"Essentially you're trying to turn milk into a solid object through getting it to coagulate, cutting it, getting it to expel as much moisture as possible, and aging it," head Wine Source cheesemonger Adam Engle says of cheese's farm-to-table journey.
He explains that one of the most important things-other than the source of the milk itself-is the cutting and aging process.
After the milk is coagulated, it's cut into curds. The texture is all about the size of those curds: The smaller the cut, the more moisture is released, resulting in a harder cheese; Parmesan, therefore, has very small curds, while soft cheeses like Brie are barely cut at all.
Aging is equally important for the resulting taste. After a rind is developed by naturally occurring bacteria (geotrichum!), the cheese-maker ages it for a certain amount of time depending on the style and flavor.
French cheese Comté, for example, "is made in the summertime," Engle says. "The milk is best when the pastures are fresh. And if you allow at least one and a half years . . . they're going to be spectacular. So the idea is to wait until about December to purchase wheels of summer-milk [cheese] and you're gonna wind up with really great wheels." It's science.
GET SOME: Engle's Top Picks
• Bonde D'Antan goat's milk (Loire Valley, France) "Chalky, dense goat cheese, fruity acidity, and walnut. No 'goatiness.' A classic!" $11 per package • Capricho de Cabra with green peppercorns goat's milk (Murcia, Spain) "Light creamy goat cheese, clean with punchy spiciness from the ground peppercorns." $13 per pound • Garden Pepper Jack Habanero cow's milk (Pennsylvania) "Rare in a pepper jack, the sweet butteryness of the milk is not overwhelmed by the slow-burn heat and spice of the peppers, but make no mistake, it's a hot one." $13 per pound
• Tomme de Savoie cow's milk (Savoie, France) "Toothsome and pliable texture, hazelnut and fruity." $15 per pound • Fourme d'Ambert cow's milk (Auvergne, France) "Heavyweighted and creamy, dessert-like blue, sweet and chocolatey." $15 per pound • Taleggio cow's milk (Val Taleggio, Italy) "Super-versatile, funky washed-rind cow's milk cheese. A rich mouth-coating texture; mushrooms and earth flavors with a buttermilk acidity." $15 per pound
• Westcombe Cheddar cow's milk (Somerset, England) "True English cheddar featuring a dense paste with fruity and earthy flavors and a long finish." $22 per pound • Brillat-savarin cow's milk (Northern France) "Decadent, soft, mousse-like texture, sweet and tangy." $23 per pound • Felsa Yehr sheep's milk (Pennsylvania) "New cheese from Western Pennsylvania; complex earthiness and fruity flavors with a giving, pliable texture." $30 per pound