The Dynamics of Cheese Names
A full list of cheese names may be as varied as the cheeses themselves.
Reading Time: 5 minutes
Did you ever wonder about all the cheese names out there and how a particular cheese got its name? I have lots of fun naming my goats, with each generation having a particular theme, so I guess it’s only natural that I would be just as intrigued with cheese names!
To start with, why is cheese called cheese? While the official origin of the word “cheese” is unknown, the Latin root caseus and the proto-indo-European root (kwat — meaning “to ferment”) probably form the basis for the current day word. But when it comes to specific types of cheeses, the source of the cheese names may be as varied as the cheeses themselves. Here’s a look at some of the ways that popular cheeses around the world got their names.
Species of Dairy Animal:
Many cheese names are directly related to the type of milk that is used to make them. While all milk can be made into cheese, and all varieties of cheese can really be made with any milk, some cheeses can only be called that cheese name if made with a certain species of milk. For example …
1. Chèvre — This classic soft goat cheese is made from goat milk and is called chèvre because chèvre means “goat” in French. Of course, you can follow a chèvre recipe and use cow’s milk and you will get a soft, fresh cheese, but you’d best not call it chèvre as that would be an insult to the goats!
2. Manchego — Named for the Manchego breed of sheep, whose milk is used to make this delicious semi-hard cheese in the La Mancha region of Spain.
3. Buffalo Mozzarella — Regular mozzarella is made from cow’s milk. Buffalo mozzarella is made from the milk of the water buffalo.
Probably the most common method of naming a cheese is to refer to the region or specific location where that cheese is made. In Europe, a number of cheeses have even been granted Protected Geographical Status, which means that only cheeses from that specific location can be named that name. Some popular cheese names that are related to their specific locale include:
1. Roquefort — The famous blue cheese that originated in Roquefort, France.
2. Cheddar — Named after an English village near an area with many caves for aging.
3. Colby — Named for a small town in Wisconsin where the cheesemaker who came up with the process lived. His name was Steinwand, not as catchy for a cheese name as Colby!
4. Humboldt Fog — In my classes, this is often mentioned by students as a favorite type of cheese. It’s a mold-ripened goat cheese with a line of ash running through it. It is named after the California county in which it is made, paying homage to the fog that rolls in each morning on the Humboldt Bay.
Cheesemakers and Marketers:
Many popular cheeses are named after the makers and marketers who made them famous. Sometimes the name is related to a person, and sometimes to a group of people. Take for example:
1. Monterey Jack — This cheese was being made in Monterey, California and originally was just called Monterey cheese. A ruthless landowner, David Jack, decided to slap his name on it and began marketing it under this new name.
2. Swiss Cheese — Many Americans refer to this as a type of cheese, but it’s actually a family of Alpine cheeses that was introduced to locals in Wisconsin when a large number of Swiss immigrants moved to that area. The locals began to refer to the cheeses they could buy from the Swiss families as Swiss cheeses.
3. Trappist Cheese — Typically made from cow’s milk, this semi-hard cheese is often washed in Belgian ales and was originally developed by Trappist monks.
Yet another source of cheese names has to do with how that cheese is made.
1. Ricotta — This word means “re-cooked” in Italian. It is made by re-cooking, or heating to high temperature, the whey leftover from making some other type of cheese. Often home-cheesemakers make whole milk ricotta instead of whey ricotta in order to get a higher volume of curds.
2. Cheddar — While Cheddar originally got its name from the region where it was made, the noun cheddar has been turned into a verb (cheddaring) to describe the process of stacking and flipping slabs of curds during the make process.
3. Queso Fresco — This literally means “fresh cheese,” referring to the fact that it is made fresh and eaten right away without aging.
4. Burrata — This word means “buttered” and probably refers to the fact that this delectable creation is made by taking a piece of warm mozzarella and creating a dumpling, filling it with something buttery and creamy such as un-stretched pieces of mozzarella soaked in cream.
When it comes to home cheesemaking, one of the fun things you get to do once you’ve made your creation is to name it yourself. Whether you’re making a fresh or an aged goat cheese, maybe you’ll want to pay homage to someone you love. Here are a few examples of cheese names based on loved ones:
1. Cosmo — This was a version of flavored chèvre that my friends Linda and Larry Faillace named after one of their favorite cheese customers.
2. A Cheese Called Sue — Made by the Haystack Mountain Creamery in my hometown of Longmont, Colorado and named after one of their cheesemakers as well as being a play on words from the Johnny Cash song, “A Girl Named Sue.” It is washed with a local beer called G’Night from Oscar Blues Brewing and was made in tribute to Sue’s late husband, Gordon Knight, who died fighting a local wildfire in the nearby mountains in 2002.
3. Ricotta ala Capella — This is the version of ricotta that my students get to make at my farm-to-table classes right after milking one of my favorite Nubian does, Capella.
So whether it’s a special place, person, or even a goat that you’re paying tribute to, naming cheeses is fun and can make a world of difference in how well that cheese will sell. If I am ever able to have goat cheese for sale, I think I will name one for each doe in my herd!
Originally published in the September/October 2019 issue of Goat Journal and regularly vetted for accuracy.