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The Color of Cheese

Thursday, July 22, 2010
We know that the color of a wine is an important indicator of its quality and characteristics. We can tell, before even the most tentative sniff, how old it is, perhaps how much tannin we might expect to taste, whether it was pressed from thin-skinned pinot noir grapes or the more robust cabernet sauvignon, whether the wine was allowed to ferment with the skins or without, and if it was well-cellared, stored on its side so its cork was never allowed to dry out.

The colors associated with cheese are more subtle, but can be equally informative -- if we know what we are looking for.

All cheeses begin milky white, but may develop many different colors, colors that sometimes indicate the nature of the finished cheese. A cheese's color is determined both by its production methods, and by its ingredients. Color may be a feature of either a cheese's rind, or its paste, or both.

Some rinds develop color on their own, during the ripening process. The pure white bloom on young Brie or Camembert is a mold (Penicillium candidum) that gradually develops spots of gold or rusty red, as bacterial cultures grow. Some cheeses have their rinds washed with beer during the aging process, and they usually develop dark reddish bacterial stains from Breyibacterium linens. Limburger's reddish surface is B. linens. At the far end of the bacterially-induced spectrum is the dark gray-brown and pungent rind of Sancerre's Crottins de Chavignol.

Many cheeses have protective "rinds" made of other materials. Red, black and yellow waxes are commonly applied to cheeses (such as American and English Cheddars, or Dutch Edam and Gouda) to protect and sometimes serve to label them. Dark "natural" rinds may be added, in the form of leaves (such as chestnut leaves on French Couhe-Verac, or the asphodel leaves on Puglia's Burrata), or the surface of soft cheeses may rolled in minced herbs, spices, or even toasted oatmeal (like Scotland's Caboc).

The paste takes on color as it ages, white gradually turning to straw-colored, to gold, or even to brown (like Norway’s Gjetost). Mozzarella, in Italy, is made only from the milk of water buffaloes ("mozzarella" made from cow's milk is more properly named fiore di latte). Water buffalo milk contains no carotene, a yellow-orange pigment derived from the plants they eat, so -- even if it were allowed to age (which is highly unlikely) -- the cheese would still remain pure white.

Blue- or green-veined cheeses, such as America’s Maytag Blue, England’s Stilton, France’s Roquefort, Italy’s Gorgonzola, and Spain’s Cabrales are neither blue nor green -- but show streaks of those colors where the paste has been pierced with needles bearing cultures of various Penicillium molds, such as P. roqueforti.

Many cheeses are artificially colored as well. The most common colorant is bixin (made from annatto, Bixa orellana, a small South American tree). It colors English Cheddars, "red" Cheshires and Hereford Red (a deep orange Leicester-like cheese). In Scotland, Dunlop and Mull of Kintyre are deep-yellow cheddars colored with annatto. Australian Moyarra has an annatto stripe through the center of the cheese. American Colby and Longhorn are pale (if deeply colored) imitations of classic British cheeses.

Germany's Steppenkase is colored with annatto, and has its rind rubbed with it. The rinds of France's Saint-Albray are rubbed with crushed annatto seeds. English Bedwardine and Cloisterers, French Langres and Pierrre-qui-Vire, Dutch Leidens have rinds washed with bixin-laced brine.

English Sage Derby's green color is enhanced by the addition of chlorophyll (originally obtained from spinach), and Switzerland's Sapsago is colored green (and flavored) by bitter Blue Melilot, Melilotis coerulea. Other plant materials that once provided cheese colorants included beet and carrot roots, marigold petals, and saffron stamens.

Again, as with wine, we can tell a lot about a cheese from its smell -- but that's a subject for another day, and one that not all readers will find appetizing!

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