Food - General
By: - at July 18, 2013

15 Fascinating Facts in the World of Cheese

With so many cheeses available around the world it is not surprising that there is sure to be a type of cheese you will enjoy.  There is a huge number of types and flavors that are available. Most cheese lovers have favorites as well as favorite ways to eat them but not many know the history or how many different varieties there really are. The sheer volume of cheese consumed each year is what makes it such a global phenomenon.


Depending on how it's made, cheese can take on a variety of flavors. There are some cheeses that are flavored with dried fruit or even honey. Cheese artisans create different combinations of flavors to tease and titillate the palate. In Wisconsin, they mixed sweet, tart cranberries with smoky chipotle to create a cheese that tastes a little like barbecue sauce. There is even an aged goat cheese rubbed with cocoa powder. For libation lovers, cheese is paired with wine, liquor or even beer. One cheese maker creates a cider soaked cheese with reddish-brown veins.

This hunt for flavor goes back all the way to olden days when cheese was smoked with fruits such as apples to give it some added dimension. Whatever the method, cheese inspired creativity, which led to thousands of distinctions and millions of cheese lovers. Over the course of history, Europeans have refined the art of cheese making and even cheese consumption. Cheese is eaten with most meals if not all meals. It can be the center of a dish, served as dessert when combined with certain fruits, or a quick snack on the go. It really is one of the most versatile foods in the world.

15)  Casu Marzu Cheese
When it comes to cheese, most people are aware that it is the fermented form of milk. However, there is one cheese that takes the process one step further to the decomposition stage and that's Casu Marzu cheese. This sheep's milk cheese is considered to be an aphrodisiac and is native to Sardinia, an island off the coast of Italy between Corsica and Sicily.

Casu Marzu is made when pecorino cheese is left out with a piece of the rind missing. This encourages Piophila casei, the cheese fly, to lay its eggs in the cheese. These eggs hatch and the larvae eat their way through the cheese. Their digestive acids break down the fats of the cheese making it soft and spreadable. In Sardinia, it's eaten with a piece of moistened flatbread. The cheese fly lays thousands of eggs so by the time Casu Marzu is ready to be eaten by humans, there are thousands of maggots in the cheese.

Casa Marzu Cheese
 By Shardan (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-2.5], via Wikimedia Commons

The funny thing about Casu Marzu is that it is considered safe to eat only when the maggots are alive and active within the cheese. Placing the cheese in the fridge kills the maggots in the cheese and renders Casu Marzu unsafe for consumption. The translucent white larvae are one third of an inch long and can jump up to 6 inches. It's not unusual for them to jump off the bread as its being spread. Those who want to eat the cheese and not the maggots can put the cheese in a sealed bag. The act of depriving the maggots of air agitates them and makes them jump off the cheese into the bag. The process is similar to popping corn so when the popping sound lessens or stops, most if not all of the maggots have jumped out of the cheese.

For many years it was considered illegal in Europe and was only available on the black market, sometimes for double the price of pecorino. It wasn't until the 80's and 90's that it was declared a traditional food and not subject to the regular hygienic standards of other cheeses. Researchers found a safe method to create the maggoty cheese while keeping it traditional and it began selling legally in Europe in 2005.

14)  Cheese Has Eyes
Swiss cheese is the generic, commercial name given to cheeses produced around Emmental, Switzerland. The holes in this cheese are called eyes. To make these, cheese makers use three types of bacteria each from the species of Streptococcus, Lactobacillus, and Propionibacterium. The propionic bacteria eat the lactic acid that is produced during the process and it produces carbon dioxide. This forms the eyes of Swiss cheese. Acetate and propionic acid are also produced during this process and they are responsible for Swiss cheese's nutty, sweet flavoring.

swiss cheese holes eyes

When it was first created, the holes were considered imperfections and the cheese makers tried to avoid them. Now the eyes are considered trademarks of Swiss cheese. Swiss that has fermented for a long time has larger eyes. While the flavor is more pronounced it becomes a problem for the industry because large eyes don't slice well. In 2002, USDA regulators limited the size of the eye to a maximum of 11/16 of an inch so that the cheese can be sliced properly. Cheese makers adjusted the temperature and curing time to comply with the new standard.

13)  Cheese Making is over 7,000 Years Old
The art of cheese making dates back to as early as 5500 B.C. This is significant because it shows archaeologists that Neolithic farmers were evolving beyond the roles of hunter and hunted as they were becoming less nomadic.

There were a few cattle-herding sites found in the region that is now Poland that indicated that cows were not just slaughtered for meat and milk. Farmers found means to maximize the use of their herds by creating byproducts such as cheese. Because milk was easily corruptible but an important part of the diet, finding ways to preserve it became an important part of Neolithic development. Early humans were lactose-intolerant and naturally made cheese that had less lactose making it easier to digest.

Over time, farmers found a process to turn milk to an easily digestible form using certain tools. Specific kinds of milk residue were found in pottery, such as man-made sieves and strainers indicating that milk was most likely curdled to form cheese. While dairy farming was present in other sites such as Africa and areas near Istanbul between the fifth and seventh millennia BC, those sites showed no evidence of cheese-making.

cheese making

Cheese making eventually made its way to Ancient Egypt. Murals from 2000 BC demonstrate the making of butter and cheese as well as how they stored milk in skin bags on poles. Through the spread of the Roman Empire came the refined art of cheese making. Some Roman houses even had separate kitchens for making cheese called careale.

Through certain historical writings and references you can trace the art and influence of cheese making throughout Europe and the Mediterranean. During the twelfth century BC the writer Homer wrote about a cheese called Cynthos that was sold by the Greeks to the Romans.

Over a thousand years later during the second century BC, the use of rennet became a common ingredient in making cheese and cheese was becoming a serious source of revenue. By fourth century AD, cheese was regularly exported to the Mediterranean and by the collapse of the Roman Empire, cheese making hit the coasts of the Adriatic and Aegean as well as Southern and Central Europe.

12)  Cheese Eaten by the Pounds
A study done in 2003 found that Americans were eating an average of 30 pounds of cheese per person yearly. That equated to nearly nine billion pounds of cheese. With a population of over 300 million and growing, that could easily pass 10 billion in 2013. California alone produces more than 250 types of cheese, but the American palate has become desirous of more sophisticated varieties of cheeses. Not only are they munching on local and farmstead cheeses but they are also into blue cheeses, mozzarella and other aged gourmet varieties.

pounds of cheese

Thirty pounds per person is a lot of cheese but it's no surprise that France beats the US eating between 20kg and 25kg (45-55 pounds) of cheese, per person, per year, The history of cheese in France goes all the way back to European monks in the Middle ages. France has over 360 types of cheese made and named for different regions and communities in the country. Cheeses in France are made by a single farm, a co-op of farmers, or commercially produced. Almost all cheese is regulated by the Appellation d’Origine Protegé (AOP), who maintains certain standards of cheeses throughout the country.

The Greeks squeak by the French by eating more than 27 kg (60 pounds) of cheese per year. There are 19 types of Greek cheese that were awarded the protected designation of origin (PDO) by the European Union that protect the quality of certain agricultural products. This was done to protect the origin and representation of a country's national cheeses.

11)  Annatto, Natural Cheese Dye
Annatto seed, also known as achiote, comes from a pod that contains multiple seeds. It's a seed that is used in Latin American and Caribbean dishes. It has a sweet, nutty, spicy flavor that imparts a range of color from light yellow to deep orange. Commercially, it's used to color a variety of foods including cheese, butter, margarine, smoked fish and others. Traditionally, it's used in the Spanish dish arroz con pollo to give rice that yellow color.

Annatto Seed

It was used in Gloucester cheese starting in the seventeenth century. During the summer, the higher carotene levels in the grass would give the milk a pronounced orange hue, which showed up in cheeses. That coloration became a sign on top quality cheese and other cheese makers used annatto to replicate the coloring. The practice spread to cheeses that came from Cheshire, Red Leicester and even Scotland.

Annatto seeds are rich in antioxidants called tocotrienols. This antioxidant is similar to vitamin E and is found in other forms of oil. It's the subject of medical research and trials related to cancer prevention. It's also used as a treatment for common infections and is considered safe for consumption by most people.

10)  The Most Expensive Cheese is Not French
In 2004, it was discovered that the most expensive cheese is not made in France or even Italy but in Sweden. In a town called Bjursholm, Christer and Ulla Johannson made cheese from their three moose cows, Gullan, Haelga, and Juna, Between May and September, the cows produce one gallon of milk a day which yields between 650 to 660 pounds of moose cheese per year.

moose cheese

Milking a moose can take up to two hours because when moose are disturbed, the milk dries up. That's why moose need to be milked in complete silence. Milk is curdled just three times a year and with the intensive process of collecting it as well as the limited supply, the price of moose cheese is about $500 per pound or $1,000 per kilo.

9)  Camel Milk Cheese
In general, a camel can yield between five and twenty liters of milk per day even without drinking water for nearly three weeks. The problem is that camel milk doesn't coagulate easily and bovine rennet proved ineffective in the process. Thanks to technological advances, scientists are able to use vegetable rennet and camel rennet to curdle the milk and create camel cheese. Currently, the cheese is only produced and sold in Mauritania. There are restrictions preventing it from being sold in Europe while supply difficulties make it hard to manufacture and sell in the U.S.

Mauritania Africa

8)  The Story of Blue Cheese
Blue cheese is a generic term used to describe certain cheeses that have colorful, distinctive veins of blue or green. These cheeses are inoculated with varieties of Penicillium and then aged for at least three to five months. The story behind Blue Cheese involves a young man forgetting his cheese in a cave. Months later he returns to find the cheese veined and that's how blue cheese was discovered. These cheeses have no rind and have a distinctively biting flavor. Roquefort is a type of blue cheese with green veining that was mentioned in writings as early as 79 AD. It is France's second most popular cheese. Gorgonzola is a blue veined Italian cheese that's been produced in Gorgonzola, Milan since the ninth century. Bleu d'Auvergne is a less salty, creamier blue cheese that's used in salad dressings. Stilton is an English blue cheese that is used to flavor soups and is eaten with crackers and pears.

Blue Cheese

7)  Cheese Protects Teeth
Cheese is a great source of calcium but the benefits go far beyond that. Cheese actually protects your teeth from tooth decay also known as caries. Teeth go through a natural cycle where the minerals of the enamel are lost and regained. This demineralization/re-mineralization process replaces lost calcium with the help of the saliva. Cheese stimulates saliva production and also clears food particles from your teeth. After eating most foods, the mouth becomes more acidic. Teeth are vulnerable to acidity because it erodes enamel so the balance needs to be restored. Eating cheese counteracts this acidity and balances the pH of the mouth, preserving your enamel. Phosphorus is the second most abundant mineral in the body, behind calcium. Both work to build strong teeth as well as bones. Cheese contains both calcium and phosphorus which protects the enamel and prevents plaque build-up. Aged Cheddar, Swiss, Gouda, and Blue are some of the cheeses that reduce tooth decay.

perfect teeth

6)  The Proper Way to Eat and Store Cheese
Many people buy cheese, put it in the fridge, and cut it without much thought. To get the full flavor of cheeses, there are some rules. Slicing cheese is a necessity but when buying unpasteurized cheese, it shouldn't be pre-sliced or it will lose a lot of the flavor and aroma. Semi-hard, semi-soft and hard cheese should be kept between 46-56 degrees and should be taken out anywhere between 30 minutes to two hours before serving so that the flavors develop.

packaged hard cheese

When refrigerating cheese, it shouldn't be wrapped tightly or locked in a freezer bag. Cheese needs to breath. The best way to help this is to wrap loosely in wax paper, not clingy plastic wrap. Place it in a loose fitting bag that will allow humid air to circulate. One of the best places to put cheese is in the crisper so that it doesn't dry out and become hard. The only exception to the tight wrapping rule is moldy cheese. They need to be wrapped completely because their mold spores migrate to anything near it including other food. Cheese needs to be protected from other strong smelling foods because it will take on the aroma and may spoil quicker.

5)  There are over 2000 varieties of cheese
While there isn't an exact number, the number of cheeses in the world is in the thousands and can usually be categorized simply.

variety of cheese

  • Fresh cheeses are the simplest forms. They happen when milk is curdled then drained. They don't have any preservatives and will spoil within days if not consumed or properly stored. These include cottage cheese, Mozzarella, and Ricotta.
  • Semi-soft cheeses, like Havarti, have a lot of moisture but are bland in taste.
  • Medium-hard cheese is ideal for melting and have sharp flavors. They have eyes and are great for quick snacks. They include Gruyère, Edam, and Gouda.
  • Semi-hard cheeses have lower moisture and are aged longer. They do go through some heating and pressing and the flavors of these cheeses are pronounced. Cheddar is one of the most popular semi-hard cheeses.
  • Milk from goats, sheep and other animals such as water buffalo are commercially available and just as popular. The Greeks make Feta cheese from sheep's milk and Pecorino Romano is made from goats.
  • Soft-ripened cheeses start off chalky and are exposed to mold, such as Penicillium candida, to create a crust. They are smooth textured with intense flavors such as Brie and Camembert.
  • Washed-rind cheeses are like soft-ripened cheeses but they are cured in saltwater brine solution, beer, wine, or even brandy. This makes them more susceptible to Brevibacterium linens, a red-orange colored bacteria that gives them that pungent odor and flavor. Limburger cheese is a prime example as it's known for its "stinky" smell and smooth flavor.
  • Smear-ripened cheeses are smeared with bacteria or fungi uniformly and are aged which gives them very strong flavor and aroma. The rinds range from red to reddish-orange like that of the French cheese, Port Salut.
  • Brined cheeses are matured in a salt solution and have no rind because the salt inhibits bacterial growth. They are mostly white, salty, acidic, and are produced in the Mediterranean and Middle East where the climate is hot.
  • Processed chesses are made from natural cheese, preservatives, food coloring and additional milk. It's made for a poor economy and some may be available in cans.

4)  Rennet is Essential to Cheese Making
Rennet is a group of enzymes that are added to milk to help it to separate into curds and whey. These are naturally occurring enzymes found in a calf's stomach and are vital to the cheese making process. The traditional method involves having the stomachs of young calves dried, cleaned and then used to create a solution which naturally coagulates milk. The proper concentration of the solution is added to the milk and the process goes on from there.

calf stomach
Photo by: Kiril Kapustin

The more modern approach follows the same idea. Calf stomachs are frozen, milled and then the enzyme is extracted. Acid is added to activate the enzymes and the rennet is filtered and made ready for use. Since stomach acid is unavailable, some cheese makers use citric acid to create the reaction.

Because the original form of rennet is in limited supply, there are alternative forms of rennet made from vegetable and microbial sources. Scientists found a way to make certain fungi, yeasts, and bacteria ferment to produce the enzyme chymosin. The process called fermentation-produced chymosin, (FPC), is used by 80 to 90 percent of manufacturers during the cheese making process. Because the microorganism is killed during and after fermentations, chymosin does not contain any genetically modified substances. The fungus Aspergillus niger and the yeast Kluyveromyces lactis are the most widely used commercial sources of chymosin. FPC has the distinction of being the first artificially produced food substance allowed by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Because it is not animal based, FPC is vegetarian appropriate, certified kosher, and yields cheeses that are less bitter with better texture.

3)  The Original Cream Cheese is Not from Philadelphia
Many people associate cream cheese with the brand Philadelphia and assume that it is just processed cheese. The truth is cream cheese is derived from Neufchâtel cheese that dates back to the 16th century French region Neufchâtel-en-Bray. It was made like many other cheeses, using rennet for coagulation. It's was then dusted with penicillium candidum, molded, matured, and manually salted. American cream cheese is an attempt to recreate Neufchâtel cheese according to multiple reports. The result was a creamier consistency that was more spreadable and was lower in fat. In the late 19th century, dairyman William Lawrence purchased the Neufchâtel factory in New York and started mass producing the cream cheese. It quickly became very popular and in 1880, the cream cheese company was called Philadelphia.

cream cheese and bagel

2)  Oldest Edible Cheese
A block of 40 year old cheddar cheese was the oldest edible cheese in the world in 2012. A Wisconsin cheese maker made batches of cheese decades before and stored them in the back of his cooler. He then forget about them until he was in the process of shutting his store. In addition to that block, he found cheese blocks that were also 34 and 28-years-old. The youngest block of cheese was tasted and to the surprise of many, it was still creamy. There were these pink crystals that provided an intense flavor experience when patrons bit into them. The 40-year-old cheese was a bit more intense. So much so that it was decided that in order for it to be palatable, it needed to be eaten in smaller pieces than normal.

bites of cheese

People were surprised by the quality of the cheese after so many decades. The cheese maker stated that it was due to the freshness of the ingredients. The cheese was made from the milk on the same day and that was why it was able to hold its flavor after all that time. The lot of cheeses was bought by another local store owner. He decided to sell one ounce of the 40-year-old cheese for between $10 and $12 each. He sold out of it quickly and still had the 34-year-old cheese, which became the oldest edible cheese.

1)  The Biggest Cheese Producer
Worldwide the cheese market is over $55 billion dollars strong and the U.S. is the largest cheese producer in the world. Australia and New Zealand used to be strong contenders but are both experiencing tough times due to high feed costs and adverse climates. While the U.S. is the largest cheese producer, China and India cheese consumption is experiencing double digit increase thanks to increasing wealth and urbanization.

united states of america wisconsin

But you can't talk about cheese production without mentioning Wisconsin. The Badger State produced 2.8 billion pounds of cheese in 2012. That's a whopping 25.4 percent of the nation's cheese production. California was second at 20.7 percent in 2012.





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