The variety of cheeses available today is endless. Gourmet shops have expanded their cheese counters and even delis and supermarkets are now offering goat cheeses and rich triple creams that were until recently, considered exotic. With such a volume of resources and choices, even the most ardent cheese lover may be overwhelmed at the cheese counter. Not to worry, Mar is here.
Cheese is one of the oldest and most common of all foods. A poor man’s meal or a gourmet’s delight, it can be an everyday food or part of an elaborate and sophisticated dish. Few of us really appreciate the vast variety. There are the robust cheeses of Germany and the solid cheeses of Switzerland. While my favorites are the brilliant cheeses of France, we mustn’t forget that wonderful cheeses are also made in the United States and Canada.
No one takes cheese more seriously than the French, whether making it, buying it, serving it or eating it. It’s a staple of the everyday table. The number of French cheeses is astonishing. France produces some 400 different cheeses. Two French cheeses, Brie and Roquefort, are extremely popular here in the states. Getting to know French cheeses is an adventure and a lot like getting to know French wines. Well worth the time and effort.
Although cheese is good with beer, cider and even black coffee, wine is what partners with it best. Wine and cheese seem to bring out the best in people, so why mess with perfection.
Cheese and wine tasting parties are growing ever more popular. Learning by tasting, especially in the company of good friends, gives one a distinct feeling of satisfaction. And, if this is a serious gathering to learn about cheese and wine, skip the big meal following. There is no need. If you’ve ever had genuine farmhouse Cheddar from England, real Alsatian Munster, or aged Parmigiano-Reggiano, you know that fine hand-crafted cheeses have absolutely nothing to do with a brand. It’s all about the process and the skills that go into making these fabulous cheeses. Cheese is a precious living organism. In addition to being deliciously edible, it’s a beautiful, natural artifact and a phenomenal conversation piece. My passion for cheese stems not just from the incredible range of colors, textures, aromas and tastes, but also from the effort and care that goes into the creation process. I love the way a perfectly ripe, soft cheese oozes onto a cracker. I revel in a perfect lunch frisee salad tossed in a mild vinaigrette, with a Brin d’amour, Caerphilly, Garrotxa or Coolea.
Since their youth is what makes these cheeses special, buy only as much as you will use in a day or two. They are very moist, sometimes crumbly, and should taste, smell and look fresh and white, not runny and certainly not moldy. All cheeses except those that are hung to dry need refrigeration.
No matter the occasion, serving cheese is the perfect prelude to any meal or gathering. Over the years, I have been fortunate to have learned from my neighbor Barbara, how to perfect my cheese serving skills. Cheese should always be served at room temperature so take it out of the refrigerator at least an hour before your guests arrive. What cheese to select and how to serve it was always my biggest concern. Cheese selection is a personal thing, so experiment and consult the professionals. Cheese comes in a variety of flavors and textures ranging from mild to assertive, soft to firm, young and fresh to mature. Becoming a cheese connoisseur is easy with experience and guidance. The perfect place to learn about cheese is the Darien Cheese Shop, located in the Goodwives Shopping Center in Darien, Connecticut. Never rushed, one can taste and experience many different cheeses that are often not available in grocery stores. This place is a real treat and an experience not to be missed.
Cheese can be served at any time of the day or night and is appropriate for breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks as well. In parts of Europe like Holland and Scandinavia, it is commonly eaten at breakfast. In France and Italy, cheese is most often served with or after the salad course. Here in America, cheese is most widely used for sandwiches, snacks, or cooking. We have so much to learn. In my house, a fresh French baguette with cheese is a perfect afternoon delight. No matter what the time of day, when guests arrive, it seems it is my cheese display that becomes the destination over which to converse and visit. Add some lush pears, crisp apples and seedless grapes and the kitchen island is transformed. Quite often, I find myself pleading with my dinner guests,
Please step away from the island. Dinner is served!
Cheese is perfect for small or large cocktail parties. It’s easy, tasty, nourishing and of course, helps to soak up the alcohol.
Serving the Cheese:
I love to layer a variety of cheeses on a wonderful old mirror. The refection captures attention and serves as an interesting focal point. Hard cheeses can be placed on a small cutting board on the mirror. Non-scented candles add a playful reflection to the presentation. Leaves, seasonal greens and fresh herbs such as parsley and sage add color and texture. Fruit such as tart apples, comice pears, and red and green grapes compliment many cheeses and add interest to the arrangement. No cheese platter would be complete without a selection of crackers and a crusty baguette, sliced thinly.
Mar’s Favorite Cheeses:
Although I enjoy many different cheeses, here are some of my favorites:
- Epoisse: soft and very smelly, much like a camembert.
- Vermont Cheddar: only sharp will do.
- Cambazola: blue cheese in a creamy brie type cheese; the
zolaas in gorgonzola.
- Ripe Brie: this cheese should be soft and ripe for serving.
- Parmigiano Reggiano: the king of hard cheeses.
- Aged Gouda: dry and piquant.
- Boursin: creamy garlic and herb cheese.
Where’s the Cheese:
Care and storage of cheese is simple and if done correctly, will prolong its freshness. Parchment paper works best when used with plastic containers or zip-lock bags. Wrap each cheese in its own piece of parchment paper. Different cheeses can be stored together in one bag or container provided that none are particularly odorous. For
stinky cheese, and I use the term most affectionately, it is best to wrap it and store it in its own plastic bag. Cheese wrapped and stored in this manner will keep for several days.
Enjoying cheese from different countries reminds me of all the special places that I have traveled. French cheeses take me back to Paris; Vermont cheddars take me back to my snowboarding days on the slopes. With so many to choose from, keep an open mind and enjoy the discovery process.
And there you have it.