk for the cheese. If it doesn't say, is it automatically cow's milk? Or could Gouda still be made from sheep, goat, buffalo, beaver, camel, etc milk. There is a K on it which I believe means it's Kosher. Would that give any indication of which animal's milk was used? Or maybe the K doesn't even mean Kosher. Maybe the K indicates Kangaroo milk cheese for all I know. Pardon my paranoia. I just keep hearing reports of some idiotic nut jobs making cheese from their wives' breast milk, so I'm a little hesitant.

  2. Anonymous, NOT a silly question! There are laws, but apparently enforcement is a little lax. Generally, if no animal is listed, it's safe to assume the milk came from a cow. As long as the animal isn't *treyf* and the cheese is made according to Kashrut law, it can come from any animal, so the kosher symbol isn't any indication of animal milk. As an animal in the mammalian class -- just like us! -- one could milk a kangaroo, but I'd bet the label would tell you that because marketing would demand it. On another note, I briefly worked with that "idiotic nut job" who made cheese from his wife's breast milk. Lemme say this: I'm not surprised. [rolls eyes]
    Keep up the good questions, Anonymous! And the rest o' ya, too.