Ah, cheese. That good old standby for the vegetarian option on the menu. If it's not cheese it's mushroom. Sometimes it's cheese and mushroom. But I digress. Cheese, despite its occasionally tedious ubiquity, is fascinating. There's a reason why it returns 163 million hits on google.
Weight for weight, cheddar cheese has more fat in it than a sirloin steak, so despite its high calcium values it isn't really a healthy option for every day. In fact, as more and more people discover a mild (or possibly severe) intolerance to lactose, cheese can get a bad rap. If you're going to eat it, be discerning and experimental. There is much more out there than just cheddar, stilton and brie!
Where the milk comes from
Most of the UK's cheese is made from cows' milk, but there are many more options out there: some of them are quite surprising!
- Cows - cheddar, Camembert, gouda, gruyere, Monterey Jack, and many others
- Goats - (particular speciality of the Loire valley) Gloucester, Crottin de Chavignol, Roquemador
- Buffalo - mozarella, ricotta and other similar cheeses
Whilst on my cooking course, I got to try some ewe's milk cheese which was delicately flavoured with thyme. The thyme flavour, according to our teacher, was not achieved by adding the herb to the cheese during production - it came from the milk, as the sheep were pastured on thyme for an hour each day. If such a small amount of a herb can affect the flavour so strongly, it is clear that the animals' nutrition matters (and that, if nothing else, should be a reason to make sure you're buying cheese made from free-range milk).
Something worthy of note is that some cheeses are not strictly vegetarian, as they are made with animal rennet. Personally I often take the ostrich approach (if I don't know about it, it's not there), but if you're worried about it, the Vegetarian Society has some great information on which cheeses contain rennet and what alternatives are available. While you're at it, the whole site is pretty interesting, even if you aren't vegetarian.
How it's been processed
The mould on blue cheese is traditionally grown on bread. The cultured mould (a relative of the penicillin used in medicine) is then sprinkled on top of the cheese and left to sink through the cheese, which gives it the veined texture. More modern techniques involve injecting the mould.
Some cheeses are coated in ash, which adds a sharp flavour and also protects the cheese from going bad. It is perfectly safe to eat the rind of these cheeses.
Some types of cheese are soaked in alcohol, which alters the flavour and also helps to mature the cheese. Others simply have their rinds brushed with alcohol. All cheeses are salted for flavour and protection from bacteria, to varying degrees.
It is really impossible to describe all the factors which make different cheeses taste different. Find your local cheese shop, cheese stall, dairy farm, delicatessen or just the cheese counter at the local supermarket and get trying your cheeses. If the cheese is strongly flavoured, less of it is required so it's a cheaper option.