Cheese! Is there anything better? There are hundreds of different cheeses available today, all with various textures and flavours depending on the animal of origin (cows, goats, buffalo, & sheep), pasteurization, amount of butterfat, processing, ageing, and the bacteria and mold present in the cheese. Additionally, different methods of preparation will add specific flavors to cheese through the use of smoke, herbs or spices.
The production of cheese usually involves the coagulation of casein (a milk-based protein) with the rennet, a naturally occurring enzyme complex. Once the process is complete the solids are then retrieved and moulded to create the final cheese product. Below, you’ll find important information on several of the best gourmet cheeses:
Parmigiano Reggiano is an extra hard Italian cheese made from cow’s milk. The cheese must ripen for at least one year, and it must be free of holes in order to be sold as Parmigiano Reggiano. Its name is protected by various EU laws, guaranteeing the authenticity of the cheese from specific regions in northern Italy. The name parmesan is also protected by these same laws and synonymous with Parmigiano Reggiano. Products that are labeled “parmesan” but that lack the protected origin seal are imitation cheeses and not true Parmigiano Reggiano. Production guidelines are set and supervised by the Italian Consorzio del Formaggio Parmigiano-Reggiano.
Parmigiano Reggiano is classified into five categories based on the ripening age of the cheese. The age classification ranges from 12 to 72 months, with 6-year old Parmigiano Reggiano being a most delicious and very rare cheese.
Parmigiano Reggiano is most often used grated over pasta dishes or to enrich risotto, but is also lovely when shaved over steamed vegetables such as asparagus, or over salads. It is a common ingredient for various types of pesto. Small pieces of Parmigiano Reggiano drizzled with honey or a good quality aged balsamic vinegar are a fantastic treat, either at the beginning or end of a meal.
Mozzarella is a collective term applied to a set of semi-soft Italian cheeses that are manufactured using a spinning and cutting method of production. The name comes from the verb mozzare which means to cut off. Mozzarella may be derived from water buffalo (Mozzarella di Bufala) or from cow’s milk (Mozzarella fior die latte) that is either fresh or pasteurized. Mozzarella is also available smoked (Mozzarella affumicata) and comes either in the form of balls or braided (treccia).
To extend the shelf life of the rindless cheese, it is stored in either a salty brine or in whey. Mozzarella is mainly used in pizza and lasagne, but is also highly prized eaten fresh due to its delicate taste. One of the best ways to enjoy Mozzarella is Insalata Caprese – slices of Mozzarella accompanied by basil, slices of fresh tomatoes, and drizzled with olive oil and balsamic vinegar.
Pecorino is a hard Italian cheese made from sheep’s milk. Pecorino Sardo (from Sardinia), Pecorino Siciliano (from Sicily), and Pecorino Toscano (from Tuscany) have been awarded Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) status by the EU. Pecorino cheeses come in a variety of flavors and textures depending on the age of the cheese as well as added ingredients such as herbs and spices. Typically, pecorino is available in three aging stages – fresco, semi-stagionato, and stagionato.
The older the cheese, the harder and crumblier its texture, and the stronger and “sheepier” the taste. In central and southern Italy, Pecorino stagionato is often used grated over pasta dishes instead of parmesan cheese. It is most delicious drizzled with honey and accompanied by pears, or served with a bit of good quality balsamic vinegar, or with fruit jams.
Gorgonzola is a soft cheese from the northern Italian province of Lombardia where it has been produced since the 11th century. It is made from cow’s milk with characteristic blue-green veins of mold. The cheese enjoys PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) status under EU laws and is manufactured by a number of producers who have formed the Consorzio Gorgonzola. Gorgonzola produced by the Consorzio is marked with the initials CG, which stand for authentic Gorgozola.
Gorgonzola ripens anywhere from two months up to one year, and depending on its age has a mild to sharp taste with delicate sweet notes. The cheese is always soft and sometimes even spreadable and ivory colored with blue-green veins. Gorgonzola dolce, which has ripened for 60 days is the mildest form, whereas Gorgonzola piccante has a much more pronounced taste due to a much longer ripening process (90 to 100 days).
Especially prized among gourmands is Gorgonzola due paste, which is made from milk that has been milked in the evening, left to coagulate, and then enriched with milk that has been milked the following morning. It is very rare as it is left to ripen for more than a year, giving it a unique and unparalleled taste.
Gorgonzola is particularly tasty for dessert with ripe pears and walnuts, or in salads, pasta dishes, or on pizza. It is also wonderful as part of a cheese platter and works well with fresh wines with spicy notes (mild Gorgonzola) or strong-bodied wines such as Chianti (mature Gorgonzola).
Ricotta is a soft Italian cheese made from cow’s and/or sheep’s milk (Ricotta pecorina). Ricotta is eaten fresh and not left to ripen. The coagulation of the milk occurs via the use of citric acid rather than rennet, which is used for most cheeses. Ricotta is white and has a mild, sweet taste reminiscent of fresh milk.
It can be used in both sweet and savory dishes. In Sicily, Ricotta is used to make the filling for cannoli and and for cassata. Fresh Ricotta is delicious with ripe fruit such as raspberries, and drizzled with honey. It lends itself well as a filling for cannelloni, quiches, and Italian cheesecakes. Make sure to look for authentic Italian Ricotta that has been made in Italy as cheap imitations sold in supermarkets have nothing in common with the authentic product.
Brie is a soft French cheese made from cow’s milk. It is named after the region in France where it was first produced. Today, two types of brie are under protected origin (AOC) status awarded by the French government, Brie de Meaux and Brie de Melun.
Brie is shaped in the form of a flat round cake, and a week after the cheese has been produced it is sprayed with mold and then left to ripen for three to ten weeks at a strictly controlled temperature. Young brie is white or straw colored and later turns ivory or yellowish, acquiring a characteristic soft, creamy consistency at the peak of ripeness.
Overly ripe brie has an unpleasant ammonia taste, whereas perfectly ripe brie has wonderful aromas reminiscent of fresh grass and roasted nuts and melts in the mouth. Brie is best enjoyed uncooked, either in salads, or as part of a classic cheese platter with nuts and pears. After removing the rind it can also be used in dishes where melted cheese is called for, such as soups, sauces, and even risotto. Chardonnay or a rich dessert wine are perfect partners for brie.
Camembert is a soft French cheese made from cow’s milk. The freshly made cheese is first rubbed with salt and then with mold, which eventually gives the cheese its characteristic soft, white rind. The entire production of camembert takes about three weeks.
Camembert de Normandie is the only camembert that enjoys protected origin status (AOC) under French law. It must be made in Normandy from unpasteurized cow’s milk. The name camembert by itself can be used for any type of cheese, regardless of origin, production methods, or type of milk.
Camembert acquires a wonderful creamy texture and somewhat nutty and sharp taste when at the peak of ripeness. Like brie, it develops an unpleasant taste of ammonia when overly ripe.
Perfectly ripe camembert spreads easily and is great as part of a cheese platter, or simply enjoyed on a fresh, crusty baguette with a class of red wine. Breaded and fried camembert with cranberry sauce is a classic way to enjoy this delicious cheese.