Please welcome Jake Lahne, a former cheesemonger who is currently studying food science at the University of Illinois. He'll be chiming in every week with Serious Cheese. Take it away, Jake! —Editor
My life as a cheesemonger at the rightly famous Cowgirl Creamery began partly out of desperation (I needed an escape from my death-spiral of a line cook's job) and partly because of a religious experience involving Cypress Grove's Humboldt Fog, an epiphany most cheese lovers can relate to.
However, unlike most cheese lovers, I'm allergic to cow's milk, giving my continuing romance with fermented dairy products a certain Capulet-Montague cachet. Thus, if I tell you that a certain cow's cheese, say Pleasant Ridge Reserve, is delicious, I have weighed its tastiness against certain internal distress.
With this hard-earned knowledge, I'd like to talk about some good cheeses done wrong—cheeses that have had their reputation spoiled by mass-market, lowest-common-denominator clones, chalky bricks or milky pap unfit for any thinking person's consumption.
Perhaps no other cheese has suffered as much at the hands of our industrial overlords. Anyone who has ever tasted a low-end cheddar impostor knows the pain of a cheese-lover done wrong.
Sharp, nutty, authentic cheddar cheese is aged in fat-rubbed cloth or bandages, not plastic, sometimes for more than a year. The European Union recognizes cheddar as a protected product made only in Britain: in Somerset, Devon, Cornwall, and Dorset counties. No cheese on Earth pairs better with beer.
In general, seek out cheddars that are firm and slightly crumbly with a deep, savory sharpness and subdued hints of sweetness and nuttiness. Try pairing them with an English Bitter, such as Wychwood Hobgoblin or Old Speckled Hen. If you like buying domestic, I would suggest Dark Horse Crooked Tree IPA or North Coast Red Seal Ale.
Is there anything more boring than Brie? Unlike its insipid and ammoniacal supermarket avatar, real Brie de Meaux—from the eponymous region of France—is rich, complex, and oozy, with hints of garlic and earth.
The USDA conspires against real cheese lovers here, forbidding the importing of this young, raw-milk cheese for fear of Listeria monocytogenes, a bacteria arguably no more common in raw-milk cheeses than in pasteurized-milk ones. So, get thee to France, or, if your credit card is anything like mine, settle for the slightly-less-heavenly-but-still-delicious Fromage de Meaux, its pasteurized cousin.
Suggestions: Fromage de Meaux. The utility value of tasting the real thing is probably lower than the cost of airfare, so settle for second best. Make sure to unwrap and let it warm up before serving. Sparkling white wines pair predictably well, but try a rich red, perhaps a Cabernet, for variety.
Most blue sold in this country, at best, should be used as an emetic. Acrid, fetid, and grainy, your everyday blue isn't worth the milk it's made from. Try instead, for example, a real British Stilton, a true Rocquefort, or a domestic artisanal blue, and you might rethink the possibilities of an iceberg wedge salad.
Suggestions: My personal favorite is Stilton, specifically Colston-Bassett or Stichelton (its edgier, raw-milk cousin). Whole articles could be written about them alone, and have. Or, try a domestic blue, such as Bayley Hazen from Jasper Hill Farm—creamy and intense, with a mild barnyard note.
If you're feeling really adventurous, the Spanish make some of the most intense blues in the world, look for Valdeon or Cabrales. Blues go fantastically with sweet, fortified wines like port or sherry, but a rich dessert beer, like New Holland's Dragon's Milk, should make an interesting pairing.