By Paul Partica, the Cheese Shop of Centerbrook

Once again it is time for my annual Best Buys list. As I have stated in the past, my idea of a good deal is value – buying something of great quality at a very good price. The following list represents what I feel are great values.

(On a side note, please be aware of the labels “artisan” or “artisanal” on any given item. These are the latest catch phrases. Just as the “gourmet” label does not guarantee great quality, the “artisan” label has fallen into the same dilemma. These days, it seems hard to find a specialty product without an artisanal label. Remember, by definition, artisanal means made by hand in small batches with special quality control measures.)

Tres Leches from Spain ($20 to $24 per pound)

This is a new addition to our Best Buys list. As the name implies, this semi-soft Spanish cheese is made from three milks: cow, goat and sheep. It is similar to another Spanish cheese called Manchego, which is quite well known but made solely from sheep milk. However, Tres Leches sales have far surpassed those of Manchego by at least six to one. When given a taste, many say they will take a piece of it before they even get to the finish, which only adds to the enjoyment.

This pasteurized cheese has a natural rind and is made in a small six- to eight-pound wheel. I have seen other cheeses with this name, so look for the one imported by Epicure Foods on the label.

Piave Vecchio from Italy ($19 to $24 per pound)

This Parmigiano Reggiano-style cheese will most likely always make my top ten list. With a fairly sharp and full flavor, Piave Vecchio goes well with most foods and salads, making 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.

Piave, a cow milk cheese, comes in a small wheel weighing about sixteen pounds and it has a hard, natural rind similar to Reggiano. This cheese keeps very well; just be sure to wrap it properly. For a twist, try it with Acacia honey from Italy or with an aged balsamic vinegar as a delicious dessert. There are two offerings of this cheese; we usually carry the older, one-year version with a little more sharpness to it.

Goat Logs, Domestic or Imported ($6 to $12 each)

 There are many forms of this cheese, which makes it easy to stay generic in nature. These are most often used on salads, cooked dishes or topped with olive oil and herbs of choice. I usually recommend the fresh style, with even texture throughout, over the soft-ripening cheese version. Be sure to read the label or ask your retailer to be certain you are getting the fresh kind. If you buy the soft-ripening cheese, the outer white mold can be difficult to eat if not purchased in perfect condition. One advantage of the fresh version is its ability to freeze without loss of flavor or texture. This also makes it easier to grate the cheese over salads. In fact, because this works so well, I always keep a piece of fresh goat, and blue cheese for that matter, in my freezer.

There are many imported, domestic and local varieties to choose from. I like Laurel Chenel from California, West Field Capri from Massachusetts and local examples such as Beltane Farms in Connecticut and Cochran Farms from New York.  Fresh cheese tastes sweet. It continues to a tart stage and eventually ends up sour. Taste when you buy, if you can, and then freeze somewhere between the sweet and tart stages.

Fromage D’Affinois ($18 to $22 per pound)

fromage-daffinois-4Once again, I cannot say enough about the ongoing popularity of this soft-ripening double crème. Unlike many of the stabilized Bries and Camemberts available, this one was not ruined for the supermarkets. It comes with a firm center core which softens as it ripens, and I love that I can actually finish the ripening process of D’Affinois right in the store. This allows me to sell it at its peak, 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 size on many cheeses with less satisfaction.

English Ford Cheddar ($14 to $16 per pound)

english-ford-chedderIt amazes me how many cheddars can sell for such high prices ($20 to $30 per pound) when the finish of these cheeses often bites the tongue with bitterness. I am constantly bombarded with samples from “artisan” and large producing cheesemakers who manage only to achieve a high price. High price does not mean quality, which brings me to the great English Ford cheddar from England. This pasteurized cheese manages to achieve a great cheddar taste with a wonderfully smooth and creamy finish.  It is one of our best-selling cheddars and well worth seeking out.

It is unfortunate that some of the well-known domestic cheddar producers have altered their production methods. Instead of making 40-pound cheddars and allowing them to age for three years, some have given in to supermarket demands for mass production and are now making 1000 lb. wheels and aging them for merely a year. The result is a bitter and biting finish. You decide.

As always, it is best to taste before you buy.

Paul’s Best Buys for 2016