The United States is number one in a lot of things, and our love of cheese is no exception. The U.S. is the largest cheese producer in the world, with more than 13 million pounds of the ancient dairy goodness made in this country each year. Further, the average American consumes just over 40 pounds of cheese annually.
Harry & David is no stranger to the cheese game, either. Its immense collection of nearly 90 unique cheeses has been curated from artisanal and award-winning producers in California, Minnesota, New York, Oregon, Utah, Washington, and Wisconsin, and represents cheese-making styles from France, Italy, Spain, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom.
Across the globe, cheese, like wine, reflects the terroir — a convergence of soil, climate, and topography that impacts the flavor. In some countries, terroir can also include centuries-old traditions of cheese-making, such as the type of milk used, what shape the cheese takes, and how long it’s aged.
There is a cheese for everyone, everywhere, and virtually any dish. There’s the simplicity and affordability of rustic bread with feta, Camembert, or fresh mozzarella for lunch, for example. Or the nuance of seasonally produced, region-specific artisanal cheeses, such as French goat’s milk cheese or Italy’s Parmegiano Reggiano, and everything in between. Whether it’s Monterey Jack shredded into weeknight enchiladas or a crumbly bleu cheese on a Cobb salad, cheese captures our imagination in the kitchen.
It also tells a story about the lands from whence it came and the people who made it.
A slice of cheese history
Historians believe that cheese was an accidental discovery that predates recorded history. Ancient shepherds and traveling merchants stored their milk in pouches made from animal stomachs. Since the pouches contained remnants of rennet — enzymes that exist in the stomach of ruminant animals (cattle, goats, and sheep) — the milk coagulated in the pouch, creating cheese.
Food historians believe that intentional cheese production coincided with the domestication of milk-producing animals, such as those depicted in ancient Egyptian tombs, which makes cheese one of the world’s oldest foods.
In 2018 a research team of Egyptian archaeologists announced that the hardened whitish mass they had discovered in broken jars in a 13th-century B.C. tomb was, in fact, cheese! During that period, seafaring ancients traded cheese and other products along Mediterranean maritime routes. Still, it wasn’t until hundreds of years later, with the rise and expansion of the Roman Empire, that ancient Romans began spreading their cheese-making techniques throughout Europe.
European monks perfected cheese-making traditions in France, Spain, and England, producing cheese at their monasteries for eating and selling. Cheese-making traditions made their way to the New World when colonists included cheese as a staple food aboard the Mayflower in 1620.
Cheese is made from just four simple ingredients: milk, salt, a starter culture, and the enzyme rennet. The role of the starter culture — a friendly bacteria — is to produce lactic acid from naturally occurring milk sugars, or lactose, which in turn splits and forms curds. These are then pressed to release a liquid called whey. (If any of this sounds familiar, you have Little Miss Muffet to thank for it.)
Styles of cheese-making differ significantly throughout the world. Although every cheese is made with the same four ingredients, flavor and appearance vary depending on the milk used.
Certain cheeses also include a “secret ingredient”— mold! Strains of harmless mold, that you can eat, impact taste and texture, as in the case of penicillium roqueforti, a species of mold that creates the blue veins in Roquefort and other blue cheeses. Mold can be added to milk in powdered form during the cheese-making process, or a cheese-maker may expose the milk to ambient mold (ones that naturally live in the air) in a cheese cave.
Types of milk
Four kinds of milk are used throughout the world in cheese production:
Cow’s milk: Used most often due to its wide availability and high fat content.
- Types of cow’s milk cheeses: Parmesan, Swiss, Gouda, and cheddar
Goat’s milk: This tangy milk, with similar fat content to cow’s milk, is used to produce softer-style white cheeses.
- Types of goat’s milk cheeses: chèvre, Garrotxa, aged goat Gouda
Buffalo milk: Water buffalo are indigenous to Southeast Asia but are famously raised in the southern Italian region of Campania. With twice the fat of cow’s milk, they produce a cheese that is tender and highly creamy.
- Types of buffalo milk cheeses: mozzarella di bufala, ricotta salata, burrata di bufala
Sheep’s milk: Sheep or ewe’s milk is rich in calcium and has a higher fat content than milk from goats, cows, and buffalo. It yields a cheese with subtle sweet and gamey flavors.
- Types of sheep’s milk cheeses: Manchego, pecorino, feta
Types of cheese
Take a trip to your local grocery store or cheese shop, and you might be overwhelmed by the number of cheeses on offer. Despite the many options, though, the U.S. Dairy Council recognizes only eight distinct varieties, aka styles, of cheese:
- Blue cheese (Gorgonzola, Roquefort, Stilton)
- Hard cheese (cheddar, Manchego, Parmesan)
- Pasta filata cheese (mozzarella, queso Oaxaca, string cheese)
- Processed cheese (Velveeta, Kraft Singles, Cheez Whiz)
- Semi-hard cheese (Gouda, Havarti, provolone)
- Semi-soft cheese (Edam, Reblochon, Port Salut)
- Soft, fresh cheese (ricotta, mozzarella, cottage cheese)
- Soft-ripened cheese (Camembert, Brie, chèvre)
Styles of cheese
The names of common cheeses — cheddar, Gouda, mozzarella, and Brie, to name a few — traditionally come from where the cheese was first made, such as the hamlet of Cheddar in England, or the cheese-making process of that area. Here, we look at several favorite types of cheese as well as their origins, tasting notes, and how best to enjoy them.
Country of origin: United States
Type of milk: Cow’s milk
Cheesy fact: While there are many excellent crafted kinds of cheese produced in the United States, the kind known as American cheese (sold pre-packed in slices or sliced from a block at a deli) is a processed “cheese product” made from the scraps of other cheeses, such as Monterey Jack, Colby, or cheddar. It includes varying ratios of cream, water, salt, and food coloring to alter its appearance or texture.
Tasting notes: It’s orange! Or white! Some people say yellow. It’s gooey when melted and tastes like cream and salt, and it varies widely in “real” cheese composition and quality. According to FDA labels, American cheese has four types of classification: Pasteurized Process Cheese (commonly sliced at a deli), Pasteurized Process Cheese Food (higher percentage of real cheese), Pasteurized Process Cheese Spread (a higher moisture content, making it softer), and, finally, Pasteurized Process American Slices, which, ironically, sounds nice but is missing the all-important word “cheese.” Rather than a dairy product, these “slices” are vegetable oil-based.
Best uses: Umm…
Suggested wine pairing: Blasphemy
Country of origin: France
Type of milk: Sheep’s milk is used exclusively for French Roquefort, but cow’s milk is more widely used for blues made in England (Stilton), Italy (Gorgonzola), Spain (Cabrales), and the U.S. (blue cheese).
Cheesy fact: The origins of Roquefort blue cheese date back to the 7th century, when the cave-growing mold penicillium roqueforti grew on a shepherd’s forgotten lunch of bread and cheese in the village of Roquefort, France.
Tasting notes: The range of blue cheese flavors depends largely on the traditions of the cheese’s country of origin. There’s sweet Italian Gorgonzola, for example, pungent French Roquefort, and spicy Spanish Cabrales. And as for textures, they range from the fudgy, mild, or smoky American blue cheese to crumbly aged Italian Gorgonzola or buttery Danish Danablu.
Best uses: Blue cheeses are naturally strong-flavored, lifting everyday foods to new heights. Humble baked potatoes, Cobb salad, or a salad with fruit and nuts complement an intense blue. Make blue cheeseburgers or a sauce to drizzle over steaks, since the cheese melts well with gentle heat. Natural-rind blue cheeses — those exposed to ambient mold — have a distinctive dense texture and a nutty flavor punctuated by a salty, spicy finish that’s wonderful on a cheese plate paired with contrasting sweet honey, figs, apples, and pears. For a milder blue cheese, look for fewer veins of blue mold and a creamy-looking texture, then spread it over salty crackers with jam, marmalade, or relish.
Suggested wine pairing: Sparkling wine’s bubbles offer a contrasting mouthfeel to a dense blue cheese, especially when enjoyed at the start of a meal. Reach for red wine, such as a pinot noir, for a dish that features blue cheese, since its lively bouquet complements the intense flavor. Open a rich, sweet vintage port wine or a glass of cold sherry for an after-dinner blue cheese course. Both are fortified wines (brandy or a neutral spirit has been added to them) and can stand up to a pungent blue cheese, such as English Stilton.
Country of origin: France
Type of milk: Unpasteurized cow’s milk
Cheesy fact: Brie is also known as a “farmhouse” cheese, meaning it’s produced on the same farm where the cow’s milk is collected.
Tasting notes: Originating in Brie, France — about 85 miles north of Bordeaux — this soft, off-white, unctuously creamy cheese with a “blooming” rind (formed due to mold and fungus) that you must taste, is beloved for its smooth, buttery texture and mild mushroom flavor with notes of grassy earth.
Best uses: Here are two ways to enhance the pleasure of eating Brie:
- Enjoy it at room temperature. Remove the cheese from the refrigerator about an hour before serving. This allows the cheese to soften, opening all its elegant earthy flavors.
- Eat the rind! It contains a world of savory umami flavor, and, texturally, it complements the creamy inside — which cheese connoisseurs call “the paste.”
Pair wedges with a crusty baguette and ripe pears, as the French do. For a celebratory charcuterie, drizzle a Brie wheel with honey, gently bake it for 5 to 7 minutes at 350° F, and serve it as a sweet, gooey dip. Or wrap Brie in buttery pastry dough for a holiday cheese centerpiece.
Suggested wine pairing: Crisp, dry white wines with hints of grapefruit, such as Sancerre, or other dry sauvignon blanc wines balance the creamy mouthfeel of Brie. If you’re in the mood for red wine, pick up a pinot noir. The earthy barnyard notes go hand in hand with Brie’s mild mushroom flavor. And of course sips of sparkling wine are always great to wash away the creamy mouthfeel that lingers between bites.
Country of origin: England
Type of milk: Cow’s
Cheesy fact: According to English legend, the discovery of cheddar cheese happened by accident. Sometime in the 12th century, a handmaiden spilled a bucket of milk in a cave in Cheddar Village in Somerset, England. The spilled milk “went bad,” eventually turning to cheese. And a new cheese was born… English immigrants brought the cheese to Wisconsin in the early 1800s, and today it is among the most widely produced cheeses in America, along with Colby and Jack.
Tasting notes: Cheddar cheese aged three to six months is mild, with bright and mellow flavors of cream and a moist, semi-hard texture. As cheddar ages, its texture goes from soft and moist to crumbly and sharp, and its flavor takes on nutty browned butter and caramel notes; the longer cheddar ages, the more robust its flavor. “Extra sharp” cheddar refers to a cheddar that’s been aged up to two years. Cheese-makers also customize flavors for their cheddars, including herb blends, onions, black pepper, and smoke.
Best uses: Select mild cheddar for gooey cheese sauces or to add to sandwiches. Choose classic aged cheddars to use in biscuits or for depth of flavor in a grilled cheese (just make sure you shred the cheese first!). Up the ante on your cheese board selection or gift with cheddars artfully infused with bourbon and chocolate stout.
Suggested wine pairing: Fatty, crumbly extra sharp cheddar loves cabernet sauvignon‘s dark fruit and dry tannins. A mid-range sharp cheddar meets its match in a buttery, medium-bodied chardonnay. For young cheddars, stick to wines that offer freshness and acidity, such as sparkling, white, and rosé wine. (Or match a bitter-style beer with cheddar, as they do in England.)
Country of origin: Italy
Type of milk: Cow’s milk, buffalo milk, or a combination of the two
Cheesy fact: Mozzarella, the white, soft, pillowy Italian cheese, is a broad name that covers 12 different types of pasta filata, or “stretched curd” cheese. And did you know it’s one of the easiest cheeses to learn to make at home?
Tasting notes: Fresh mozzarella, or fior di latte, is made from cow’s milk, with a grassy, slightly floral, and mildly tangy taste. Its Neapolitan counterpart made with buffalo milk, called mozzarella di bufala, has more tang and creaminess. The saltier and less complex tasting “string” mozzarella sold in grocery stores is fresh mozzarella that has been heated and dried, removing most of its moisture (hence the name “low-moisture” on the package). Mozzarella affumicata, or smoked mozzarella, is fresh mozzarella that has been exposed to hickory wood chips, imparting a smoky taste to it.
Best uses: Fresh mozzarella is synonymous with classic Italian dishes, from Caprese salad to Margherita pizza and lasagna. Explore variations in size, such as bocconcini — fresh mozzarella balls the size of cherry tomatoes — adding them to a salad with prosciutto and melon. Look for burrata, a type of fresh mozzarella filled with another shredded mozzarella called stracciatella (stracciare means “to tear”) and heavy cream. Italians have many more ways of using fresh mozzarella, including braiding pulled cheese strips while still warm (trecccia) or shaping “eggs” (ovoline) and making tiny pearl-sized balls (perlini), both great for adding to salads and pasta dishes.
Suggested wine pairing: Young, crisp, dry white wines are perfect, since they won’t overpower the cheese’s delicate flavors.
Country of origin: Cyprus
Type of milk: Sheep’s milk.
Cheesy fact: The unique process of making Halloumi is a hybrid of the pasta filata method (stretching the warm curds just before forming the cheese) and brining (preserving cheese in a saltwater solution inhibits bacterial growth which deepens the flavor of the cheese). And since acid is not introduced when making Halloumi, it tends to “squeak,” like cheese curds, on the first bite, as the higher alkaline content makes it dense and springy!
Tasting notes: At first, Halloumi may remind you of low-moisture, firmer mozzarella, but sheep’s milk offers a pleasantly mild tang, similar to that of Greek feta. The brine accounts for Halloumi’s salty taste. Structurally, Halloumi is quite firm and can withstand high temperatures, making it perfect for grilling or pan-searing, as is done with traditional Greek saganaki — a seared-cheese appetizer.
Best uses: Thread Halloumi on skewers and grill it over medium heat for three minutes on each side, until golden, and serve it with kebabs or vegetables, such as eggplant, peppers, and onions. Add cubes of Halloumi to a summer salad of cucumbers and tomatoes or a breakfast frittata for more texture. For a Cyprus version of mozzarella sticks, cut Halloumi into wedges, dip them in an egg wash and seasoned panko bread crumbs, and air-fry in a single layer for five to seven minutes, until golden and crispy. Serve with pepper onion relish for dipping.
Suggested wine pairing: A dry rosé with floral notes foils the saltiness of Halloumi. Or choose a buttery, oaky chardonnay to offset the cheese’s mild tang.
Country of origin: Spain
Type of milk: Sheep’s milk
Cheesy fact: Esparto grass, which grows in Manchego, Spain, is woven into the cheese form that encases Manchego cheese. The grass absorbs moisture, imparts a herbaceous flavor to the cheese, and leaves a basket-weave pattern on its rind.
Tasting notes: Spain’s most famous cheese is loved for the rich nuttiness that deepens as it ages. It owes its signature flavor to the exclusive use of whole milk from Manchega sheep native to the La Mancha region of Spain.
Best uses: Manchego loves membrillo (cooked quince paste) like Joanie loves Chachi. Pair young Manchego with thin slices of store-bought membrillo for a beautiful Spanish tapa that captures sweet and savory in one bite, or pair it with another fruit and cheese topper. For a Spanish-inspired cheese board, drizzle slices or cubes of Manchego with olive oil and pair with a selection of garlic-stuffed olives and stuffed piquillo peppers. Grate mature Manchego for a rich, complex grown-up mac ‘n’ cheese.
Suggested wine pairing: Manchego likes juicy and soft red wines, such as a classic Spanish rioja, or rich white wines, such as chardonnay and viognier.
Country of origin: France
Type of milk: Cow’s milk
Cheesy fact: The roots of Muenster, derived from the local French word for “monastery,” reach back to the Middle Ages and the cheese-making monks of Munster Abbey.
Tasting notes: Excellent-quality imported French Muenster has a washed rind that is reddish-orange and moist. During the washing process, cheese-makers cleanse the rind in saltwater brine, like Halloumi. French Muenster’s texture ranges from semi-soft to runny, and it has a robust barnyard aroma and rich, tangy flavor. The commercially produced American imitation of Muenster tastes mild and owes its red-colored rind to paprika.
Best uses: Save a fine French Muenster for a gourmet cheese assortment or to make a decadent, intensely flavorful fondue. American Muenster is perfect for sandwiches and burgers or grated from a block for a frittata and overnight breakfast casseroles.
Suggested wine pairing: Crisp and spicy white wines, such as gewürztraminer, are an excellent match for this strong cheese, as are sweeter sparkling wines, such as moscato d’Asti.
Country of origin: United States
Type of milk: Cow’s milk
Cheesy fact: Pepper jack is a spicy derivative of Monterey Jack cheese, known originally as queso blanco pais. Franciscan friars from Spain brought their cheese to Monterey, California, via Mexico in the 1700s and produced it to earn a living. The cheese became known as Monterey Jack, after the ” jack ” tool that was used to press the curds. Later in the 19th century, local cheese producers began adding herbs and spices to the mild white queso blanco pais, and pepper jack was born.
Tasting notes: Like Monterey Jack, the texture of pepper jack is semi-soft, with mild buttery notes. However, adding spicy jalapeño, habanero chili, sweet peppers, and herbs gives it its signature spicy kick. As pepper jack ages, the spice factor rises.
Best uses: Pepper jack offers a piquant flavor for quesadillas, and since it melts well, it’s terrific for turning out a Mexican-inspired queso dip, which is sure to get the party started. And, of course, it’s a go-to for chef Geoffrey Zakarian’s grilled cheese sandwiches — it gives great “cheese pull!” Create a stellar cheese board by offering pepper jack with a spectrum of spicy, sweet, and tangy bites, such as pickled vegetables, olive spread, pears, and crackers.
Suggested wine pairing: Pick a sweeter wine to offset the spicy notes in pepper jack, such as sparkling moscato d’Asti, or a fleshy, fruit-driven white wine like pinot gris.
Country of origin: Italy
Type of milk: Cow’s milk
Cheesy fact: Provolone, like mozzarella, is a pasta filata type of cheese. It is sometimes called mozzarella’s older “brother,” since it is aged for a minimum of two months before eating, whereas fresh mozzarella is eaten within days of making.
Tasting notes: Provolone flavor depends on age, with younger-aged provolone showing mildly salty and tangy flavors. Strong-flavored, nutty, and spicy provolone, such as provolone picante, can be aged up to two years.
Best uses: Combine shredded provolone with fresh mozzarella for the perfect cheese blend for pizza. (Provolone melts better than mozzarella, giving you more cheese coverage, and its sharper taste adds depth.) Create a deluxe antipasto assortment, including aged provolone, an assortment of salami, and spreads. Melt it over Philly cheesesteaks, use it in tandem with pepper jack for one “heckuva” grilled cheese sandwich, and enjoy hard, aged provolone as a snack.
Suggested wine pairing: Spicy red wine, such as Chianti, a southern Italian Primitivo, or New World zinfandel, with lots of velvety fruit, are great matches for aged provolone. Pop open pinot grigio or a fleshier pinot gris to match the semi-hard yet creamy texture of a younger provolone.
READ MORE: Pinot Grigio vs. Pinot Gris: What’s the Difference?
Country of origin: Switzerland, of course!
Type of milk: Cow’s milk
Cheesy fact: Swiss cheese was first manufactured during the 14th century — only then it was called Emmental, after its place of production. Today, Swiss-type cheese is imitated throughout the world and labeled as Swiss or Emmental. However, if a cheese is labeled as Emmental AOP (short for “Protected Designation of Origin” in French), it’s guaranteed to be from the original Emmental-producing region in Bern or Fribourg, Switzerland.
Tasting notes: The “holes” in Emmental and Swiss types of cheeses are formed when gas-emitting bacteria are introduced to the cheese-making process, forcing pockets of air bubbles to form. Swiss-made Emmental has a mild, lightly fruity, buttery flavor, while American Swiss-style cheese has a nuttier undertone. Both have a semi-hard texture and rinds that are not suitable to eat.
Best uses: Emmental is essential to cheese fondue because it melts smoothly. Add it to a quiche, enjoy it cubed in salads, and pair it with salty cured meats, such as prosciutto and salami.
Suggested wine pairing: Mild Swiss and Emmental cheeses shine when paired with an oaky-style chardonnay such as Harry & David 2020 Chardonnay with aromas of melon and honeysuckle. Or choose a lighter red such as pinot noir or Beaujolais, because their soft fruit and balanced acidity won’t overpower the cheese.