Cheese is all the rage in New York, thanks to Steve Jenkins of Fairway markets, Terrance Brennan of Picholine/Artisanal, and other pioneers. Mr. Jenkins’ cheese primer just about educated the hungry masses, and Terrance Brennan stylized the cheese cave in a restaurant. Some proponents of cheese would have you believe that cheese is part of the culinary DNA, that no matter what type of eater you are, there’s a cheese out there just for you.
Growing up, the best cheese I could get my hands on was young gouda and american slices. Parmesan cheese came out of a green tin. Sometimes in the fridge there would be a wheel of cheese cut into triangles with silver wrapping on it, featuring a happy cow as if to remind me where cheese comes from.
Gradually, I learned about other cheeses through burger choices: swiss, cheddar, muenster, and weird bleu. Never the blue for me. Then parties with bad, off the block brie. Ho hum, but a necessary transition.
Then a brave new world opened up when I tasted the undisputed king of all cheeses: Parmigiano Reggiano. This Italian cheese, full of umami (a sort of sixth, savory sense packed with glutamate), opened my mind and my palate to the undiscovered country, a land filled with cheese courses to come for a lifetime. If nothing else, always stock this versatile food.
There’s a turning point in a culinary lifespan, when you have something proper and no longer turn back, like the day you taste great sushi or aged beef. There’s just no way you can compromise for anything less, at least not while attentive and sober.
As in an informal culinary education, you seek friends who are interested in good food, cooking, wine, etc. Cheese is no exception. Jay is the resident cheese guy in our group, the Grand Crew, and I have benefited from his lifelong appreciation of cheese, the process, and its rightful place in any top-notch meal.
If there is someone in your life who fills this role, cherish that person, listen, take notes, and above all, always bring him/her proper cheese.
Jay has inspired me not only to look at cheese in a different, more meaningful way, but also to try to age my own cheese in my refrigerator at home. I’m known as the idiot affineur of the group due to my ability (or luck) to age cheese in a humidity-free drawer at the bottom of my refrigerator, thereby aging fresh cheeses and transforming them into something very advanced. Don’t ask me how I do it. Like I said, idiot affineur.
Passing along some advice, what helped me get over my distaste for blue cheese was a “gateway” blue. The gateway cheese is that which helps you over the hump, and sets you off looking for radical forms of cheese. For me it was the Cabrales, a Spanish blue that marries well with red wines, is in between mild and strong both in flavor and in nose. If you don’t like Cabrales, blue cheese is just not for you. Because following this are English stiltons, dirt French bleus and so on. On second thought, you might try Maytag blue. I’ve used it to make great blue cheese dressing for hot wings.
For bries, step up and try a wheel of Pierre Robert or Explorateur. Just don’t blame me for not being able to keep it in the fridge.
Over the years, my favorites have changed, but some are perennials. On a desert island, if I had to pick, I would have an aged Vacherin Mont d’Or, a Torta del Casar, and aged Manchego, a good, runny Epoisse, and a Neil’s Yard Farmhouse Stilton. Anytime you can get your hands on these beauties, snap them up. They’re worth it.
The question remains: Where should I buy my cheese?
As with any food or wine item, of primary importance is the relationship you foster with the vendor. Some vendors are owners, quite skilled, and the great ones get to know you palate and challenge you to new ideas. Just as you should have a fish monger, a butcher, your favorite produce at the farmer’s market, the wine guy, and maybe even a chef on hand for advice, cheese should be no exception.
Next is the quality of the cheese and how the cheese is stored at the location. Price should not come into play. As with any good product, we must pay. Remember this supports the industry.
I have purchased cheese at Balducci’s, the Garden of Eden, Fairway (both locations), Zabar’s, Whole Foods, Artisanal, Citarella, Gourmet Garage, Murray’s (both locations) and a host of other supermarkets not worthy of any mention. Fairway uptown has a good cheese selection and has served me well in the past. Fairway on the upper west side has poor storing conditions for its cheese section, and as a result, my friends and I have returned many a cheese. The shop uptown is better because the cheese breathes in the open, airy space in which it is kept. Zabar’s is good for young, fresh cheese, but nothing exciting. Gourmet Garage has improper storing conditions for its cheeses. You have to inspect the packaging carefully. I often purchase at the Garden of Eden because of its location, and the just is merely fair. Citarella lacks depth, but stores its cheeses properly, and Whole Foods has been surprising me on occasion. Artisanal is a cheese altar, but the prices are more expensive than any other competitor in the city. I do treasure the trendy cheese bags they send me home with my purchase.
The clear winner is Murray’s, and it is most definitely worth the trip. Every time I get lazy and want to buy cheese elsewhere, I either regret it or get lucky. Murray’s passion is cheese and it shows. Just go there on a weekday, when a sales rep. can spend over an hour with you figuring out your tastes and needs. The staff works there because they live cheese. You feel like you are buying from the cheese shrine in the sky. They have the widest selection, and often are privy to raw or hard to find choices. Murray’s offers a multitude of specialty gourmet products, from pasta to chocolate, to Niman Ranch salumi, to olives, to Amy’s bread, to artisanal honeys, etc. My main man Cielo has been hooking me up for some time now. Find your regular too.
Cheese courses should be comprised of four selections if possible, a goat, cow, sheep and blue. If you can find them raw (score!), the better. All cheeses should be served at room temperature so as to bring out all the natural flavors and slight nuances. Try to match cheese and wine with the region of cuisine. This is almost foolproof, although you’ll find that goat cheese is a problem to match with most wines (try a Sancerre or Savennieres). Dessert wines, however, do work well. Think ports and madeiras, as well as ice wines from the Finger Lakes. Jay has preached to me that cheese should always be served before dessert so as not to “blow up” your palate. I have been resistant to this for years because I feel that no one will have room for the cheese. I continue to be wrong about this. Serve one cheese in the beginning if you must, but try not to. That’s what olives and salume are for.
When you are done for the night, wrapping is important to prolong the life of the cheese. Use wax paper and secure with tape, or wrap in plastic wrap. Try not to handle the cheese with your hands. Rather, place the wrapping over the cheese and scoop it up. Then fasten the underside. Plastic wrap doesn’t work as well because the cheese doesn’t get to breath, but it will do for at least one week.
Like a good bottle of bubbly, you should always have cheese in the house for surprise guest visits, emergencies, and your own appetite. After all, serving cheese and wine is a civilized thing to do.
Cheese is great served alone with sliced fruit, but here are some quick and easy goto recipes:
Blue Cheese, Honey & Nuts
½ lb. Neil’s Yard Farmhouse Stilton
1 box Finn Crisps
On crisps, spread some stilton, drizzle honey on top, and sprinkle with nuts.
Blue Cheese Dressing
1 cup sour cream
1 cup mayonnaise
¾ cup crumbled Maytag Blue cheese
1 tbsp apple cider vinegar
1 tbsp fresh lemon juice
2 tbsp minced flat-leaf parsley
salt & pepper to taste.
In a mixing bowl, fold in sour cream, mayo, and blue cheese. Add rest of ingredients and salt & pepper.
(Can store for one week in refrigerator)
Ricotta & Honey
1 lb Fresh Ricotta
Fresh Ground Black Pepper
Place three tbsp ricotta in a small bowl. Grind pepper. Drizzle honey to taste. Repeat for number of guests. (Serves 4)