Cheese, glorious cheese! History tells us cheese has been around between 8,000 and 10,000 years, and it continues to evolve. Whether you have diet restrictions or not, there is a cheese for you. Even vegan cheeses made with plant-based milks are trending and the quality has improved tremendously.
For the average person, cheeses can simply be categorized based on the milk used and the texture. The most common milks used, in order of popularity, are cow, sheep, goat, buffalo and cashew. Each milk used will lend to the flavour profile of the cheese, but the fat content of each milk varies also and therefore the richness will also change with each milk.
The four most prevalent textures are soft or fresh, semi-soft, semi-hard and hard cheeses. You may therefore hear a cheese described as a “cow’s milk, semi-soft cheese” or a “sheep’s milk, hard cheese” etc.
When you consider all the possibilities of mixing the different milks and textures, the types of cheeses are potentially well over a thousand diverse types.
So, what’s new, what’s making a comeback, and what should never change?
These are the cheeses you will find in most North American refrigerators in some form; cheddar (semi-hard, cow’s milk), parmesan (hard, cow’s milk) and block mozzarella (semi-soft, cow’s milk).
The quality, source and freshness of the milk, the cheese making process, and aging (for cheddar and parmesan) will make a significant difference in the quality of any cheese product.
Also, both English cheddar and Italian parmesan (parmigiano reggiano) have a PDO or DOP, Protected Designation of Origin, which ensures consumers are getting authentic product and the producers are being paid reasonable value. If you can get your hands on an authentic cheddar from England, PDO or some parmigiano reggiano, DOP from Italy, you will see why these need not change, they are so good. Either of these cheeses could be used as an ingredient in a dish or could quite easily be added to a cheese board to enjoy on its own.
The other classic found in our fridge would have to be block mozzarella cheese. It is a semi-soft, mozzarella cheese that is great for cooking with and a great melting cheese. Made from cow’s milk it has a low moisture content, a longer shelf life and tends to have a saltier taste than the fresh variety. It is also known as “low-moisture, partly skim." Block mozzarella is used solely for cooking; it would not add much to a cheese board.
What’s old is new again
I am Italian-Canadian, and although I was already familiar with many Italian cheeses found in North America when I moved to Italy in 1997, I discovered so many more wonderful cheeses. There are far too many to list here but one of my favourites, mozzarella di bufala, is made from water buffalo milk and it is what started a magnificent category of fresh cheeses which originated in Southern Italy in the 16th century.
Fast forward to 2022 and this whole category of fresh cheeses, made with either cow’s or buffalo milk, are now available here in North America. So, although they have been around for centuries, they are still quite new to the North American market.
The fresh mozzarella di bufala, like the parmigiano reggiano, has a DOP designation and it is best consumed within hours of production, so it is better to save that for the next time you are in the Campania region of Italy (or see below).
The good news is, due to the popularity, fresh mozzarella is now produced with cow’s milk or buffalo milk in North America. This means we can enjoy these products at the peak of freshness and at a much better price.
Even the fresh, burrata cheese, invented in the 1950s in Andria, Puglia, Italy is now also produced in North America. Burrata cheese is a type of cow’s milk, fresh mozzarella stuffed with a liquified centre of stracciatella cheese. It was produced to use up the leftover cream and leftover mozzarella in the stracciatella. It is a real delight if you have not tried it.
All these fresh, mozzarella types of cheese are best served at room temperature and as fresh as possible. Simply sprinkle some course sea salt and the best extra virgin olive oil you can find to enjoy this with some nice, crusty bread. They are primarily eating cheeses although the only exception would be that both the fresh, cow’s milk mozzarella, known as Fior di Latte, or the Mozzarella di Bufala, can also be found on a classic, woodfired, Napoletana Pizza. This cheese, high in moisture, requires extremely elevated temperatures to evaporate the excess liquid.
2022 cheese trends
Imagine, a cheese made without animal milk? Cheeses made from cashew milk are more available than ever and I am told they taste just like their dairy counterparts. Everything from feta, ricotta, mozzarella inspired and more. This is a great break through not just for vegans but for those with milk allergies and lactose intolerance as well.
I spoke to Paola Silveri, owner of Paola’s Fine Cheeses, one of Guelph’s speciality cheese shops, to see what was available locally. They have a large variety of cheeses from France, Italy, Spain, England, Quebec and Ontario. With many varieties to choose from, the flavour profiles and textures vary. Choose from cow, buffalo, goats, sheep and cashew milk cheeses.
The vegan cheeses they carry are made right here in Guelph by Green Goddess and are quite popular. They even, on occasion, have authentic mozzarella di bufala and burrata cheese flown in fresh from Italy. There is a whole new world of cheese out there and we have barely touched the surface, so let 2022 be the year you discover some new cheeses.