Serious Cheese

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Serious Cheese: So You Want to Be a Cheesemonger...

"Even though that complexity can be intimidating, any one of these sources will make you better informed about cheese than the average bear."

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Let's talk about how to talk about cheese. [Photograph: cwbuecheler on Flickr]

OK, so maybe you don't want to work the counter every day but you want to know at least enough to impress that cute monger at your local cheese shop. Or you just really want to be able to hold your own at the next cheese-and-beer event your friends are holding. Or you, like me, just happen to like knowing things (and no, this does not mean you're a know-it-all... much).

While the best way to learn a heck of a lot about cheese is, of course, to work with it yourself, there are a bunch of really knowledgeable people who've gone to the trouble of distilling their smarts into book form, which the rest of us can use to bone up on cheese facts. I've collected my favorite resources so that if you'd rather not wait until the next installment of this column to, for example, answer that burning question about why Morbier has that line of ash down the middle, you'll be able to satisfy your own curiosity.

4 Books and a Website

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I can't promise you'll be better informed than this guy. [Photograph: alicejamieson on Flickr]

There are many wonderful books that have been written about cheese, and you could do worse than pick up any of them, but for the time and money, there are four that I have learned the most from. Again, there are many books on cheese, and many things to love about all of them; these four are the ones that I refer to most.

  1. When I first started selling cheese, I read Max McCalman's Cheese: A Connoisseur's Guide to the World's Best from front to back. McCalman is the maĆ®tre fromager at Artisanal, the cheese-centric New York restaurant and shop, and is easily one of the country's experts on the topic. Cheese: ACGttWB is a straight-forward assay of the relative characteristics of many of the world's best known cheeses, and a thorough perusal of the tome will equip any reader to speak knowledgeably about the difference in production and flavor between Ticklemore and Garrotxa (and even how to pronounce the latter). McCalman's other books—The Cheese Plate and Mastering Cheese—are also extremely worthwhile, but if I had to pick just one, I would pick this one.
  2. While less encyclopedic than many volumes, I really like Laura Werlin's Cheese Essentials for its clarity and approachability. The book is broken down into types of cheese—unripened, bloomy-rind, blue, hard, etc.—and includes recipes and serving suggestions for the different types of cheese. She is also very bullish on American craft cheeses, which, while they are now more established than they were when the book was first published, is a good reminder that cheeseries in this country are now producing a number of delicious products. As a bonus, Werlin does a good job of talking about various aspects of cheese science without getting into wonky territory.
  3. On the other hand, if you do want to get into wonky territory, I've had a good time paging through American Farmstead Cheese: The Complete Guide to Making and Selling Artisan Cheeses, by Paul Kindsedt. This book is definitely not as user-friendly as the previous two, but it has a wealth of technical information and details that books for a more casual audience elide over. If you've got a really hard question about what makes a cheese the way it is, or if you're ready to become super cool and start aging cheese in your spare room, this is a book you should check out.
  4. It seems unlikely that any reader of Serious Eats is really unfamiliar with Harold McGee's On Food and Cooking, but did you know that the book's very first chapter is on milk and cheese? While it's a tiny fraction of all the cool stuff inside the book, McGee has a wealth of information on the science and history of cheesemaking, making this book an essential stop in any theory-of-cheese expedition.
  5. Finally, I would be remiss if I didn't mention an incredibly inspirational and useful web page, meticulously maintained by David B. Fankhauser, a professor at University of Cincinnati Clermont College. With detailed instructions on everything from making blue cheese to getting rennet from a fresh calf's stomach, Fankhauser makes cheesemaking seem like something anyone can do. Which, apparently, it is. If you are thinking about cheesemaking but your local library doesn't have a copy of American Farmstead Cheese, check out his website first to see if it's something you'd be into.

Cheese is a large and complex are of study. Heck, the University of Vermont has an entire institute dedicated to its study. But, even though that complexity can be intimidating, any one of these sources will make you better informed about cheese than the average bear, and that's something.

About the author: Jake Lahne is a graduate student in Food Science because he's too much of a wuss to actually work in restaurants anymore. He nevertheless is willing to offer his opinion on any number of food-related topics and specializes in cocktail culture at his own blog, Liquor is Quicker.

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