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As the name denotes, these are young, mild, lactic and lemony. They can be made with starter alone or with rennet and in their life span they generally shouldn't get familiar with many moulds. They are ideal for cooking but are also great on the cheeseboard because not being too challenging to the taste buds means they are a great contrast to the stronger flavoured cheeses.
These cheeses make up an incredibly popular area of our cheese counters. The group comprises all of those brie or camembert style cheeses that sooner or later ooze lazily across your cheese board and dribble off the end (into a waiting, appreciative mouth!) These cheeses are not necessarily made with cows' milk but can be made with any variety, goat and sheep milk included.
To make soft cheeses, after the rennet has worked its magic on the milk the curds are left quite large as moisture needs to be retained, and are put into moulds. These are left for a period of time to allow the pressure of the curds to squeeze out more of the whey. The moulds are then removed and the soft curds are placed on mats.
A mould called Penicillium Candidum is introduced to the milk, sprayed onto the cheese or on to the mats that the cheese sits on. This results in the cheese growing a fluffy white coat and after a while, the inside of the cheese turning into a soft gooey paste. This is why soft cheeses are also known as 'mould ripening cheeses'. As the white coat forms, it breaks down the curd and also helps to protect the cheese.
The white coat of these cheeses can be added to with the addition of ash or charcoal, something that is predominantly associated with goats cheeses. This has benefits in terms of aesthetics - the cheese is distinctive to look at, and also in the fact that charcoal is known to be an effective aid for the digestion.
One of the many misconceptions people have of cheese, is that these soft, runny cheeses are the most fattening for you. This is probably because the cheeses resemble cream in their consistency. The truth, happily for those goo-addicts among you, is that because the curds in a soft cheese are kept to a bigger size, the cheese has a higher proportion of moisture in it, and therefore less fat.
What does it all mean? We all want cut and dried answers - does God exist? What is the meaning of life? Well you can't always be definite and the world of cheese is no different. 'Semi-soft', or 'semi-hard' cheese encompasses the genre of stinky cheeses known as Washed Rind, (pinky orange coats), and cheeses made using the washed curd recipe with natural rinds.
To wash your rind or to wash your curd? That is the question! The former can be anything from a mildly elastic texture to a fairly soft one, after the bacteria on the surface of the cheese creates a surface ripening effect, breaking down milk proteins to give a wickedly aromatic soft gloop. So you may see that a washed rind cheese eaten a little young will be semi soft but give the little chap some quality time and T.L.C. and the semi part of the description could be dispensed with.
The latter tend to stay a more firm but supple consistency because 'washed curd' means exactly that, and what it achieves is a less acidic curd which remains pliable and can taste quite lactic and milky.
One thing you can always be sure of is this genre melt beautifully and should be used much more extensively in cookery - they will give a dish either a delicate but distinctive flavour (washed curd) or something down right devilish, deep rich and so darn savoury the dish will get a First at the University of Good Taste. Whatever you do with it, investigate this family thoroughly because you will find characters who are well worth getting to know.