Several years ago, a team of archeologists stumbled upon a broken jar in an ancient Egyptian tomb. The jar was filled with an unusual white substance which perplexed them, as it was unlike anything they had ever seen before. While the team correctly suspected it was food, no one could have predicted what the substance would actually turn out to be. It was cheese. A 3,200-year old piece of cheese, thought to be close to our modern chevre in taste and consistency. With this discovery, the aphorism that cheese is “milk’s leap towards immortality” developed a new and astounding significance.
The range of cheeses available today can be overwhelming, no doubt because of the vast variety in taste, texture, colour, shape and aroma. Why is this so? It may be because each type of cheese is inexorably linked to a particular culture, geography, and climate. This combination creates a distinct “taste of place”, where the grass, hay, flowers or flora affects the flavour of the final product and is, in a sense, its “terroir” (to borrow the nomenclature of wine). Terroir is the way a particular environment makes a cheese unique and unable to be reproduced elsewhere. It all starts with the land and continues with the climate and soil, all of which affects the animals – the food they eat, whether they graze or forage, and what type of milk they produce. Everything contributes to the taste of the milk, and therefore the cheese.
The only way to navigate this vast landscape is with an adventurer’s spirit. Try something unfamiliar, perhaps with a funny name or unusual provenance. For example, take a bite of the Mont d’Or cheese, which feels more like you are swimming in a luscious lake rather than climbing a “mountain of gold”, the literal translation of its name in French. This cheese is soft enough to eat with a spoon and serves as the perfect centerpiece of an intimate winter gathering, the only season it is available. A rare and unusual cheese, your guests will delight in its novelty. Or you may wish to sample an elaborate array of cheeses, including soft and hard cheeses, mild and strong cheeses and a blue cheese, such as a Stilton or Roquefort. If you do indulge in this manner, you might as well call it what it is: a cheese platter.
There are a few important things to keep in mind when constructing a cheese platter. Timing is everything. Each cheese should be at its most correct stage of ripeness and, more importantly, be served at a cool room temperature. If the cheese is too cold, you will not be able to properly taste it, and thus will lose some of the aroma and nuance – and oh mon Dieu, what a waste that would be! Be warned, however – while you may be tempted to dive into the loveliest-looking hunk of cheese on the platter, custom dictates that you start with the most delicate cheeses and work your way one-by-one towards the really strong specimens. You almost always begin with a soft goat cheese and finish with a blue; but do not fret – you will still be able to travel the world, as it were, within these glorious margins.
Another category all together are the fresh cheeses, like burrata and chevre, which are not aged at all. They are always true white in colour and generally soft and loose in one’s hands. The shelf life of this type of cheese is short and therefore it is important you buy it soon after it is made. To ensure that a fresh cheese is at its peak, purchase only air-flown or locally-made products. When you do, you will be amply rewarded by a complex and fresh flavour, one which only needs to be seasoned with a dollop of fine, fruity extra virgin olive oil and some flaky sea salt to achieve that outsized taste experience we all covet.
Soft or hard, sweet or salty, fresh or aged – all cheese is good. But for a cheese to be truly great, it has to be made in small batches by an artisan cheese maker who gives it his full attention by following the development of the cheese from pasture to table, nurturing it to the end. This is one food where quality really does matter, so do not compromise. After all, that is how the ancient Egyptians did it.
Article written by Aparna Dubey, Gastronaut
Burrata with Grilled Bread
Recipe adapted from Gabrielle Hamilton
Chef, Prune restaurant, New York City
- 454 g burrata (be vigilant with the temperature and freshness as burrata sours so quickly)
- Good quality bread slices, cut on the diagonal about 1/2 inch (12 mm) thick
- Extra-virgin olive oil, for drizzling
- Remove any wrapping, paper, and twine from the burrata. Place the cheese in a bowl of very warm water and let it rest there 10 minutes. (You want to make sure the burrata sits in the warm water long enough to lose the refrigerator chill at its creamy center.)
- Drain it well and set it on a clean towel.
- Grill some bread, both sides, to a good char. Stack on a small plate.
- Place the whole burrata in a shallow small bowl.
- Generously pool some extra-virgin olive oil around the base of the burrata—you want to keep the cheese itself pristine white, so don’t drizzle the oil all over the cheese, just around its base.
- Sprinkle salt flakes, such as Maldon, over the cheese.
- Set the burrata with grilled bread on the table alongside a stack of plates and some knives.