11 Things You Might Not Know About Cheese

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Happy National Cheese Lover’s Day! Whether your thing is cream cheese, fancy cheese, spray cheese or night cheese, when it comes to this dairy product, there’s a whole lot to love. Here are 11 things you might not have contemplated about cheese—from royal-wedding cheese to the stinkiest cheese to couch-cushion cheese to the ultimate macaroni and cheese.

1. QUEEN VICTORIA RECEIVED A BEHEMOTH CHEESE AS A WEDDING PRESENT

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During the celebration of her wedding to her first cousin Prince Albert in 1840, Queen Victoria received the gift of a 1250-pound, 9-foot-diameter cheddar. It was produced by a cooperative of cheesemakers from two villages, according to Steven W. Jenkins in Cheese Primer. “Perhaps baffled by how to serve it, she sent the cheese off on a tour of England,” Jenkins writes. “When attempts were made to return it to her, she refused to take it back.”

2. ANDREW JACKSON GAVE NEW MEANING TO THE TERM “BIG CHEESE”

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Fans of The West Wing might know a thing or two about this one. In 1835, a farmer in New York honored Andrew Jackson with a 1400-pound hulking hunk of cheddar cheese. Not knowing what to do with the mammoth cheddar, Jackson left it in the White House lobby to age for two years until he decided to throw his last public reception on George Washington’s birthday. “Everyone from Supreme Court justices to stable boys jammed the East Room to wish him well—and eat cheese,” writes Albert Marrin in Old Hickory: Andrew Jackson and the American People. “Oh, what a glorious day for cheese! Carpets grew slippery with cheese. Pockets filled with wedges of cheese. ‘All you heard was cheese; all you smelled was cheese',” a guest reported.”

3. THERE IS A SOMEWHAT OFFICIAL “WORLD’S STINKIEST CHEESE”

Speaking of the smell of cheese, in 2004 researchers at Cranfield University in England used an “electronic nose,” along with a group of 19 human sniffers, to analyze cheese odors. A soft cheese from northern France called Vieux Boulogne was determined to be the most pungent. In fact, it even beat out Epoisses de Bourgogne, a cheese so stinky that it has apparently been banned from public transportation throughout France.

The Guardian had the Vieux Boulogne couriered to its offices, and reporter Patrick Barkham alleged that the cheese had “an aroma of six-week-old earwax.” He also wrote, “From a safe distance of 50 metres, the cheese emitted a pleasant eau de farmyard, replete with dung and Barbour jackets.”

4. THE WISCONSIN “CHEESEHEAD” BEGAN WITH A BURNT COUCH CUSHION

While France is known for its elegant (and sometimes nostril-assaulting) cheeses, our very own Wisconsin holds its own in the cheese department. The No. 1 producer of cheese in the United States, the state license plate boasts “America’s Dairyland” and state legislators even honored Lactococcus lactis, the bacterium used to make Colby, cheddar, and Monterey Jack, as Wisconsin’s official microbe. But not only is Wisconsin home to a multitude of cheese producers, it just might be the official HQ of cheese lovers worldwide. After all, nothing but true, deep, utterly mad love would possess a person to wear a wedge of cheese as a hat.

The idea for the foam Cheesehead, now worn proudly by Wisconsinites at Green Bay Packers games, came to Milwaukee native Ralph Bruno nearly 27 years ago on a whim. Bruno told the Los Angeles Times that he was reupholstering his mother’s couch when he discovered he had a leftover cushion. He randomly began burning holes into the foam rubber until his mother shooed him outdoors because of the stench. Out in the yard, Bruno painted the cushion yellow and affixed it to his head. Then he wore it to a baseball game between the Chicago White Sox and the Milwaukee Brewers. It caught on throughout the world of Wisconsin sports.

5. CHEESE BRINE IS AN ANTIDOTE FOR MILWAUKEE’S ICY ROADS

If you thought nothing could top the foam Cheesehead in Wisconsinites’ dedication to all things cheese, think again. Last month, Milwaukee introduced a first-time program to repurpose cheese brine to keep its roads from freezing. Because rock salt is expensive, the brine was mixed with the salt to make it stretch further. The natural salts in the brine also help it to break down the ice and the snow.

6. THE HOLES IN SWISS CHEESE ARE NOT CAUSED BY NIBBLING MICE

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The holes in Swiss cheese, oddly called “eyes,” are caused by carbon dioxide gas bubbles that are produced by bacteria during fermentation, according to Don Vorhees in Why Do Donuts Have Holes? Fascinating Facts About What We Eat and Drink. The longer the cheese ferments, the larger the holes grow. By adjusting the various bacterial growth conditions like temperature, acidity, and the length of the curing time, a cheesemaker can control the size of the holes.

7. THERE’S A VELVEETA SHORTAGE AND IT’S “DIP SEASON”

Kraft confirmed to NBC News earlier this month that the memos the food company released over the past few months regarding limited supplies of Velveeta until as late as February 23 were indeed true. The cheese-loaf shortage is apparently due to Kraft moving Velveeta’s production lines from a plant in Minnesota to another plant in Illinois. “Those dates are well after the big game [the Super Bowl],” writes NBC’s Ben Popken. “During that time, and the playoffs leading up to it, the processed cheese product is a popular base for dips.”

NPR referred to the shortage as a possible “Cheesepocalypse.”

8. MOLDY CHEESE: WHEN IN DOUBT, TOSS IT OUT

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It’s well known that mold on cheese isn’t always something to worry about and sometimes it’s even to be enjoyed, but what about those times when a cheese should be thrown away? According to registered dietician Katherine Zeratsky on the Mayo Clinic’s website, soft cheeses like cream cheese, ricotta cheese and cottage cheese that have grown mold should be discarded. So should any type of cheese that’s crumbled, sliced, or shredded.

Hard and semisoft cheeses like Colby, cheddar, Parmesan and Swiss aren’t easily penetrated by mold, however, so you can cut away the moldy part and eat the rest. And of course cheeses like Camembert and Brie (and Gorgonzola—yum!), which mold is actually used to make, are completely safe to eat.

“If you’re not sure what type of cheese you have or what to do if it grows mold, the safe course is to discard it,” Zeratsky says.

9. THE VIRGIN MARY GRILLED CHEESE WAS SURPRISINGLY MOLD FREE

Back in 2004, there was that crazy grilled cheese sandwich that supposedly bore the face of the Virgin Mary and sold for $28,000 on eBay. The seller, Diana Duyser of Hollywood, Fla., apparently claimed that the sandwich was completely mold free, even though it was stored in a not-completely-airtight container. Brendan Koerner of Slate decided to exhaustively analyze how the sandwich failed to sprout a single spore of mold. He supplies several hypotheses, including the idea that the trans fats in the margarine repelled the mold and that the bread was full of mold-prohibitive preservatives. But, surprisingly, he also believes it very well could have been the cheese.

“The cheese filling, aside from contributing to the sandwich’s fat content, also added calcium to the mix,” Koerner explains. “Calcium is a mild mold retardant, though less so than margarine. The acidic cheese may have also altered the pH level of the sandwich; bread mold grows best when the pH is more or less neutral.”

10. AMERICA’S MOST POPULAR CHEESE DISH IS MAC AND CHEESE

Photo courtesy of Chef John Folse & Company

The award for most popular cheese recipe in the United States goes to macaroni and cheese, according to the International Dairy Foods Association. The largest macaroni and cheese (above), according the Guinness World Records, weighed 2,469 pounds and was made by Cabot Creamery Cooperative in Fulton Square in New Orleans. The recipe called for 286 pounds of cheese, 575 pounds of cooked macaroni, 56 pounds of butter, 26 pounds of flour, 1100 pounds of milk, and 61 pounds of dry seasoning.

11. IT’S POSSIBLE TO BE A PROFESSIONAL CHEESE SCULPTOR

Sarah Kaufmann sculptures

There are three professional cheese sculptors in the United States, according to NPR. Sarah Kaufmann, also known as the “Cheese Lady,” is one of them. Kaufmann carves cheese for Super Bowl parties, weddings, corporate functions, state fairs, and dairy-association events. Her sculptures have ranged from a 120-pound Mickey Mouse to a 300-pound gorilla to various TV personalities (Jay Leno, Matt Lauer, Marc Summers) to a six-foot long model of the USS Reagan aircraft carrier. “It’s much more delightful than working with wood or stone,” Kaufmann told NPR. “You can snack while you work.”

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January 20, 2014 - 11:45am
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