If the first image that comes to mind after hearing the word "cheese" are the orange square slices on fastfood burgers, the squeeze cheese you can write your name with or Aunt Selma with her darn camera again, it's time to get re-acquainted with the wonderful world of cheese.
Cheese can be made out of any animal's milk, but in the United States, the cows win, hoofs down. Other popular runners-up include goats and sheep. Goat cheese, more eloquently referred to as chèvre by the French, has enjoyed a great increase in popularity since the 1980s. It is usually a mild, fresh cheese in the United States, but in France chevre is aged and strong-smelling. With aging, the "barnyard" and "goaty" characteristics become more pronounced. The cheeses are usually sold in small amounts and in a variety of shapes, including cylinders, cones and pyramids. Many of the French goat's milk cheeses sold today are also made with cow or ewe's milk.
Ewe's milk is also used by itself to make several well-known cheeses. Among these are France's Roquefort, Italy's Pecorino, Romania's Telemea and many of Greece's cheeses, including Feta. The flavors range from mild to sharp and with characteristics such as "barnyard" and "sheepy." Some ewe's milk cheeses are noticeably salty from being matured in brine.
But the real winner is still the cow and her creation called cheddar. One of the most popular cheeses in not only the United States but also the world, cheddar is a firm, yellow cheese with a mellow taste that can take on sharpness and tanginess with age. Its name is said to either come from the English town of Cheddar or from one of the steps in its production. "Cheddaring" is the process of cutting the dairy mixture into pieces, then stacking and turning them at the bottom of a vat for a period. Great Britain may lay stake to its name, but cheddar is also made in the United States, Australia, Canada and New Zealand. Other cheeses in the cheddar family include Cheshire, Wensleydale and Stilton.
But the less-than-premium imitation cheddars also abound. The biggest offender is the common bright-orange square and near-liquid cheeses. Sold in individual plastic-wrapped slices, handi-packs and squeeze cans, these cheeses are all processed. That means that instead of letting the cheese ripen, the maturation process is arrested at a set point by heat treatment. The products are usually a blend of cheese that take on a neutral flavor; this is due to the fact that the micro-organisms that create distinctive cheese flavors have been killed by the heat treatment.
Although these popular processed cheeses are commonly associated with the name "cheddar" in the United States, a revival of true cheddar is taking place. In England and Vermont, a new wave of cheesemakers are invigorating tastebuds everywhere with their back-to-tradition cheddars. To find out more about cheddar and Sam Gugino's top picks, read Not Your Childhood Cheddar in the May 15 issue.
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