In its simplest form, cheese is essentially curdled milk. Unpleasant, but true. Ancient cultures probably discovered cheese by accident, when their milk spoiled, and they had no choice but to make use of the resultant milk solid. “Hmmm,” some ancient gourmet might have said, “a little rennet, a dash of salt, and we may have something here.” Jokes aside, the earliest pictorial evidence of cheese-making has been found in Egyptian tombs that date back to 2000 BC… and the practice probably predates the murals by over 1000 years.
Today, cheesemaking is both an art and a science. Although processed cheeses have become ubiquitous, Bangalore is waking up to the flavors of natural cheeses too. Unfortunately, although our grocery stores now carry these cheeses, they know precious little about them (I recently spent twenty minutes trying unsuccessfully to convince someone at the Spencer’s supermarket in Koramangala that “gout” was a disease, while “goat” was an animal from which one might procure milk, and hence make cheese – so would they please correct their labeling?)
Processed Packaged Cheese
Let me quickly dispense with the processed cheese. That’s the stuff we get precut in cubes or slices, wrapped in foil so hard to remove that you get wrapper rage, and better known as Britannia Milkman, Amul, Kraft, Laughing Cow… you get the drift. It’s made by shredding natural cheeses, superheating them with steam, adding concentrated milk fat, emulsifying agents, preservatives, coloring agents and salt, pouring the resultant liquid into a mold and allowing it to cool. It comes prepackaged and preformed in foil or plastic and is sold by brand name by the packet or box.
There’s nothing wrong with processed cheeses. They have a longer shelf life than natural cheeses. In terms of texture, they’re smoother and more consistent. The fat doesn’t separate when they are cooked, and they are more economical to produce because there is less wastage during the production process. The downsides, however, are that they have a uniform, semi-solid texture (they are designed to be that way), a very mild, limited range of flavor, and – my biggest objection – a very high salt content. Processed cheese has its place. Slices work great in cheeseburgers or grilled sandwiches because the cheese doesn’t separate. Cubes are good in things like cheese tikki, garlic cheese bread, or cheese sauce. They’re versatile and can be used in a wide variety of ways.
Natural Cheeses: More Flavor, More Texture, More Variety
On to the natural cheeses. There are an infinite variety of these. I’m going to stick with what’s available in Bangalore’s better grocery stores, and – just to narrow it down further – with what’s in my refrigerator right now. Natural cheeses, as I said before, are simply curdled milk. The “art” and the “science” lie in the kind of milk, the curdling agents, how long they are allowed to curdle, at what temperature, and for how long. Is the resultant curd cooked? Is it cut? How? When? How long is it then aged for? The permutations are endless.
Right now I have Provolone, a Parmigiano-Reggiano Parmesan, and Emmental in my chiller tray. All purchased from Spar at the Oasis Mall in Koramangala.
Tom and Jerry Cheese
Let’s start with my personal favorite, Emmental. Before they turned into little gastronomes, my kids called this “Tom and Jerry cheese” – it’s the one with huge, crater-like holes in it. It’s also known as Swiss cheese, because, duh, that’s where it’s made… or at least, that’s where it’s supposed to be made. I think of this cheese as having a nutty, mild, and slightly sweet flavor. It’s semi-hard – not spreadable, but not so hard that you need to grate it. The holes, I’m told, come from the gas released by one of the bacteria that helps in the cheese-making process as it consumes the lactic acid secreted by another sort of bacteria. Charming. Melts beautifully, great for open-faced grilled sandwiches, awesome when paired with fruit. Yummy when you just want a nibble.
A Taste of Italy
Provolone. Italian cheese. Available from sweetish to sharp, but the Provolone you get here generally has a sharp, sharp taste. Best avoided if you don’t like strong flavors (if you see a “dolce” Provolone, try it – it will be milder and sweeter.) Another semi-hard cheese that cuts without crumbling and melts well. I like provolone in salads, or served with a crusty bread and tomatoes, as an interesting substitute for Mozzarella.
Parmesan vs. Parmigiano Reggiano
Last, but not the least, the only hard cheese in my refrigerator at the moment, Parmigiano-Reggiano Parmesan. True Parmigiano (meaning “of Parma”) cheese originates in Parma, Italy.
Although many think that Parmesan, (French for “of Parma”) refers to the same cheese, this is a fallacy. Both names are protected in Europe and can only be used to describe cheeses that have been made in specific Italian provinces. Outside of Europe, however, Parmesan is used quite loosely to describe any cheese that resembles the above, including Grana Padano and some processed cheeses too. Parmesans are primarily used for grating and in Italy are termed grana, meaning “grain”, in reference to their texture. Some of them may have the words “Parmigiano-Reggiano” stenciled on the rind. This does not mean that the cheese is a Parmigiano Reggiano. It simply means mean that the cheese was produced in the areas of Bologna, Mantua, Modena or Parma. This is the cheese I have on hand at the moment. Great as a grating cheese, to flavor pastas, soups, sprinkle atop a salad, even to enliven up pizzas.
Confused? Let’s make this simple. Only cheese stamped with the Parmigiano Reggiano Consortium‘s official stamp can be called Parmigiano Reggiano. The privilege of using the name is granted under strict norms that cover, amongst other things, such minutiae as the diet of the cows that provide the milk used to produce the cheese! Parmigiano is a crumbly cheese, with a sharp flavor reminiscent of dried fruit and a somewhat gritty texture. Although the world sees it as a grating and cooking cheese it is a delicious dessert cheese, and pairs well with Chianti. To date, I have not seen true Parmigiano Reggiano on the shelves here in namma Bengaluru. Let me know if you have.