Finding Your Favorite Cheese

by Miranda McQuillan | February 1, 2013 2:35 pm

Of all the jobs that I’ve had in my illustrious career as a global food citizen, there were none that brought me as much joy as being a cheese monger. There was so much to learn, thousands of cheeses to taste, and cultural exploration abounding. Yet, after 10 years, a semester in France, and 6 cheese shops in three states, there are still so many cheeses left to taste.

That’s one of the many wonderful things about cheese – there are thousands of kinds of cheese in the world. From soft to hard, blue to brie, goat to sheep, French, Italian, Spanish and on and on, and there will always be more for us to explore. I have personally and painstakingly tasted many cheeses. Some repeatedly over the years so as to be a worthy, dedicated and exuberant tour guide to those who want to know more. I’ve selected my favorites from five categories including blues, bries, sheep, goat, hard, and raw milk, to help make your adventures easier and tastier.

When you think of blue cheese, you may crinkle your nose or feel intimidated. You’re not alone. Many people struggle to find that right blue cheese that sings on their palate. One quick rule of thumb is that either you like blue cheese or you don’t. If you like it, you’ll like many blues. However, if you don’t, you really have to find one that works for you and go from there. My favorite blue cheese is Maytag ($19.99/lb) from Newton, Iowa – an obvious choice to some, but still a masterfully made cheese.   Blue cheeses are either musty like mushrooms or tangy like buttermilk. Blue Stilton ($18.99/lb) is musty while Maytag is buttermilk, and mirrors Danish Buttermilk Blue cheese. Try them with a drizzle of honey for something different.

For those who don’t like blue cheese, try Cambazola ($17-19.99/lb) blue brie.

The luxury of brie is long standing and almost royal in the pretentious feelings we have about it. Many people are turned off by this, as well as the flurry, or the white mold that encases brie. This is the most important part of the aging process of the brie, and it IS edible. However, if that “flurry” is too thick, it can take away from brie for a rookie. For an experienced cheese lover who eats that rind, a thick flurry has a strange mouth feel, as you are trying to taste a balance between the paste of the cheese and the rind. My favorite brie is Fromage D’Affinois ($12.99/lb) – a rich, buttery and decadent cow’s milk brie that is always that exact ripe texture and offers perfect balance between salt, fat and a delicate, yet flurried rind. They also make a goat (Florette), sheep (Brebis Rocastin) and Fromage D’Affinois with garlic & herbs. Each one has that same velvety texture, and lovely balanced flavor, showcasing how lush each type of milk can be. Luxury made simple.

Though sheep and goats milk are distinctly different, they are often categorized together as “The Other Milks”. Sheep cheeses will play on your whole tongue, touching on every taste bud and flavor as you eat them, changing and growing as you taste. Goat’s milk is often described as “barny, pungent, and gamey” and truly is an acquired taste. I often compare fresh young goat cheese, or “Chevre” to the flavor of sour cream and cream cheese, and it can play the same role in many dishes. The truth is, goat cheese is actually milder than many sheep cheeses, and sheep cheese is often more complex.   The simple, rustic and sweet flavor of goat’s cheese & milk evokes feelings of the farm and eating outdoors. My favorite goat cheese is Bucheron ($14.99/lb), a brie-ripened goat log that ages like St. Andre (for you cheese intermediaries out there). It has a rich, firmer middle and a soft brie texture at the edge of the rind. It’s like two cheeses in one and I love it. My favorite sheep cheese is Petit Basque, a French, raw sheep’s milk cheese made in the Pyranees. Both on the Spanish and French sides of the mountains they produce many sheep cheeses. This “little barrel” will run you about $18.99/lb, but you are worth it, as is the cheese – I promise.

Hard cheeses are wide ranging and complex. That extended aging develops the sharpness and flavor profile into something that reveals itself as you place it on your tongue, give it a chew, and then, trust me here, suck on it like a piece of candy a couple times – seriously! You will find that what your sense of taste does with a good, hard aged cheese is second only to what your sense of Mmmmmm will do with it.

A delicious, emerging category for us in America is Aged Gouda ($15-30.00/lb). There are many from Holland, like the Dutch Masters collection with the younger Vincent Van Gough and the older Rembrandt Aged Goudas. I have to say that in the hard cheese category, it is a tie between Landana’s 1000 Day Aged Gouda (Holland), which is aged almost three years, and Cypress Groves’ Midnight Moon (CA), an aged Goat Gouda that is so sharp, rich and almost sweet that I can say I have never tasted anything like it. As an honorable mention, try Beechers Flagship Reserve Cheddar (WA). They coat the wheel in butter before they wrap and age it.

Raw Milk cheeses offer an unbelievably different taste and depth to a cheese. In the beginning of cheese making many hundreds of years ago, the pasteurization method didn’t exist yet, so all cheeses being made were raw milk. Eventually, in some cases, the maker had to decide if they would pasteurize or not. To many, that process is what degenerates and subsequently ruins a cheese. Cheese enzymes are like bread starters, they have to be cared for and maintained over time. Once you let them die, or “mutate”, that cheese will never be the same. That is a major reason – aside from awesome flavor and complexity – that many cheeses are still raw milk.

A raw milk cheese must be aged over 60 days in order to be sold In the United States. However, in Europe and most of the rest of the world that is not the case. You can buy fresh, soft-ripened, raw milk cheese, which anyone that knows their cheeses will tell you, is something to behold. My favorite raw milk cheese is Gruyere de Comte ($13-26.00/lb), which was the original Gruyere, before the Swiss pasteurized. Comte is from the Franche Comte region, below the Alsace Lorraine bordering Switzerland & Germany. It’s nutty, rich and buttery, the perfect table or fondue cheese.

Cheeses in a category often resemble one another physically as well as by taste, but the subtle differences are what dance on your taste buds and send you in the direction of that one favorite in each category. Take your time, taste A LOT of cheeses, and set your cheese dance card. Only you know what the best cheeses in the world are – your taste buds will tell you.

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