Summer is undeniably in full bloom – and since cheese is quintessential picnic fare, I thought we should talk cheese buying and the cheese shop experience. For those of you who are longing to explore but have felt intimidated by the sea of wheels or think there might be some secret protocol to buying cheese from a cheesemonger – I am here with my top ten tips to know.
And where summer feasting is concerned, I’m all about keeping things casual. With the bevy of lush seasonal fruit available, pair your favorites with whichever wedge catches your eye, add a rustic baguette and you’re golden.
Pictured here is a display I built for an outdoor country wedding – cheese is the perfect way to round out a dessert table!
1. Find a cheesemonger [CM] in your area who will hand cut to order from the wheel and wrap your cheese in breathable cheese paper. If wrapped in plastic, exchange the suffocating stuff for parchment or wax paper when you get home. Think of the wrapper as protecting your living, breathing delicacy. Eventually, you’ll be able to detect a discernible difference in flavor between cheeses that have been properly cared for and those which have been wrapped in plastic.
Keep in mind that all cheese [even by that same name] might not be created equal. If you buy your cheese from someone who is not knowledgeable, they may not know that the cheese needs more time to mature, and it will therefore lack the taste and character indicative of that cheese. Thus you could end up with a world class cheese that tastes bland.
In San Diego where we live, my friend Gina’s Venissimo shops offer an amazing selection. If you are without a cheese shop as your primary resource, you might look for specialty grocer such as Whole Foods . Via mail order, Artisanal Cheese and Murray’s both boast in-house affineurs who will ensure that the cheese arriving at your door is a point [at its peak ripeness] and presents the most stellar representation of that particular cheese.
2. If you are not able to identify what you like, maybe you can tell your CM what you don’t like. A good CM should be used to playing the role of taste bud detective, finding clues in anything you share with them to help find the perfect fit. If you have a beverage selected for the evening, let them know; they can direct you to the most classic pairings.
3. If you are still discovering what pleases your palate, keep an informal journal or simple notes on each cheese you try. Keep track of your yes’s as well as your not so much’s and soon you will establish a pattern that can be shared with your new BFF, the cheesemonger [who will probably be able to spot your style straight away]. While tasting, try to identify flavors you enjoy or dislike in familiar terms such as buttery, smokey, tangy or caramelly. Is the texture rubbing you the right way? Do you love the crystalline bits [those little bits of crunch] present in many of the more aged cheeses? Sharp is a term that can be over-used when it comes to cheese. Some people use it to describe anything full flavored, others link it to a tart experience, or an extra-aged cheddar, and some just don’t really know any other words to describe cheese. It can work, but the more descriptors you can throw out, the better.
Your CM should be eager to offer up a taste – but if not, do not hesitate to ask for one! There may be certain cheeses [for example: those small format cheeses which are sold as a whole] which cannot be sampled but for the most part, if they are reluctant… find another monger.
4. Don’t bum out the CM by loudly proclaiming “It stinks in here” [unless you mean it as a compliment!] It’s all a matter of personal preference and remember, your CM has carefully hand selected each and every one of their “babies”. Besides, even with the stinkiest of cheeses, the bark is usually a lot worse than the bite!
5. Learn to love goat! Fresh or aged, pure and simple or with all the bells and whistles. Goat cheese enhances so many dishes, is easy for your body to process and just happens to be quite low in fat. For those who think they don’t get the goat, ease yourself in with a goat’s milk gouda like Midnight Moon [it maintained a cult following at my cheese shop, and on the rare occasion we didn’t have it in our cases, we knew we would have some explaining to do]. Moreover, trying new cheeses will ensure that your palate will progress and reach for new flavors.
6. Make selections that will provide contrast: different milk types, varied textures, diversity in color and shape. Just as a chef wouldn’t create an entirely monochromatic meal, the same rules apply for a cheese board.
7. Making your display easy to enjoy doesn’t have to mean cubes – in fact I would say I am decidedly opposed to cubing cheese. This is not only for aesthetic reasons; artisan cheeses are preservative free and will dry out more quickly than those which are mass produced. A wedge from a wheel of hard cheese often slices nicely into triangles or shards into a naturally beautiful cascade of bite size bits. Note the beautiful natural characteristics of the rind and how they make a cheese more identifiable.
8. Don’t forget to check out the accoutrements on the shelves, an inspired pairing can absolutely add up to more than the sum of its parts. Ask for recommendations on a chutney or preserve. Think about what each cheese will be served with: bread, crackers, fruit?
9. “Accessorize” your display! A brie or triple cream is super with fresh strawberries. Pears or apples are great to slice and fan out by a blue and grapes are a superb standby to pile up for drama. Nuts, dried apricots and cranberries offer great pops of color or texture and are easy to keep on hand. Fig season is ruefully short lived – but if you happen to spot some great looking figs, a few on the plate will elevate your display to royal proportions.
10. There is no need to over-think the process. Keep it simple and keep an open mind. Going to your cheese shop with a set plan might work out but be open to changing your mind once you take a look at their current selections. Ask your CM what he or she is loving at the moment!
When serving, be sure to allow 30 minutes to 1 hour for your cheeses to come to room temperature. This is the equivalent to decanting a wine, and one important step not to skip. Remember to have appropriate serving utensils at the ready.
And most importantly: remember, it’s just cheese. Historically, cheese was created by peasants simply as a means of preserving their milk for winter months… Relax and enjoy!