You’re scratching your head. Of course you can tell the difference between these three barnyard animals. Heck, any five-year-old can tell them apart! But do you know the difference when it comes to one of the most fantastic foodstuffs on earth?
We’re talking cheese.
Many of us take the advice of gourmet goddesses like Ina Garten to heart when composing a cheese plate, going for a threesome that includes one “soft and fresh,” another “semi-hard or hard” and a third pick that is resolutely “blue.” (Yes, we’re still talking about cheese. Get your mind out of the gutter.)
But, with a good number of cheese plates under your belt (literally and figuratively), it is time to seriously consider the provenance of your selections. Not talking country of origin — although national “cultures” do offer up distinct styles — but speaking of the animal of origin.
When it comes to cow’s milk cheese, there can be a wide range of flavor profiles, especially when it comes to the cow’s diet. Those that are corn-fed produce milk with a more yellow hue, a striking contrast to the white we’re used to seeing poured out of the milk container from grass-fed cows. So, cow’s milk cheeses can run the gamut too, from the sharp caramel of Jasper Hill Farm Clothbound Cabot Cheddar, made in Vermont, to the nutty, almost mushroomy Gruyere, hailing from France, to the smooth, creamy Cashel Blue from the hills of Southern Ireland.
Contrary to the popular notion that all goat cheese is soft and crumbly, goat’s milk cheeses come in soft, semi-soft or hard form. That said, it consistently offers an undeniable farmy tang and brightness. Some folks aren’t fond of its slightly acidic nature or its musky qualities, but others are addicted to the stuff for those very same reasons. Some favorites to try: rich, assertive Bucheron from the Loire Valley, earthy and firm Garrotxa from Catalonia, Spain, and the mousse-like Cypress Grove Chevre Humboldt Fog from Northern California with a stripe of dark ash down the center.
Sheep’s milk boasts the highest fat content between the three, and therefore, sheep’s milk cheese is usually the richest and most buttery of the bunch. Think of the signature buttery texture and luxurious mouth-feel of a Roquefort from the South of France, or the sweet, smooth, grassy flavors belonging to an aged Manchego from Spain. Now, taste a couple of less well-known picks: the firm, nutty and supple Ossau-Iraty from the Pyrénées, and the aged Roncal, with a meaty texture and an aroma of hay.
Think this lesson is a little tough to take without a taste test? We agree! Get thee to a cheese shop and taste your way around with a moo, bleat and a baah…