This post uses the wonderful Periodic Table of Cheese as conceived by the genius folk of Leeds! It’s a bit of fun and all errors and misunderstandings come from the Putney end of the country.
Recently I went to Paris for a workshop and seized the opportunity of going a day early to see an art exhibition at the Pompidou Centre, and to visit two well-recommended fromageries. When I got back, a friend of mine asked me a very good question “What is the difference between British cheese and French cheese?”. There should be a simple answer, but as I opened my mouth to speak, I realised that I didn’t know it. Can the periodic table of cheeses help us answer this question?
The clever folk who invented the periodic table of cheeses had a wonderful idea: they set out to classify cheeses by plotting two key properties, in this case hardness and complexity of flavour, on orthogonal axes. Of course, cheeses have other properties, like colour or acidity, but hardness and complexity are a surprisingly good starting point. The idea makes more sense when you illustrate it with a few examples. Let’s compare Buffalo Mozarella and Stinking Bishop; they are both soft cheeses, but Mozarella has a simple flavour whereas Stinking Bishop has, as its name suggests, a complex flavour. If we plot increasing complexity of flavour across the page, Mozzarella will be on the left-hand side and Stinking Bishop on the right-hand side. A soft medium strength goat’s cheese, like Chevre, lies somewhere in the middle.
Now consider the hardness of cheese: this is plotted on the Y axis of our periodic table. Soft cheeses are on the top row and harder cheeses, like heavier elements in the chemical periodic table, are arranged progressively on the rows below. Buffalo Mozarella is plotted top left whereas a good tangy Parmesan or a rock hard 9 year old Gouda is plotted somewhere towards the bottom right.
What’s the point of all this? Well it is simply to identify the properties of individual cheeses, so that we can organise them by their similarities and differences. Calling this a Periodic a table has a nice geeky feel, but business folk might equally well think of consultant’s 2 by 2 matrix, which does a similar job of organising information into the quadrants of the matrix (for annual rate of business growth substitute the hardness of cheese and for return on capital employed substitute the complexity of the cheese’s flavour): soft and mild, hard and mild, soft and smelly, hard and smelly. You’ve got it! It simply a way of organising complex and very important information, like the properties of cheeses!
By now my good friend is tearing her hair out: “how does this help us distinguish British cheeses from French cheeses?”, I can hear her say. The answer is that if we have chosen the axes with insight then we should be able to what distinguishes British and French cheeses. In this case the axes, hardness and complexity of flavour, do help …at least a bit. Have a look at the hundred cheeses version of the period table of cheese, although there is no clear separation of British and French cheeses, most British cheeses lie somewhere in the middle of the table: not very soft or very hard with flavours that are neither very simple nor very complex. Of course there are exceptions, like stinking Bishop, but look at the positions of Lancashire, Caerphilly, Cheshire, and Cheddar cheeses: they are all somewhere in the middle and even our strong classic blue cheeses, like Stilton and Dorset Blue Vinney, sit in the middle of the y-axis towards the right hand side.
My theory is that French cheeses probe the extremities of the periodic table more often than do British cheeses: very few British cheeses are similar to French hard mature goat’s cheese or the French strongly flavoured soft washed rind cheeses.
But this isn’t the whole story! I looked with joy at the window displays of French cheese shops which are full of small cheeses: a profusion of small cheeses with distinctive shapes, from delicate little buttons to pyramids. This is another a key difference. Most British cheeses come in sturdy rounds, like Stilton or Cheddar, whose shape is entrenched in our sense of what a British cheeses should be.
Making cheese is a craft and so there are no hard and fast rules to distinguish British and French cheeses, but differences certainly exist. Most British cheese shops stock French cheeses, and I was surprised to find that several Parisan fromageries stock good quality British cheeses. Vive la difference, variety and cultural differences are part of the fascination of cheese!