Continued from last week …
I like to start a cheese platter with a hard or semi-hard cheese. In the fall I like to use cheddar (you could serve a sharp one and a mild one), aged Parmesan, or aged Gouda. If you haven’t tasted aged Gouda, I encourage you to try it. It’s a bit pricey, but the flavor is so intense that a little goes a long way. Aged Goat Gouda is good too, though the flavor is very different. I’d pair aged Gouda with apples and aged Goat Gouda with pears. I also enjoy another Dutch cheese called Paranno that’s also a type of Gouda and much more affordable. It’s moister and less crumbly than aged Gouda and it has a wonderful nutty flavor that reminds me of a good Parmesan.
There are some flavored, semi-hard cheeses people tend to like, such as Cotswold (a double-Gloucester with chives) and Huntsman (which consists of two cheeses, stilton and double-Gloucester, in alternating layers), and the weirdly green Sage Cheddar. And, as Wallace and Grommet can attest, Wensleydale is smashing, and you can get it imbedded with cranberries.
I recently had Stilton with lemon rind (it’s a white cheese and doesn’t have the blue veins of mold found in a blue stilton). It would make an excellent dessert cheese. (I put a piece of it down to go answer the phone and when I came back I found that the Stilton was gone; in its place was my cat Echo, happy, suspiciously lemon-scented, and licking her paws contentedly.)
Don’t forget the “cheese with holes” category: Emmanthaler, Gruyere, and Jarlsberg, my favorite melting cheese. These are a nice addition and “user-friendly” — most people are familiar with them.
There’s always a place on the platter for a soft cheese, such as double or triple crème. I like one called d’Affinois, which has a well-developed sort of mushroomy flavor, without any of the scent of ammonia that usually accompanies a comparably mature brie. Also, because of the extra filtration process used in making d’Affinois, it has the texture of a triple crème but the fat content of a double crème. (Thank you, Cheese Gods!) Camembert is good too, and especially nice with grapes. You can also get a Camenzola, which is a cross between a Camembert and a Gorgonzola. There are several soft, spreadable blue cheeses as well, such as Maytag and SagaBlue.
A creamy, spreadable cheese like Saint Andre or Explorateur is excellent on small toast points or crackers. I have a favorite cheese called Boursault with a flavor I imagine is akin to licking the wall of a moist, dank cave (in a good way). Bucheron, a goat cheese, also falls into this category, if it is ripe and has come to room temperature.
Add a log of soft goat cheese to the plate and offer it with small crackers or toast points to spread it on. If you like you can put it on a separate plate and cover it with herbs and olive oil. You can sometimes find it rolled in herbs or covered in ashes. As I said before, I have often been able to find goat cheese at farmers markets. Once in a while I see a smoked log of soft goat cheese in a gourmet shop. If you see it, get it! It’s absolutely delicious.
Okay, so those are the basic four:
- hard and semi-hard cheeses (Cheddar, Parmesan, aged Gouda, some that are flavored with spices, herbs, and fruit, and “cheeses with holes”);
- semi-soft cheeses (Brie, Camembert, d’Affinois);
- soft, spreadable cheeses, such as Explorateur, Boursault, and Saint Andre; and
- soft, spreadable logs of goat cheese.
For the fifth, why not a “wildcard”? I recently tried an Italian soft cheese wrapped in cherry leaves called La Rossa; it was a bit pricey ($7.99 for a small round that would provide a small taste for just four people), but totally worth it. The cheesemonger said there would be the scent of cinnamon from the leaves when I opened the package, and indeed there was. You eat the leaves as well as the cheese. It was truly outstanding and I can’t wait to get it again.
If you know someone who likes a truly stinky, gym-sock-like cheese experience, turn them on to Epoisse. It is also wrapped in leaves and smells just like the men’s room at Port Authority (or so I am told). I’ve read it’s illegal to carry it on the subway in Paris. When I used to work at a Formaggio Kitchen, everyone who wasn’t serving the customer who had asked for Epoisse suddenly had the urge to wash knives in the back room or do some other errand that would take them out of the immediate Epoisse-contaminated area. It is truly a HazMat kind of cheese, as is Raclette, a famous melting cheese that smells shockingly awful but tastes good.
Stinking Bishop falls into the smelly category too. It is a “washed” rind cheese. To my mind, “washed” is a misnomer, as you are actually adding a flavor rather than cleaning the cheese. I would have called it a “brushed” rind cheese instead, as you brush the cheese with a liquid such as, in Stinking Bishop’s case, pear brandy. The cheesemonger I bought it from told me that Stinking Bishop is the name of the type of pear from which the brandy is made, which I hadn’t known.
I also love a brown, semi-hard goat and cows’ milk cheese from Norway called Gjetost, that combines flavors of peanut butter, caramel apples, and the kind of dulce de leche that’s made from goats’ milk. It’s unlike any other cheese you’ve ever tasted. The closest thing I’ve tasted (but still off by a mile) was a “cheese” made from almond milk. The almond milk cheese was far superior to any soy cheeses I’ve tasted and the best of the non-dairy cheeses that I’ve sampled.
As you can see, it’s well worth a trip to a good cheese store or cheese counter where you can sample cheeses. Ask the cheesemonger for tips about which cheeses to serve with the other foods on your menu and what wines or hard ciders might go well with the cheese.
You might also like to create a tasting plate of several cheeses from the same category, similar to tasting a flight of wines. (A flight is an assortment of glasses of the same type of wine, organized by theme, such as moving from light to dark or sweet to dry. There is also a vertical flight — the same type of wine from one winery but of different vintages — or a horizontal flight, the same vintage of a certain type of wine but different wineries.) Cheddars would be a fun category, and so would double and triple crème Brie, or several different Goudas.
To learn more about cheese, you can take classes. Formaggio Kitchen offers classes, as does Murray’s, and many adult education centers offer cheese and wine tasting classes as well. You can always educate yourself just by making repeated trips to the cheese shop, talking with the cheesemonger, tasting cheeses, and reading books. As nerdy as it sounds, it does help to keep notes. That way you won’t end up buying a cheese you didn’t like twice! You’ll also be able to find the name of one you want to share with friends instead of coming home with one with a similar name but different taste.
A great game to play as you are eating cheeses from around the world is “Wise and Otherwise,” in which everyone has to write an ending for an idiomatic expression from another culture. Then, all the endings (including the correct one) are read out loud and everyone has to vote on which is the right one. It’s both hilarious and eye-opening.
PostScript: Someone suggested in a comment about part one of this article on cheeses that I should include bread, crackers, dried fruit, and nuts in this discussion. It’s nice to have some bread for spreading cheeses on and it makes sense to cut it yourself before serving it. If you cut too much, so what? It’s an excuse to make bread pudding or Freedom — I mean French — Toast. The only thing I’ll say about bread and crackers is that you don’t want to put a really delicate cheese on bread or crackers that are highly flavored themselves, because it would “waste” the flavor of the cheese, so if you offer some delicious onion or garlic flavored bread or crackers covered in spices and seeds, put out some white bread as well, such as a sliced baguette. Think of white bread as a blank canvas.
Nuts are great too. Walnuts and pecans are equally good flavored or “nude,” just make sure to get fresh ones. I thought I hated walnuts until I finally ate some that weren’t rancid. You can also buy Marcona almonds from Spain that are fried in oil and sprinkled with sea salt, but you might have to go to a gourmet shop to find them (although our local Whole Foods frequently carries them). Our local co-op sells smoked almonds and also tamari-coated almonds that are addictive.
I am going to include a recipe for “White Hot Velvet Pecans,” an odd but good recipe I invented, in a December holiday menu along with the tale of how I accidentally created some kind of mustard gas-like toxic cloud in my kitchen (which had no vent) when I first started experimenting with cooking Cayenne pepper (to coat the pecans) in a frying pan, so in the end I added the Cayenne at a later stage that did not involve direct contact with a heat source. Anyway, something to look forward to for fans of spiced nuts and accounts of kitchen disasters.
I think I mentioned dried figs in my article, but dried apricots are good too, and I also like prunes a lot. Speaking of figs and goat cheese, just today I bought a small amount of an exceedingly expensive carton of fig-flavored goats’ milk ice cream. It tastes good and is a boon to people who are lactose-intolerant (the label calls it “lactose friendly” and, though I know what they are trying to get at, it really isn’t an accurate description, although I guess “Lactose-intolerence-friendly” wouldn’t fit on the carton as easily). The taste is quite goaty and will take a little time to get used to, but I’m glad that someone is making a fig ice cream. Now if only they’d make a fig, prune, cognac, pecan, and dark chocolate ripple … then they’d really have something.
Sigh. Suddenly I’m peckish. Time for a little bit more figgy goat ice cream.