Cheese making dates back more than 4,000 years and is believed to have originated in Asia, spreading to Europe and eventually the rest of the world. Though the name of the very first cheese monger is unknown, an ancient legend tells us that the first cheese may have been made accidentally by an Arabian merchant, who carried a supply of milk in a pouch made from a sheep’s stomach, as he set out across the desert. It is said that the rennet of the pouch’s lining combined with the heat of the sun, caused the milk to separate into curd (cheese) and whey. It's virtually impossible to compute how many different cheeses there in the world today, but most experts agree that there are between 900 and 1000 types of cheese, classified by type of milk, moisture, mold or lack of it, methods of processing, and added flavorings. We’d love to try them all, but many types of cheeses are just not available in the United States, requiring us to travel far and wide to taste some of the best cheeses of the world.
Why are some cheeses not available in the U.S. while others are? There are a couple reasons, and for a better understanding, The Daily Meal spoke with Liz Thorpe, cheese expert and author of The Cheese Chronicles. According to Thorpe, there are generally two categories under which banned cheeses fall: those that are made from raw (unpasteurized) milk and matured for less than 60 days and those that are recalled or whose import is forbidden by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for health reasons.
France is most known for producing briefly-aged, raw milk cheeses — basically any cheese that is soft, runny, creamy, and spreadable. Unless an unpasteurized cheese has been aged for at least 60 days, the U.S. considers it unsafe for consumption as it contains potentially harmful pathogens. In this case, many cheese makers produce what Thorpe calls “imitation cheeses” — cheeses with the same names as the original unpasteurized versions but made instead with pasteurized milk, making them acceptable for U.S. markets. A common example is Brie de Meaux, traditionally produced for the French market but exported here in pasteurized form.
A cheese whose importation has been temporarily banned by the FDA is Mimolette, a pasteurized cheese ripened with exposure to cheese mites (dust-like, microscopic mites that inhabit the rind).
Among the great cheeses that can be found in the U.S. only in their pasteurized forms include Vacherin Mont d’Or, a superbly creamy cheese made in both Switzerland and France from early fall to late spring; Camembert de Normandie, a smooth and runny cheese originally produced by Marie Harel in the France's Normandy region in 1791; and Selles sur Cher, a soft, slightly salty goat cheese, covered in vegetable ash, made in the French regions of Cher, Indre, and Loir-et-Cher. Read on for more information.
Haley WIllard is The Daily Meal's assistant editor. Follow her on Twitter @haleywillrd.