Do you speak Fine Cheese?

“Do you have any Vintage [insert cheese name]?” – a visitor asked me at the cheese shop.

“I’m afraid we do not…” – said I looking perplexed having never heard of this particular cheese. Wanting to help the man to find something similar I proceeded to ask if he remembered where it came from and where he tried it. He replied that he had no idea where it came from but he’d tried it in Waitrose.

The situation described above perfectly demonstrates what I’ve felt for a while now: there is a lot of confusion over cheese quality and terminology amongst the cheese-loving general public. It is true that words like “artisan”, “fine”, “vintage” are not protected by law in the UK and anyone can use them on their products. But that of course results in misleading people into thinking that some cheeses are better than they actually are.

Below I’m going to give my personal definitions of the most common terms as they apply to cheese. Please note, that these definitions are only applicable in a speciality cheese shop setting (supermarkets do not use these words in the same way; therefore to ensure that you are definitely buying “farmhouse” or “artisan” cheeses I encourage you to visit specialist cheese shops).

Below are a few most common terms you might hear from a cheese monger and their definitions:

  • FARMHOUSE is a cheese that is made in a traditional way by a professional cheesemaker and is a product of one farm, that means that the milk for cheese making came from the same farm where the cheese was made. 
  • ARTISAN is a cheese which is made in a traditional way by a professional cheesemaker, but the milk is sourced from outside farm(s).
  • FINE CHEESE: a short way to say farmhouse and artisan cheese. For example, “Our cheese shop specialises in fine cheeses”, means we sell both farmhouse cheeses and artisan cheeses.
  • VINTAGE/RESERVE: when a particular cheese is matured for much longer than usual. For instance, our Vintage Gouda is matured for 4 years which is clearly much longer than standard (4 weeks – 1 year).
  • TRADITIONAL CHEESE MAKING: is a labour-intensive process where the majority of work is performed/overseen by people with limited use of machinery. It is highly dependent on the quality of its raw material (i.e. milk) which will have a seasonal and other effects on the process. An artisan cheese maker knows the composition  and seasonal variations of their milk so well that he/she knows exactly what is required to turn it into a quality and characterful cheese.

Former American Cheese Society President Allison Hooper explained best the difference between traditional (artisan) cheesemaking and industrial cheesemaking: “In artisanal cheesemaking, to maintain quality, you do not alter your raw materials; rather, you adjust your recipe.  In industrial cheesemaking, the opposite is true: the raw material are altered – with various treatments and additives – in order to conform with the recipe”. 

If you would like to learn more about the Fine cheeses that The Cheese Lady purveys, please CLICK HERE