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4 Tips for Buying Great Cheese on a Budget

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[Photograph: Robyn Lee]

There is more great cheese available to Americans than ever before, but a lot of it is expensive. Very expensive, as you all pointed out in my last column on shopping for cheese.

Why? There are three primary reasons:

  • The milk used for great cheesemaking typically comes from small herds, often as small as 40 animals, who are fed a specialized diet. Contrast that with the milk we typically pour from the carton—it may come from herds numbering in the thousands which are fed the cheapest grain possible.
  • Most of the farms in America creating this great cheese are brand new so they're still paying off their start-up costs. While cheesemaking may seem like a simple bucolic endeavor, it takes a major investment to set up the facilities and keep them sterile.
  • Lastly, those cheeses that don't come from nearby farms incur travel costs. Whether overnight delivery services or overseas shipments, cheese doesn't travel cheaply.

What's a cheese enthusiast on a budget to do? Here are four simple tips.

1. Location, Location, Location

Does a cheese identify itself as being from a state (New York state cheddar for instance) or a farm like Grafton Village Cheddar? The more specific the location the better, and the more information a cheese gives about its background, the more likely it will be of high quality.

The fresh chevre made for the Trader Joe's in-house label actually comes from Laura Chenel in Sonoma, California—one of the pioneers of the contemporary American hand-crafted cheesemaking movement.

2. Read Labels Carefully

In the markets I visited, I saw several cheeses marked A.O.C, a few marked D.O.C and a couple marked D.O. These are insignia guaranteeing that the cheese is made to the high standards required by France, Italy or Spain respectively, to use the name.

Also while perusing several markets, I noticed about a dozen cheeses made from vegetarian rennet. This is also a sign that the cheese is a smaller production and probably superior to the other cheeses of that type.

3. Cheese That Survives Large Scale Production

Aged Gouda, Gruyere, Comte, and Manchego can be made (somewhat) cheaply without losing too much of its character in translation. Another consistent good buy: Tuscan Pecorinos. In contrast to Pecorino Romano, a salty cheese made for cooking or grating over pasta, the Tuscan pecorinos are softer (though not soft) and full of sweet vegetal flavors.

4. Fresh Mozzarella Is Awesome

The cheese with the best bang for the buck ratio is found in small Italian markets in cities across the United States. It's fresh mozzarella, ideally made just hours (or if you're really lucky, minutes) before purchasing and eating that day. It's full of juicy rich flavors highlighted by big overtones of butter. It's rarely more than $7, and usually a good bit less. Well worth every penny.

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 27 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

Special deal from Martin! SE readers can receive 20% off tickets to two cheese tastings (February 8 and 24) conducted by Martin himself. For more information visit http://thejoyofcheese.blogspot.com

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