de-mystifying cheese, part 1


“Cheese is one of the greatest achievements of humankind.”

– Harold McGee, On Food and Cooking

Aaaaaaaaaaaaand how!

Cheese is by far my favorite thing to shop for. The main difference between choosing a great wine and choosing a great cheese is that a great cheese shop will actually let you try anything before buying, and this is the sort of opportunity I always take advantage of…and so should you. I understand that not everyone may experience the same joy I do when I enter the shop and feast upon the long sleek case just brimming with options. In fact, I can see how this display may be overwhelming and a bit claustrophobic what with the hundreds of little signs with unfamiliar terms and wordy descriptions. I am no cheesemonger, but I know in my heart, with full confidence… that I eat a lot of cheese. If you can do this on a weekday when it’s not crowded, that is ideal. Here’s what’s up:

  • Don’t feel bad that you don’t know what’s going on.

The staff of a great cheese shop hires people that either know a lot about cheese, or want to know a lot about cheese, or really freakin’ love cheese. Either way you’re in good company. They’re happy you’re there, want to answer your questions, and they are more than happy to give you a sample. This does not mean you should have your own personal cheese party, but if there is something that looks intriguing, or scary, ask about it and by all means, try it.  Keep a napkin in your hand in case you get a sample that freaks you out and you have to discreetly discard.

  • The cheese case is not arbitrarily organized.

Well, it shouldn’t be anyway. Most specialized cheese shops will organize their case by style (fresh >soft > bloomy rind > washed wind > semi-soft > firm > hard/grating >blue) and a great cheese shop will keep the foreign and domestic separate as well. Feel free to ask for an explanation of the layout and all of a sudden the case starts to make sense and choosing your samples will be much easier.

  • “Goat cheese” can mean anything. 

Listen. We gotta stop throwing the word “hate” around when it comes to cheese. A goat cheese, for example, can be anything from the soft fresh tart spreadable stuff to a firm, salty aged Gouda that will make you realize you’ve been being a little…judgmental. So when you start to dismiss any cheeses made from goats milk, you are missing out on a REALLY big range of unique cheeses. The best way to describe what you’re looking for is to list flavors you like and dislike, not milk types. (I feel this is a good time to mention that the same goes for Chardonnay. Most people assume a Chardonnay will always be oak-y. Not true! Chardonnay is a grape varietal and the wine-making process is not the same for every bottle. You may not even know it yet, but a stainless steel fermented Chardonnay may be right up your alley. Don’t hate!)

  • Be honest, and keep an open mind.

If you get a sample, regardless of whether you asked for it or not, be honest. Note: I said honest, not judgmental. “Ew this is gross ugh” is not only kinda rude but it does not help you on your quest. “This has a stanky barnyardy flavor I am really not into.” is much more useful … and gracious. Keep it real, and don’t fear the reeker. A lot of cheeses that smell intense , don’t taste intense.

  • Always try two price points.

So you’re looking at that cheese in the case labeled at $30/lb and you’re thinking you want to maybe get all P. Diddy on this shopping trip. Stop! Try the cheese first, obviously. THEN, ask the person to recommend a similar cheese at a lower price point. These wonderful people are not car salesmen, and they really just want you to be happy. They will give you a sample (sometimes two) of a cheaper cousin of the expensive cheese, and most of the time you won’t be able to tell them apart or you will like it more than the original. If you try some alternatives and the original is still blowing your mind, go for it. Make it rain.

  • Guess what? We’re all lactose-intolerant. Sort of.

I would like to take this opportunity to tell you that there is little to no lactose in cheese. So, if you’ve been avoiding cheese because of lactose intolerance, I am so so sorry. But welcome back to a world of delicious! Granted it is still a decadent, rich, treat that one should consume in moderation. The enzyme that our bodies create to break down lactose is called lactase. After childbirth, the production of lactase decreases exponentially which is why as we get older milk starts to mess our day up pretty bad. For those of you who are lactose-tolerant…not fair. I dream of a world where I can eat whipped cream to my heart’s content. Enjoy it. *Please note a lactose intolerance and a lactose allergy are very different. A lactose allergy can be very serious, and I do not encourage any sort of funny business there.

So now you’ve got these amazing cheeses in your fridge and you’re ready to tear into one with some baguette. This is very important…

  • Cheese is best at room temperature

Take the cheese out of the fridge about an hour before you want to serve it. The flavors are more pronounced, and it will take on its visual character as well. What is meant to ooze, should ooze. And will ooze.

  • Share with your friends

Unless it’s all you’re serving, buying 3-4 cheeses is plenty. Make sure there is at least one ounce of each cheese per guest and you will be fine. This is enough to let your guests know that what you are serving is special, and it won’t overwhelm their palettes. Each cheese should have its own knife and a couple pieces pre-cut so your friends don’t get shy about digging in. Dried fruits, unsalted nuts, and jams are a bonus. “Who can make the best combo” is a really fun game I like to play.

Tomorrow I’ll get into some more details about specific cheese styles and we’ll nerd out on some cheese history. I hope you’re feeling a little more confident about visiting a cheese shop.

You should probably go today.

xo. alicia.

p.s. – Culture magazine has a pretty great cheese library on-line!

top right photo courtesy of Madison Fender Photography

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