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Try Cheese, If You Please
by Dr. Anjana Maitra

Cheese is one of the most favorite foods the world over. A healthy, tasty food made from milk for thousands of years, cheese has been one of the most important foods for people all over the world since time immemorial.

The first cheese was probably made more than 4000 years ago by nomadic tribes in Asia. Through the years the knowledge of cheese making spread to Europe.

In 1917 J.L Kraft, an American businessman, patented a method for making processed cheese. His company also developed a method for wrapping individual slices of cheese mechanically.

During the 1970s scientists developed a method of removing protein and lactose from whey. Manufacturers add these nutritious substances from whey to baby food, bread, ice cream and other foods.

Also during the 1970s European manufacturers began to use a process called ultra-filtration for making soft cheese. In this process the milk is strained through such a fine filter that only water, lactose and salts are lost. The remaining liquid contains most of the proteins normally drained off with the whey.

Today cheese is made in most countries of the world. Climate, aridity or lushness of the pastures are all key factors in deciding the kind and quality. It takes 4.6 litres (20 cups) of milk to produce 450 g of cheese. In all the cases the milk is first pasteurized, to make sure that it is completely free from harmful organisms. Then it is tested for acidity and usually a ‘starter’ culture is used to turn milk lactose into lactic acid. Rennet is added and left until the milk has coagulated and reached the right degree of acidity so that curds separate from the whey (liquid). The curd settles and consolidates, then it is broken down, salted and molded. It continues to mature until a skin or rind is formed on each cheese. The maturing and ripening process continues at a specific, steady temperature  and controlling this process -and of the acidity of the milk- is part of the cheese maker’s skill.

Most cheese comes from cow’s milk. However people in Europe and Asia frequently make cheese from the milk of buffaloes, goats and sheep. But cheese can be made from the milk of any animal. Herders in Lapland use reindeer milk to make cheese. In Tibet yaks supply milk for cheese. Cheese is also made from the milk of camels, donkeys, horses and zebras.

The USA leads the world in cheese production. It produces 3 million metric tones of cheese annually, followed by Russia and France.

There are hundreds of kinds of cheese and they differ in taste, texture and appearance. Many types of cheese spread easily, but others are hard and crumbly. Some taste sweet, others are sharp or spicy.

Cheese keeps better than milk and has much of milk’s food value, including protein, minerals and vitamins. Cheese contains these nutrients of milk in a concentrated form.

Cheese is a very versatile food and can be eaten alone or served on biscuits, in sandwiches, salads and in cooked foods. Fast foods like pizzas and burgers make wide use of cheese. It is also used in a number of baked products like cakes, puddings, biscuits, tarts, pies etc.

At one time each farmhouse had its own recipe for making cheese. Now much of the cheese produced in industrialized countries is made in large factories, although cheese may still be made in farmhouses or creameries.

The process used to make cheese in a factory is a sophisticated version of the technique used in home made cheese. There are 5 basic steps in cheese manufacturing:

(1) Processing the milk
(2) Separating the curd
(3) Treating the cheese
(4) Ripening and
(5) Packaging.

Much of the cheese produced in industrialized countries is made into processed cheese, a blend of natural cheeses. Processed cheese keeps better than natural cheese and melts more evenly when used in cooking. Other processed cheese is a mixture of the batches of the same kind of cheese that differ in taste and texture.

There are more than 400 varieties of cheese. They have over 2000 names. Many are named after the town or community in which they are made like Roquefort cheese. Cheese can be divided into 4 main groups: (1) soft (2) semi soft (3) hard and (4) very hard. The amount of moisture in the cheese determines its classification. Cheese may also be divided according to their taste: mild, medium or sharp. A few well known cheese types are described below:

Mozzarella: Made from buffalo milk, stringy-when-melted mozzarella originated in the south of Italy and is slightly pre-salted. It is specially used in pizzas and lasagna.

Cheddar: Once a thoroughbred English cheese, cheddar is the most popular cheese in the world today. Made only from cow’s milk, it has a soft crumbly texture and a sharp taste.

Mild cheeses: If you only enjoy a milder, creamier flavored cheese, try Bel Paese from Italy, Port Salur and St. Paulin from France, Edam and Gouda from Holland, Samso, Tybu and Danbo from Denmark, Tilsit and Jarlsberg from Norway, Muenster and Bzick from America and so on. Each is quite distinctive and delicious.

Cottage: Snowy white in color, creamy in taste and lumpy in texture, cottage cheese is made by heating natural curd. It reaches maturity in a couple of days. It is a slimmer’s stand by and a fresh variety of cheese. The Indian variety of cottage cheese, paneer, is a hot favorite specially among vegetarians.

Blue veined cheese: The curds of these cheeses are treated with a natural mold-producing agent, then left to ripen. English Stilton is often called the “King of cheese” : carefully aged and eaten, and traditionally accompanied by port. Its French equivalent, Roquefort, is made from ewe’s milk, and left to ripen in cool caves. The softer textured Italian Gorgonzola and Danish Blue are popular and versatile.

Swiss Emmental: The real thing, this cheese is farm produced and its thin rind is covered with a paper that has the producer’s name on it. It has walnut size holes and the sweet fruity flavor of fresh-cut hay.

Parmesan: This cheese is high in protein and a recommended food for Olympic sprinters. It originated in the Italian town of Parma and comes with a dotted hard rind. Crumbly and pale yellow in texture with a distinctive sharp and fruity flavor, the cheese is best served grated and sprinkled over soups, salads and pasta, or in slices with a full-bodied wine.

Soft cheese: The most famous is the French Camembert and Brie, both best when soft, but not over ripe. Ponyl Eveque and Livarot are the other French varieties.

Thus cheese has been a part and parcel of man’s diet since time immemorial.

Today’s sophisticated version has come a long way from the early cheese made by nomadic tribes in Asia. A versatile food, cheese can be used imaginatively on its own, or in combination with other foods to make an array of mouth watering delicacies to tickle your taste buds. So say ‘cheese’ and get ready for a flavorful and aromatic tour. 

Image under license with Gettyimages.com

16-Sep-2007
 
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