Thanks to our Cheesemonger, Abby, for putting together this list of frequently asked questions about cheese!
Q: I’m lactose intolerant… doesn’t that mean I can’t eat cheese?
A: Do not dismay! Believe it or not, cheeses that have been aged beyond 6 months are virtually lactose free. The longer the cheese is aged, the less lactose it contains, since the lactose is the sugar component of the cheese, which not only transforms into lactic acid over the course of aging, but also evaporates over time, resulting in a harder, denser, lactose free cheese. Rule of thumb: harder, longer aged cheeses like Parmigianno, aged Gruyere, 6 mo. plus aged cheddar, Manchego, etc. = less lactose, while fresher, softer cheeses like brie, cambembert, feta, Ricotta, Mozzarella = more lactose. If you are lactose intolerant, be wary of processed cheeses, which sometimes contain added whey. Keep in mind that each person with lactose intolerance has a different level of tolerance. Start with a cheese that is super aged, like Parmigianno, and if you don’t experience any discomfort, try a cheese like Manchego or an aged Gouda and see how you do.
Q: What’s the best way to store my cheese?
A: Keep in mind that cheese is a living, breathing entity. Once you get your cheeses home, tear off that plastic wrap and let your cheeses breathe! You’ll want to re-wrap your wedges using our favorite cheese storage method: Bee Our Guest Wraps, which we are proud to carry at Harvest Market (learn more about them here). Store your wrapped cheese wedges in your veggie or meat drawer, in order to maintain the optimum level of humidity.
Q: Can I freeze cheese?
A: Freezing cheese will alter the flavor, texture and consistency of the cheese, and is not an ideal way of maintaining it. A better practice, if your schedule allows, would be to only buy what you need for each week.
Q: What’s the difference between raw milk and pasteurized cheese?
A: Raw, unpasteurized milk has not been heated to above 100-110 degrees, and as such, maintains its inherent properties that optimize flavor and nutrition. When we consume raw milk cheeses, we are consuming the entire matrix of enzymes that help our bodies assimilate those vital nutrients. Just a note: in the U.S., it is a federal law that a raw milk cheese must be aged for at least 60 days.
Q: What explains the flavor difference between a sheep, cow, or goat milk cheese?
A: The flavor difference amongst the animal milks can be attributed to:
1) The difference in the animals’ breeds and diets
2) The structure, proportion, and quantity of the fat and protein molecules within each milk. For example, buffalo milk has the highest amount of protein, lactose, and fat (easy to digest medium chain fatty acids, that is!) of all the dairy milks, followed by sheep, then cow, then goat. Because the fat molecules are larger in cow milk, and the lactose amount is higher, you generally get a sweeter, creamier, heavier mouthfeel, while sheep’s milk for example has a higher amount of smaller fat molecules, so the flavor is creamy and sweet but tends to have less of a “staying presence” on the palate. Goat milk has a lower fat and lactose content, with its own unique fat molecule structure, to which can be attributed its nutty, earthy flavor becoming more pronounced in its cheese form. Keep in mind that each type of animal milk will take on different expressions once they are made into cheese, depending on the different cultures used, and the age of the cheese.
Q: What should I look for when buying a set of cheese knives?
A: I recommend for your arsenal:
1) A skeleton knife for your soft-ripened cheeses (Brie, Camembert, Humboldt Fog, etc.). This type of knife is serrated, with gaps in the blade so as to keep from sticking to and crushing the more delicate cheeses upon cutting. This type of knife even has a little spear on the end to aid with serving.
2) A cheese planer. This is the tool that will help you shave thin slices from your wedges of longer aged cheeses like Manchego or an aged pecorino. These are the types of cheeses that are best enjoyed as thin slices, left to melt on your palate. That way you can fully experience the nuance and complexity of the cheese in all its salt, fat, sugars, and protein crystal glory.
3) A “Parmesan Knife” has a sharp blade with a wide handle to help you get bite sized chunks out of a super aged cheese like Parmigiano, so as to enjoy the cheese in chunks that can melt in your mouth.
4) A traditional sharp knife to cut semi-hard cheeses like cheddar, Drunken Goat, or young Gouda.
Q: If a cheese is moldy is it safe to just cut the outsides off and eat the center?
Q: Any tips for what to put on a cheese board?
A: Creating a cheeseboard can be as simple or as complex as you want. A few elements to consider are:
1) Variety! Depending on the crowd, I like to have one or two standards that I know everyone will like, but also include a maverick that folks might not be familiar with, but might just knock their socks off. For the standards, I almost always go with Seven Sisters by Farm at Doe Run, and a soft beauty like Merry Goat Round or Noblette Brie, and then for the maverick I’ll include Red Cat by Birchrun Hills to surprise folks with the joy of a funkier cheese.
2) Vehicles! This is a great area to get creative and also add in more nutrition. If you want to try something different from the standard cracker, try sliced medallions of radish, cucumber, carrot, fresh and dried apricots (halved fresh apricots are divine vehicles), celery, etc.
3) Accoutrements! This is a fun area to bring out the nuance in flavor that each cheese presents. For example, an aged Gruyere has notes of pineapple, caramel, and toasted nuts, so why not include those three components on your cheese board to let people play around? Honey is a classic accompaniment to blues and pecorinos, especially a darker chestnut or buckwheat honey. Honey also helps soften a funkier cheese for those that might not be in the mood for a stronger cheese. Membrillo quince paste is a classic accompaniment to Spanish cheeses like Manchego, and olives are traditional as well.
4) Seasonality! Whatever your garden or farmers’ market is providing at the moment… wild greens, chive blossoms, nasturtium, wild mustard, herbs, these at flourishes of color and sprays of flavor.
Be sure to share your cheeseboard creations with us on social media!
Additional notes on aging cheeses to your liking at home
On Perishability and Ripening:
Cheeses with higher moisture content are the most perishable, however keep in mind that, the full format wheels (Hummingbird, Willow, Noblette, Merry Goat Round) as long as they are stored in an ideal environment, will continue to ripen up to your liking. You’ll see those soft cheeses ripening from the outside in, so the firm paste will give way to a more gooey texture as the fats and proteins continue to break down over time, giving the milk and culture an opportunity to express themselves to peak enjoyment. What will also happen as a softer cheese ages is the acidity will decrease, so you get more unctuous, buttery, sometimes mushroomy flavors expressing themselves.
“I am a cheese enthusiast, I’m passionate about cheese and always hungry to learn more, but I am certainly no expert. I want our customers to know that I am eager to learn from YOUR expertise, and more than anything, eager for a dialogue and information exchange. I’m eager to learn about what you like, what you’d like to see more of from the cheese program at Harvest Market. I value sharing information amongst our staff and customers, so that we can all benefit from one another’s cheese knowledge, experience, and practices.”