Serious Cheese

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Serious Cheese: A Cheesemonger Tells All on Picking Favorites

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The cheese case at France 44. [Photograph: Emily Schnobrich]

"What's your favorite cheese?"

That's the question. The one the customers ask when they're staring, overwhelmed by the vast array of often-unpronounceable cheeses displayed before them. I sell cheese for a living on the vast tundra of Minnesota. We have two cut-to-order cheese shops in the twin cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, which means that you want to buy our cheese, you have to talk to a cheesemonger and have them cut a piece for you. And you're probably going to want to know if it's their favorite.

Well, let's see. Are you about to cram yourself into the middle seat of an airplane for the next three hours? Then I'd definitely buy a ripe Epoisses, stick it under the seat in front of me, and let its stinky magic work wonders as my seat mates look around for new places to sit. Are you heading to the house of a friend with forged Japanese steel cheese knives who only touches a slice if they know the exact breed of cow that the milk came from? If that's the case, I'm rocking Cato Corner Bloomsday and dropping knowledge about the high butterfat content of Jersey cow milk.

I have a different favorite cheese for every occasion. With so many cheeses spanning so many styles, it's an impossible question to ask someone like me, who sells cheese all day, every day. Creamy, stinky, goat. Sheep, cheddar, alpine, blue. But surely, you're thinking, there has to be one favorite, one cheese to unite them all? Well, if I'm really being backed into a corner...

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Beautiful Comte. [Photograph: Emily Schnobrich]

Some day, when I'm kicked out of society, sent to a deserted island, and allowed to take only one cheese with me, I will have to choose one type to eat for the rest of my days. This is a serious matter with many considerations—imagine a college basketball-style tournament bracket, with cheeses pitted against one another in a battle to the final championship.

It's worth noting that we're talking about real, artisan cheeses here. Cheese still made by hand, by a person sticking their hand in the vat. That means consistency is a serious issue. My favorite cheese needs to be consistently good. This eliminates three-quarters of the would-be contenders. Some cheeses are spectacular one batch and ho-hum the next, and I can't have that on my desert island.

I want my favorite cheese to be versatile. I need to be able to snack on it, cook with it, or even travel with it unrefrigerated. As much I love a ripe Camembert or an earthy farmhouse cheddar, both are limited in their application. Conventional wisdom says cheddar is great for melting, but in fact, it often separates into unappetizing oily globs. Keep a Camembert out of the fridge for more than a day and you're likely to have a blobby cheese soup.

Flavor profile is the next test. Some cheeses just aren't meant to be eaten every day. They're rich and flavorful, but you can only eat so much. Sweet and savory aged Goudas are a great treat, but not something I can snack on all that often. They overwhelm most accompaniments and often end up being a one-use kind of cheese. So the perfect cheese needs to be flavorful, versatile, and never-tiring.

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Comte aging in the longest cheese cave in the world, at Fort des Rousses, Juraflore in Poligny [Photograph: Kenji Lopez-Alt]

This narrows us down on a genre—Alpine cheeses. These are the workhorse cheeses of the case, with names like Gruyere, Appenzeller, Emmenthaler, and Challerhocker. They're fantastic snacking cheeses as well as unrivaled cooking cheeses. They melt beautifully in grilled cheese, macaroni, or anywhere else you want gooey, stretchy cheese. But even in this crowded field there is one cheese that stands above the rest.

I pick Comte. It's nutty, slightly sweet, and deeply savory. I've been on the journey that's well-documented here, and the cave at St. Antoine truly is a magical place. This is the cheese to be stuck eating day after day. Young Comte is great grated on your eggs or tossed on top of fries. Aged Comte can go in your backpack while you're hiking through the woods. Any Comte should have a place on your cheese board, alongside caramelized onions and pickles.

Choosing a favorite cheese is like choosing a favorite child. Every parent has a favorite child (right?), but no one wants to own up to it. I love all my cheeses, but for different reasons. Luckily no one is forcing me to settle on one cheese just yet. While Comte is the wheel I keep coming back to, I still reserve the right to bring my favorite tangy goat to the friend who's "not eating cow dairy right now." And since any respectable cheese counter will let you try a cheese before you buy it, your new favorite cheese might be just a taste away.

About the author: Benjamin Roberts sells cheese, eats cheese, dreams about cheese and runs a burgeoning Minnesota cheese empire France 44 & St Paul Cheese. You can follow him on Twitter, Facebook, or tumblr.

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