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Cheese essentials

Snack or cooking ingredient, there is a whole world of cheeses.

Cheese is made from cow, sheep or goat's milk. The milk is ripened by the addition of a starter culture of bacteria which turns lactose -the sugar in milk - into lactic acid. The milk sours as it ripens, separating into curds -solid- and whey - liquid. Those curds, once rennet is added and other processes carried on, are the base of cheese.

The differences between those processes are the origin of the myriad of cheeses we get today.

Cheese makes a wonderful addition to many dishes and can also be the main ingredient.

The spectrum of cheeses

There are various ways to categorize cheese - by age, texture or firmness, milk used and so forth. But what the connoisseur cares about most is the experience. Does it taste good? Does it have a fine flavor, a wonderful consistency, a delightful aroma? These characteristics are the result of a mixture of ingredients and processing and storage methods.

Mild cheeses have a delicate flavor, easy on the tongue. They may be a fresh cheese such as Le Roulé or Le Brin but more often they have been aged over 60 days. That firms them up more than a fresh cheese, but gives them enough spring and tang to delight the tongue. Fresh cheese is more often used for a spread, while mild will be used as part of a sandwich or for a tasty snack.

An excellent mild is the Fleur Du Maquis, made in Corsica from the milk of Lacaune ewes, a type of sheep. Rubbery, but in the right sense, it is a first-rate addition to any fine table. Bouc Emissair is a great alternative. Hailing from Québec, this goat's milk cheese is an impressive slab of mild, light chévre.

On the other end of the spectrum are the sharp cheeses that really wake up the palate. Tangy, full-flavored and often with a beautiful color, a sharp will keep your wits sharp and your tongue delighted.

Any natural sharp cheese will be aged over six months, though the process can be sped up artificially through the marvels of modern chemistry. It's a rare connoisseur who could tell the difference. But whether from nature or the mind of a cheesemaker, these are the bold cheeses. Extra sharp will have been aged over nine months - some as long as ten years - and have the strongest flavor of all.

English cheeses are often of this type. West Country cheddar, for example, is a delightful choice. The Wensleydale is another. Pale, dry and crumbly, it makes for a great addition on a fine cracker. Or you may prefer a Bulgarian feta made from sheep's milk. Tangy and with that afterbite that true cheese lovers look for in a sharp.

In between is a wide variety, sometimes called medium, other times more of a semi-soft or semi-firm. Within these classes are a never ending array of options.

There's the Abbaye de Belloc still made by Benedictine monks in the fashion that originated with the abbey of Notre Dame de Belloc. Made with the milk of sheep raised in the French Pyrenees, it can stand proudly at the center of any table. Or, you may prefer the Amarelo from Portugal's Beira Baixa. This yellow medium has all the tang and vigor of the people of that fine land.

Storage will have an effect on the final result, so take that into account when you select something from the spectrum of cheeses available. Storage at 33ºF (0.5ºC) will help preserve the original flavor and appearance, but cheese is best served at room temperature.