However fascinating the almost infinite variety of cheese-making methods, what really interests cultured consumers of cultured milk is how we maximize the pleasure of eating the stuff, from store to table. Cheese addict and freelance writer Martin Pilkington offers some words on curds.
To enjoy great cheese, first find it (not always easy) and those who handle it lovingly – often a bigger stretch. Maturing cheese needs a temperature and humidity controlled environment and the occasional flip-over, and arguably more arcane treatments like washing the rind and patting the big wheels. Metropolitan cheese lovers will have an affineur they can rely on. Affinage is the art of taking young cheeses from the makers then storing and maturing them until they reach their absolute peak, like the renowned Murray’s Cheese Shop in Greenwich Village. Specialist stores and real delicatessens are an option too, and resurgent artisan cheese production makes buying direct another. You have less chance at Apu Nahasapeemapetilon’s Kwik-E-Mart or bigger versions thereof.
Your fine cheese will almost certainly come wrapped in waxed paper. Keep it this way, plastic wrap can cause sweating. Cheese should be kept in the refrigerator, but remove it in time for the cheese to reach a comfortable room temperature before it is eaten.
The science is simple: the complex flavors of cheese are carried in volatile fats that will be more volatile if not chilled to death.
Cheese won’t rot the instant it meets warm air. Remember, cheese was a way of prolonging the life of milk before we had refrigeration. That said, even for a big cheese fan there are limits. The Italian island of Sardinia has a “celebrated” specialty sheep’s cheese called Casu Marzu, meaning rotted cheese, served complete with wriggling larvae. Eat at your peril.
How and When to Serve?
Cheese makes a great snack anytime, and is ideal picnic food. It shines brightest, though, as a course within a meal: always before dessert per the French (who know a thing or two about food). For the diet conscious, cheese instead of dessert makes sense.
A cheeseboard needs variety, but to venture into Martha Stewart territory more than four is fussy so let’s say a soft goat’s cheese, cheddar, brie and a blue cheese to cover all bases. The French often serve just “un fromage,” a single offering, ripe and ready with crusty bread to accompany it. Crackers if they’re not highly flavored, table water crackers are ideal, are equally good vehicles for the cheese. In high-end circles they’re snapped with the fingers then loaded with a cheesy morsel, but, like that bread, the crackers should not be buttered. The additional fat of butter dilutes and diverts the taste.
Some gourmets like the contrast of rich with sharp provided by slices of apple or a few grapes eaten between cheesy mouthfuls. The Spanish enlist Membrillo, quince paste, to provide a sweet reference point.
What to Drink with Cheese?
Classic combinations are classics because they work: Sauternes with Roquefort or pretty much any salty blue cheese for the sweet-salt marriage. The same with the English fixation: Stilton with Port. Those unions rely on contrast, but equivalence is equally valid: try medium-bodied Gamay or Pinot Noir with say Camembert; and a Sauvignon Blanc’s lightness with delicate goat’s cheeses.
Match the heavy artillery like Shiraz, Rioja and big Cabernet Sauvignons with cheese world giants – Manchego, real Cheddar (Montgomery’s if you can find it), aged Cantal and Gruyere. Emmi Roth’s Grand Cru Surchoix from Wisconsin currently making waves in the USA.
Don’t rule out beer with cheese though. Not “a beer,” but the right beer. Writer Michael Jackson paired Chimay Grande Reserve with Stilton: the beer’s Port overtones suiting the buttery blue. America’s ever expanding range of craft-brewed hoppy beers like Sierra Nevada’s Pale Ale pair nicely with strongly flavored cheese. It’s not for nothing that Welsh Rarebit often has beer stirred into the cheese.
Like decent wine, good beer and real bread, a proper cheese is one of life’s great pleasures, a luxury or necessity depending on your viewpoint. As Monty Python’s Life of Brian had it: blessed are the cheese-makers.
Pasteurized or Not?
There is no right answer to the question, “Which tastes better, cheese made with pasteurized or unpasteurized milk?” Given the potential for harmful bacteria in young unpasteurized cheese, the FDA has strict rules that makers must follow to minimize dangers. Nevertheless it probably makes sense for pregnant women, kids and those with compromised immune systems to avoid all unpasteurized product. Which is sad for such folks: some of the world’s best cheeses are now off-limits.
Photo: Divya Thakur/Flickr