Should you happen to find yourself near the parish of Brockworth, Gloucester, 100 miles west of London, perched atop a county bluff on the last Monday in May, you may inadvertently end up hurtling down it along with a few dozen other like-minded lunatics in pursuit of a nine pound wheel of double Gloucester cheese.
Welcome to the Cooper’s Hill Cheese Rolling and Wake, est. 1826. This is no quaint little rise in the countryside mind. This is a hill so steep it’s practically vertical and participants, all of whom have signed fatality waivers, tend to reach terminal velocity inside the first ten metres, rolling and bouncing over whichever appendage makes contact with the turf first. The cheese itself can reach speeds of 70km an hour on the way down, and unlike the human competitors usually crosses the line without breaking a collarbone first.
This is a roundabout way of demonstrating that the world of cheese is an interesting and often surprising one full of varieties, textures, origins and slightly odd anecdotes far too numerous to quantify. So here, in no particular order, are twelve cheeses that top the planet in their very own unique and somewhat peculiar categories. Enjoy.
PRAISE BE TO CHEESES
Hardest cheese: Chhurpi
A traditional Nepalese cheese, chhurpi is made from the milk of a yak that’s been raised at an altitude above 10,000 feet. After separating the whey from the curds with a squeeze of lime or buttermilk, the curds are cured, smoke dried and packed down into dense, teeth-cracking sticks. They’re an excellent source of protein and nutrition, particularly during harsh Himalayan winters, and can keep for years. Interestingly, the cheese has recently become a popular high-end dog treat in the west since locals began linking the unusually glossy coats and strong teeth of scavenging dogs with the chhurpi scraps discarded in village bins.
Softest cheese: Buffalo mozzarella
Made from the milk of Italian water buffaloes, this oh-so-Mediterranean mozzarella is so startlingly different from our own grated supermarket version you won’t know yourself. The name is derived from mozarre, which is to cut by hand; buffalo mozzarella is kneaded, rolled and stretched in hot whey before being braided and knotted and is often referred to as ‘the pearl of the table’. The first time I tasted it was at a cafe in Malta, stirred through a fragrant salad of roma tomatoes, rocket and balsamic glaze. Well friend, let me tell you it was like eating clouds. Collapsing into my chair, I groaned and dribbled with pleasure, my eyes rolling back in my head and my arms dangling slack at my sides while several other diners edged cautiously to my table, convinced I was throwing a fit.
Rarest cheese: Elk cheese
There’s a farm named Älgens Hus (Elk House) near the town of Bjurholm, Sweden where owners Christer and Ulla Johansson produce a trio of cheeses (a washed rind, a blue, and a feta) using the milk of their three prize elk, Juna, Haelga and Gullen. Their maximum capacity is 300kg of cheese per year, served exclusively in their restaurant. If you’d like to try it, be prepared to pay around a thousand bucks a kilo. As exy as that sounds though, it’s still not the priciest in the world.
Most expensive cheese: Pule
Pule was already exclusive, but in 2013 tennis champ Novak Djokovic bought the entire 2013 output from the single farm that produces it with the aim of stocking his chain of restaurants. About 50 miles west of the Serbian capital Belgrade and with a herd of just 130, Zasavica farm is said to be the only place in the world where donkeys are milked for cheese. The product is white, crumbly, said to taste a bit like feta and is exceedingly time consuming and costly to make. Just one kilo of pule requires around 26 litres of donkey milk to produce and these days (post Djokovic) will set you back an easy $2,000.
Fakest cheese: Easy Cheese™
Introduced in 1965, you may be shocked, surprised and even more shocked to hear… It’s NOT ACTUALLY CHEESE. While natural products like casein, whey proteins, milk
fat and water make up the physical bulk, it’s missing all the natural elements that make cheese cheese. Flavour is introduced via lab-made chemical compounds, and to describe the physical structure and viscosity of the stuff I would have to start using terms like ‘cheese matrix’ and ‘negatively charged glycosylated hydrophilic tails’, so let’s not and say we did. But if you’re wondering how they make that particularly Trumpish shade of orange, the pigment is ‘apocarotenal’.
Hairiest cheese: Tulum peynir
Australian cheesemaker Trevor Hart was travelling Europe studying traditional forms of non-commercial cheese production when he stumbled across a very particular type of goats’ cheese in Turkey. “It’s a very, very ancient thing, and what I came to realise is they stuffed the cheese in the skin of a goat.” Never mind that it looks like the aftermath of a scalping, tuck in and embrace the creaminess.
Most divisive cheese: Breast milk cheese
When new parents, New York chef Daniel Angerer and his wife Lori, found themselves with a surplus of breastmilk, Mr Angerer (being a creative sort of fellow) began experimenting with it in the kitchen of his restaurant. Though he didn’t have clearance to do so, he served the soft cheese he had created to his diners. The controversial concoction inevitably found its way into the local media, so by the time food critic Gael Green turned up for a taste the New York Health Department had shut the whole operation down. Undeterred, Green managed to secure a small slice from the chef’s private stash for review. While he found the flavour bland (but not unpleasant), he stated it was “the unexpected texture that’s so off-putting… strangely soft, bouncy, like panna cotta”. While this description suggests that Mr Green hadn’t quite separated his gastronomic imagination from the source, it actually doesn’t sound all that bad. Does it?
Oldest cheese: Mummies milk
This is really quite awful, I’m so sorry about this but the oldest recognisable cheese ever discovered was during the exhumation of a pair of Chinese mummies. It wasn’t buried with them, or even next to them… The cheese was found, and this is really disgusting, in their necks. Ew, ew, I think I may be sick. The mummies were buried around 3,800 years ago, which makes their yucky neck cheese the oldest ever identified. Dairy breaks down incredibly quickly, however these morsels were perfectly preserved thanks to the style of mummification which was to effectively vacuum pack the bodies in cowhide.
Stinkiest cheese: Epoisses
Not unlike durian, Epoisses is so stinky that it’s been banned on public transport in France. Made from raw cow’s milk, its most famous fan was Napoleon, it’s banned in the US (which is probably less to do with the smell and more that France refused to help invade Iraq ) and is said to smell like feet, arse and rotting flesh with a whiff of sulphur thrown in. Apparently though its stinky crown is under threat from another French beauty, Vieux Boulogne, whose rind is washed in beer and commonly said to smell strongly of eau de cow shit. Sacrebleu!
Most politically charged event involving cheese: Naval Battle of the Cheese
In 1865 Brazil and Uruguay (both naval mights at the time, and yes I was as surprised as you are) were locked in a war about something or other when there came a mighty battle on the seas off the coast of Montevideo. During the fighting one of the Uruguayan captains found his ship low on ammunition and, when no one had a better idea, ordered his men to load the guns with stale Dutch cheese (Edam to be precise) from the ship’s stores. Perhaps the most improbable part of this story is that his solution was extraordinarily effective. One of the wheels scored a direct hit on an enemy ship and exploded on impact, killing two sailors and shredding the sails with cheese shrapnel. The Brazilian captain ordered a hasty retreat after which he presumably cracked open a packet of Jatz, began picking up the (cheese) pieces and tried to decide how he was going to explain all this to his boss.
Grossest cheese: Milbenkäse
The Germans take a perfectly good soft cheese, namely quark, roll the pieces in salt and caraway, then leave them in a container of rye flour and live cheese mites looking exactly like cat turds in a particularly popular sandpit. Over the next three months the mites are left to nibble delicately on the cheese while decorating it with their excretions. Serve with lavosh and a sense of adventure.
Deadliest cheese: Casu Marzu
If you were to visit Italy and decide, upon perusing a menu, that this sounded like
an exotic morsel to add to your cheese board, you’d be right. However one would hope the waiter might translate before you overcommitted; this is maggot cheese. Not as in it reminds one of maggots, it is literally rotting cheese full of live, wriggling maggot larvae which, I might add, can jump up to six inches when disturbed. But go on, I dare you…
BONUS: Silliest cheese names in the world
Stinking Bishop, Pantysgawn, Vampire Cheese, Slack Ma Girdle, Yarg. I’m serious.