It’s no secret we’re pretty big on cheese here. But from the outside, it all looks pretty complicated. We wanted to know what makes Stilton different from Roquefort, what makes brie so soft and blue so, well, blue. So we spoke to Geoff, the owner and operator of Little Cheese Shop in Bayswater, to talk about how cheese is made and how it all gets so different along the way.
Age and Culture
All cheese essentially sits somewhere on a continuum of its ageing: Cheeses like bocconcini, creme fraiche and buffalo mozzarella are known as fresh cheeses, and can only be up to a couple of days old. Bries and camemberts are known as surface ripened, the exterior having grown a mold coating over around three weeks of ageing. Hard and semi-hard cheeses like cheddar, gouda, parmesan, comte and gruyere are the product of anywhere from between two and eight months for semi-hard, and between six months and two years for hard cheeses.
Some cheeses along this spectrum are specially treated to create different styles, including washed rind cheeses and blues. "Washed rind cheese, is washed in brine or an alcoholic solution like beer, wine, cognac or fruit essences.” Geoff said, "With blue they add a blue culture to the milk. The curd is split, the cheese is folded into hoops like a mature feta, they wash that cheese, and around four weeks into that process they pierce the cheese with rods, and all of the dormant blue cultures, the penicillins, are exposed. The blue strains react to the air, moisture and humidity, and the blue starts forming at that point.”
Ageing hard cheeses is an art in its own right. The practice known as affinage uses specifically controlled climate or specially picked caves and cellars, ageing cheese to a required standard. Notably, cheese maker Rolf Beeler does not make his own cheese, but works as Affiner for young cheeses.
"A lot of artisan cheese makers will feel how it’s ripening. When I went to Stone and Crow cheese company we had six cheeses all from the same day, we put a cheese corer into each one and nearly all of them were different. Some had a really dry crust, some weren’t mature enough yet, one was a different flavour profile, they just needed to be balanced differently from there."
"Jack from Stone and Crow doesn’t just go ‘okay that’s nine months, out to the market,’ he’ll put them out when they’re ready.”
Milk and Livestock
Most cheese is made using either Cow, sheep or goat milk. Each milk type lends different qualities to the cheese, with goats cheese on the creamier, funkier end, and cows milk being generally conventional. Within cow’s cheeses, each cow species lends different butter fats, ph levels, protein and milk solids levels, leading to certain cheeses.
"Some cheeses, like cheddar, normally use only dairy or jersey cows. Comte is normally made using montbelairde and simmental cows.” said Geoff, “A lot also comes down to what the stock is fed, In Europe the new milk is very intense because they feed their stock such green grass.”
Food availability creates a harvest cycle of sorts. In Europe and many esteemed Australian dairies, cheese is made using spring milk, which is more lively and floral from the wide availability of green grass. Historically, hard cheeses are designed to be ready during the winter months when food becomes less available and creates a dip in milk production and quality.
Local Cheese Makers
"I think Australia is building a brand. The regions, like wine, are establishing themselves and their name. Along with all of the nuances of that region. During WA cheese week we aimed to expose people to what WA was doing from a cheese point of view.”
Geoff proudly represents a mix of local and international cheeses in the fridge at Little Cheese Shop. Local cheese makers Cambray Cheese, Yallingup Cheese Co. and Kytren Dairy are all well represented, and amongst them interstaters including Woodside Cheese and Stone and Crow.
"I keep it balanced between local and international.” said Geoff, "The cheese represents what the environment is doing. In winter you might prefer a curry or stroganoff over a light salad, and there’s more people wanting those big hearty, earthy robust flavour profiles in their cheese."
"It’s all about what you like, there are avid devotees to lots of different foods. Customers are often surprised that we have such a great range for such a small fridge. They’re often surprised too by how much local produce we stock. We like having those conversations and providing our knowledge as to why we’ve sourced those particular cheeses.”
On both a local and international level, Geoff is keen to stock cheeses which represent quality and craftsmanship, It’s about the belief in what they’re trying to create. It’s not just about putting it out.” he said, "There’s a process, how they manage their milking, what steps they do by hand from milking to ladling to packaging."
"True normandy has to be hand ladled in small barrels. Some camemberts are still put into wooden boxes by hand.”
What’s with all the names? And what should I get?
Many cheeses which seem very similar may have different names, and a large part of what separates a parmesan from a parmigiano reggiano are legally protected names which must hit certain qualifications of process, geography and result. In the case of parmigiano reggiano, the cheese must be from one of five Italian provinces, and must follow a specific set of quality criteria before it is aged. Outside of the European Union, the name parmesan can be used to describe any cheese made in the style of parmigiano reggiano.
So what cheeses should you put on your cheeseboard? The simplest answer is to pick one from each of the three largest categories: One soft cheese, one hard cheese, and one blue.
"Look at what you’ve enjoyed before and the brands producing those cheeses.” said Geoff, "Everyone’s different, but it’s great to push the envelope. You may have a really nice fortified wine at home, and try a blue cheese even if they’re not usually your pick. Or if you always have cheddar, we can look at changing that.”
Looking at your favourite producers may help too. If you really enjoy, say the Yallingup Cheese Co. St Julian, you may come to love their Ashed Brie. The ingredients may not be exactly the same, but each will be made along a similar cheese making ethos.
In short, there’s room on your cheeseboard for experimentation, and trying out a washed rind brie or a rubbed goats cheese doesn’t mean you can’t also have your go-to cheddar.
Little Cheese Shop also hold regular events which show just how beautifully cheese can pair with spirits, beers and wines. Their events can become a great starting point for ideas to build your cheese board upon.
Visit Geoff and Little Cheese Shop at 89C Whatley Cres, Bayswater WA 6053 from Tuesday-Sunday, or stay up to date with them on their Facebook.