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Exploring the World of Artisanal Cheese: What Sets It Apart?

Exploring the World of Artisanal Cheese: What Sets It Apart?

Artisanal cheeses are a world of flavours, textures and traditions that stand apart from the mass-produced varieties you commonly find in supermarkets. It’s a true craft that has been honed over centuries, with each cheese having a story of its own; its origin, the land it comes from, the breed of animal, the hands that made it and the culture it represents. In this post, we’ll delve into what makes artisanal cheese unique and why it’s worth exploring.

The Art of Cheese Making

Artisanal cheese making is an art form. Unlike industrial cheese production (which often has little or no human interaction and relies on large-scale machinery, standardising processes to make it all taste the same and chemicals to improve shelf-life at the cost of flavour and texture) artisanal cheese makers use traditional methods; such as hand ladling, turning and ‘cheddaring’. These cheesemakers pay very close attention to every detail from the quality of the milk to the aging process.

As cheesemongers we often use the term ‘artisanal’ to describe a cheese that is made in small batches. This is in a distinction to a ‘farmhouse cheese’ where the artisanal cheesemakers are also farmers and whose herd of cattle or sheep or goats produce the milk that makes the cheese. So, not all artisan cheese is a farmhouse cheese but all farmhouse cheese is artisan! However, beware of mass produced cheese labelled as ‘farmhouse’ as there is no law against using this in the name to give a false impression.

Milk Matters

The foundation of any good cheese is the milk. Artisanal ‘cheese makers either source their milk from their own herds (and often a single herd of a single breed) as with Montgomery Cheddar, or from local farms where cows graze on fresh pastures, as with the wonderful Welsh Caws Penhelyg Abaty. Sometimes, as with English Colston Basset Stilton, the cheesemakers use milk from a selection of local farms, much like as they do in the Alps with Comte and Le Gruyere.

This ‘local’ approach to sourcing results in milk with a rich flavour profile derived from the regional characteristics that can’t be replicated by sourcing milk from hundreds of farms from all parts of the country. The diet of the local animals, including what they eat and where they graze, significantly influences the taste of the cheese.

Artisan and Farmhouse cheeses are also able to produce the sought after unpasteurised milk cheeses as they have more control over the health and safety of the supply chain, whereas mass-produced cheese is pasteurised.

The Aging Process

Aging is another critical factor that sets artisanal cheese apart. While some cheeses are aged for just a few weeks, others can mature for years. The aging environment—temperature, humidity, and even the type of wood used in the aging room—can affect the development of flavours and textures in the cheese. You can taste the difference age makes directly in a cheese such as ‘Double Barrel’, which is a 24 month version of the wonderful ‘Lincolnshire Poacher’ or a Vintage over a Mature Cheddar. The cheese becomes denser, often more crystalline in texture and, as you would expect, more intense and complex to taste. Layers of flavours that change from when you first take a bite to when it melts in the mouth to after you have swallowed it. This does not mean that an older cheese is always better. Some cheeses obviously benefit from being young and fresh, such as a simple goat cheese.

Diversity in flavours and Textures

One of the most exciting aspects of artisanal cheese is its diversity. From a pillowy dollop of decadent ultra-soft triple creme Delice de Bourgogne, to spoonable mushroomy and gamey Rollright to crumbly brothy beery Montgomery Cheddar to shards of sharp crystalline 30 month Parmiggiano Reggiano, each type offers a unique taste experience.

Regional Specialties

Artisanal cheeses are often tied closely to a particular region. In the UK we have recognised ‘territorial’ cheeses like Cheshire, Lancashire, where the clue is in the name, We have Caerphilly which was (and more recently, ‘is’) traditionally made in, yes, Caerphilly but also Somerset and yet is still considered a territorial. Confused? Cheddar is Cheddar and Stilton is Nottinghamshire, just to name a few. Often these regional specialties are legally protected by designations (in the UK we now have ‘PGI’ to replace the European ‘PDO’) that ensure their authenticity. These designations can also protect not just the location of production, but the location of the source of the milk and also traditional production methods, which is why you won’t find Comte or Feta or other protected names being produced outside their protected areas and why Stilton has to be made with pasteurised milk!

Why Choose Artisanal?

First and foremost, choosing artisanal cheese means you are almost certainly going to have a better experience, whether having cheese on toast as a quick mid-week supper or putting on a well considered cheeseboard at a dinner party for friends.

There is no doubt artisanal cheese costs more than mass-produced block-cheese. We think that artisanal cheese is properly and fairly priced given its quality and the skills of the cheesemakers and, likewise, mass-produced cheese is fairly priced give its quality and the mechanisation of its production.

Choosing artisanal cheese also means supporting many small-scale producers who are dedicated to preserving traditional methods and producing high-quality products.

Many artisanal cheese makers prioritise sustainability. They use organic milk, practice ethical farming methods, and often have a smaller carbon footprint compared to large-scale dairy operations.

Final thoughts

Artisanal cheese is more than just food; it’s a cultural heritage that deserves recognition and appreciation. Whether you’re a connoisseur or just starting to explore this delicious world, there’s always something new to discover in the realm of artisanal cheeses. Is it worth the difference? That is something only you can decide.