The Terroir of Cheese

Much like fine wines from around the world, cheese is a highly local reflection of its place of origin.

Cheese Caves. Wheels of Parmigiano-Reggiano are aged in silent maturation rooms where the outside of the cheese dries, forming a natural crust. Cheese Caves. Wheels of Parmigiano-Reggiano are aged in silent maturation rooms where the outside of the cheese dries, forming a natural crust.

In the limestone caverns of Mount Combalou in southwestern France, a special type of mold is rampant in the soils. An odd source of creamy texture and piquant flavor, but still the primary one in what’s called the “king of cheeses.” By laws of both nature and country, Penicillium roqueforti and the dirt where it comes from define the making of roquefort cheese.

From champagne to texas toast, food and beverage products commonly adopt the name of the town or region they are from, but in cheese, as in wine, there’s more to it than local origin. The concept of terroir is imperative to any discussion of wine: where did the grapes grow, in what type of soil, at what altitude, in what climate? The answers shape the flavor of the wine through their effect on the grapes. Similar questions apply to cheese, albeit a step removed. A cheese’s flavors are shaped by a longer list of questions: What animals are raised in the area, what did they eat (and how much), when they were milked; and was the cheese aged in the cool, damp air of a mountainside cheese cave, in the salty wind of a seaside village, or not at all?

Roquefort Cheese

A Taste of Place. A wedge of Roquefort cheese.

Roquefort is one of the oldest types of cheese, dating back to Roman times. It was also the first cheese to receive legal protection against imitation—from Charles VI in 1411. Culture, the magazine devoted to all things cheese, called it “the poster child of the legally-protected,” when mentioning that roquefort received the first appellation d’origine contrôlée, or AOC, designation for food in 1925. That AOC, or controlled origin designation, means that not only is it nearly impossible to recreate the trademark tang of the cheese without the specific conditions found in southern France—namely the winds and molds, the stable 95 percent humidity, and the temperatures that hover right around fifty degrees in Roquefort-sur-Soulzon—it is in fact illegal to do so.

The combination of flavor, legal protection, and the quintessential taste of a place that roquefort cheese offers is rare, but Parmigiano-Reggiano follows closely in the big blue’s footsteps. “You can taste the wind blowing down from the Alps, smell the region,” Paige Lamb asserts. Lamb, who works for the upscale chain Metropolitan Market, in Seattle, has been buying domestic and international cheeses for grocery stores for more than thirty years. She emphasizes the importance of terroir in Parmigiano-Reggiano coming from so many angles: the air around the cheese as it ages and the milk used to make it are local, but also the water the cows drink comes from the same location, and the food they eat is grown with it. Nothing that contributes to the cheese comes from elsewhere, and that defines the salty, crystalline cheese that has bred so many imitators.

Parmigiano Reggiano Cheese

A Taste of Place. An aged piece of Parmigiano-Reggiano.

Just a short distance away from the valleys producing Parmigiano-Reggiano, the same cheesemaking methods are used in the foothills, resulting in a different cheese. “We couldn’t bring it back, it wouldn’t sell,” Lamb says, after trying some on a research trip. The bacteria, the flora, and the air are just different enough that the richer grazing lands made for higher-fat cheeses, a whiter color, and none of the crystallization that produces bursts of savory flavor in Parmigiano-Reggiano. The protection of the DOC (Italy’s version of the AOC) prevents these mountain cheeses from sharing the same name, from invoking the rolling hills and green pastures of that part of northern Italy, or from fooling a naïve shopper.

With such a well-defined tradition and close ties to the land, it could seem that legal protection for such terroir-driven products is superfluous, but heed the cautionary tale of cheese from England’s Cheddar Gorge. In Cheese: A Global History, Andrew Dalby relates the seventeenth-century origins of the cheese: “The early writers had been unanimous: the quality of cheddar was tied to the magnificent situation of Cheddar itself amid warm, rich, southwest-facing meadows.” Strong, sharp, and with just enough farm scent to remind the eater it comes from the land, the cheese did not come cheap. Imitators couldn’t help but try to fetch the same prices, and within three centuries, much of the cheese sold under the moniker of England’s dramatic cliffs had “nothing to do with Cheddar beyond the name, a likeness of flavor, and (in most cases) the technique of cheddaring.”

Gruyeres Terrain

Culture Notes.The terrain of Gruyéres, Switzerland.

Many of those cheddar cheeses Dalby speaks of are made in the United States, where foreign protections aren’t always enforced. Hence, the form of parmesan (an anglicized version of Parmigiano-Reggiano), a gritty, pebbly substance often sold in a shelf-stable can. American cheesemaking came of age during a more modern era—of refrigeration, fast transportation, and government-mandated sanitization techniques—leading to a loss of the importance of regionality. Cows in California could be fed grain from Kansas before their milk is sent to Wisconsin to be made into cheese.

Cheese Storage Room

Culture Notes. A Parmigiano-Reggiano storage room.

Without the terroir, the sense of place behind the flavor of European cheeses, American cheesemakers are free to get creative with their cheeses. Satori master cheesemaker Mike Matucheski rubs his wheels of vaguely parmesanesque Wisconsin cheese with everything from merlot, espresso, and black pepper to a mix of spices designed to invoke the flavors of Mexican salsa. Kurt Beecher Dammeier, owner of Beecher’s Handmade Cheese, researched for a long time before combining a gruyère and a cheddar culture to make his flagship cheese. “Traditionally you named the cheese after the city or region it was from,” Lamb, the cheese buyer, mused, “Now you get cheeses named after kids or friends.”

Recently, American cheesemakers started looking back to Europe and seeing the value of terroir. The first US cheese to be exported to Europe was Rogue Creamery’s Rogue River blue cheese from one of the few creameries striving to produce a cheese with a sense of terroir, with that strong tie to the land. It’s not surprising, then, that the producers looked to Roquefort for inspiration, building aging rooms designed to simulate the caves of Mt. Combalou. The creamery encourages naturally occurring molds to impart the flavor of the region into the milk from local cows. Rubbed with local brandy and wrapped in grape leaves from the nearby Carpenter Hill Vineyard, the creamy blue cheese hints at the pine forests and earthy morel mushrooms that represent the Oregon ecosystem.

The Rogue River Blue, like its French inspiration, brings the eater instantly to a specific location. Anyone biting into a nutty, craggy crumble of true Parmigiano-Reggiano, wherever they are, is brought immediately back to the countryside of Emilia-Romagna, where prosciutto hams hang in open windows, absorbing the same alpine winds that tinge the cheese. It’s not only their names that these towns or regions have given their eponymous cheeses, but a flavor unique to a single place, as easy to pinpoint as a dot on the map.

Parmigiano Reggiano Cheese Field

Oh, The Places You Curd Go…

Any cheese shop in the world can now import the iconic goudas and gruyères from half a world away, but they never taste quite the same as they do when eaten at the source. Combine iconic cheese with iconic scenery and a taste of history by visiting these cheese-centric spots.

Cheddar Gorge, near the village of Cheddar, England

As the namesake of one of the most well-known cheeses in the world, it’s disappointing that the Cheddar Gorge has but a single cheesemaker left (tours and tastings available at the Cheddar Gorge Cheese Company). The scenic gorge doesn’t disappoint, though, at four hundred feet deep and three miles long: hike, bike, or explore the caves that aged the classic cheese.

The Waag, in Gouda, Netherlands

A millennium ago, travelers could stop by the Dutch town of Gouda to purchase the famed cheese on the same stone square where the current waag (weigh house) sits. Built in 1669, complete with reliefs of cheese commerce, it became a museum with a tasting shop in 1995.

Gruyères, Switzerland

A medieval town with a thirteenth-century castle and a 6,500-foot-high peak hardly needs a booming cheese industry to bring in more visitors, but it’s everywhere you look: mountaintop dairies, village factories, and most importantly, on nearly every restaurant menu.

[©Final image courtesy of Carlo Guttadauro]

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