We look into the skill of master cheese-makers and give you guidance on how to enjoy fine cheeses at their best.
Cheese: the superior slice
For a food that has only four main ingredients - milk, rennet, bacteria and salt - the breadth of the cheese spectrum really is quite staggering.
From meek and mild mozzarella, all clean, white and fresh, to buttery Brie, bursting with the vim and vigour of middle age, to the full-bodied, tangy blue varieties and wedges of vintage cheddar studded with salt crystals - cheese aficionados are never short on choice.
In its purest, simplest form, cheese is concentrated milk, which has been curdled (normally by a coagulating agent) and drained of its whey. Cheese-making dates back some 5,000 years and travellers in the hot climes of Asia and the Middle East are generally credited with discovering that sour milk could be preserved by discarding the watery whey and salting the residual curd. How exactly they came to learn that this was achieved more efficiently if the process took place in an animal's stomach or in the presence of stomach matter (where the natural enzymes curdle the milk) is not entirely clear, but this use of rennet is vitally important in the history of cheese production.
Despite the short ingredients list, artisanal cheese-making is a complex business that requires specialised knowledge and equipment. Subtle variations in temperature, humidity and time, as well as the type of milk used, the diet of the animal, not to mention the presence of microbes (which add acidity and flavour), all play a role in determining the look and taste of the end result.
The recipe followed by the cheese producer is the most important determining factor, however, and these are often closely guarded secrets, which change hands for vast sums of money.
For the home cook wanting to get in on the action, basic paneer or cottage cheese is very easy to make. Simply bring two litres of milk to the boil in a large, heavy-based saucepan, add two tablespoons of lemon juice and stir gently. After a minute or so, the curds will start to coagulate and separate from the whey - at this point remove the pan from the heat. Suspend a sieve or colander lined with muslin cloth over a large bowl, strain the liquid through the sieve, tie the corners of the muslin together and hang to drip above a bowl or sink for a couple of hours. You should end up with a mild, delicate cheese with a dense crumbly texture.
Try serving it drizzled with olive oil, black pepper and lemon zest, with honey or toasted nuts in the morning, or, of course, with Indian spices.
Now, that's all well and good for a spot of amateur dabbling, but what about the serious stuff? How does a milky, pure cheese transform into the stinky, vaguely sweaty, fearsomely flavoured blue varieties that cause arguments across the dinner table? What, in essence, makes a blue cheese blue? Those distinctive coloured veins that permeate these cheeses are caused, for the most part, by the addition of cultures of penicillium.
Once mould cultures have been added to a partially aged cheese, a process known as needling begins. The surface of the cheese is pierced several times, allowing air to enter and feed the mould, which in turn causes the blue veins to thread their way through the wheel.
Protective AOC (Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée) laws dictate that only penicillium roqueforti, from the cool, humid caves of Mount Combalou in France, can be used to make true Roquefort cheese.
In the UK, the production of Stilton, the granddad of all British cheeses, also has its own certification trademark and is an EU Protected Food Name, meaning it can be produced only in the English counties of Derbyshire, Leicestershire and Nottinghamshire.
Other stipulations, set out on the official Stilton cheese website (www.stiltoncheese.com), dictate that it must be made with locally produced, pasteurised milk, should be cylindrical in shape and must never be pressed or allowed to form its own crust.
It seems that cheese producers are a territorial bunch. Under EU law, Greek feta also holds PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) status, meaning that in order for a white-brined curd cheese to have the moniker "feta" bestowed upon it, it must be made in a specific region of the country, following traditional methods. This means that, if you hadn't already guessed it, those little tubs sold in supermarkets and labelled "white cheese" aren't the real deal.
When it comes to imitations or close relations, confusion often arises over the difference between Parmigiano-Reggiano and Pecorino Romano. While they are both Italian favourites, pecorino is made from ewe's milk (pecora meaning sheep) and tends to have a sharper, slightly less salty flavour. Parmigiano, on the other hand, is a harder, more granular cheese with a fruitier taste that develops with age. Provided you steer clear of the travesty that is a little shaker pot filled with the pre-grated stuff, the two can be used interchangeably when cooking, without affecting the end result too much.
But this certainly isn't true of all cheeses, and it's worth noting that not all of them are made to be melted. The Cheddars, Gruyères and Emmentals of this world are well-suited to the task and will dissipate over a piece of toast nicely when placed under the grill. Attempts to do the same with paneer, ricotta, or halloumi, though, and you're likely to be left disappointed: no matter how high the heat, these cheeses refuse to be reduced to a molten mass.
This does, of course, have its benefits - think slivers of fried halloumi, with their salty, golden brown crust, cubes of paneer simmered in a buttery masala sauce or ricotta mixed with wilted spinach and stuffed into ravioli cases.
As a general rule, the best way to store most cheeses (halloumi and feta not included) is by loosely wrapping them in wax paper. Cling film or tight plastic wrapping will make the cheese sweat and can cause (undesirable) bacteria to form.
Although it is safest to store them in the fridge, if you want your board to impress, make sure you bring the cheese to room temperature before serving. When a cheese is fridge cold, the milk fats solidify and the proteins stiffen, which both impairs the overall flavour and makes the texture rubbery.