A beautiful cheese counter, full of different shapes, brands and packaging, can be bewildering. Apart from personal taste, how else can we decide what cheese or milk is best to buy? If we’re aiming for quality, the label is just the starting point. There are other tools that can help us choose the best product. Roberto Rubino, the president of the Associazione Nazionale Formaggi Sotto il Cielo (National Association of Cheeses Made Under the Sky) has some tips for us.
The quality of milk and cheeses depends on many factors, but three important ones are livestock diet, the heat treatment of the milk and the aging process.
Livestock diet The sensory quality and aroma of milk depend on the quantity and variety of grasses contained in the animals’ diet. The greater the quantity and variety of grasses eaten by the animals, the smaller the yield of milk, but the greater its aromatic and nutritional complexity. In other words, more grasses means less milk and higher quality. By far the best milk is produced by animals allowed to graze outdoors in pastures. In the case of cow’s milk, the cheese will be yellow because of the high beta-carotene content of the grasses which gives pigment to the cheese. Sheep, goats and buffalos transform the beta-carotene into vitamin A in their livers, so their cheeses don’t have the same bright color. However, at least in Italy, the vast majority of sheep and goats are grass-fed, while all buffalos are kept indoors.
Heat treatment of milk During cheesemaking, some producers pasteurize their milk. Any treatment of the raw milk will have negative effects to the quality. Specifically, we can expect a flattening of the taste, a drop in bacterial flora and a reduction in the degree of antioxidant protection. In this case, the label can help us, as it usually states whether the milk was raw or pasteurized.
Aging The aging process of a cheese contributes greatly to its distinct flavors and quality. There is a significant difference if the cheese is aged in a natural environment (such as a cellar or a cave, as opposed to a highly industrialized location where temperature and humidity are carefully controlled). The natural microenvironment encourages the cheese’s aging processes. The use of wood in the dairy is also important, because wood provides an excellent place for good bacterial flora to multiply.
What about milk? The dairy industry likes to mix different batches of milk and then diversify the product by adding or taking something away (vitamins, fat, calcium) from the raw material. The only evident difference is in different levels of heat treatment, which, as with cheeses, negatively influence the quality. The higher the temperatures, the greater the damage. The highest quality is raw milk, followed by pasteurized, microfiltered, high pasteurized, UHT and then sterilized.
Roberto Rubino is the President of ANFoSC, Associazione Nazionale Formaggi Sotto il Cielo (National Association of Cheeses Made Under the Sky)