People scoff at me when I say this, but the cheese course I took in grad school was one of the more interesting, eye-opening classes that I took.
For the course we had to visit a farm that produced cheese, so we headed up to Jasper Hill Farm in Greensboro, Vt. It was incredible to see, from the physical labor of milking the animals, stirring and cutting the curds, to the care and attention to detail pressing and handling the cheese, to the science behind the aging process. I finally understood what went into the cheese that I had sampled that semester.
Cheese is a food with a variety of personalities. Each cheese tells a story, depending on where and how it is produced. Most cheese makers from around the world prefer to use raw milk, because it is said to impart more flavor. However, raw milk cheese, made with unpasteurized milk, must be aged at least 60 days before it can be imported into the United States. Therefore, cheese of the same name that you eat in Europe is not always the same that you find in U.S. markets.
Currently, there are great cheeses being produced domestically, especially in New England and even here on the Island. Mermaid Farm in Chilmark makes its own feta, and until recently, due to a fire, The Grey Barn and Farm in Chilmark was making Prufrock. Jan Buhrman from The Kitchen Porch has offered cheese-making classes in the past, and many Island restaurants make their own ricotta.
The characteristics of cheese vary depending on the quality and characteristics of the animals, feed, and cheesemaking. Where and what the animals eat, such as different wildflowers and grasses, changes the flavor of the cheese. When the animals are milked affects the fat content. Traditionally, climate and altitude determined how cheeses were produced and aged, and cultural influence and location determined cheese-making styles.
Similar to wine, cheese can only be called a certain name if it is produced in a specific region, such as the name-controlled regions or A.O.C. in France. This is done to keep the quality of the cheese high and to honor the tradition of production.
Next time you want to try something new, bypass the processed cheese on the shelf and try a specialty, hand-crafted cheese. Figuring out what cheese to buy can often be intimidating. Here are a few pointers:
Fiddlehead Farm Stand on State Road in North Tisbury offers a wide selection of cheese, and a lot that are less well known.
“Cheese is a living thing, and sometimes we get cheeses that aren’t ready to sell,” said owner Bob Skydell. “We have to hold on to them for a while.”
Fiddlehead has a range of imported and domestic cheeses, from New England favorites such as Bayley Hazen Blue and Winnimere from Jasper Hill Farm to Pecorino from Tuscany and Tomme de Savoie from France. “We offer hand-selected cheeses from all over the world. Lots of cheese from the U.K. we have to order six weeks in advance,” Mr. Skydell said.
His advice on selecting cheese: “Pick three cheeses that will contrast in taste, texture, and style. Most people are looking for something familiar, ‘I had this cheese and it was wonderful, but I don’t remember what I had.’ Try new things and remember what you get.”
Black Sheep, on North Summer Street in Edgartown, offers cheese cut to order, and you can sample most of the cheeses before you purchase them. “We keep a nice selection of different types of milk and textures,” said owner Mark Venette.
He recommends a toma from Point Reyes, Calif., similar in style to the French tomme, a mild cow cheese done in Alpine style. Or MouCo cheese from Fort Collins, Colo., a cow’s milk cheese available in three styles; Colorouge, a natural-rind cheese that is reddish-orange in color; Ashley, a soft-ripened cheese covered with a thin layer of ash; and Truffello, a soft cheese with a hint of truffle. Mr. Venette recommends serving cheese with fruit pastes such as quince or cherry, or any fresh fruit.
On Thursdays through Saturdays starting at 6:30 pm, Black Sheep transforms into Trio, a small plates and tapas bar. Cheese, charcuterie, salads, and small plates are available as well as beer pairings and wine flights that relate directly to the cheese.
The cheese board at Soigné, on Upper Main Street in Edgartown, brings you around the world on a cheese tour.
“We have whatever looks good, lots of chèvres, herby goat cheeses, and truffle cheeses,” says owner Ron “Puppy” Cavallo. Favorites include goat gouda from Holland that “flies off the shelf,” along with triple crèmes and la tur, an Italian bloomy rind soft cheese made with a trio of milks: goat, sheep, and cow. “I ask people what they like: hard, soft, stinky, mild. I funnel them to the right spot. I try to pair it with what they’re having for dinner or wine that they are drinking,” says Mr. Cavallo. “With cheese you either like it or you don’t. It’s like wine. You need to be open-minded.”
Variety of cheeses:
- Typically cow, sheep, or goat’s milk, but also buffalo and other animals.
- Fresh cheese: uncooked and unaged. (Marscapone)
- Soft-ripened/bloomy rind: semisoft consistency, surface ripened. Thin, white rind. (Brie)
- Washed rind: orange-hued, rubbed or washed during ripening process with solution of brine, beer, wine, etc, to promote exterior mold. (Taleggio and Epoisses)
- Natural-rind: self-formed rind. Thin exterior, dense texture. (Stilton and Tomme de Savoie)
- Blue-veined: visible mold cultures. (Gorgonzola)
- Uncooked, pressed: unheated curds are pressed, creates firm texture. (Cheddar and Manchego)
- Cooked, pressed: heated before pressing. (Parmigiano-Reggiano and Gouda)
How to buy, store, and eat cheese:
- Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Talk to the cheese monger or sales person about what type of cheeses you typically like.
- Ask to try a sample.
- Remember what you like/don’t like. Take a photo of the label or package to keep as a reminder.
- Look at the cheese, to make sure there is no mold, unless there is supposed to be, or visible discoloration or excessive cracking.
- How to store/wrap cheese: store in bottom crisper drawer of refrigerator. Air and oxygen are enemies of cheese. Wrap in aluminum foil, waxed paper, or plastic wrap. The harder the cheese, the longer it will stay fresh. Only cut what you will eat.
- Serve two or more cheeses of different milks, tastes, textures, and styles.
- Always bring cheese to room temperature.
Edibility of cheese rind: some are a matter of personal preference and some are not edible. Use common sense. Usually the rinds of soft ripened cheeses are okay to eat.
- Serve with crusty bread, crackers or crisps.
- Fresh fruit: apples, pears, plums, figs, cherries, berries.
- Dried fruits.
- Marmalades, jams, jellies, preserves.
- Chutneys, fruit pastes.
- Syrups, honey.
- Charcuterie: rillettes, pates, mousses, cured meats.
- Marinated vegetables.
- Olives, cornichons.
- Toasted or spiced nuts.
If you want to pair cheese with wine or beer, choose one produced in a region near the cheese. Also, think about balance: you don’t want it to overwhelm the cheese. Imagine what would complement the cheese. For example, with a strong cheese, try a sweet wine.