Cheese is a dairy product made in endless variations around the world. Though trade is extensive, it is still regulated for medical and political reasons, and some kinds of cheese are best experienced locally.
Cheese can be eaten as is, or combined with more or less any kind of food or beverage. Bread and wine are among the classic complements to cheese. There are many regional savoury dishes that include cheese as a major ingredient, and a number of counties have styles of cheese cake.
- How can you govern a country which has 246 varieties of cheese? – Charles de Gaulle, President of France 1959–1969
While some type of cheese is available in almost every supermarket, there are numerous types of cheese that are very much linked to a rather small geographical region of origin. While some of these cheeses have become "globalized" and they (or their cheap knock off second cousin thrice removed) are available almost everywhere, the vast majority is best consumed where they originate. The European Union has created the protected designation of origin, that applies for many types of cheese and stipulates that a certain product may only be produced in a certain region and according to certain laws and guidelines. Almost all well known European cheeses are protected in that way.
Where to visit for cheese
Belgium is a small country that boasts a large and diverse range of cheeses.
Herve (AOP) is the best known Belgian cheese, a washed rind soft variety made from cow's milk.
Canada is known among North Americans for producing good extra sharp cheddar, though the varieties that are widely available in supermarkets are not comparable to the mature cheddars from England and Ireland. However, the cheese item that Canada is probably best known for is the cheese curd that is a necessary ingredient for poutine, the Québécois dish of french fries, brown gravy and cheese curds that is a staple of Canadian fast food.
For a complete list of English cheeses and where they're made, consult the British Cheese Board website.
Everyone is aware of the Cheddar you can buy from the supermarket almost anywhere in the world, but this is nothing like the real thing named after the village of Cheddar in Somerset. There are many excellent small cheese shops in south west England where you can purchase the biting taste of a real mature cheddar, and one of the dozens of other varieties made in the region.
Do not miss the chance to try Stilton, the so-called "King of (English) Cheeses", which has a slightly sharp taste. Although named after a town in Cambridgeshire, it is actually originates from Leicestershire. Melton Mowbray is a good place to shop.
For a cheese of a different colour look out for Sage Derby.
Head to the Yorkshire Dales for Wallace and Gromit's favourite snack, Wensleydale, which comes in several varieties, including plain and those mixed with cranberries or apricots.
Every English county has at least one local cheese, but some are much easier to locate than others. Whereas those mentioned above, plus Double Gloucester, Red Leicester, Cheshire and some others are readily available nationwide, many cheeses are sold only by specialist merchants in the areas they are made. Good places to look are delicatessens, farm shops and street markets. Cheese-lovers visiting London should check out Neal's Yard Dairy, who sell a huge variety of English farm cheeses from their shop in Covent Garden.
For dishes, a Ploughman's Lunch at a country pub with cheese, pickles and crusty bread is part of tasting rural English culture, and has been enjoyed since at least the 13th century. This is of course best consumed with a pint of the local tipple, usually cider in the Westcountry and beer elsewhere. A Cheese Board of different varieties of cheese served with crackers (biscuits) and grapes is also great as a snack, or as part of a meal. You can expect at least two English cheeses, one of which will invariably be cheddar or Stilton, and at least one foreign cheese, most likely French. Another common dish is Cauliflower Cheese, which is exactly what it sounds like. Visitors to the North East ought to look out for Pan Haggerty, a warming meal with a base of melted cheese, potatoes and onions which can contain almost any other ingredient from the soil or the sea.
In Finland, cheese is usually something you eat on a slice of bread. Probably the most common Finnish cheese is Oltermanni, a kind of tilsit cheese which is quite popular in Russia too. There are also two Finnish iconic spread cheeses: Viola and Koskenlaskija.
Aura cheese (aurajuusto) is a type of blue cheese, occasionally also used in cooking. "Aura" refers to the Aura river bisecting Turku. A specialty of Northern Finland and halfway down the west coast is leipäjuusto, a cheese made of rich milk from cows that have recently calved. The cheese is baked like a bread and usually eaten as a dessert with cloudberry jam.
If there are just three major cornerstones of French gastronomy, they are bread, wine and cheese, which pleasingly can be consumed together. Charles de Gaulle famously wondered how it is possible to "govern a country where there are 246 varieties of cheese"; in the 21st Century, there are close to 400 different cheeses produced in France, almost all of them linked to a specific town, area or region. Some of the most popular nationally and abroad include bleu d'Auvergne, brie, camembert, comté, reblochon and Sainte-Maure. While you will easily find these and some others nationwide, you are best advised to sample the local speciality of the region you are visiting, especially if it has protected Appellation d'origine protégée (AOP) status.
To give you an idea of the variety on offer, the land of soft and smelly cheeses like Époisses and mareilles also excels in some hard cheeses like gruyère and mimolette. Most French cheeses are made out of cow's (vache), goat's (chèvre), or ewe's (brebis) milk.
Perhaps suprisingly for a country famed for its haute cuisine, a number of well-known brands of manufactured cheese have their origin in France, including Babybel, the Laughing Cow and sandwich-filler favourite St Môret.
Cheese is used in many savoury foods, including crêpes, onion soup and Provençal soupe de poisson (fish soup), all of which commonly use gruyère, and Auvergnat aligot (which combines mashed potato, tomme d'Auvergne cheese and garlic, to which sausage is usually added or accompanies).
Many French restaurants pride themselves on their affineur, who properly ages the restaurant's store of cheese in its cheese cellar and also normally determines which cheeses the restaurant purchases from which vendors. When eating a full-course French meal, it is common for a selection of cheeses to constitute one of the courses, either as a substitute for dessert or an additional course. Taking the advice of your waiter on which cheeses you should eat, and in what order, is a good idea in gastronomic restaurants; that way, you may be introduced to very high-quality examples of cheeses from the region you are in and other nearby areas of France.
Nothing nicer than some goat's cheese with a little olive oil and and some fresh olives and a hot day. Feta cheese is commonly used in Greek salads and many other dishes; halloumi cheese is melted in a pan and combined with lemon juice to make an appetizer called saganaki.
Paneer — a fresh, mild cow cheese curd made by heating milk and curdling it with lemon juice or vinegar — is a common ingredient in North Indian cuisines, including those native to what's now Pakistan.
Every region of Italy has its own type of pecorino (sheep's cheese), and aside from numerous cow's cheeses, the European buffalo also features in mozzarella di bufala, an integral ingredient of pizza margherita. Cheeses are often used in pasta sauces, and there are Neapolitan and Sicilian varieties of cheesecake.
One of the most famous Italian cheeses is probably Parmigiano Reggiano (or Parmesan, as it is called elsewhere) that may (at least in Europe) only be sold under the aforementioned name if it comes from the region around Parma (for which it is named). It is a hard cheese with a rather savory taste and is traditionally and most commonly grated over pasta but also used in a wide variety of Italian dishes and condiments, such as Pesto.
Another cheese that is better than its namesake in the supermarket elsewhere is Gouda (pronounced "KHOW-dah" in the Netherlands). The Netherlands are very much associated with cheese abroad and rightfully proud of their long cheese tradition. According to European law a number of types of cheese have to be produced in a defined area of the Netherlands if producers want to sell them under a certain name. As always the best fare stays in the country of origin, so try a cheese or a dozen while you are there.
Gjetost cheese, made from whey, cream and milk that is heated for caramelization, is a very good cheese. It's also known as brunost referring to its brown color or Gudbrandsdalsost referring to the region it comes from.
Manchego is a well-known, savory hard cheese from Spain. Many other cheeses are produced in this country.
Hard cheese on bread is a staple food in Sweden. Svecia is the universal name for traditional Swedish hard cheese. Västerbottensost is a seasoned hard cheese made in Burträsk south-west of Skellefteå in Västerbotten County.
Ostkaka is Swedish cheesecake, made from cottage cheese.
Switzerland is known for Emmentaler (which is most often called "Swiss cheese" in some other countries), which has holes within the white cheese. At the Appenzeller Schaukaserei near Appenzell you have an opportunity to see the cheese being made as well as the opportunity to taste and purchase. Switzerland also produces Blumenkäse, a strong hard cheese that includes wildflowers from the slopes of the Alps in the rind and sometimes throughout the cheese. Fondue, melted cheese dip, is a well-known Swiss dish.
The U.S. is known for putting bland processed cheese into everything, though you can also find some fairly good artisanal cheeses at some farmers' markets.
One of the most popular meals in the U.S. is macaroni and cheese ("Mac and cheese"). Fast food in North America is known for ladling cheese into everything from cheeseburgers to submarine sandwiches to pizza.
Oddly, the "Philadelphia Cream Cheese" brand is made just about anywhere but Philadelphia; the city was chosen just for the name.
A particular US invention (though your mileage as to taste may certainly vary) is "cheese in a can", a variety of cheese that comes in a spray can.
Beer cheese is a spread popular in Kentucky.
For a crumbly white cheese try Caerphilly.
Welsh rarebit is a traditional dish of melted cheese with varying ingredients (and usually a bit of beer in the recipe) on toasted bread.
There are some relevant taboos, such as in the case of kosher-observant Jews, who cannot consume dairy products with or shortly before or after eating meat. In addition, the rennet used to make the cheese must be from kosher-slaughtered or halal-slaughtered animals for Jews and Muslims respectively, and strict vegetarians avoid cheese containing animal-derived rennet and select cheese with vegetarian rennet instead. Vegans avoid cheese altogether, as it is an animal product.
People concerned about their salt or fat intake for health reasons should also consider limiting their consumption of cheese or carefully choosing which varieties they eat, as most types of cheese are high in fat and salt, though some are much more salty and fatty than others.