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Cheese, please, Louise!

Hunkering down for the winter with a good chunk of cheese is just what the doctor ordered

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Okay, so it’s not quite the shortest day of the year (winter solstice officially starts Dec. 21 at 4:42 a.m. PST). But with most of the sun’s heat and light already directed down south, ’tis the season, or at least pretty close to it, for caloric binging and just plain gratuitous eating in general.

Never mind the sweet treats. As time passes, the seasoned (read: aging) palates around this household seem to be edging more and more toward a parallel universe, and reaching for those other entities that often improve with age. My vote this year is for cheese – good cheese, in all its myriad forms – as the hibernation food of choice.

When it comes to cheese, please, you could write a book or seven on the stuff and gain about 20 pounds tasting all the samples therein it. But for now, this zine-sized primer to the ins and outs behind this age-old favourite might suffice to broaden your appreciation of the big cheese, whether it’s from Hawkins Cheezies or a great Stilton.

Cheese is the curd that forms naturally when milk coagulates – ergo its appropriateness for winter holiday feasting since it is flavourful, satisfying and highly nutritious. In a nutshell, or whatever, here’s what happens: when the milk sours, it forms an acid curd which releases the watery fluid called whey; when the whey is released, it leaves behind a semi-solid curd that is cheese.

Once upon a time the whole process was natural. Today, cheese makers enhance the natural process through time-honoured techniques, which, by tradition, are jealously guarded secrets. Suffice to say, they now add micro-organisms to supplement those in the milk, then cut, cook, salt, press and finally age the curd just so, until they have the perfect cheese they are after.

Unfortunately, pasteurization is great for humans, but not for cheese. While most aficionados prefer cheese made from raw milk, that’s hard to come by these days, thanks to everyone’s paranoia about, well, the world in general. But in Quebec, you can still feast on raw-milk cheeses, if you’re lucky or well connected, via a sort of underground, homespun supply network.

Cheese making probably originated soon after people first took milk from wild or domesticated animals. Milk from cows, and presumably other animals, was used for cheese making by about 1000 BC. The ancient Greeks and Romans valued cheese, as did early peoples in northern Europe.

For early peoples cheese making was a preservation technique and one that could consolidate large volumes of milk into easier-to-carry packages – about 10 volumes of milk can be stored as one volume of cheese. Keeping quality is enhanced by a variety of procedures, including heating and kneading (Italian Provolone) and soaking in brine (Egyptian Domiati).

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