Charles de Gaulle is reported to have once said 'How can you govern a country that has 246 kinds of cheese?' But whatever may have been the administrative skills of that old French soldier, he was right about one thing. There are a great many kinds of cheese in the world, a tribute to the inventiveness of cheesemakers.
There's no single way to categorize all the types of cheese that have resulted from the efforts of those culinary artists. They can be separated by length of aging, texture, basic source, fat content or any other way that proves useful. But there are some fairly common divisions, even so.
Fresh cheeses are made with very little rennet, an enzyme used to curdle the milk. In these cases, the acid or acid-producing bacillus is the predominate ingredient that creates curds that form the basis of the cheese. Cottage cheese and Ricotta are familiar types, but Neufchâtel, goat's milk chèvre, and others are made as well.
The type of milk used may serve as a useful starting point. Much commercial, mass-produced cheese is made from cow's milk, of course. Not a bad cheese, but like anything mass produced the uniformity and familiarity make it something less than special. There are much more exotic types, however.
Goat's milk or sheep's milk have been used for thousands of years as the base and they make some fine cheeses. Feta is still a favorite of millions. But the truly adventurous may want to try a mozzarella made from buffalo milk or a fine cheese from the milk of a yak or reindeer. Variety is the spice of life.
The softness or hardness of cheese is a valid criterion, and it isn't always just a matter of fresh versus aged.
Parmesan cheese is a common hard type, but still very tasty. Graviera is a less well known, but still excellent choice. Cheddar may be common, but still a favorite among many, and for good reason. Emmental, a traditional product of Switzerland, should be on anyone's menu.
Softer cheeses are still enjoyed the world over, and fads change. Gouda and Roquefort would have at one time been considered the leading edge. They are still deserving of a place on the plate of any cheese gourmet. For something a little less well known, try an Edam or Kasseri.
For the softest, on those occasions when that's called for, go for the Camembert. But don't miss out on a Manouri or Mizythra, or even a Telemes.
Age is no longer as clear cut a category as might have been the case in the past. At one time, extra sharp cheddar would always have been naturally aged at least two years. But with the techniques of advanced chemistry, it's possible to alter the natural rate at which cheese ages. Still, some will still be allowed to ripen for as long as seven years. If you find one of those, you are truly a connoisseur.
Whether your tastes run to a fine cheddar only a few months old, or a Cornish Yarg that may have sat on the shelf for years, only your taste can decide whether aging is a good thing or bad.