Cheese, Glorious Cheese

This past December Whole Foods ran a special promotion called the “12 Days of Cheese.”  Every day their Global Cheese Expert, Kathy Strange, showcased a different specialty cheese at a 50% discount.  I’ve met Kathy professionally and respect her reputation as one of our country’s top cheese authorities.  We also happen to both be members of Le Guilde Internationale des Fromagers as well as Les Dames d’Escoffier (an international organization of women leaders in the food, fine wine and hospitality industry). So, when Whole Foods’ promotional flyer arrived in my mail box at home and I saw Kathy’s photo, I knew something interesting was afoot. 

America’s top cheese expert’s holiday choices

As expected, Kathy’s selection of cheeses was impeccable. Esquirrou, an award-winning Basque cheese; Keen’s Farmhouse Cheddar from Neal’s Yard Dairy, London’s top cheese monger; and Cypress Grove Humboldt Fog, were  just a few of the twelve jewels Kathy handpicked for the promotion. 

Over the next five days, I trekked to my local Whole Foods store to pick up the cheese-of-the-day. At the cheese counter, I also took the time to study Kathy’s recommendation for which wine, beer, cracker and accountrement (accompaniments) would be best to maximize her cheese pick.  Kathy’s sophisticated palate assembled the perfect combinations to make any host look like a cheese aficionado.

Conquering cheese’s funky smell

As a long-time cheese lover and former cheese lecturer for Sopexa, I was particularly excited to carry home my prized Camembert from Day Five.  An hour later, Bibi (my husband’s caregiver) tactfully asked if I ever used Baking Soda in my refrigerator to manage off-orders. My back went up and I replied, “Indeed, not only do I use it, but I also change the box regularly.” Then, Bibi countered, “Oh, I thought something might have spoiled as there was a strange smell coming from the frig.”  Then, it dawned on me that he was referring to the Camembert. While its barn-yard aroma is something I covet, it can be off-putting to the uninitiated.  Perhaps, had I called it “a funky smell,” Bibi might have thought, “Oh, how cool, like a natural wine?”

Lactose intolerant cheese lovers

Bibi’s reaction to the Camembert prompted me to ask him if he liked cheese.  “I love cheese,” he responded enthusiastically, then added the caveat.  “Unfortunately, cheese doesn’t like me. You see, I’m lactose intolerant.”  This distressed me, all these crazy food allergies which deprive people today of enjoying foods they crave. 

A friend of mine and fellow cheese lover, Natasha, developed a lactose intolerance several years ago. Undaunted, she went in search of a cheese she could enjoy that didn’t upset her stomach.  She discovered cheeses made with goat’s milk did not cause any negative side effects.  Eureka! She was happily back to her daily cheese addiction. Another cheese Natasha also now enjoys is Parmesan Reggiano which turns out to be 100% lactose-free.

Taking an over-the-counter lactase supplement several hours in advance is another way to combat the problem. While it won’t eliminate the issue, it will  afford you some wiggle room to indulge your cheese passion. 

An early lover of fine cheese

Having grown up in France, eating cheese is a Proustian experience for me.  Like Proust’s Madeleine, a bite of cheese takes me back to my youth. Ironically, it also reminds me or an “ultimate cheese” experience I had in the early 70’s. Call it is bragging rights, but I survived Les Sept Plateaux de Fromage at Androuët, Paris’ iconic cheese restaurant.

At the time, I was just starting to learn about French cheeses at my new job at Sopexa when my soon-to-be husband, Ed Lauber, asked me to join him on a trip to Paris. Naturally, I jumped at the opportunity and immediately volunteered to organize a lunch for us at Andouët.  My boss and mentor, Mary Lyons, agreed that Pierre Andouët’s specialty would be a great way to fast-track my learning process.

As a restaurateur and author of The Encyclopaedia of Cheese, Pierre Androuët was considered the country’s definitive Ambassador for French Cheese. At his small restaurant he personally curated a selection of France’s finest cheeses which he methodically categorized into seven productions methods or styles.  They included: Fresh; soft with natural rind; soft with washed rind; pressed; pressed and cooked; goat’s milk and finally blue-veined.

A masterclass in French cheese

As soon as Ed and I arrived at the restaurant, we ordered a nice bottle of Loire Valley Sauvignon Blanc and set to the task of becoming students of cheese. Each guest was able to order three cheeses per category, all of which were simply presented in a flat, wicker tray lined with fresh oak leaves.  That meant Ed and I could taste six cheeses from each plateau, if we shared.  Greedy Americans! By the time we reached the fourth tray we had sampled 24 different cheeses with only wine and cheese as accompaniments.  And we had three trays to go. 

When the final tray arrived with the blue-veined cheese, I was about the same color as the mold in the Roquefort—blueish green. To this day, I feel our cheese marathon would have been manageable had we stuck to just three cheeses per tray. Of course, a half-time walk around the block or at least the addition of a green salad “pause” would have helped, too.  However, we did persevere and hobbled out of the restaurant delicately holding our stomachs while desperately waving down a taxi to take us back to our hotel.

Some serving tips

Fast forward and I have learned to control my passion for cheese by purchasing one at a time, ideally at its peak of ripeness. As cheese is alive it needs to breath. Subsequently, as soon as I bring one home, the plastic wrap is immediately replaced with waxed or parchment paper. Then, it goes into the vegetable drawer which has more humidity than other parts of the refrigerator. Cheese crave humidity, by the way.

As a purist, I prefer to serve my cheese au naturel with no “tarting up.”  However, on occasion—as I do like sweet and salty combinations—I will serve cheese with a fig jam, fruit chutney, flavored honey or slices of ripe pear.

To showcase the cheese at its best, remember to leave it out for two hours before serving.  While it may leave a pungent odor in your kitchen, it is worth the reward in a more fully developed taste.

Wine pairings with cheese made easy

As for which wine to pair with your cheese, my go-to is normally a French Sauvignon Blanc.   Spanish Albariños and German Rieslings also work well especially with lighter cheeses and chèvres (goat’s milk cheese).  For reds, Syrahs and Zinfandel are versatile and go nicely with stronger cheeses. However, in the end, it is all personal.  Serve what you like is always the best advice.

If you have leftover bits and pieces of cheese, don’t throw them out. Do what the French do, make Fromage Fort.  This is a simple “mash up” of cheeses with the addition of sweet butter, shallots and white wine. Check out my version of this recipe in this week’s Dessert section of TarteTatinTales.

Now, I’m putting on my raincoat and heading to Whole Foods to pick up cheese for day #10, Roque Creamery Organic Enraptured Blue.  We have a dinner party tomorrow.  I like Kathy’s suggestion of a Cabernet Sauvignon and honey to accompany this cheese so plan to try it ot.  Do you think it is okay to raid Ed’s Christmas gift of truffle-flavored honey to serve our guests? After all, it’s just three days early.

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