It's February, and the polar vortex is in full effect across the country. The winter blues have raked your soul bare and there is truly nothing to look forward to. Wait, what's that? Ice dancing? Curling? Jamaican bobsledders? That can mean only one thing: the winter Olympics are nigh! And what Olympic celebration would be complete without a global celebration of artisan cheese?
Let's get one thing out of the way: almost every country in the world has some form of fermented dairy product. At our cheese counter, we receive requests for camel cheese from Egypt, yak cheese from Tibet, walrus cheese from Antarctica, and human breast milk cheese from, well, I'm not sure I want to know where. Since I don't sell those cheeses, you're just going to have to take to the internet if you really want them.
That leaves us mostly with the traditional Winter Games powerhouses of the United States and Europe. So in the spirit of friendly international competition, here are a couple of fun cheese plate match-ups that you can try out as you cheer for your favorite biathlete. Additionally, I'm including notes on how each cheese can be utilized for your own personal Olympic workout regimen. Let the games begin!
Uplands Pleasant Ridge Reserve Dodgeville, Wisconsin vs. Gruyere Alpage, Switzerland
The battle of the alpine cheeses is the most fitting for the Winter Olympics. No, the mighty peaks of Wisconsin do not actually exist, but Andy Hatch, owner and cheesemaker of Uplands Dairy, makes a mighty fine domestically-produced alpine style cheese. Pleasant Ridge is made with raw milk, and only during the spring and summer months, when the cows are out on pasture. The best wheels of Pleasant Ridge have deep a brothiness* that compliments the inherent grassiness of the milk. Wheels weigh about 10 lbs and would be great for bicep curls.
*Brothiness is the cheese geek's word. Having your cheese give umami-like flavors of chicken broth is the holy grail for some alpine cheesemakers. It's a real thing, I didn't make it up.
Gruyere Alpage is alpine cheese made the old-school way. In the summertime, the cows are moved to the top of the mountain (transhumance is the $5 word for this) so they can graze on the alpine pastures. Real Alpage Gruyere is made in copper kettles heated by fires in mountain huts—the way it's been done for over 900 years. Meaty, intense Gruyere can also finish buttery and smokey. A full wheel of Gruyere can weigh as much as 90 lbs, so it's best suited for bench-pressing.
Manchego La Mancha, Spain vs. Abbaye de Belloc, Aquitaine, France
By now it seems that everyone knows Manchego. Perhaps your mom pronounces it Manchango or Manchecko and buys it by the 5-lb block at the local warehouse store. Manchego has become a gateway artisan cheese, but it doesn't have to be boring. Find a raw milk, six-month aged version and you'll discover a nutty, lanolin sheep's milk cheese. Plate it up with some quince paste and dry-roasted marcona almonds and you're in business. Weighing in at six to seven lbs, the waxed rind on a Manchego makes it hazardous as a "working out" wheel.
When monks take a break from praying, they seem to spend a lot of time brewing beer and making cheese. Thank goodness for that, because the Benedictine monks at Abbaye de Notre Dame de Belloc in the Western Pyrenees make one phenomenal wheel of sheep's milk cheese, called, appropriately, Abbaye de Belloc. The big difference you'll notice from Manchego is a dense, smooth paste. A restrained caramel sweetness will makes you want to eat wedge after wedge. 11-lb wheels of Abbaye have an almost built-in grip on the natural rind, making them a great option for blasting your triceps.
Colston-Basset Stilton, England vs. Chiriboga Blue, Germany
Blue cheese can be overwhelming—salty, moldy, fruity—but this buttery British blue is easy on the palate. Close your eyes when you bite into a piece of this Stilton and imagine the most delicious milk you've ever tasted in your life. Don't settle for a different Stilton producer, because Colston Basset still ladles their curd by hand and uses traditional animal rennet. Why be Tonya Harding when you could be Nancy Kerrigan? An 18-lb drum of Stilton would make a mighty fine companion for lunges.
A cheesemaker from Ecuador? Living in Bavaria? Ecuadoran Arturo Chiriboga fell in love with a German Fräulein, settled in the Bavarian alps, and started making cheese. You've heard the same story a million times, right? Chiriboga Blue is blue cheese meets ice cream. Luscious, custardy, sweet creamy blue cheese. Beware that Arturo takes a break from cheese production at the same time every summer, which results in a shortage of cheese right around Christmas. These are five to six-lb wheels, but they're awfully squishy, so you're better off using them as a protein source.
Keep score if you like, but everyone's a winner in this competition. You can make up medals for your favorites if you like, and the PED testing is strictly optional. Or, if your thirst for international cheese competition isn't quenched by these suggestions, there's always Jamaican Tastee cheese, which looks like it could fill the void left by the Velveeta shortage.
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.