The time has come to open up our gastronomic history book and learn about a special process that has brought a new colour to the lives of cheese connoisseurs – smoking.
But before we get started, let’s look at how it all began. The first cheeses were made sometime around 7000 BC in Asia Minor and the Near East. In fact, Stone Age artefacts have been found in Switzerland that point to cheese making, as it is likely that cheese making was invented independently by different peoples at different times.
However, the first cheeses may have been made earlier, sometime between 8000 and 3000 BC, by nomadic and migratory groups of people. It is not known whether they were Arabs, Turks or other peoples who kept milk in leather pans or in sealable containers made from the bladders and other internal organs of animals, which curdled and ripened into cheese thanks to enzymes and bacteria. Then, many pastoral and livestock-keeping peoples began to produce cheese in conditions suited to the climate.
The history of cheese smoking dates back to the Roman Empire. Archaeological excavations show that smoking was used in addition to drying and salting to increase the shelf life of cheese. They were thus able to extend the shelf life of their food long before the invention of artificial refrigeration.
Europe also has a long history of smoking. In the past, you could find a smoker in almost every village house. The reason for its development was to preserve food and to give it a characteristic flavour.
How is a smoked cheese made?
Cow’s milk, buffalo milk, sheep’s milk and goat’s milk are all used to make a variety of cheeses, most of which can be smoked – smoked cheeses made from cow’s milk are the most common type of cheese sold commercially across Europe.
Quality cheese making is a long and skilled process, which includes good smoking.
This process takes place in two separate chambers. In the combustion chamber, the wood is glowing at 400 °C, and from there the smoke is led through a pipe to the other room, where the smoking itself takes place. Here the temperature is around 15-30 °C. Depending on the type of cheese, smoking can take from a few hours to several days. Cheeses flavoured in this way are the most durable and, not least, perhaps the most delicious.
A relatively quick process that involves heating the cheeses. It requires the use of wood with a moisture content that produces not only smoke but also steam when burnt. Depending on the type of cheese, this is carried out at temperatures of between 30 and 50 °C and the material to be smoked can remain in the smoke for 2 hours or even a whole day. The aim here is to achieve a more intense aromatic, smoky flavour rather than a longer shelf life.
As the name suggests, in this case the cheeses are not smoked with natural wood, but are enriched with flavourings, mostly using artificially produced smoke flavourings (smoke solution) and colouring agents.
Without a doubt, cold-smoked cheeses are the most durable and the most delicious. The method is similar to that for meat. The ready-made cheeses are placed in smoking chambers and the perfect result is achieved by burning hard, resin-free wood (including acacia, beech, walnut, hornbeam, cherry) at high temperatures (180-300 degrees) and following extremely strict hygiene standards.
Cheeses produced by hot smoking are aromatic, but their shelf life is increased by other methods rather than smoking. The same is true for cheeses produced under industrial conditions using smoke solution.
But what kind of cheese can be smoked?
Although cheeses are classified in many different ways by experts according to rennet, rennet ingredients and production methods, for us consumers, it is the taste that matters most. This is no different for smoked cheeses.
Cheeses that are particularly soft, creamy, curd-like and hard-ripened, aromatic cheeses are not suitable for smoking because of their consistency. Semi-hard and kneaded, heated cheeses are best suited to enjoyable smoked cheeses.
Almost all semi-hard cheeses are suitable for smoking, such as gouda and even edam cheese.
Hard cheeses (similar to the former, but matured for longer) such as large-hole Emmental or Gruyére also become special when cold smoked.
Among the heated, kneaded (or what many refer to as Italian-style) cheeses, mozzarella, scamorza, provolone are excellent when smoked to a pale colour. They are easily recognised by their almost golden colour.
Perhaps one of the most visually striking is the uniquely shaped, traditional summer Tatra cheese made from sheep’s milk (produced from May to September), known as oscypek in Poland and otiepok in Slovakia, an artisanal smoked delicacy that has been a protected product of origin in the European Union since 2007.
Bulk cheeses are the youngest members of the cheese family. These are made by mixing and heating several types of cheese, butter and cream according to secret recipes of the producers and usually end up in round boxes (most of them contain the smoked flavor as a smoke solution). However, there are also types that can be cut, sliced or grated, which take on their final shape and flavor after various smoking processes.
Treats with smoked cheese
Whatever cheese you choose, they tend to contain a significant amount of water and varying proportions of fat. The harder the cheese, the lower the water content.
Cheese is a good source of protein. It is rich in a number of minerals, especially calcium, and fat-soluble vitamins. It is an essential part of a balanced and varied diet.
When using smoked cheeses, it is worth bearing in mind that they are usually high in salt and their distinctive flavour determines the taste of the dishes they are used in, but it is worth adding a little where possible.
A rich smoked cheese soup, flavoured with herbs, is a substantial starter that can be prepared in minutes.
Smoked cheese soup with spices
1 medium onion
1 sprig of leek
1-2 cloves of garlic
20 dkg semi-hard smoked cheese (e.g. edamame, gouda)
2-3 sprigs of fresh thyme
2 small sprigs of rosemary
2 dl whipping cream
1 tablespoon of strudel flour
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 l meat or vegetable stock (can also be made from cubes)
freshly ground pepper to taste
Preparation: cut the onion into small cubes and the leek and garlic into thin rings. Finely grate the cheese.
In a large saucepan, fry the onions in the oil until translucent, then add the stock or vegetable stock. While it is boiling, finely chop the thyme and rosemary (peel the leaves from the woody stems beforehand). Add the herbs to the boiling stock.
Stir the flour into the cream and add the grated smoked cheese, stirring continuously to thicken the soup.
Serve hot with toast.