As a lover of imported cheeses you’ve probably also enjoyed your share of wine tastings and wine pairings to go along with your favorite fromage. Wine and cheese definitely go hand in hand; both at home when hosting friends or even just when enjoying an after work glass of wine and cheese snack. And if you love traveling and visiting vineyards for wine tastings you’ve certainly enjoyed nibbles of cheese through the tasting experience and maybe even spotted locally made cheeses being sold in a to-go case at the vineyard.
But have you ever stopped to consider just how many things cheesemaking and winemaking have in common? Or how asking your cheesemonger for their favorite new imported cheese recommendations is just like calling over the sommelier to help you make a great wine selection?
Here are some more commonalities:
At its heart, cheesemaking is a form of farming and preserving much like wine making or other forms of farming. Dating back thousands of years, the history behind cheese can be traced to shepherds seeking places to safely store their milk – only to have it accidentally turn into cheese. In many regions of the world they’ve been making the same cheeses, by the same methods, for hundreds if not thousands of years. Take the “cheddaring” process invented in England in the mid 1800’s or the fact that cheeses like Pecorino Romano have followed the same process since Roman times. Fun fact: Pecorino Romano was a cheese that was not only used at posh celebrations for Roman Emperors; it was also doled out as rations to Roman Legionnaires as they marched off to do battle.
When it comes to respecting tradition and hand craftsmanship look no further than imported cheesemaking. The European Union even certifies many cheeses as unique and protected with a PDO or “Protected Denomination of Origin” designation. These are designed to certify and protect regional and historical agricultural products and foodstuffs and the traditional methods and steps it takes to produce them. A few imported cheeses with this important PDO designation are Comté. Mahón. Manchego. Ossau Iraty. Parmigiano Reggiano. Pecorino Romano. This level of heritage in cheese making even goes down to regions or towns in countries where the cheeses have been made the same way with techniques passed down for generations.
Much like in winemaking; your favorite cheeses pick up flavors and nuances from the land where they’re made. As cows, sheep, and goats graze on local grasses, flowers, and herbs, and drink local water, a “sense of place” is imparted to their milk and the cheeses that are made from it! And just as winemakers choose which grapes to grow and use based on tradition as well as whether or not the vines will do well in the climate, soil, and terrain of the vineyard…cheesemakers do the same when they decide which animal to raise, how and when to feed and milk them, and which cheese to make from the milk. In addition, the specific breed of a cow, sheep or goat can impact how cheese made with its milk will taste and will also be an expression of where it was raised.
Just as in winemaking, many cheeses are deliberately put through a specific aging process to allow the flavors and texture to develop. Some wheels are rubbed with salt, others have rinds that are washed in wine or spirits. Additionally, a s cheeses mature the moisture levels evaporate so the flavors can intensify while the cheese goes from fresh and high in moisture to aged and firmer in texture. As the cheese ages, the natural cultures continue to develop within the cheese; giving them a unique and special flavor all their own or in some cases even a crunchy texture as in tyrosine crystals in deliciously nutty aged Parmesan cheese.
When seeking out your new favorite imported cheeses be sure to pay attention to history, heritage, terroir, and aging. And remember; much like a classic fine wine…many historic cheeses just get better with age!