Everyone knows about Parmigiano Reggiano (Parmesan). It’s hard, it’s dry, strong, smelly, slightly nutty and hits your tongue with a bit of a zappy twang.
Some people (like me) will just sit and happily munch our way through a block of it, but it is generally used grated or shaved in or over other dishes.
Although Parmigiano is the most well known aged hard cheese out there, it is far from the only one. There are a huge range of other fantastic cheeses that are perfect to use wherever you might normally use Parmigiano Reggiano.
What makes a good hard cheese
Pretty much any cheese that is aged long enough becomes firm. During the aging process, the moisture in the cheese evaporates and the salt in the cheese crystallizes, this is what gives Parmesan and other aged cheeses their distinct crunchiness under the teeth.
You can’t just buy a chunk of cheese, throw it on the shelf and hope for the best. Like wine, cheese needs to be aged under careful conditions, the temperature and humidity level should be kept as constant as possible, and the cheese needs to be rotated regularly. Most hard cheese are aged from anywhere between six months to seven years, but under the right conditions it is possible to age cheese for much longer.
Apart from the techniques involved in making it, and the way in which it is aged, the quality of the milk and other ingredients that go into the cheese have a big impact on the way that it tastes. A lot of the difference in the taste of cheese from different places comes from the air and the grass in that region, you can taste the difference in the milk.
How to store it
If you are lucky enough to have a wine cellar, or any kind of cellar really, then it is the ideal place to store your cheese. Cellars (generally) experience less changes of temperature and humidity than the rest of your house, and cheese likes this. It also likes to be in the dark.
Wrap the cheese in waxed paper, and if you are planning on keeping it for a reasonable length of time, then change the wrapping regularly (weekly is probably enough). If you find that mould is growing on the cheese, then just scrape the mould off, and change the wrapping.
and so, some suggestions for your delectation…
Parmigiano Reggiano is a cheese made from uncooked cow’s milk, and manufactured in a small region of northern Italy.
When the cheese reaches 12 months old, each one is inspected by a master grader. If the cheese passes the inspection then it is heat branded with the logo of the Consorzio Parmigiano Reggiano. This is your sign that you are getting the best quality cheese.
Although the cheese is ready to eat after 12 months, it is normally aged for longer. 18-24 months is typical, but it can be for much longer. The longer the cheese is aged, the more intense the flavour and aroma becomes, and the drier and more crystalline in texture.
What’s in a name?
Parmigiano Reggiano is often called Parmesan in English, but depending on where in the world you are, you may or may not be getting the real thing. In Europe the name Parmesan is protected by law, and only Parmigiano made in the correct region can carry the name. In other parts of the world, the term Parmesan is often applied to other chesses made in the same style.
Probably the second most famous hard cheese in the world, and really very similar to its cousin Parmigiano Reggiano.
First created by Cistercian monks in the 12th century as a way to preserve excess milk, today Grana Padano is a legally protected cheese made in a specified region of Italy.
Although it is made in a similar way, using uncooked cows milk, Grana Padano is slightly milder and not as tangy as Parmigiano, and it is also a bit less crumbly in texture.
Piave comes from the Piave river valley in northern Italy. It is made from pasteurised cows milk that is partially skimmed.
What sets Piave apart from the other Italian cheeses on this list is the fact that it can be eaten either young or aged. When it is young it has quite a sweet taste, some of this sweetness is retained as the cheese ages but it also develops a slight nuttiness.
Outside of Italy, it is easier to find Piave as either vecchio or stravecchio, meaning old or extra old. Once it reaches this stage it is similar in taste to a young parmigiano, but slightly sweeter.
So, just in case anyone starts to think that Italians have the monopoly on great hard cheeses, up pops the international crowd, starting off with one from England.
Quite possibly my favourite bit of cheese that I’ve ever stuck in my mouth was a piece of 5 year old cheddar at a farmers market in the south of England. It shares the texture characteristics of Parmigiano, and can be even more crystally, but it tastes, well… cheddary.
Cheddar ages very well. I’ve seen it on sale up to 12 years old, I’ve heard of it for sale up to 30 years old. One of the more unusual things about aged cheddar is that not only does it grate and shave very well, but it also retains the ability to melt nicely, which most harder cheeses don’t have.
As the British do with cheddar, so the Dutch do with gouda.
Now, I have to admit that I am not a fan of either gouda or edam normally, I find them both boring and bland and I don’t like the odd rubbery texture.
Aged gouda on the other hand is a completely different thing. It actually develops a strength of flavour that makes me think of is as a real cheese, something that bites you back a little bit while you are eating it. The texture also changes from that rubberiness into the classic hard cheese texture, firm and crumbly and a pleasure to bite into.
Gouda ages really nicely, and it’s not too difficult to find one that is 5 or 7 years old, at this point they really have nothing in common with a young gouda in terms of taste at all.
Even if you didn’t think that you liked gouda, then give the aged version a try, it might just change your mind.
Mahon is one of the most popular Spanish cheeses, and ‘sec’ simply means dry in Spanish.
When mahon it is young it is mild and creamy, but after it has been aged for up to a year the flavour transforms completely. The cheese becomes intense, salty, and a bit nutty, and it develops a fantastic piquant edge.
Another Spanish delight that ages beautifully, manchego is made from sheeps milk, and has a beautifully well rounded flavour.
Eat it with just about anything, but especially try it together with membrillo (quince paste) and maybe some pa amb tomàquet.
Sbrinz is a Swiss cheese, again made from cows milk. It is very much like Parmigiano, but tastes just a little more cultured or refined. Sbrinz lovers (or Swiss patriots) would tell you that this is because of the clean mountain air, and great pastures that the local cows get to graze on – they might just be right.
A cheese has to be aged for a minimum of 16 months before it can legally be sold as Sprinz. As with other aged cheeses, it is normally kept for longer than this to allow the flavour to develop, and is normally sold after 24-30 months.
Sbrinz might be a bit trickier to track down that some of the others on the list, but if you can find it then it is well worth trying out.