There are approximately 12 families of cheese produced in the world – at least by my way of classification. By the term “family,” I refer to cheeses that are grouped by certain logical characteristics. For example, a cheese with blue veining would typically be grouped into the blue cheese family.
There are some cheeses that can logically fit into more than one family. For instance, Danish Blue Castello, a soft-ripening blue, fits into both the soft-ripening and blue families. It would be almost impossible to classify cheese in a perfectly distinct manner because of the nature of complexity involved. There are many ways to group cheeses; one could group by ripening process, type of milk, age or ripening time, texture, appearance and even region. You see the point.
No one, regardless of expertise level, could possibly know all 12,000+ cheeses in existence today. Therefore, once you understand the 12 families it becomes much easier to buy cheese. The benefit of this knowledge can be compared to buying wine. For example, if you are looking for a Cabernet Sauvignon you may not know the specific Cabernet label you are looking at, but you will at least know approximately what to expect in terms of flavor profile.
Once you know the 12, you can simply pick a few different families for your cheese tray, and you will be off to a great start. Instead of trying to remember the name of a specific cheese, you might ask what is good in terms of your favorite families, like so: “I would like three cheeses today. What do you have in good condition in a soft-ripening family, a blue and maybe a fresh, soft goat? This way, it becomes easier for you. You will like the results.
So let’s break down the first six (of 12) families:
Often called unripened, this is a very young cheese with a short shelf life of only a few weeks at most from production. This type of cheese generally goes through a transition of fresh to tart to sour. Examples would be Cottage, Ricotta, Farmer cheese, Mozzarella and Cream cheese. You will also find many goat and sheep cheeses that fit into this family as well.
This type is one of the most popular and most understood within families of cheese. The name comes from the action that takes place. This kind of cheese is first sprayed with penicillium camberti, a white mold. Then, as the ripening process develops, it softens from the outside in. When first made, a soft-ripening cheese has a hard core in the center. As the cheese begins to ripen the core disappears. Once gone, it is considered fully ripe. This process will happen within just a few weeks. There are three types of soft-ripening cheeses classified by butterfat content:
Double Crème – 60% butterfat (Examples: Fromage d’Affinois, Supreme and Brie)
Triple Crème -75% butterfat (Examples are: Brillat Savarin, Delice d’Argental, Délice de Bourgogne, Boursault, Belletoile and the new Fromage D’Affinois Triple Crème)
Please note that not all soft-ripening cheeses are created equal. Many have been stabilized to give the large markets a longer shelf life, but the soft creamy purpose of the cheese is also lost. In addition, you may not always be able to tell the condition of a triple crème by its appearance. This is one cheese you truly want to try before you buy, and I always recommend buying this type by condition, not by name.
- Washed Rind
Unlike soft-ripening cheeses that have a white bloomy mold sprayed on them, this type of cheese gets washed with a different mold. Then it is allowed to ripen in a moist room where the washed rind develops. This orange-hued cheese is more pungent and flavorable as a general rule. It can over-ripen quickly, so it is best to taste when you can. Examples are Limburger, Chaumes, Epoisses, Livarot, Munster, Stinking Bishop, Grayson, Pont l’Eveque, Von Trapp Oma and Arethusa Diva.
This is a large group of cheese produced in Great Britain with the similar characteristics of subtle buttermilk undertone and a crumbly texture. This is certainly an over-simplified definition of a great cheese. You really need to try the small farm production cheeses to truly appreciate them. Examples are Cheshire (pre-dates cheddar by 400 years), Caerphilly, Wensleydale, Leicester, Double Gloucester, Cotswold and Lancashire.
Known for the Cheddar-type cut curd from which it is made, Cheddar is originally an English cheese but the largest production is now made in the United States and Canada. Examples are Cheddars by name from Connecticut, New York, Vermont, Wisconsin, Canada, England, Oregon, etc. Specific names include Colby, Tillamook, Longhorn, Quebec, Grafton, Cabot, Tapping Reeve and Black Diamond.
This is a slow-ripening cheese, free of added bacteria (in the way that a Brie or washed rind cheese is cultured). In the Swiss family, cheeses are ripened with salt and time, usually over the course of several months to a year, with little changes noted. Examples would be Appenzeller, Emmenthaler (the original Swiss cheese with “holes” in it), Gruyere, Leerdammer, Comte, Beaufort and Raclette.
As a general note, when buying cheese, the proof is always in the taste. Be wary of slick marketing concepts designed to make one perceive a greater value than the cheese actually has.
Next month I will cover the remaining six families of cheese. In the interim, mention the defining names of the cheese families you like to your cheese monger during your next trip out for cheese. Then let the monger search for something special in perfect condition for you.