In its simplest form, cheese consists of milk (usually from cows, but it can also come from goats, sheep or other livestock) mixed with an acid-like vinegar or rennet that separates the whey from the curds. Then, the curds are shaped and often aged. Terroir, though, is responsible for all the different shapes, textures and flavors.
Since cheese is essentially a reflection of place—the vegetation, climate and soil—it's really worth traveling the world to taste it all (as if you needed persuasion). So the next time you're choosing a vacation, consider bumping the local cheese (ahem) culture to the top of your list. Here are eight destinations you shouldn’t overlook.
Mexican cheese making dates back to the Spanish conquest during the 16th century when Europeans first brought dairy to the region. Today, it’s home to more than 40 varieties, and certain states, like Oaxaca and Chihuahua, have their own signature cheeses. Look out for soft queso fresco, salty queso añejo, crumbly cotija and firm rounds of queso panela.
Historically, the Brits have a bad reputation when it comes to their traditional food culture. But when cheese making is concerned, that bad rap is completely undeserved. The island is home to more than 700 cheeses, including genuine cheddar from the village of the same name in Somerset. Stilton, with its distinctive blue veins produced by piercing a cylinder of cow’s-milk cheese with needles, is a well-known favorite. But that's just the tip of the iceberg. Striking red Leicester cheese gets its orange color from annatto, while Wales lays claim to semisoft Caerphilly, as well as a variety of nutty sheep’s-milk cheeses.
Traditional wheels of Gouda cheese on display on cobblestones at Alkmaar cheese market, The Netherlands | Photo: Tim Graham/Getty Images
Forget everything you think you know about Gouda—there’s much more to this legendary cheese than squishy logs wrapped in red-brown wax. The Dutch, one of the biggest consumers of cow’s milk per capita in the world, have perfected this cheese over time. In fact, they’ve been making it since at least 1184, making Gouda not only one of the most popular cheeses in the world but also one of the oldest.
The cheeses of Portugal come in all shapes, sizes and milk varieties. Although most rennets are derived from cows, some Portuguese cheeses instead rely on a unique enzyme made from the cardoon thistle. It lends a distinct sour yet vegetal flavor to cheeses like Serra da Estrela and Azeitão. They tend to be on the soft side, so just remove the leathery rind on the top and dig in with a crusty piece of bread.
Step aside, paneer. From the south all the way into the northernmost reaches of the mountains, you'll find a whole slew of cheeses on the subcontinent. Chewy Qudam and aged Kalari both hail from Kashmir, while hard Chhurpi is made from yak’s milk high in the Himalayas.
Anyone who’s ever helped themselves to a breakfast buffet in Norway has encountered thin, square slices of brown gjetost on a tray. It’s one of the country’s most iconic foods. Made by boiling down whey until it’s practically caramelized and takes on a savory yet fudgy flavor, this cheese is often used as a topping on sandwiches, crackers and biscuits. But you haven’t lived until you’ve tried it on a Norwegian waffle with raspberry jam. And now a new cheese in town is giving gjetost a run for its money. Last year, a farmhouse blue cheese called Kraftkar, also from Norway, was named best in the world at the World Cheese Awards.
Cheese shelves | Photo: bikec/Getty Images
You’d be remiss to visit Croatia without trying the famous Paški Sir (or Pag Island cheese), named for the tiny Adriatic island of the same name. The island’s rocky terrain and briny air create the perfect conditions for producing this singular cheese, known for its sweet and salty qualities that are almost reminiscent of butterscotch. The sheep forage on wild herbs, which imparts an aromatic and salty quality to the milk, and the mild temperatures and dry air are also ideal for aging cheese.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that there are some great cheeses coming out of South Africa to go with all those outstanding wines. Cheddars and Goudas have been popular for years due to the country’s English and Dutch connections, but now French techniques are becoming more popular, too. Although more than half are made in the countryside and coastal waters of the Western Cape, some, like flaky Karoo Blue and melt-in-your-mouth chevres, are made further inland.
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