BRATTLEBORO—It’s true. Good cheese is expensive. At least at first glance.
What many of us pay, per pound, for cheese, we’d never pay for a nice, well-marbled, grass-fed steak. I could go on about why cheese is generally more expensive than a nice steak. I could tell you all about the immense amount of labor that goes into turning grass into cheese. I could talk about capitalism’s disregard for the small and handmade.
But how would my doing so help you enjoy fine cheese without sacrificing your entire bank account?
What’s more fun — and more delicious — is for me to help you seek out great cheeses at fair prices. Yes, it can be done!
Whether you’re hoping to create a gorgeous, not-too-expensive cheese board for your guests, or you’re here to pick up tips on selecting good, reasonably-priced cheese for your daily use, or both, this column will give you plenty to work with.
* * *
Of course, cost can’t be the only thing guiding your purchase, or else you’d end up with slabs of Velveeta. Not that we’d judge you, but this article is about fine cheese.
Sadly, there’s quite a bit of chicanery out there, else I wouldn’t feel the need to mention it. Bogus, mass-produced, factory-made cheeses using questionable milk and bizarre ingredients proliferate, taking advantage of the specialty cheese explosion. Beware, or your hard-earned dollars could end up supporting a monolithic mega-agri-business rather than a true artisan or dairy cooperative.
Even if food politics bores you, the sad fact is, you could end up spending good money on lackluster cheese.
You need to develop an eye for what’s really a fine cheese, and that takes time and experience, but one good tip is to avoid buying cheese that looks like it’s been created in a factory.
Are all of the pieces of cheese of uniform size, vacuum-packed (shrink-wrapped), and slathered with all sorts of labels boasting “low fat” or “no trans fats,” or declaring itself “gluten-free” or otherwise associating itself in alliance with the latest food-trend bugaboo?
Does the cheese have fruit, chocolate, nuts, booze, or other non-cheese things added to it?
If you answered “yes” to either question, you might have a factory cheese in your hands.
It won’t necessarily be terrible, but it won’t give you the best value. You’ll be paying more for bells and whistles and marketing schemes than you will for the cheese.
* * *
One of the easiest ways to keep your costs down is to stick with cows’ milk cheeses. Generally, these cheeses are less expensive than those made from sheep’s and goats’ milk because cows, being larger animals, yield much more milk than their smaller dairy-animal pals. It also takes more labor to make sheep and goats’ milk cheeses, and you get to pay for that.
Some countries — France and Italy immediately come to mind — offer a wider variety of prices in cheese than others, due to import/export supply lines or economy-of-scale issues.
Both countries have interesting, lovely cheeses priced around $20 per pound, sometimes less. For example, Italian Gorgonzola Dolcelatte is a beautiful blue cheese with a smooth, almost creamy texture and flavors balanced between spicy (from the blue) and sweet (from the milk), and it generally retails for $14 per pound or less.
* * *
Vermont is home to a great number of superb, award-winning cheeses, but many of them are fairly pricey, as they are made in such small quantities and requiring an extraordinary amount of labor.
However, a few notable, locally made cheeses are truly excellent and priced within reach.
One that instantly comes to mind is Spring Brook Farm’s Reading, Vermont’s version of Swiss Raclette, except Reading is made of raw Jersey cows’ milk, which gives it extra richness.
Plymouth Artisan Cheese offers Original Plymouth, a robust, fruity, cheddar-like cheese invented by Calvin Coolidge’s father.
Finally, Tres Bonne from Boston Post Dairy in Enosburg Falls is a sweet, mild, young Gouda-style cheese made of goats‘ milk. I have no idea how the people at Boston Post Dairy manage to keep their goat cheese so inexpensive, especially considering how nicely it’s made, but I’m glad they do. It’s also a great goat cheese for those branching out from cows’ milk cheeses; it’s not animally or strong at all.
Don’t overlook Vermont Cheddar. Grafton Village offers one- and two-year aged cheddars that are flavorful, are handmade less than a mile outside of downtown Brattleboro, and are priced very fairly.
The Cellars at Jasper Hill age special wheels of Cabot Clothbound Cheddar, made using the milk of only one neighboring farm (rather than the typical collection of milk gathered from various New England and Canadian dairy farms), and this superb, English-farmhouse-style Cheddar is priced at about $24 per pound, placing it at a price-point about $10 per pound less than its English import counterparts. And you support three separate Vermont businesses.
* * *
Fresher, softer cheeses tend to be less expensive than their aged counterparts. To age cheese requires even more labor, extra time (which means the cheesemaker must wait to get paid), and additional fuel necessary to maintain the temperature and humidity of the aging cave.
Fresh cheeses can be sold almost instantly and require little labor or fuel. Then again, soft, fresh cheeses are not usually as interesting or complex in flavor as aged cheeses, but including one on your cheese board will help keep the overall cost down.
And in the spring, summer, and fall, many gorgeous locally made fresh cheeses are available at farm stands and markets, and many are priced within reach.
During the winter months, you won’t likely find any fresh, local cheeses, because they are out of season, but fresh imported cheeses will offer variety.
One of my favorites is Régal de Bourgogne from France. It’s also one of the few cheeses where I suspend my distrust of “cheese with stuff in it.”
Régal can be found plain, but the best specimens are coated in either brandy-soaked yellow raisins, fresh herbs, black pepper, or mustard seed. The cool, gentle creaminess of the cheese provides the perfect home for the additional ingredients, which are not used to mask an inferior cheese. (See, there are always exceptions to the rules! But you must first know the rules before you venture out to break them.)
* * *
Another consideration when selecting quality cheeses on a budget: a robust, well-made cheese offers more “bang for the buck” than a cheaper, factory-produced cheese. You will need only a very small amount to feel satiated, so you don’t need to buy or serve a very large piece.
Remember, most people in one sitting are not going to eat much more than one or two ounces of cheese — that’s total, not per cheese. And harder cheeses, like super-aged Gouda or Piave, have such concentrated flavors that most people want only a nibble or two.
Of course, when you’re making a cheese board for guests, you don’t want to put tiny pieces of cheese on the platter because it’ll look cheap, but there are ways to fluff up the presentation without emptying your purse.
One way is to give individual guests their own cheese plates. Put three to five cheeses on an individual luncheon-size plate, or on a slate or wooden board. Remember, no more than two ounces of all cheeses combined makes each individual cheese pretty small. And it’s supposed to be that way, so nobody will think you’re a cheap jerk for serving them such little pieces of cheese.
You can do a few sleight-of-hand tricks on a larger platter, too. Instead of putting one piece of each cheese on the platter, cut thin, individual-size slices and arrange them in a tall stack or other interesting pattern. It’ll make a little bit of cheese look like a lot of cheese, similar to how high-end chefs utilize the “vertical food” trick to make the little bits of food in your expensive dinner jump out at you and appear to be substantial. (Meanwhile, you’re still hungry afterward, but not so with this cheese platter!)
You can also surround the whole or cut-up pieces of cheese with “friends of cheese,” such as fresh grapes or berries, crackers or sliced baguette, roasted nuts, olives, cornichons or other pickled things, slices of salami, rolled slices of chilled, roasted meats, fresh cherry or grape tomatoes, or little ramekins of mustard or fruit preserves.
These products are all generally less expensive than even the priciest cheese, and they enhance the apparent (and actual) value of your cheese board.
* * *
If you use some of these tips, you’ll surely impress your guests with your great taste in food. Meanwhile, you’ll satisfy your own cheese jones, and you’ll have some money left over to pay the rent.
Because, if you’re like me, the cheese budget is at the top of the list, with housing and utilities a close second.
Hey, at least I come about it honestly.