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Here you’ll find an extensive selection of articles authored by cheesemonger and owner Paul Partica, who brings 50 years of combined experience in the specialty foods business to “pen and paper.” Enjoy.
By Paul Partica, The Cheese Shop Of Centerbrook
It is time once again for our annual fan favorite, the 2017 edition of Best Buys. As you peruse the list, please bear in mind that many different brands or manufacturers of these cheeses can exist and taste can vary accordingly. I always suggest you “try before you buy.” to be certain you are taking home the right cheese for you.
The following list represents what I feel are truly great values:
Tres Leches from Spain ($20 to $24 per pound)
As the name implies, this semi-soft pasteurized Spanish cheese is produced from three milks: cow, goat and sheep. Tres Leches is similar to another popular Spanish cheese called Manchego, but this one is made only from sheep’s milk. It is worth noting that Tres Leches’ sales have far outpaced those of Manchego. This cheese carries a natural rind that has been bathed in olive oil, and its blend of milks provides great flavor and a really nice finish.
Piave Vecchio from Italy ($19 to $24 per pound)
This Parmigiano Reggiano-style cheese will most likely always make my top ten list. With its sharp, full flavor, Piave Vecchio works beautifully with most foods and salads. This makes it not only an ideal eating cheese, but also a great choice for cooking. Use it in place of Reggiano or Grana Padano in any dish you would normally use the former cheeses. You will not be disappointed.
A cow’s milk cheese, Piave comes in a small sixteen-pound wheel and has a hard, natural rind, similar to Reggiano. There are two varietals of this cheese. We usually carry the older one-year version, which offers a little more sharpness. This cheese keeps very well; just be sure to wrap it properly. For a fabulous dessert, drizzle a little exceptional Acacia honey from Italy over it, or even a bit of aged balsamic vinegar.
Fromage D’Affinois ($18 to $22 per pound)
This soft-ripening double crème deserves its ongoing place in the Best Buy list when you consider price compared with customer satisfaction. Unlike so many of the stabilized Bries and Camemberts on the market today, this one remains close to how you would find a soft-ripening cheese in Europe. It arrives to us with a firm center. This core softens as we allow it to ripen right in the store, and I love that I can finish the ripening process myself. This allows me to sell it at its peak flavor, which is when you will find it most soft, creamy and luscious.
D’Affinois is one of our consistent best sellers and usually the first cheese to disappear on a cheese tray. You can spend this amount for half the volume of many other cheeses and find yourself less satisfied.
Bleu d‘Auvergne ($16 to $20 per pound)
Bleu d’Auvergne is a French blue named after the region it originates from in the South of France. This young cheese ages about 30 to 60 days before export. It is made from cow’s milk and you will find it to be a little less salty than most blues. You will especially enjoy the creamy, buttery finish that comes with this cheese.
Drop this fan favorite into salads, enjoy snacking with it or place a generous wedge of it on your cheese tray when entertaining and watch it disappear. We also like to stuff it into olives and occasionally drop one into a Martini.
English Ford Cheddar ($14 to $16 per pound)
This cheese is one of the very best values out there, so it is no surprise that it usually makes my Best Buy list. It amazes me how so many other cheddars can sell for such high prices ($20 to $30 per pound) when the finish is so often bitter. I am often solicited by large cheese producers who charge higher prices for less taste satisfaction. High price does not necessarily equate to quality.
This pasteurized cheese has great cheddar taste and a wonderfully smooth, creamy finish that is unusual. It is one of our bestselling cheddars and well worth seeking out.
Austrian Salzberg ($9 to $12 per Pound)
This great Tilsit-style cheese from Austria is a semi-soft, part-skim cheese made from pasteurized milk. Many of you know the most common member of this family of cheese, Creamed Havarti. In the 1960s, the Danes renamed their version of Tilsit to Havarti to avoid competing with Tilsit varietals from other countries. They also increased the butterfat content of their Creamed Harvarti to sixty percent. I personally prefer regular Tilsits over the Harvarti version.
There are many other cheeses that belong to the Tilsit family. Some of these are well known. Stronger versions closer to the German Tilsit are Beerkase, Brick, Aged Monterey Jack and United States Muenster. Milder Tilsit examples are Austrian Grinzing, Swedish Farmer’s Cheese and Brick House, made by Vermont Farmstead.
One does not really cut cheese, and that is why a sharp knife is seldom needed. If you think about it, with almost any cheese you are wedging, a dull butter knife will do the trick. That is why we can use Vermont slates for cheese trays. Slates, however, will not work for bread boards because bread needs to be sliced, and slate will dull any knife, regardless of quality.
There are three basic ways to cut cheese:
A huge assortment of cheese knives exists in all shapes, colors, designs and materials such as metal, plastic, wood, porcelain, bone, ceramic and more. As I first mentioned, there is no need for sharpness when cutting cheese. In fact, for safety sake, a very dull, smooth and full-rounded tip could not cut you if you wanted it to. This is particularly helpful when children are involved.
Many knives have round holes drilled into their sides. These can be helpful because they stop knives from sticking to the cheese after it has been cut. They also have a nice Swiss cheese appearance, in my opinion.
As with any quality knife made with rivets in the handle, you should always hand wash. Machine washing, with its expansion and contraction due to the use of extremely hot water followed by a cooling process, will eventually loosen handles and deem knives useless.
Cheese wires can be a great tool for cutting and, in many cases, work better than knives. Particularly in the case of cheeses that are very soft or very hard, one will find them not only neater and cleaner, but easier to work with.
At the Cheese Shop, we use commercial wires for cutting and they are used hundreds of times per day. In fact, the bigger and the harder the cheese, the more the need for a wire exists. We can break down an eighty-pound wheel Reggiano, or even a two-hundred-pound wheel of Swiss Emmentaler, with a short 18-inch wire fitted with two handles. There are modern plastic-handled wire cutters available today, but we often find that the old-fashioned homemade ones work best. A combination of wooden dowels, stainless steel washers and piano wire will do the trick. We can make them in assorted lengths to accommodate that large wheel of Swiss, or maybe that tiny three-pound blue cheese. We can even slice frozen cheesecakes and desserts with a good wire.
Be careful when buying small retail wire slicers. They usually come with a small board and a handled wire that you pull over and down in to the cheese. They look clever but do not last long. The wires on these boards break easily and replacements can be almost non-existent, so be sure to ask about replacement wires at time of purchase. If they do not have an answer for you, avoid that purchase.
Cheese Planes or Slicers
One of the most popular cutting tools is the cheese plane or slicer. These are what we use to sample cheese in the Cheese Shop. They work extremely well, and if not placed in the dishwasher will last for many years. I have a few that are over thirty years old and still in great working condition. They never need sharpening.
There are a couple of tricks you might find useful. The first one is to bend your slicer to the proper angle. They always come flat when new, but a quick bend at the cutting line will make slicing much easier. Note the difference in the photo of the two cheese planes. The correct one has the higher degree of angle.
The second trick is that you need a large enough piece of cheese for it to work properly, and you need to cut across the width, not the length of the cheese. Use the slicer to trim back the rind often so you can keep slicing the center. Sometimes removing the rind will help. Please notice the photo showing proper direction in relation to the piece of cheese.
Congratulations to Award-Winning Harbison
We were happy to hear that a long-time favorite we sell has placed third in The Best of Show awards in this year’s National Cheese Association’s Official Tasting.
Harbison is certainly at the top of the list of the many cheeses that I can describe as truly extra special. It is perfect and festive for that special occasion. It is the cheese to pair with that vintage bottle of wine you have been storing in your cellar.
Harbison is a soft-ripening cheese with a bloomy rind. It is made from pasteurized cow’s milk and available all year long. Its roots come from Vacherin, a cheese made in Switzerland and France that is only available certain times of the year. Harbison also comes with a unique package surrounded by Spruce bark. This bark not only adds to the flavor but it helps the cheese to keep its shape. When served at room temperature it will get very soft and run like honey. The best serving suggestion is to leave the cheese in the bark, peel back the top skin and scoop it out like a perfect fondue. That is what festive is to me.
By the way, you do not cut this cheese, you spoon it out when ready.
I wrote a column on Beemster cheeses for Ink Magazine in the spring of 2011. Since that time, approximately 1,000 wheels later, Beemster cheeses have soared in popularity in our shop. For those of you who do not know Beemster goudas, it is time to get acquainted with this wonderful set of Dutch cheeses.
The story of how Beemster cheeses are made is fascinating. The Beemster company manufactures its cheeses in polders located in Holland. For those who may not know, polders are parcels of low-lying land reclaimed from a body of water (such as a lake, a marsh or even the sea) that are also surrounded by dikes, to keep water out. Approximately 3,000 of them exist in the Netherlands alone.
For over a hundred years the farmers of a co-op in the Netherlands have been making exceptional cheese in polders. The history of these polders dates back to the early 1600s, when certain bodies of water were first emptied. With its completion in 1612, the now dry, useable land was divided among its investors and the co-op began to grow. The land proved beneficial for farming and the area began to prosper. In 1901, a co-op was formed by CONO Kaasmakers, the makers of Beemster cheeses. The pastures within this land are pesticide-free and contain special minerals that offer a sweeter and softer milk fat. These smooth, creamy qualities are evident in the cheeses that Beemster produces.
All Beemster goudas are made using conventional, natural Dutch methods. Rennet is added to fresh milk, and the resulting coagulation forms curds. The curds are then cut and pressed into shape. Once formed, they are given a brine bath and the aging process begins. Every wheel is hand-turned and polished each day to ensure perfection. Beemster wheels will vary in age from a few months to 26 months.
Although we do not carry the entire Beemster line of cheeses, the following choices have worked well for us:
This 26-month-old cheese is sharp, with butterscotch, whisky and pecan undertones. It has a creamy finish and pairs well with Vintage Port, Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel. Many of our customers refer to it “adult candy.” I like it with single malt scotches and bourbons. People are especially fond of the subtle crystalline texture (formed by salt and calcium deposits) found in the cheese.
An 18-month-old cheese with a sweet and creamy texture, Classic teams well with Roquefort and Muenster and is often enjoyed with Vintage Port, Bordeaux and Cabernet Sauvignon. Classic is similar to XO but has less crystal formation.
Vlaskaas is a Gold Medal winner three times over and one of my personal favorites. This sweet and creamy varietal is excellent for cooking because it melts so nicely. Pair it with red grapes and walnuts. Vlaskaas holds distinction ranking as one the top two cheeses sold in our shop.
Smooth, clean taste and deep, complex flavor are the defining attributes of Beemster Goat. This cheese pairs well with red grapes, cashew nuts and honey. Enjoy it with Pinot Grigio, Claret and Sancerre. Beemster Goat bears similarity to Midnight Moon, which is another store favorite.
General Notes About Care
As with all cheese, special care should be taken to maintain freshness. Cheese wedges should be tightly wrapped in fresh plastic film wrap (Saran, for example) each time they are opened. If you re-wrap with old plastic film wrap, you will reintroduce any beginning molds back to the cheese surface; plastic film wrap only seals well the first time it is used. If these steps are not taken, your cheese will dry out more quickly and lose flavor. Protect your treasures.
When purchasing cheese, try to buy fresh-cut pieces from whole wheels at time of sale. It is always best to taste a fresh sample of your choice directly from the wheel, and not from a sample that has been cut into cubes hours prior. Only in this manner can one be certain the cheese is at its peak condition. Avoid pre-cut, Cry-o-Vac packaged cheeses. They might have started as the same great cheese but will unfortunately now include a subtle plastic taste, hence ruining what might have been a great cheese.
When serving cheese, it is best to allow wedges to rest at room temperature, remaining wrapped, for an hour or two before serving. Only then should you unwrap and serve. Refer to the above-mentioned suggestions for pairing with the cheese(s) you have selected. This will enhance the experience for you and your guests.
Look for the Beemster family of cheeses when you shop. You will be happy you did.
Some topics seem to come up so often I thought they might be worth discussing in this column. A few of my most frequently asked questions follow. Perhaps I might answer one of yours.
The Origins of Cheese
Originally, one of the most important reasons for making cheese was to store milk. A cow needs to be milked seven days a week without fail, but often a farmer could not get his milk to market every day. There could be many reasons for this: not enough time in a day, bad weather, spotty customer needs, travel restrictions and so forth. By making cheese, a farmer could prolong the shelf life of his milk and sell it when the timing was more amenable. In addition, turning milk into cheese reduced the need of maintaining cool storage since cheese keeps in warmer conditions much better than milk.
Another great benefit in making cheese from milk was the ten-to-one reduction in storage capacity. It takes ten units of milk to make one unit of cheese. A mere one tenth the space was needed to store cheese. By the way, this is also why milk with a butterfat content of 4.5% yields a cheese with approximately 45% butterfat, after the whey is removed.
Actual Butterfat in Cheese
Most people assume that a creamy – almost runny – single crème Brie with 45-50% butterfat will contain more fat than a hard, dry Cheddar or Parmigiano Reggiano that is also labeled with 45-50% fat. This is not so. Butterfat content is determined by the percentage of solids in cheese with all the liquids removed, or in dry matter (IDM). Most French cheeses will be labeled by percentage amount of Matière Grasse (amount of fat).
Since Brie contains much higher moisture content than hard cheeses, it actually contains lower butterfat content, even though it appears creamier and richer. As a general rule, if you divide the butterfat content of a labeled cheese by two, you will get the butterfat content of a cheese in its actual present condition. Hence, a Brie labeled 60% butterfat IDM, or 60% Matière Grasse, will be about 30% butterfat in its current state.
The difference between Brie and Camembert
The fact is, there is no difference. Both cheeses are made from the exact same recipe; they are, however, made in two different regions. If both cheeses were aged for the same amount of time and kept in identical conditions, you would not be able to taste the difference. Of course, milk quality can vary, and that would make a difference. If you are going to bake a Brie or Camembert in pastry, be concerned only about the cheese’s condition, not the name. Remember, a cheese too runny is a sign of over-ripeness, and it will only become even runnier when heated.
The Difference between Parmigiano Reggiano and Grana Padano
Parmigiano Reggiano is a partially skimmed raw milk, or thermolyzed, cheese made from cow’s milk. Cheese producers make this cheese from a blend of morning whole milk and the previous night’s milk that has been naturally skimmed by removing the cream that has risen to the top. This creates a cheese with a butterfat content ranging between 28 to 32 percent.
The D.O.C. classification of this cheese means it meets strict Italian laws that have been in existence since 1955. In addition to preserving Italy’s cheese quality and traditions, the classification protects the names, origins, production methods and characteristics of each cheese. This D.O.C. rating also protects Italian wines in the same matter.
Grana Padano is another cheese sold very often for the same purpose. There are, however, many differences between the two cheeses. In the production of Grana Padana, there is much less control over cow breeds or where the milk comes from. Milk used in the making of this cheese can be gathered over several days. Also, cows are often fed silage and there is also little control over the feed used. Silage is never fed to cows in the production of Parmigiano-Reggiano.
Additionally, Grana Padano is usually a younger cheese (aged for 8 to 20 months). It has a much milder taste and contains less fat. You will often find these wheels in the same size and appearance of a Parmigiano-Reggiano wheel, but they will be missing the stencil on the outside of the cheese labeling them as such.
Grana Padano sells for two thirds the price of a Parmigiano Reggiano and is often used to save on cost. It is generally used for cooking and grating, but not as an eating cheese. You will not generally find it shaved on Caesar salads. It is, however, fairly consistent in production, which gives it a quality point. Over the years I have enjoyed some good-tasting Granas, but this cheese definitely falls into the “Try before you buy” category. If given the chance, try both cheeses at time of purchase. Then you can decide what tastes best for you.
Color in Cheese
All cheese is naturally white in color. If you see a yellow-orange or reddish hue in a cheese, you can safely assume that a coloring agent was added. The most common coloring agent is annatto, which is a natural color derived from the seeds of the Achiote tree, native to tropical and sub-tropical areas of the world.
Did you Know?
By Paul Partica, The Cheese Shop Of Centerbrook
Every year around this time I revisit my favorites. Another year has passed and it is once again time for this year’s Top Ten choices. Over the past year many new cheeses have crossed my path, while several long-standing favorites remain close at heart.
What would be my absolute favorite? My response will almost always depend on my mood. There are so many factors to deciding: time of day, what I am having it with, beverage of choice and so forth. That said, there are always a few shining stars. So, I herein reveal my updated list for 2017. Bear in mind, these cheeses are not ranked in any particular order.
- Fromage de Chaumes (Cow’s milk)
This easy find is a longtime favorite of mine and a reliable fan favorite on any cheese tray. Fromage de Chaumes belongs to the washed rind family, which explains its brownish exterior. This is a young cheese, similar to Brie, but with no visible core. I particularly enjoy it on a crusty baguette with thinly sliced raw onion. (This is also how limburger, also of the same family, is commonly served.) I do not generally care for raw onions, but something about this pairing works very well for me.
- Ossau Iraty (Sheep’s milk)
Ossau Iraty makes my list again this year. Made in the Southwestern region of France, Ossau Iraty is one of the oldest cheeses in existence. It carries an AOC designation (Appellation D’Origine Controlee), which means it is controlled by law to meet certain high standards.
Ossau Iraty is an unpasteurized cheese, which only adds to its wonderful flavor. Ranging between three to four months in age, it will show a white or cream color, depending on its age. Its texture is somewhat firm with a subtle taste of nuts and olives and a creamy smooth finish. This cheese typically has no eye formations (holes), but they can occur. Butterfat content is 45 percent and the wheel size averages eight to ten pounds.
Pair this one with pears and apples, olives and assorted charcuterie, such as prosciutto and salami. I like a good Bordeaux, Rhône or dry Burgundy with Ossau as well.
- Fromage D’Affinois (Cow’s milk)
Fromage D’Affinois has made my Top Ten list every year so far, with a simple reason why. This is not only my favorite soft-ripening cheese, but a favorite for most of my customers as well. Unlike most of the imported Bries and Camemberts found in the U.S. that were stabilized for shelf life today, D’Affinois is exceptionally rich and creamy.
I love that this cheese continues to ripen in the store after arrival. I can then offer it for purchase at its peak. D’Affinois also maintains a fairly steady consistency, delivers a great flavor and is most always readily available. I continue to look for a comparable soft-ripening cheese to outperform this one, but I have yet to find it.
- Ewephoria (Sheep’s milk)
Ewephoria makes my list for the second time. As one of the older sheep cheeses, it is still a relative newcomer to the world of cheese since it has existed for only about ten years. Ewephoria ages for almost a year, which is considered a long time for a cheese this small in size. The taste reminds me of the extra-aged cow’s milk Goudas such as Beemster XO, with similar butterscotch whiskey notes. There is no gamey sheep’s milk taste to be concerned with here.
I love the clever pun in the name, and I always enjoy customer reactions when asked if they’ve had Ewephoria lately. This is a good recommendation when you are looking for something sharp, but different. Ewephoria pairs well with hoppy beers, but I prefer it with Bourbon or a single malt Scotch. Give it a try it on a burger or in Mac n’ Cheese.
- Alp Blossom (Cow’s milk-raw)
Alp Blossom impresses me as a perfect match for spring and summer. This beautifully garnished cheese is covered in rose petals, cornflower, marigold, lavender, parsley, marjoram, celery herb, oregano, lovage, savory, chive, fennel, chervil, onion and, surprisingly, chili.
The idea behind this cheese is to celebrate the diversity of the Alpine Flora throughout the Hay Belt area, which spans Eastern Switzerland, Southern Germany and Western Austria.
Made from raw milk, Alp Blossom is also a member of the washed rind family. But unlike other soft-ripening cheeses with a white, bloomy mold sprayed on them, this cheese is washed with a mold made up of B-linen bacteria. It then develops and ripens in a moist room, creating a more pungent and flavorful rind. The sticky viscosity of the exterior allows for the herby, floral topping to adhere.
- Stilton (Cow’s milk)
Known as the “King of Cheese,” Stilton has been a favorite of mine for over 40 years. In this cheese, blue veining runs through a mild cheddar base. I like it as an appetizer, but even more as one of my favorite desserts when served with sweet butter, table water biscuits and a little vintage port. By the way, an aging wedge of Stilton can be revived by removing the rind, combining it with a little port, then spreading it on a slice of pear with maybe a walnut or two over top. Let me know if you try it.
- Fresh Mozzarella (Buffalo’s milk or Cow’s milk)
Who can really say they do not like fresh Mozzarella? I will look for a reason to use it. Mention a vine-ripened tomato, fresh basil and some good olive oil – and my night is complete. Mozzarella was originally made from buffalo milk, and in Italy it still is. This version has a little more tang to it than the cow’s milk version. And where would pizza be without it?
- Point Reyes Blue (Cow’s milk)
Raw milk adds to the hearty flavor of this great Roquefort-style blue cheese from Point Reyes, California. This cheese is light in texture, though creamy and smooth. Penicillium Roqueforti is the blue source here. Point Reyes is great by itself as an appetizer, but also works well in salads or desserts.
- Appenzeller Extra or Black (Cow’s milk)
This very flavorful cheese from Switzerland has remarkably been in existence for over 700 years! Appenzeller ages in a secret bath of white wine and at least a dozen different herbs, roots and spices. Less than two percent of Switzerland’s production progresses to the extra aged or “Black” version. In addition to being fantastic on its own, this cheese adds great depth to a fondue.
- Kokos (Cow’s milk and Coconut cream)
Kokos makes my Top Ten list again this year. Most always a purist when it comes to added ingredients in cheeses, my love of coconut has won out here. Made by the same producer of our popular Ewephoria, this beautifully-made, semi-soft Gouda from Holland is a real treat for me. In addition to cow’s milk, the perfect amount of coconut cream is added to make this a continuing favorite. Kokos is a perfect choice to serve with fruit during hot summer days. Try adding a slice of fresh pineapple for a special treat.
There you have it – my Top Ten list of cheeses for 2017. But don’t hold me to it. If you asked me tomorrow…
A few months back, I received a sample of The Stag from one of my vendors. I have been somewhat disappointed with cheddars as of late, so I was not particularly excited to taste it. I am so glad I did.
At this initial taste, I found myself thinking of the Disney movie “Ratatouille.” Do you remember the scene where the food critic tastes the peasant dish ratatouille and flashes back? At that moment, he recalls how he had so enjoyed that dish as a young boy. That was me, when I tasted The Stag. I flashed back to great cheddars without the bitterness, sour finishes and vague sulfur odor I have become accustomed to encountering. This cheddar did not bite back.
Why am I disappointed with cheddars these days? It appears that some of the old tried-and-true methods of producing cheese have given way to modern methods, enabling faster production and increased poundage. The most important element given up seems to be flavor.
In recent years, cheddars made in 40-pound flats and aged for three years, in some cases, have been replaced by 1,000-pound cheeses that are aged in stainless steel for only one year. My question is simple. All cheese ripens from the outside in, so how does a 1,000-pound cheese age properly in one year when it typically takes three years for a 40-pound flat to age? The answer is, it does not.
Warmer temperatures will ripen cheese faster, but the result is usually a little bitter in taste, with a disappointing finish. I received many of these cheeses in the past. When I opened them, the sulfur odor was so strong I needed to air the cheese for several hours, and sometimes overnight. I stopped carrying those cheddars. It appears that in some markets, colorful packaging and sophisticated marketing may be all that is needed to sell a cheese.
Regardless of the degree of sharpness, I like a cheddar with no bitterness and no biting back at the finish. As much as I enjoy a sharp flavor, I will settle for a little less so, as long as a good quality taste is present. This brings me to The Stag.
I was sold on this cheese even before I learned it was a Gold Medal award winner. In addition to earning Gold and Bronze International Cheese awards in 2014 and 2015, it also won first place with the American Cheese Society in 2013 and 2014.
Deer Creek cheese is distributed by The Artisan Cheese Exchange in Sheboygan, Wisconsin and made with pasteurized milk. This cheese will also develop a slight crystalline crunch, which is very popular with many of our customers.
According to Deer Creek, The Stag’s bold flavor pairs well with hard ciders, stouts and amber beers. Recommended wines include pinot noirs and red zinfandels. Food pairings include cashews, dried cranberries, pistachios and pumpernickels.
Deer Creek makes many other cheeses that I have yet to try. Among them are Imperial Buck, Vat 17 World Cheddar, The Fawn, Private Reserve 5-year, The Blue Jay, Rattlesnake and The Robin and The Doe. I look forward to tasting all of them.
A Little Cheddar History
The original cheddar was born in England. The name originates from the region it was first made in – Cheddar, England – but also from how the curd is cut. The process of “cheddaring” is the repeated cutting and piling of the curd to remove its whey and cut it into fine pieces.
Made with either raw or pasteurized milk, cheddars fall into two basic types: farmhouse and factory. Farmhouse cheddars are made in much smaller production then factory types. Cheddars are almost always made in round shapes and wrapped in cheese cloth. They will vary in age, and the older, the sharper. Taste these cheeses before you buy them; they can vary tremendously. You will not usually find good farm cheddar pre-packaged. Look for cheese cloth on the rind as the determinant.
Factory cheddars are most common throughout the world. Unfortunately, quality will vary greatly. Usually the less superior cheeses are processed into slices and cold-pack cheeses, such as port wine cheddar.
The evolution of cheddar places it in both Canada and the United States. Canadian cheddars are most similar to farm varietals. We make both types in the United States. New York was first the largest producer of cheddar, but Wisconsin took over that role as the population moved west.
For many years, it was common to find yellow cheddars. In fact, when I first started in the specialty food business, about 45 years ago, most of the cheddars we sold were yellow in color. But cheese is naturally a white hue. Colored cheeses are fading in today’s market since natural products are in now in high demand with mainstream consumers.
There are many reasons for poor, bitter-tasting cheddars. For one, the milk may have been a little bitter to begin with. More commonly, forced curing calls for ripening at warmer temperatures. Lastly, there is a marked difference in taste between raw and pasteurized milk cheeses. Today you will find vast quantities of cheddar made with either.
In my opinion, raw milk makes for superior-tasting cheddars, but there are exceptions. The Stag is one of them. This a great pasteurized milk cheese with a smooth finish and consistency in both taste and cheese production methods.
I find myself eating more cheddar than I used to.
My first impression of this cheese is what a perfect match for spring! This beautifully garnished cheese is covered in rose petals, cornflower, marigold, lavender, parsley, marjoram, celery herb, oregano, lovage, savory, chive, fennel, chervil, onion and, let’s not forget, chili. At first, I was a little hesitant to inventory this cheese. Though the cheese was colorful and eye catching I feared that many might be more purist in nature and not be willing to try it.
I couldn’t have been more wrong. People were immediately attracted to Alp Blossom and asked to try it. There was no hard sale here. The majority of people who tried it bought it. We only bought a single wheel to try and, to my dismay, we sold out in a few hours.
The idea behind the cheese, according to Columbia Cheese, the importer, is to celebrate the diversity of the Alpine Flora throughout the so-called Hay Belt. This area spans Eastern Switzerland, Southern Germany and Western Austria.
The cheese is made at a co-op called Sennerei Huban founded in 1901 in the Austrian state of Vorarlberg. The producer is Hans Kempf, the head cheese maker who has worked there for fourteen years. This co-op is made up of thirty-four dairies with an average herd size of fifteen cows. The cows are all the Brown Swiss breed which are known for smaller milk yield but higher butterfat content. This makes them ideal for cheese making. They are fed on fresh pasture and hay year-round.
After the first six months at Sennerei Huban the cheese is transported to a cave in Kaeskuche in Bavaria. The local Alpine meadows found here supply the covering of all the beautiful, colorful dried edible flowers and herbs.
Alp Blossom is made from raw milk, and is a member of the washed rind family. Unlike soft-ripening cheeses that have a white bloomy mold sprayed on them, this type of cheese gets washed with a different mold made up of B-linen bacteria. Then it ripens in a moist room where the washed rind develops. This creates a more pungent and flavorful exterior. There are two types of washed rind cheeses. Soft, young examples are Limburger, Chaumes, Epoisses, Livarot, Munster, Stinking Bishop, Grayson, Pont l’Eveque, Von Trapp Oma and Arethusa Diva. Harder types are Swiss Gruyere, Challerhocker, and Appenzeller. This sticky exterior allows for the adhering flora to attach.
In addition to the raw milk and the flowers and herbs, the cheese contains salt, cultures, and rennet. The texture is semi firm and has a strong aroma present. The cheese is available year round.
I was very pleased with the initial acceptance of Alp Blossom. My fear of a possible short shelf life due to the flora coating was quickly put to rest.
Appenzeller Extra from Switzerland
If you like Alp Blossom you will most likely enjoy Appenzeller.
The main difference is that instead of an exterior coating of herbs at the end of aging, a ten day bath made up of herbs and white wine is used in the beginning of production.
Appenzeller cheese dates back over 700 years. It is also a cow’s milk cheese made from raw milk and truly natural with no preservatives or additives. The spicy flavor comes from the closely guarded secret herbal bath it’s given during that beginning production. According to the official Appenzeller web page, the exact ingredients of the original herbal brine involves a mixture of over 25 different herbs, roots, leaves, petals, seeds, and bark. The recipe is enhanced by the fact that the cows graze on lush herbal grasses and fresh hay, never silage. Great care is given to the animals. The cows are given regular and frequent visits to the grazing fields so everything can be as natural as possible for them, even in winter.
There are several Appenzellers to choose from. All are made from untreated raw milk. Most contain 48% fat in dry matter, which is specifically measured to ensure consistent taste. There are two other versions, a mild low fat cheese and a spicy low fat version. I have not seen them available in the United States. A slight eye formation is possible but it is common for the cheese to be void of holes. They weigh approximately 15 to 16 pounds and they all have a dated certificate found as a wrap or label to show proof of quality and production.
My favorite is the Appenzeller Extra. This version is aged longer for enhanced flavor. I feel it is so much better that I do not stock the younger cheese unless the extra is not available. Only 2.5% of Appenzeller production becomes extra. This cheese is not usually stocked by my suppliers so I have to order it well in advance so they can bring it in from Switzerland.
It’s a great eating cheese, as well as a great cooking cheese. It can improve the taste of a great fondue and can be used in all of the usual Gruyere dishes such as quiche, French onion soup, etc. The cheese has a nice full, rich, spicy flavor and it really enhances any cheese tray. It also has a great shelf life.
Both cheeses are great and well worth the hunt.
Unless you have traveled to Italy or parts of Europe recently, you likely have not tasted Collina Veneta. Only last week were we able to first savor this new arrival to the United States. We were quite pleased to receive inventory from this first shipment.
Collina Veneta is a pasteurized cow’s milk cheese made from whole milk. It weighs about twenty five to twenty eight pounds, with a hard Parmigiano Reggiano-style rind. Also similar to Parmigiano Reggiano, this cheese is a blend of evening milk and fresh morning milk, is semi-hard and can be crumbly in nature, depending on its age. Collina Veneta can be described as having a crisp sharp taste, but also that of a mountain cheese – sweet, with a pleasant aroma reminiscent of a quality Asiago or aged Piave Vecchio.
We owe thanks to the skills of Mastro Casaro for creating this wonderful new cheese, which won the award of Grolla d’Oro (Best Cheese in Italy) in 2010.
Collina Veneta was created in August of 1966 by a cooperative called Caseificio San Rocco, found in the province of Vicenza, which borders Padua and Treviso. The goal was to combine skills and knowledge to provide a healthy and genuinely natural product that could earn them a little profit for their efforts. The co-op now produces over eight times the amount of cheese than when they started.
Caseificio San Rocco is also responsible for making many other fine cheeses. Many among them, like San Rocco, LaFontella and Rigatello, have been awarded gold medals in both Regional and National competitions. In addition to aged cheeses, the co-op also produces many fresh cheeses such as Caciotta, Stracchino, Tosella and Ricotta. And let us not forget two very important and-well known varietals – PDO Grana Padano and PDO fresh and aged Asiago.
Although these cheeses are primarily found locally in Italy, the co-op employees have been instrumental in not only growing distribution within the country, but spreading their wings into Europe and now the United States. We are surprised that it took this long.
In just the short time we have begun to carry this cheese, we have all grown quite fond of it. Collina Veneta is very versatile and makes for a great grating cheese, just like Parmigiana Reggiano or Grana Padano. It also works as a great appetizer or snacking cheese. If you add a little Acacia Honey, also from Italy, you have a wonderful dessert. You may have difficulty in finding this cheese at first but don’t give up. It will be well worth the effort.
In my last two columns in Ink Magazine, we discussed the Twelve Families of Cheese. With its basic characteristic of being well-aged, taking perhaps years to fully develop, this cheese naturally places in the hard cheese family (you can refer to my two articles on the twelve cheese families on my blog at www.cheeseshopofcenterbrook.com/blog). Other characteristics of Collina Veneta that place it in the hard cheese family are the facts that it is also generally pressed and salted, and it can also take months before one begins to taste a difference in the developing cheese.
Parmigiana Reggiano, Asiago and Piave Vecchio lovers now have a new cheese to savor and enjoy.
I would be remiss if I did not mention and thank Karl Berthold from San Rocco, who was a great help in supplying information and inciting me to write this article.
By Paul Partica
I hope by now you were able to read my last month’s column, which was Part 1 of The 12 Families of Cheese. Together, these two parts make up the basis of my Cheese 101 class, which I hold from time to time. You may find that you do not like a few of the families. I often have customers who dislike soft cheeses and prefer hard or semi-soft choices, for example, or they avoid washed rind cheeses because of their pungent aroma. When buying cheese, knowing these preferences makes it easier as it helps to limit your choices.
When entertaining, depending on the size of the group you are trying to serve, choosing four to six families is adequate. Remember, if you can describe the size of the cheese, its color, type of rind, texture, aroma and a little of the flavor characteristics, chances are very good that your cheese monger will be able to find your cheese – or maybe one you might like even better.
- Dutch (Gouda)
This has become not only one of the most popular cheese families, but the largest volume by weight of any cheese family sold. Most are over six months in age and lactose-free. Not only growing in popularity, they are also growing in the selection of milk offered. In the last twenty years, I have seen so many new goat and sheep milk versions make the scene. Goudas are medium-ripening cheeses that are most often waxed. They are usually consistent and keep well. You will notice only small changes month-to-month as they ripen.
Cow Goudas – Beemster Vlaskaas, Beemster Classic, Beemster XO, Dutch Edam, French Mimolette, Old Amsterdam, Prima Donna and Parrano
Goat Goudas – Dutch Polder Goat, Dutch Midnight Moon, Dutch Girl, Beemster Goat
Sheep Goudas – Dutch Ewephoria, Dutch Lamb Chopper
This family used to be so much more prevalent than it is today. Back in the sixties, Denmark renamed their version of Tilsit to Havarti so as not to compete with other countries’ Tilsits. Then they re-invented it by adding more butterfat (60%) and calling it Creamed Havarti. Cheesemakers took it one step further by removing the initial washed rind covering and packing it in cry-o-vac, thereby eliminating its natural rind. Original Danish Tilsit, a very common item yesteryear, is now almost impossible to find. That said, the new Tilsits measure up in flavor.
Tilsits are a medium-aged cheese, usually with small eye formations (holes). These cheeses are usually ready after a few months and hold up well. Most are on the mild side but get more pungent with a little aging.
Examples are German Tilsit, Swiss Tilsit, Danish Tilsit (most popular being creamed Havarti), Swedish Farmers, Austrian Grinzing, Italian Crucolo
- Blue –These are generally smaller cheeses, two to 15lbs. After the cheese is set, firm needle holes are made in the cheese where a blue mold is injected.
Examples are Stilton, Gorgonzola, Blue, Blue Castello, Cambozola Black, Shropshire Blue, Arethusa Blue, Point Reyes Blue and, of course, Roquefort.
- Port Salut – These are also a medium ripening cheese, but without eye formations.
Examples are French Port Salut, Tomme de Savoie, St. Marcellin, Morbier, Reblochon (no longer available in the United States) and Delice du Jura.
These are well-aged cheeses that often require years to mature. Hard cheeses are generally pressed and heavily salted, and it takes many months to begin to taste differences in the cheese. Even though these cheeses are made from cow, sheep and goat milk, they have enough similar properties to be placed together.
Examples are: Parmigiano Reggiano, Romano, Asiago, Pepato, Sardo, Grana Padana, Provolone, Džiugas, Pecorino Toscano
- Goat and Sheep
These I rank together because I find that most people are looking for the different tastes of the two milks. Cheeses from this family can be found as fresh cheese, soft-ripening, medium-aged and hard cheese.
Examples of fresh would be: most goat logs, Montrachet, Crottin, Valencey Pyramids and Cochran Farms Mohawk Mist
Examples of soft-ripening would be: Bucheron goat logs, Clochette Belles, Chevrot, Chabichou and Cochran Farms St. Johnsville
Examples of aged are: Romano, Tomme Crayeuse, Midnight Moon, Lamb Chopper, Gjetost, Feta, Kasseri, Beemster Goat, Abbay de Belloc, Ossau Iraty
When buying cheese, it is best to ignore the term “artisan” since so many new products made today are now labeled artisan or artisan-inspired and the term is overused. In my opinion, this compares to the gourmet label. Remember when gourmet meant something? Can everyone have the world’s best gourmet coffee?
I hope my method is of some help to you.
There are approximately 12 families of cheese produced in the world – at least by my way of classification. By the term “family,” I refer to cheeses that are grouped by certain logical characteristics. For example, a cheese with blue veining would typically be grouped into the blue cheese family.
There are some cheeses that can logically fit into more than one family. For instance, Danish Blue Castello, a soft-ripening blue, fits into both the soft-ripening and blue families. It would be almost impossible to classify cheese in a perfectly distinct manner because of the nature of complexity involved. There are many ways to group cheeses; one could group by ripening process, type of milk, age or ripening time, texture, appearance and even region. You see the point.
No one, regardless of expertise level, could possibly know all 12,000+ cheeses in existence today. Therefore, once you understand the 12 families it becomes much easier to buy cheese. The benefit of this knowledge can be compared to buying wine. For example, if you are looking for a Cabernet Sauvignon you may not know the specific Cabernet label you are looking at, but you will at least know approximately what to expect in terms of flavor profile.
Once you know the 12, you can simply pick a few different families for your cheese tray, and you will be off to a great start. Instead of trying to remember the name of a specific cheese, you might ask what is good in terms of your favorite families, like so: “I would like three cheeses today. What do you have in good condition in a soft-ripening family, a blue and maybe a fresh, soft goat? This way, it becomes easier for you. You will like the results.
So let’s break down the first six (of 12) families:
Often called unripened, this is a very young cheese with a short shelf life of only a few weeks at most from production. This type of cheese generally goes through a transition of fresh to tart to sour. Examples would be Cottage, Ricotta, Farmer cheese, Mozzarella and Cream cheese. You will also find many goat and sheep cheeses that fit into this family as well.
This type is one of the most popular and most understood within families of cheese. The name comes from the action that takes place. This kind of cheese is first sprayed with penicillium camberti, a white mold. Then, as the ripening process develops, it softens from the outside in. When first made, a soft-ripening cheese has a hard core in the center. As the cheese begins to ripen the core disappears. Once gone, it is considered fully ripe. This process will happen within just a few weeks. There are three types of soft-ripening cheeses classified by butterfat content:
Double Crème – 60% butterfat (Examples: Fromage d’Affinois, Supreme and Brie)
Triple Crème -75% butterfat (Examples are: Brillat Savarin, Delice d’Argental, Délice de Bourgogne, Boursault, Belletoile and the new Fromage D’Affinois Triple Crème)
Please note that not all soft-ripening cheeses are created equal. Many have been stabilized to give the large markets a longer shelf life, but the soft creamy purpose of the cheese is also lost. In addition, you may not always be able to tell the condition of a triple crème by its appearance. This is one cheese you truly want to try before you buy, and I always recommend buying this type by condition, not by name.
- Washed Rind
Unlike soft-ripening cheeses that have a white bloomy mold sprayed on them, this type of cheese gets washed with a different mold. Then it is allowed to ripen in a moist room where the washed rind develops. This orange-hued cheese is more pungent and flavorable as a general rule. It can over-ripen quickly, so it is best to taste when you can. Examples are Limburger, Chaumes, Epoisses, Livarot, Munster, Stinking Bishop, Grayson, Pont l’Eveque, Von Trapp Oma and Arethusa Diva.
This is a large group of cheese produced in Great Britain with the similar characteristics of subtle buttermilk undertone and a crumbly texture. This is certainly an over-simplified definition of a great cheese. You really need to try the small farm production cheeses to truly appreciate them. Examples are Cheshire (pre-dates cheddar by 400 years), Caerphilly, Wensleydale, Leicester, Double Gloucester, Cotswold and Lancashire.
Known for the Cheddar-type cut curd from which it is made, Cheddar is originally an English cheese but the largest production is now made in the United States and Canada. Examples are Cheddars by name from Connecticut, New York, Vermont, Wisconsin, Canada, England, Oregon, etc. Specific names include Colby, Tillamook, Longhorn, Quebec, Grafton, Cabot, Tapping Reeve and Black Diamond.
This is a slow-ripening cheese, free of added bacteria (in the way that a Brie or washed rind cheese is cultured). In the Swiss family, cheeses are ripened with salt and time, usually over the course of several months to a year, with little changes noted. Examples would be Appenzeller, Emmenthaler (the original Swiss cheese with “holes” in it), Gruyere, Leerdammer, Comte, Beaufort and Raclette.
As a general note, when buying cheese, the proof is always in the taste. Be wary of slick marketing concepts designed to make one perceive a greater value than the cheese actually has.
Next month I will cover the remaining six families of cheese. In the interim, mention the defining names of the cheese families you like to your cheese monger during your next trip out for cheese. Then let the monger search for something special in perfect condition for you.