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Serious Cheese: The Perils of Shopping for Classic Cheeses

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L'Amuse, one of the finest aged goudas on the market. [Photograph: Essex Cheese Co.]

During my holiday festivities I had an awkward cheese moment that could prove instructive for fromage-a-philes everywhere.

It was at a small potluck New Year's Eve party. I was bringing a salad already, but I figure I'm always counted on to bring cheese to any gathering I attend, so I inquired about the wines. There would be a Portuguese red and a classic Riesling; so I purchased small pieces of Berkswell, a sweet, nutty firm sheep cheese to match the red, and Monte Nebro, a soft, tangy, floral Spanish goat cheese with blue mold on the rind to match the white wine.

When I took the cheeses out, the hostess said "Oh, I have a gorgonzola!" and took out a badly cut, pre-wrapped piece of cheese from the supermarket; it was sweating and looked only vaguely edible. Caught by surprise, I didn't mask my disdain well enough, and she immediately protested, "But it's gorgonzola." We put it on the cheese board where it was politely sampled while the other cheeses quickly disappeared.

The incident held two important lessons for cheese lovers. For one, my hostess was right: gorgonzola is one of the world's great cheeses. And in fact, just as there's a canon of literature (Homer, Dante, Shakespeare) and a canon of jazz (Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk), there is also a canon of cheese. However, shopping for cheeses in that canon is much more akin to shopping amongst titles with jazz greats on them, than it is classic literature.

Most available editions of Hamlet or The Illiad are of great integrity and quality, but there are dozens of quick and dirty titles out there of Ellington or Armstrong, and it takes careful shopping amongst discs or downloads to get music that built their legendary stature.

Shopping for classic cheese has the same risks. There is a canon of cheese that every fan should know. There is brie, camembert, fresh chevre, mozzarella, clothbound cheddar, Gruyere, Comte, Stilton, Tomme De Savoie, Aged Gouda, Manchego, Tuscan Pecorino, Parmigiano-Reggiano, Roquefort, Pyrennes Sheep, Epoisses, and yes, Gorgonzola. The problem is that there are lots of producers of brie, camembert, Gruyere, Roquefort, and the rest. When shopping for cheeses from the canon, you can't just rely on a name: it's important to know the next level of information—items like the producer is key.

For instance, there are Roqueforts out there that are all pepper, with little of the sweetness and earth that make the classic French blue so delectable. There are Gruyeres out there that have a little nuttiness but none of the density that makes the Alpine classic so wonderful, either on it own (especially with on a piece of crusty bread and a fruit forward northern Italian red wine) or melted in a fondue or for grilled cheese with a slice of sweet onion.

How To Shop

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Green Hill, one of the best American camembert style cheeses. [Photo courtesy of Sweet Grass Dairy]

In this regard, shopping for cheese begins to resemble shopping for wine. You can't just grab any Cabernet Sauvignon off the shelf of a big retailer and plan for bliss. You have to know your producers and vintages—or, at least, you have to know sales staffers who do. When it comes to the best, classic cheeses, it isn't that difficult. Some of the great cheesemaking nations are well represented by leading affineurs, people or small collectives who are masters at aging cheese then distributing them internationally. For instance, Neal's Yard Dairy is the leading affineur of cheeses from England, Ireland, Wales and Scotland. They distribute such classics as Colston Basset Stilton and big, earthy clothbound cheddars like Montgomery's and Keen's.

In France, Herve Mons is the leading affineur and his blue cheeses in particular are a heavenly blend of creaminess, pepper and earthiness. The best Gruyere is from Rolf Beeler; it is so rich, dense and nutty it's almost chocolate-y and every bit as addictive. Italian cheeses with the names Madaio or Guffanti are always a cut above, offering well articulated flavors.

A Cheese By Any Other Name...

Sometimes individual cheeses have particular names to look for. L'Amuse aged gouda is crumbly, tangy and sweet. It almost always has a crunchy mouthfeel from the amino acid crystallization that takes place during the aging process. That mouthfeel is also present in the Cravero Parmigiano Reggiano, but it's younger than the more commonly available Rocca brand. Both are good, but the Cravero has more distinctive pineapple-ey overtones in its overall flavor.

Retailers are flooded with mediocre examples of classic cheeses and it results in a situation that may be counterintuitive. It takes more knowledge and discernment to shop for classic cheeses than it does to buy a new local creation. The latter can simply be purchased with great confidence from a stand at a farmer's market, but to get great cheddar, gruyere, or yes, gorgonzola, you need to look beyond the name.

Special Offer for Serious Eats Readers! You can get 20% off on tickets to Joy of Cheese events, cheese tastings led by Martin Johnson. The next events are on 01.18 and 01.20 or 02.01, just enter Serious as a password for savings.

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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