The science, in truth, is fairly simple. Take some milk – a cow, sheep or goat will provide just fine. Add a starter enzyme and then some rennet to separate the curds (solids) from the whey (liquid). Congratulations: you have just made cheese. Almost every one begins its life-like this. “Pretty much everything after that point is a tweak,” explains cheesemonger Ned Palmer.
So, why is there such variety in cheese’s taste and textures? “One word tells you: terroir. It all starts with the land,” says Patricia Michelson of La Fromagerie, London’s best place to try and buy artisan cheeses from all over Europe. “The climate and the soil affects the animals, the food they eat – whether that is cows grazing pasture or goats foraging. Everything affects the taste of the milk, and therefore the cheese.”
Another thing all great cheeses share is the attention of a genuine artisan cheese maker. “Everyone uses the word ‘artisan’ to mean anything now,” adds Michelson. “When it comes to cheese, I mean a small dairy, using raw, unpasteurized milk from a single herd. An artisan follows the process from pasture to table, making everything by hand. Even the starter used to begin the curdling process can be made from the previous day’s milk.” The result is almost endless variety, between countries and regions, styles, even neighbouring villages.
Now, let’s take a tour of the fascinating and intriguing world of European cheese.
The family of Bergkäse, or “mountain cheeses”, enjoy one crucial benefit: cows that spend their summers on Europe’s alpine pastures. “In Austria’s Bregenzer Wald region, these cheeses are made in summer only, in little chalets, not dairies,” explains Patricia Michelson, who also wrote the cheese lover’s bible, Cheese: The World’s Best Artisan Cheeses (Jacqui Small, £30). “The milk is heated in a cooper vat with wood burning beneath. Sparks fly and cinders drop into the vat – the flavour of the resulting cheese is richly wood scented,” adds Michelson.
Buyers for Michelson’s cheese business don hiking boots to source the best cheeses from the Alp Loch. Travellers can also visit cheese makers, alpine markets and specialist vendors as part of the Bregenzerwald Käsestrasse trail.
Belgium: Fromage de Herve
Belgium’s only Protected Destination of Origin (PDO) cheese is a cow’s milk cheese, made east of Liège since the 13th century. Like many made close to Europe’s west-facing coasts, the cheese is encased in an edible washed rind.
“Over-saline climates can ruin hard cheeses like cheddar. Rind washing began as a precaution against that,” explains Jon Thrupp of Franco-British cheesemonger Mons. “It takes maturation to the next level. Washing the cheese in brine kills moulds and creates an environment to promote a bacteria, B. linens, with more visceral, grassy flavours.”
Away from the coasts, monastic cheese makers often wash cheese rinds with distillates or even beer, another Belgian specialty that makes the perfect partner for creamy, yellow-hued Fromage de Herve.
Bulgaria: Tcherni Vit “Green Cheese”
The sheep’s milk cheese made in the Balkan village of Tcherni Vit gets its nickname from a mould. After shaping, salting and stacking in barrels made from lime wood, the brine-soaked cheeses are exposed to the air in a moist cellar.
That’s when the magic starts to happen. A green mould forms quickly on the cheese’s surface, and often also penetrates veins that form naturally during maturation.
Croatia: Paški Sir (Pag Cheese)
Croatia’s Dalmatian coast is the country’s holiday hotspot. Yet one of southeastern Europe’s most prized cheeses is also made here, on just one island: Pag.
A salty, dry winter wind, the Bura, lends the hard cheese a sharp saline bite, as well as its distinctive flavour. “This wind brings sea salts to the pastures from the Adriatic Sea, which covers the unique wild herbs that our indigenous breed of sheep eat. The result is a very high fat milk from which Paški sir gets its distinctive taste,” explains Simon Kerr of Sirana Gligora, a Pag Cheese producer.
“Aged Paški sir, or stari Paški sir, is a minimum of 12 months old and generally has a deep brown rind and crumbly texture. The taste is fuller with a strong, long finish.”
England: Blue Vinny
England’s rural southwest is home to many fine cheeses. Crumbly, blue-veined Blue Vinny has even inspired poetry in its home county, Dorset. “The recipe lay dormant for many years until Mike Davies resurrected it at Woodbridge Farm and started producing this unique blue cheese again,” says Steve Titman, executive chef at Summer Lodge, a Dorset country house hotel known for its 27-variety cheeseboard.
Compared to more famous English blue cheeses like Stilton, Dorset Blue Vinny is lighter and milder, usually with a lower fat content. “Even when very blue the flavour is not overpowering — a tingle rather than a tang,” adds Titman.
How do you select just one variety from Europe’s most famous cheese-producing country? “The French are unmatchable when it comes to soft goat’s milk cheeses,” says Jon Thrupp. France’s goat cheese heartland is the Loire Valley, an easy drive southwest of Paris. “Lactic cheese making is probably the oldest style in Europe,” says Thrupp. “It is close to what happens naturally when you strain yogurt: lactic acids slowly cause the curds to set, in a process taking around 24 hours.” Hard cheeses like Comté, in contrast, are set with rennet in around 2 hours.
Valençay owes its unusual “decapitated pyramid” shape to its setting mould – the optimum dimensions for draining – not because of an apocryphal, yet often repeated, tale about Napoleon, according to Thrupp. Its taste, “velvety, rather than fluffy or brittle, with light, citrus acidity,” is enhanced slightly by rolling the young cheese in ash. The ash lends it a “slightly pointed, white pepper flavour,” says Thrupp.
Germany: Bavarian Blue
Bavarian Blue is sometimes nicknamed “mountain Roquefort”, due to a similarity with France’s famous blue. The style was invented in 1902 by Basil Weixler, who loved Roquefort. Its production involves mixing the same moulds (roqueforti) with the curd.
But Bavarian Blue is made from cow’s milk, rather than Roquefort’s sheep. The best Bavarian Blue is smoother and creamier than its French cousin, and mild enough to eat at breakfast. Michelson recommends Bavarian Blue made by Arturo Chiriboga at the Obere-Muehle Co-op, where they is also operate a hotel and guesthouse.
Grainy and crumbly, feta cheese is made from either sheep or goat milk, and aged for 2 months or more before sale. Travellers know it as a key ingredient in Greece’s best-known dishes, among them Greek salad (leaves with tomatoes, olives and feta) and spanakopita (cheese and spinach filo pastry pie). The cheese has a unique place in Greek culinary and cultural history. “It dates back to Homer’s day,” explains Manos Kasalias from the Association of Agricultural Cooperatives of Kalavryta.
Feta is produced in several regions of Greece, including Macedonia, Thrace, Thessaly and the Peloponnese. “The best feta carries with it the aromas of the Greek mountains that the sheep and goats graze,” says Kasalias. “The curd isn’t boiled or baked at high temperatures and, both during the production process and afterwards, the cheese is protected by a light brine, locking in all those flavors.
“The best feta is produced from late April to mid-June when the flora on which the flocks graze is richest.”
Washed-rind cheeses are a staple of the cheese making landscape in County Cork. Alongside Milleens – which blazed a trail for Irish artisan cheese in the 1970s – are names such as Ardrahan and Gubbeen. “The wet, salty climate lends itself to this style,” says Ned Palmer, a freelance cheesemonger and expert in the cheeses of the British Isles. “In fact, it’s hard to make any other style there.”
Before maturation, the cheeses are washed in brine, which encourages the formation of a sticky, bacteria-friendly rind and a distinctive smell. “Milleens tends towards the heftier end of the taste spectrum,” says Palmer. “It is meaty and pungent, with an unctuous, creamy texture. For me, it is one of the few cheeses that works with a big red wine.”
Italy: Parmigiano Reggiano
The iconic cheese of Italy’s Emilia-Romagna region is more than just an accompaniment to a bowl of pasta. “It might seems like a trivial, obvious choice,” says Piero Sardo, President of the Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity. “Yet only if you don’t know that this large production, of around 3 million cheeses, hails from over 500 small artisan dairies that must meet a very strict regulatory regime.” Parimgiano Reggiano rules stipulate a minimum of 12 months’ aging, but the cheese can improve for up to 3 years, according to Sardo. The consortium that governs cheese production here also operates guided tours of dairies across Emilia-Romagna.
Beemster polder in North Holland was drained by dyke and windmill in the early 1600s, one of the first reclamation projects of its kind in the Netherlands. It’s now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and signs of humans shaping this unique landscape 20 feet below sea level are preserved everywhere.
It is also mineral-rich farmland, and only cow’s milk from Beemster herds goes into its famous cheese, which has been made here since 1901. “Beemster X-O is our most mature cheese in the line and aged a minimum of 26 months,” explains Kies Paradies at Beemster. “Over time, Beemster X-O develops aromas of butterscotch, caramel and whiskey.”
Geitost (pronounced “yay-tost”) is made by an unusual process. After removing the curds, the cheese maker boils down the whey with a little added goat and cow’s milk cream. A Maillard reaction turns the mixture brown, imparting a sweet, caramel-like flavor to the cooled cheese. When sliced open, it looks like a bar of chocolate. “It is popular with kids in Norway,” explains Michelson. “Sliced very thin, more like a shaving, and spread on some rye toast.”
Geitost has been made in the traditional way for hundreds of years alongside Norway’s largest fjord, the Sognefjord. Six cheesemakers are now recognized by Slow Food for the production of genuine artisan Sognefjord Geitost. These days, the area is one of Norway’s most scenic fjord cruising spots.
Portugal: São Jorge
It is unusual to find a Portuguese cow’s milk cheese. Yet the milk isn’t the most striking thing about São Jorge. This waxy, tangy, cheddar-like cheese is made well beyond mainland Europe. It comes from the mid-Atlantic, in the Azores archipelago, 900 miles off the coast of Portugal.
Flemish colonizers brought cheese making skills to the Azores in the 17th century. The island’s high humidity, volcanic soils and year-round warm – but not excessively hot – temperatures are ideal for milk-producing herds. The cheese, however, is made only in summer.
Scotland: Isle of Mull
Scotland is not the home of cheddar cheese. But an island off Scotland’s wild west coast is where you will find one of the cheddar style’s most distinctive expressions.
“A cooler, wetter climate produces higher moisture cheese than down in England,” explains Ned Palmer. “The cheese has very distinctive flavor notes that come from a specific cattle feed: draff, the barley mash that remains from whiskey making. You can taste the peat, malt and iodine notes that you expect in a single malt whisky.” This makes the cheese an ideal partner for another Mull artisan product, Scotch from the distillery at Tobermory.
Spain: Queso de la Serena
Spain’s central and northern regions are the country’s cheese-making heartland. Queso de la Serena, on the other hand, is made in small quantities in just one county of Extremadura, in the far southwest. It is made only with the unpasteurized milk of Merino sheep that graze the pastures of La Serena.
“Its quality that comes from the area’s pasture, which is full of herbs,” says Piero Sardo. “With aging, the cheese tends to become creamy and smooth, and often is called ‘cake’. It gives off scents of green grass and caramel, hints of chestnut and hazelnut, and has a slightly bitter finish.”
Sweden: Almnäs Tegel
Scandinavia las a long tradition of cheese making – long winters meant a traditional need to preserve the summer bounty. The quality of the region’s artisan cheese is high, and growing. So, why do Scandinavian cheeses often lack a high-profile outside the region? “Because of where they are made, the location. Their cheeses are difficult to get hold of,” explains Michelson. “But this is getting better, thanks to the huge interest in everything Scandinavian when it comes to food.”
Almnäs Tegel is an unpasteurized cow’s milk cheese similar in style to Gruyere and Parmigiano, aged for between a year and 24 months. The distinctive shape of a whole cheese is an homage to the bricks used to build the farm’s original manor house, in 1750. Throughout the ripening process, the 55-pound cheeses are brushed with brine. The result is a strong, hard cheese.
“Say ‘Swiss cheese’ and most people will think of the one with holes,” says Diccon Bewes, author of Swiss Watching. Often known (incorrectly) as “Emmental” outside Switzerland, Emmentaler is made from Alpine cow’s milk in giant rounds weighing in at 265 pounds each. “Emmentaler was the first Swiss cheese to be made down in the valleys all year round in a village Käserei, or cheese dairy. That gave farmers a permanent outlet for their milk and led to much bigger rounds of cheese, because they didn’t have to be carried down the mountain in autumn,” explains Bewes.
The texture is smooth, and the flavour nutty, especially in Emmentaler that is matured for a year or more. An Emmental cheese route, complete with iPhone and Android apps for guidance, helps hikers and bikers see the region’s cheese sights.
This crumbly Welsh cow’s milk cheese is part of a family of cheeses unique to the British Isles, including English varieties Cheshire, Lancashire and Wensleydale. “Caerphilly stands out from these in that a traditional example will have a mould rind rather than a cloth rind. This contributes a deeper, earthy flavour to the cheese,” says Ned Palmer, who also hosts regular cheese tastings.
According to Palmer, best in class is Gorwydd Caerphilly made on a family farm in West Wales using unpasteurized milk and traditional methods like hand-stirring of the curds. Visitors to London’s Borough Market will usually find it on sale somewhere.