Serious Cheese

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4 Things Every Cheese Shopper Should Know

Please welcome our new cheese columnist, Martin Johnson of thejoyofcheese.wordpress.com. He'll be chiming in every other Tuesday with some cheesiness. Take it away, Martin! —The Mgmt.

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From left: Cowgirl Creamery shop in Washington, D.C., and Montgomery Cheddar. [Photos courtesy of Cowgirl Creamery and Neal's Yard Dairy]

Shopping for cheese should be fun but for many people it's a daunting task. The reason is simple. There's too much of a good thing!

In the last 20 years, the amount of truly great cheese, cheese that has a narrative—a beginning, a middle, and an end note—to its flavor have flooded the market. Many of them are from America; many more are from Europe and a few are from elsewhere. Thirty years ago, buying cheese meant choosing from a few dozen decent options; now there are hundreds of superb ones. With so many good cheeses out there now, how do you begin to choose amongst them? Here are four things that will guide all of your future cheese-shopping trips.

1. Remember How You're Using It

That may seem pretty basic, but think about it for a second. Do you need cheddar to grate over chili or did your pal, the home brewer, just bring over a growler of his newest porter or stout? If it's the former, you need good cheese but there's no need to go to extremes; a good sharp cheddar will do the trick. If your friend brought you really good home-brewed dark beer, then you might want to get the finest traditional clothbound cheddar available so the big grassy flavors and horseradish finish can contrast with the sweet coffee-like overtones of the beer.

There are many parallels to this situation: cheese for grilled cheese sandwiches vs. a dense, nutty gruyere to elevate a fondue into melted bliss; cheese to grate over pasta vs. cheese to pair with and highlight all the complex fruity flavors a deep rich Italian red wine. The sooner you know which end of the spectrum you're shopping for, the faster you can narrow your options from many to a few.

2. Choose Your Cheese Retailer Carefully

Just because good cheese is for sale nearly everywhere doesn't mean that you should shop for it just anywhere. Plain and simple, the best places to buy cheese are the ones that have the least amount of pre-cut cheese wrapped in plastic. Cheese—from the greatest small producer of Camembert to Jarlsberg produced in big industrial plants—absorbs the flavors of the environment around it. It's a living thing that continues to evolve.

Wrap cheese in plastic cling wrap and for one, it suffocates. For another, after a day or two it will start absorb the flavors of the plastic. Unless you find something admirable about the taste of plastic wrap you'll want to avoid most pre-cut pieces of cheese. Sure, they are cheaper, but you'll need to scrape off the surface to lose that plastic overtone. The caliber of a cheese retailer is often inversely proportional to the amount of cheese they have pre-cut. It's always best to have your cheese cut to order.

3. Divide by Four

Here's a dirty, stinkin' truth about great cheese: it ain't cheap. It takes between six and 12 pounds of milk to make one pound of cheese. Most great cheeses are made by small producers, then those cheeses travel a good distance to be sold by a small retailer. On the other hand, when you look at the price per pound of a cheese, divide by four.

A quarter pound of cheese is easily enough to entertain two people over a bottle of wine or a micro-brewed beer. Two quarter pound pieces can entertain a group of five. Great cheese has more flavor, you'll need less of it to satisfy your appetite. Just because your cheese is expensive doesn't mean you have to buy a lot of it.

4. Never Be Afraid to Ask Questions!

There are things we all about certain foods and beverages. Wines can be red or white; beers can be ales or lagers; chocolate can be milk or varying percentages of dark. Distinctions even that basic about cheese are often a mystery to otherwise food savvy people. So don't hesitate to ask the person at the counter questions!

Do you want to know the difference between a cheddar and gruyere? Ask the cheesemonger (yes that's what someone who sells cheese knowledgeably is called). They will be glad you did. The cheesemonger can answer your questions and illustrate the answers with tastes of cheese. See, it's a win-win. You'll learn something and enjoy the experience, which is what shopping for cheese should be all about.

About the author: Martin Johnson runs The Joy of Cheese, a series of informal cheese tastings that take place at four New York City bars and the 92nd Street Y. He has worked in and around cheese for 26 years, and he spends his weekend afternoons and evenings on the counter of the Bedford Cheese Shop in Brooklyn. He blogs at thejoyofcheese.wordpress.com

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