Picture this: you’re in a cheese cave, surrounded by hundreds of cheese wheels. Their rinds are imprinted with what looks to you like hieroglyphics. Would you be able to decipher it? The average consumer probably wouldn’t, since most rely on a local cheesemonger or grocer to label cheeses. But if you’re truly interested in cheese, knowing how to read a cheese rind can be extremely useful.
Region-specific cheeses, for example, must have a certified D.O.P. stamp on the rind in order to ensure legitimacy. This stamp proves that the cheese was made in the correct region, using approved cheesemaking methods. Kat Bauman of Core 77 says, “On French products you’ll see an A.O.P (possibly A.O.C), and regional American makers (like those using Wisconsin milk) use their own stamps too. Some cheeses give more subtle clues, like Spanish manchego which virtually always has a basket-weave rind, having been historically pressed in grass baskets traditional to the La Mancha region where it is produced.”
Different cheeses have different designs that mark their authenticity. Grana Padano is marked with pin dots in the shape of diamonds, as well as a four-leaf clover that confirms the wheel’s origin. Pecorino Romano is marked with pin dots, too, in the shape of sheep’s heads enclosed in a diamond.
Not only can you trace most cheeses to their region by decoding its wheel, you can even identify the exact farm or factory in which it was produced. Look out for the producer number, which is a four-digit number located above the stamp for Parmigiano Reggiano. Like wine, knowing the specific producer of a cheese can provide some insight regarding flavor and texture.
If you haven’t absorbed any information so far, absorb this: the date of fabrication (month and year) can also be found on a rind. It’s often marked in at least one place, but usually in multiple locations on the rind. This date is important to know, because the length of aging can tell you a lot about a cheese’s flavor. Usually, an older cheese will have deeper, drier, and more pungent flavors.
Photo by Core 77