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Cheese - Make It Natural

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If you think the Swiss invented cheese, think again. Cheese has been known since ancient times, not only by the Greeks and Romans, but long before, by cultures that depended on livestock breeding.

If you think the Swiss invented cheese, think again. Cheese has been known since ancient times, not only by the Greeks and Romans, but long before, by cultures that depended on livestock breeding. Cheese has been known since at least 5,000 BC among the nomads in old Persia and Central Asia.

Today, cheese is a most versatile dairy product that comes in many different forms, with more than 600 different varieties available worldwide. France alone boasts about half of them. Delicious cheese dishes can be found in the most noble and exclusive kitchens of five-star hotels, as well as in the simplest country kitchen. A cheese plate, a bottle of wine, and a bunch grapes - what more do you need for a small festive gathering?

Cheese is classified according to its moisture content into the categories: hard, semi-hard, and soft cheese. The hard cheeses include Parmesan, Emmenthal, Cheddar, and Gruyere, while in the group of semi-hard cheese we find Gouda, Havarti, Stilton, and Roquefort. Soft ripened cheeses are becoming more popular as consumers discover Camembert, Brie, and Boursault.

Of course, cheeses do not come only from cows’ milk. Goats and sheep also provide excellent cheeses.

The most beloved cheese in North America is Cheddar. It can be used in so many different ways - sliced for sandwiches, grated into white sauce for macaroni, or melted over vegetables. Kids love Cheddar as a snack with an apple or grapes. But beware that there is a great difference between natural and processed cheeses. Foil wrapped and sliced process cheeses contain gelatin, guar gum, stabilizers, and preservatives. Avoid this type of cheese and choose one of the organic Cheddars now entering the market. They can be found in full-service natural food stores.

Usually cheese needs time to ripen to develop flavour. This can take anywhere from 60 days for soft cheeses to nine months for hard cheeses. I prefer the flavour of soft-ripened cheeses when they are still young and not overripe. Soft cheeses like Camembert are usually ripe in 30 to 60 days. A hard cheese such as Parmesan takes one and a half years to ripen.

The flavour and colour of cheese is much influenced by the quality of the milk, which, in turn, depends on the fodder given to cows. In North America, it is common to feed cows silage, grains, and even soybeans. However, in the classical cheese countries- the Mediterranean, the Balkan, and other European regions - dairy herds are fed on green pastures. In the Alpine region, where raw milk cheese is made, the dairy farmers’ cooperative feeds its cows only grass and hay. This guarantees the distinct flavour and texture of the cheese of their specific region. In winemaking, the bacteria on the grapes changes from region to region, thereby determining the flavour and bouquet of the wine. Likewise, specific lactic bacteria - found in the air and attracted by the grass, depending whether it’s grown on the mountain or in the valley- will produce specific flavours of cheese.

You are more likely to find imported raw milk specialty cheeses at a good cheese counter, where cheese is cut to specification off a wheel or brick, rather than at the dairy wall of the supermarket, where all cheeses are prepackaged. The cheese specialist will also let you sample different cheeses and answer your questions.

Recently, some good raw milk cheeses, including a Camembert made in Quebec, have appeared on the market. Natural cheese is a very nourishing basic food providing valuable protein, easily digestible butterfat, vitamins A and D, calcium, and other minerals, as well as trace elements and enzymes. Even those with lactose intolerance can often digest natural cheeses, as the milk sugar has been broken down and turned mostly into lactic acid during the fermentation process.

Statistics indicate the demand for high-quality nutritious cheese is increasing as Canadians discover what Europeans have long experienced - a celebration of eating, with cheese as one of the three or four fundamental pillars of a great meal. No matter how you slice, dice, spread, or melt it, cheese is as healthy, as down home, or as sophisticated as you choose.

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