Clifton Fadiman’s quote “Cheese is milk’s leap toward immortality” brings to mind a question I hear quite often: How long will this cheese last? I usually meet this question with the unlikely reply, “Cheese doesn’t go bad… it just gets worse.” I say this with the exclusion of the fresh cheese family: Ricotta, cottage cheese, fresh mozzarella, mascarpone, crème fraiche, etc… The longevity of these cheeses should be treated similar to that of milk or cream depending on the fat content of the cheese. The higher the fat content in the fresh cheese the longer it will last. The high moisture to salt ratio in these cheeses allows for an environment that encourages spoilage. One way to combat this is to add active cultures to the mix, such as those contained in yogurt and sour cream. These fight off the detrimental pathogens which can enter the scene. We can also alter these fresh cheeses by draining their moisture or salting them. Provolone is actually made the same way as Mozzarella! With its dryer, saltier environment than Mozzarella, Provolone can age indefinitely. (At least as far as food safety is concerned.)
These few aforementioned manipulations to fresh curds (AKA: fresh cheeses) are just the tip of the iceberg regarding the many preservation methods leading to the wide variety of cheeses we see today. The cursory step of separating the curd from the whey is one of the original forms of biotechnology. This basic step, transforming a liquid to a solid (and a thinner liquid – whey – as a byproduct) allowed civilizations to exist in environments not bountiful enough to consistently supply adequate protein sources. In an era predating refrigeration, cheese was a means of storing milk weeks, months, even years. Not bad compared to the day or two a resident of the Fertile Crescent could expect from unaltered milk.
Cheese making techniques had come a long way by the time of the Romans. Accounts of cheeses with a suspicious resemblance to Parmaggiano were being described in the areas to the north of previous Etruscan territories. (Parmaggiano wasn’t actually referred to as such until the time of the Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron. Surely at that point, it had been produced for more centuries than one could count on their fingers.) Hard durable cheeses such as Parmaggiano – or to name another cheese of many, the sheep cheeses of Tuscany that predated the Roman era, and certainly were quite similar to the Pecorino Tuscano of today – were a means of nourishment a soldier could travel with for months in the hot Mediterranean climate. Soldiers were freed from the worry of foraging for fresh food. Cheese was antiquities version of an MRE!
Back to the original question of longevity: Real cheese is alive. Suffocation is the enemy. Plastic wrap, plastic bags, and other airtight containers should be avoided in all cases except the previously mentioned fresh cheeses. These storage methods trap in stale air, as well as prohibiting the cheese from venting moisture and other byproducts. Once a soggy oxygen deprived environment develops, anaerobic bacteria present themselves. This is a bad thing. This is spoilage. Butcher paper, parchment paper, and wax paper avoid this problem. The cheese is allowed to dry out as it would do anyway if were intentionally aged in a full wheel; it just dries faster in a cut wedge. Mold will still grow on the cheese. Generally these molds are the same ones found naturally on the cheese’s rind. Just cut off the moldy part, and you’re good to go. Eventually the cheese will get stale, but not much worse. In general, long before the cheese is ever dangerous to ones health, it will taste awful. Let your taste buds guide you.
As for refrigeration: As previously stated, the invention of refrigeration followed the advent of cheese making by many millennia. (How many? We don’t know, due to the fact that cheese making even predates written history.) Refrigeration merely slows down the lifecycle of the cheese. Any cheese can stay outside of refrigeration; it just won’t last quite as long. For a piece of Noord Holander Gouda this means 3 months outside refrigeration vs. 6 (or even more) months inside. For Taleggio, this could mean 12 days as apposed to 3 or 4 weeks (depending on the room temperature). In the case of vacuum sealed cheeses, we are dealing with what accounts to suspended animation. The vacuum created generally halts any biological activity that would otherwise occur. Once the seal is broken the cheese should always be stored in a breathable environment.
If you have a long trip ahead of you and shudder at the thought of rest stop, or airplane food; cheese could be your savior. Just grab a few chunks of Parmaggianno Reggiano, and drizzle some aged balsamic vinegar over it. Take some Asiago Allevo, and a few slices of proscuitto di Parma (another prehistoric preserved product.) Prima Donna and Pecans… The list goes on. Cheese will go distance with you. If you’re ever in doubt, just give it a taste. When stored properly, you can use my motto as a guide, “Cheese doesn’t go bad… it just gets worse.”
Seth J. Kalkstein