All cheese starts with milk. After that, the possibilities are endless! Here in Massachusetts, our artisans produce more than 100 different cheeses with cows’, goats’ and sheeps’ milk that changes with the day and with the season. Overwhelming, at first, but fear not! While individual cheeses are as varied as the stars, most cheese types can be categorized according to type or method of production. If you know the five basic families of cheese, you’re well on your way to understanding artisan cheese.
Here’s some guidance as you navigate the world of great Massachusetts cheese.
Fresh: so classified because the cheeses in this family are consumed shortly after production, fresh cheeses tend to be high in moisture, relatively mild in flavor, and soft in texture. These cheeses are ideally sourced from a local producer because of their delicate nature. Fresh cheeses are lovely at breakfast with jam and toast, add the perfect salty crumble in salads, and provide a sweet note when grouped with stronger cousins on a cheese plate. Examples include Chevre from Westfield Farm, Crystal Brook Farm, Valley View Farm, Rawson Brook Farm and Dancing Goats Dairy, Feta from Chase Hill Farm, Cricket Creek Farm, Mermaid Farm and Valley View Farm, Shy Brothers Farm’s Cloumage and Hannahbells, Couet Farm’s Adelisca, Foxboro Farm’s Fromage Blanc, Sidehill Farm’s Paneer and yogurt, and the pasta filata cheeses like Mozzarella and Burrata from Mozzarella House, Shy Brothers Farm and Wolf Meadow Farms.
Soft-Ripened: this family includes bloomy rind and washed rind cheeses that are usually aged for a few weeks at low temperatures (50 to 60 degrees Fahrenheit). Beneficial bacterial cultures develop as the cheeses age and help to form distinctive rinds and interior flavors. These cheeses are soft in texture, with rinds that are fuzzy white, wrinkly, or soft and sticky orange. Soft-ripened cheeses are sometimes covered with edible vegetable ash to create a beautiful visual contrast with the cheese’s white paste. Flavors range from tangy to earthy/mushroomy and floral. Think Brie, Camembert, Tallegio, Epoisses, Humboldt Fog. This family includes unctuous earthy lovelies and deep, stinky pillows. Here in Massachusetts, soft-ripened cheeses include many of the goat’s milk cheeses from Ruggles Hill, Camembert-style cheeses from Valley View Farm, Westfield Farm, Cricket Creek and Appleton Farms, Grey Barn’s Eidolon, and washed-rind cheeses like Prufrock from Grey Barn and Tobasi from Cricket Creek.
Semi-Hard: these pressed, uncooked cheeses often have visible “eyes” and are aged from 60-75 days. This family includes hundreds of different cheeses with different flavor and texture characteristics – tommes, Monterey Jack, Gouda, to name a few. Flavors can be mild and milky, grassy, or nutty. Look for semi-hard cheeses from Smith’s Farmstead, Appleton Farms, Chase Hill, Valley View, Foxboro Cheese, Wolf Meadow Farms, Couët Farm & Fromagerie, and Dancing Goats Dairy.
Hard: this family includes Cheddar, Alpine-style cheeses (think Gruyere/Comte from Europe) and ultra-hard cheeses in the style of Parmesan and Pecorino Romano. Hard cheeses are created when milk is heated to a high temperature and curds are pressed to extract moisture. This means intensity of flavor, beautiful melting and terrific pairing with wines, ciders and spirits. These cheeses all play well with Massachusetts apples, pears and honey!
Massachusetts examples include Robinson and Appleton Farms‘ Alpine-style cheeses, Cricket Creek’s Maggie’s Round, Foxboro Cheese’s Aged Asiago, Chase Hill’s Herdsman and Smith’s Farmstead Cheddar.
Blue: all styles of blue cheese develop their characteristic veining due to the work of penicillium Roqueforti. Blue veins form after the developing wheels of cheese are “needled” or pierced a few days after initial production to introduce oxygen, which promotes bacterial growth. Blue cheeses are aged in humid conditions and develop soft textures ranging from very creamy to slightly dry and crumbly. Massachusetts produces the acclaimed Great Hill Blue, Berkshire Blue, Chase Hill Quabbin Blue, Bluebird from Grey Barn, and Westfield Farms‘ distinctive surface-ripened blues.
Cheesemakers and cheesemongers love to talk about their products, so don’t hesitate to ask for classification help (and a taste!) the next time you’re admiring cheese at a farm, shop or farmers’ market.
—Beth Falk, Enthusiast Member