Cheese is one of the most ancient processed foods. Once we moved beyond hunting and gathering and started keeping livestock we quickly found ways to preserve the precious milk that many of these animals (cows, sheep, goats, buffalo, camels, horses and even yaks) provided. There are thousands of different cheeses in the world, some still made in a traditional way and unique to a specific region (often accredited with PDO or protected designation of origin), others, like the ubiquitous ‘cheddar’, are mass-produced and maintain very little similarity to their traditional namesakes.
Not technically a cheese as it’s made without rennet, mascarpone originated in Italy around the 16th century. Cream is heated then coagulated with citric acid and hung to drain (and thicken) for a few days, producing a rich, slightly tart cream great for savoury and sweet dishes.
Serve it at home: Whip a goodly glug of Grand Marnier, or your favourite liqueur, into a tub of mascarpone and serve dolloped over ripe strawberries for an instant dessert.
Literally meaning ‘re-cooked’, this Italian cheese is the most famous of the ‘whey cheeses’. It is made by heating then adding acid to the whey leftover from making other cheese. The remaining milk solids coagulate and are drained to form a delicate, sweet, eggy, low-fat cheese that’s way better than commercial cottage cheese and best eaten as soon as possible.
Serve it at home: Mix with an equal quantity of wilted chopped spinach, season well with salt, pepper and nutmeg and stuff into cannelloni tubes. Cover with a jar of tomato passata and bake.
The oldest cheese known today, Feta was being made 5,000 years ago in the eastern Mediterranean. The traditional blend of sheep’s and goat’s milk gives it its distinctive whiteness and the brine used to preserve it provides its salty tang. It now has PDO status and so, in Europe at least, the name Feta can only be given to cheese produced in Greece from sheep’s and goat’s milk.
Serve it at home: As part of a mezze with olives, pickled vegetables, stuffed vine leaves, taramasalata, tzatziki, anchovies and lots of pita bread.
Forget the rubbery stuff you find on cheap pizzas, true mozzarella is the porcelain white, soft, springy, sweet, buffalo-milk curd inside a tissue-paper thin skin known as Mozzarella di Bufala Campana DOC (Denominazione di Origine Controllata – Italian for PDO). Milk from buffalo (brought to southern Italy from India as draught animals in the 7th century) is used to produce this delicate fresh cheese which is now air-freighted to Australia and sold in its own whey in individual sachets.
Serve it at home: Sliced, or more traditionally torn, with slices of ripe red tomatoes, a scattering of basil leaves, sprinkle of salt flakes and drizzle of extra virgin olive oil.
Halloumi is a stretched curd cheese, a distant cousin of mozzarella, although its curds are worked more rigorously to expel more whey, making a firmer, longer-lasting cheese that doesn’t dissolve when heated and has a gentle squeak when bitten. Traditionally made from sheep’s, or a blend of sheep’s and goat’s, milk it is the cheese of Cyprus, where it appears at almost every meal.
Serve it at home: Thread cubes onto skewers and barbecue until golden and just soft.
People tend to either love or hate goats cheese. Those who hate it may have been put off by a cheese with an unpleasant ‘goatey’ aroma and flavour, usually from poor quality milk, often during winter. It’s worth persevering as good goats cheese, which also goes by its French name chevre, has a mild creamy tang and fine texture. Often sold fresh (in small cylinders, pyramids or discs) it’s sometimes rolled in vine ash (which softens the flavour slightly) and can also be matured.
Serve it at home: As a canapé spread on crisped slices of baguette with a blob of onion jam on top.
Buy your cheeses from
Providores with climate-controlled cheese rooms and a good turnover who are happy to let you taste before you buy and can advise you as to what’s best on the day.
Words by Roberta Muir