I've been eating a lot of cheese lately. That's because I spent some time judging in the New Zealand Champions of Cheese Awards, a fabulous opportunity to try dozens of the country's best cheeses and learn from some of the world's top cheese experts.

It's no secret that cheese, along with eggs, is one of the main reasons why I'll never be a vegan.

I recently had a (theoretical, thank goodness) conversation about whether I'd rather give up cheese or chocolate if I had to, and there was no question that I'd forgo chocolate if I could keep eating cheese.

Cheese is one of those wondrous foods you thank the stars that someone thought to invent way back in ancient history.

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It's a simple combination of a handful of ingredients; just milk that's heated, acidified, coagulated and separated. And yet these ingredients and this simple process produce a vast array of very different and delicious results, depending on how they're handled after that.

Think of the difference between a fresh, light and milky ricotta and a robust, tasty cheddar. It's hard to believe they're made from the same basic ingredients.

Cheese is a truly ancient food that's been around since humans first domesticated animals. As with most fermented foods, cheese was a way of preserving milk so it could be enjoyed throughout the year (these days we forget that milk is essentially a seasonal food).

There are hundreds of varieties of cheese around the world. France claims to have a different cheese for every day of the year.

Most Western countries have cheeses they call their own. Here in New Zealand there's been no shortage of innovation by cheese makers over the years.

This year's Champion of Champions in the commercial category is a real standout; a smoked goat gouda from Meyer Gouda Cheese. It's exciting to taste something so new and different.

Cheese has undergone a bit of health rehab in recent years. In the past we've been advised to take it easy on cheese, mainly due to its saturated fat content.

Now, emerging evidence seems to show that cheese doesn't have the expected harmful effect on LDL cholesterol or on markers of metabolic syndrome, raising the possibility that other factors may be at play.

A recent study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition suggests just that, after a trial on 164 participants found that eating cheese, whether full-fat or reduced-fat, had a basically neutral effect.

The reasons why this might be are still under discussion, so it's not time for a blanket "eat cheese with abandon" recommendation. But it seems that looking at the whole food - what scientists term the food matrix - rather than just one component, makes sense.

There could be something in the makeup of cheese that makes a difference. Perhaps the calcium; or perhaps it's something to do with the fermentation process. Whatever the case, it's fascinating and exciting times for cheese lovers.