BRATTLEBORO—One of the nice things about being a cheesemonger is that no matter where you go — a party, the doctor’s office, jury duty — chances are, your profession is the one that causes most people to “ooh” and “ahh.” (Maybe astronauts get more attention when they announce their vocation, but I wouldn’t know. I’ve never met an astronaut.)
Considering many in my profession are friendly curmudgeons, it’s somewhat of a mixed blessing.
The great thing about it? Nobody considers your job boring. The slightly annoying thing? Everybody wants to know your favorite cheese. Everyone asks. Everyone.
Think about it, Gentle Reader. Have you ever met a cheesemonger? Did you not ask her, “So, what’s your favorite cheese?”
I don’t blame people. But when they meet a painter, do they ask him for his favorite color? Does the butcher get asked about her favorite cut of meat?
Sorry to be so grouchy about it, but it’s such a hard question to answer. There are so many cheeses in the world.
Just thinking about French cheeses alone can overwhelm. As Charles de Gaulle once said, “How can you govern a country with 246 varieties of cheese?”
If someone asked me my favorite cheese from France alone, I couldn’t give a quick answer. My favorite French goat cheese? My favorite French washed-rind cheese? Blue? Sheep cheese?
And so much depends on the seasons. My favorite goat cheese might not be available in December, or my favorite soft cheese might be found only in the dead of winter.
But people still ask, and a good cheesemonger delivers what the people want when cheese is involved, so I’m going to do my best to list three of my favorite cheeses and why they are my favorites.
Of course, this list might change tomorrow. And this list is in no particular order. I’ve also included cheeses that most people can find either locally or at least within an hour’s drive. Why tease you with cheeses you cannot easily obtain? Doing so would be cruel (although it might become the subject of a future column: “Cheeses to search for”).
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The first cheese that always comes to mind when someone asks for my favorite is Montgomery’s cheddar. If you want to get a sense of cheddar’s history, what it tasted like before the factories started injection-molding it into vacuum-sealed plastic, go straight to Montgomery’s.
Made in Somerset, England — cheddar’s ancestral home — it is one of only three cheddars accepted into Slow Food Presidia, a project that categorizes and showcases traditional foods and beverages with the goal of preserving them before they disappear.
Montgomery’s is made of raw cows’ milk, and only a few cheeses are produced daily; factories can make a few blocks of cheddar per minute. The cheese is made into cylindrical wheels that are wrapped in lard-soaked cheesecloth and allowed to age for 11 to 24 months in special caves rife with beneficial, indigenous bacteria.
These wheels are never encased in plastic or wax. Doing so would cause them to retain too much moisture and traditional clothbound cheddar is supposed to have a crumbly, somewhat dry texture.
The cheesemakers don’t engage in these labor-intensive practices just to be quaint or because they are Luddites. They continue these longstanding methods because they make for an exemplary cheese, and they are actively preserving traditional foodways (“the cultural, social, and economic practices relating to the production and consumption of food,” says Wikipedia).
When you taste Montgomery’s cheddar, you are getting as close as possible to tasting cheddar as it was in the 12th century.
Expect a bright beginning, blossoming into a nutty flavor reminiscent of caramelized milk, with musty, earthy notes becoming more pronounced as you get closer to the rind — this is where you will taste the cave in which the cheese was aged. Also expect some slight variation from wheel to wheel, depending on the season and what the cows were eating.
Montgomery’s will cost you a bit more than your standard grocery-store block cheddar but, like any fine cheese, a little goes a long way.
And once you savor this cheese, you’ll understand why it’s held in such high regard by nearly every cheesemonger you’ll meet.
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Another cheese I actively seek whenever I can find it is available almost everywhere. It’s fresh goat cheese.
I don’t list a particular brand or maker because it’s made by so many. But I urge you to buy it right from the farm stand, from a farmers’ market, or from a specialty grocery store, and make sure it’s made as close as possible to where you purchase it.
If you’re buying goat cheese from a regular grocery store, chances are it is made in a factory or has traveled a long way. This doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll get a bad cheese, but it might be made with frozen or powdered curds or from milk that’s traveled a ways. Milk doesn’t like to travel, and jostling it adversely affects its flavor.
Choose a farmstead goat cheese — meaning the cheese is made on the same farm where the animals live. Because Vermont and New Hampshire are excellent places to raise goats, it shouldn’t be difficult to find some good farmstead cheese.
There are some larger producers here in New England and in New York state, and — again — their cheeses aren’t bad. But you can spend about the same amount of money on cheese made by a small producer, and chances are the cheese will be fresher. You’ll also be showing your support to the little guy, thus helping to maintain a family farm.
Fresh goat cheese made locally is an uncomplicated delight. Even if you think you don’t like goat cheese, it’s worth trying, as it has none of that animally flavor that many associate with (poorly made) goat cheese.
A well-made fresh goat cheese tastes fresh, milky, bright, and sweet. It’s not heavy like a triple-crème, but it is rich.
Fresh goat cheese takes well to marinating in olive oil with fresh (or dried) herbs and fresh garlic. I recently had some treated that way, given to me by Evan Laurie from Goats Rock Dairy in Gilsum, New Hampshire. It was one of the smoothest, creamiest goat cheeses I have ever had, and it reminded me of why I love this category of cheeses so much.
Its versatility is another bonus: spread it on crackers, broil it atop slices of bread, toss little scoops of it into your salad, melt it over warmed vegetables, fold it into scrambled eggs, stuff it into celery. You get the idea.
Plain, fresh goat cheese can also be served as part of a dessert course: mix it with fresh berries, or combine it with cream cheese for a twist on classic cream cheese brownies.
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On the other end of the texture spectrum is Parmigiano-Reggiano (“Parm-Regg”). A hard cheese, and perhaps one of the most famous of Italian cheeses, it tends to be misused here in the United States; at the least, it’s rarely allowed to achieve its full potential.
This unpasteurized cows’-milk cheese from Reggio-Emilia and the surrounding provinces of northern Italy is almost always used as a grating cheese. It does fine in this capacity, adding richness and umami (translated from the Japanese: “pleasant savory taste”) to pastas, soups, sauces, and risotto.
Parm-Regg does add a bit of salt to a dish, but not nearly as much as inferior “parmesans” made elsewhere, which substitute salt for flavor. But to merely grate Parmigiano-Reggiano is to miss out on an outstanding experience.
To truly appreciate Parm-Regg, take a sharp knife and break off a sliver or a little chunk and nibble on it. You only need a small amount, because Parmigiano-Reggiano, while not being strong, is immensely flavorful, and you’ll quickly feel satiated.
It’s the second most umami-rich cheese currently known, second only to Roquefort, the French blue cheese; both have high levels of glutamate, an amino acid that, in its unbound form (as is found in cheese), enhances the flavor of food.
For an extra-special treat, dip the cheese into honey or serve with fresh, in-season berries or sweet melon; the sugar in the fruit will bring out the inherent sweetness of the cheese, a quality overlooked when this cheese is grated on savory dishes.
Because this cheese comes in hard, dense 80-pound wheels and requires a skilled cheesemonger to combine a curious mix of brute strength and knife-wielding finesse, few cheese shops in the world will cut you a piece to order.
But when purchasing Parmigiano-Reggiano, try to get a piece that’s been cut as recently as possible.
At least look at the cheese carefully and make sure the plastic wrap encasing the cheese has no rips or holes in it. Otherwise, you’ll have unpleasant dry bits on your Parm-Regg.
Chances are you’ll get some rind, which you can toss into soup or sauce for extra flavor, but avoid a piece that has more than one edge of rind. It means the cheesemonger didn’t know the proper way to break down the wheel, and you’re paying a lot of money for all that rind.
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Next time you find yourself in a proper cheese shop, or a larger store with a good cheese counter, strike up a conversation with the cheesemonger. Ask to try these cheeses.
He’ll know you’re serious about cheese, and it might inspire him to introduce you to some of his favorite cheeses.