Some artisanal cheeses, especially goat cheeses, come with a thin coating of ash on their exterior. Some consumers have mistaken this perfectly edible black layer on cheeses coated in ash for mold, and have turned away from many delightful cheeses as a result. Cheeses coated in ash are usually found refrigerated in the section of a store or gourmet shop dedicated to cheeses, and many of them are unique regional specialties with unique flavors. There are several reasons for adding a thin coating of ash to a cheese during the manufacturing process.
One of the most pragmatic reasons for coating a cheese in ash is that ash has come to be associated with handmade, artisanal cheeses. Purchasers who place a higher value on handmade cheeses may be more drawn to cheeses coated in ash, since they perceive them as uniquely hand made. The ash also creates a distinctive and striking look, which some people find quite appealing. Especially when cheeses coated in ash are creamy looking inside, the ash can create a stark and distinctive contrast.
However, there are also culinary reasons for cheeses to be coated in ash. To understand these reasons, it helps to know how cheese is made. All cheese starts with fresh milk, which is boiled and mixed with rennet to encourage it to curdle. The curds are scooped out and usually mixed with beneficial molds before being pressed into forms. The young cheese is allowed to age into mature, rich, flavorful cheese. Small changes in the handling of cheese will dramatically alter the end flavor.
Coating a cheese in ash before it starts to age will reduce the formation of an extremely hard rind and cheese, as a general rule. The end cheese will be creamy and soft, unless it is allowed to age for a prolonged period of time. Cheeses coated in ash are often sold as young, soft cheeses, with more zesty, tart flavor. Some cheeses coated in ash are also layered with one or more strips of ash, which can be seen when a wheel of cheese is wedged.
By coating a cheese in ash, the cheesemaker also promotes the formation of beneficial molds, and discourages unwanted mold which may cause the cheese to go bad. Ash also mellows the acidity of the cheese, making it less sharp to the taste of consumers. The layer of carbonized material on cheeses coated in ash also helps to protect them during handling and shipping.
Traditionally, the ash for coating cheeses has been made from an assortment of trees and vegetables, depending on the region. Modern cheesemakers use food-grade ash to ensure that it is safe to eat. The ash is also finely pulverized to make a powder, so it will not appear chunky or flaky, or disrupt the texture of the cheese. Many cheese stores are happy to offer tastes of all of their products, including cheeses coated in ash, so do not be afraid to ask for a sample if you are curious.