By Paul Partica, The Cheese Shop Of Centerbrook
Another year has passed since my last article on top ten choices. During the year many new cheeses have passed my way, as well as many old favorites.
What’s my favorite? My response will always be: “It depends on what mood I’m in.” 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 stand-outs in my mind. So I offer you my updated list for 2016, not in any particular order:
1. Piave Vecchio, Aged (Italy/Cow’s Milk)
This Parmigiano Reggiano-style cheese will most likely always make my top five. 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 in place of Reggiano or Grana Padana in any dish.
Piave comes in a small wheel, about sixteen pounds, with 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 an aged balsamic vinegar for a delicious dessert.
2. Ossau Iraty (France/Sheep’s Milk)
This is one of the world’s oldest cheeses. Made in the Southwestern region of France, Ossau Iraty has an AOC designation (Appellation D’Origine Controlee), which means it is controlled by law to meet certain high standards.
Ossau Iraty is an uncooked or a raw milk cheese, which only adds to its wonderful flavor. It ranges between three to four months in age and has a white-to-cream color, depending on its age. Its texture is somewhat firm with a subtle taste of nuts and olives and a creamy smooth finish. Typically, this cheese 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 cheese 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.
3. Fromage D’Affinois (France/Cow’s Milk)
I still choose Fromage D’Affinois for my favorite soft-ripening cheese for the same reasons most of my customers do. Unlike most imported bries and camemberts found in the U.S. today, D’Affinois is exceptionally rich and creamy. It also maintains a fairly steady consistency, delivers a great flavor and is most always readily available. This does not mean that I am not continually on the lookout for another good soft-ripening cheese, however.
4. Ewephoria (Holland/Sheep’s Milk)
I love the clever little pun in this name, and I always enjoy customer reactions when asked if they’ve had Ewephoria lately.
Although this cheese is one of the older-aged sheep cheeses, it is actually a relative newcomer to the world, having existed for only about ten years. Ewephoria ages for almost a year, which is considered a long time for a cheese this 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.
Ewephoria is a good recommendation when you are looking for something sharp, only different in taste. It pairs well with hoppy beers, but I prefer it with Bourbon or a single malt Scotch. Try it on burgers or in mac n’ cheese.
5. Lake’s Edge (Vermont/Goat’s Milk)
With so many quality goat cheeses to choose from, it’s hard to pick just one. Many great local varieties are now available at farmers’ markets, gourmet food stores and, of course, cheese shops. But if I had to pick just one, it would be Lake’s Edge, made at Blue Ledge Farm in Vermont.
Very similar to Humboldt Fog from California, Lake’s Edge is recognized by its distinctive line of wood ash spreading across the middle. Originally, ash was used to separate two layers of cheese, one made from the morning milk and the second from the evening milk production. Ash stopped the cheese from forming a natural rind until the second layer was added. I feel the ash is used more for appearance these days.
6. Džiugas (pronounced “joogus”) (Lithuania/Cow’s Milk)
It was just the end of last year when a young couple entered my store and introduced themselves. Andrew Plankis and his wife Asta Plankiene, both from Lithuania, had come into the shop to educate me about a cheese called Džiugas that their family has been making since 1924. Andrew’s mother, Gitana Plankiene, started the family’s cheese business in Lithuania. Although Džiugas has been selling in cheese shops throughout Germany, France, Austria, Denmark, England, Ireland, Israel and Dubai, it has not been available in the United States – until now.
It is exciting for me to stock a cheese from a country I have never carried before. I was also thrilled to learn that my cheese shop was the first in the United States to carry this great find from Lithuania.
Džiugas is a distinctive cow’s milk cheese made from pasteurized milk from cows that graze only on fresh grass. I would best describe it as a blend of Italian Parmigiano Reggiano and a perfectly aged three-year Dutch Gouda. This cheese has a slight savory crunch to the bite and a smooth, creamy sweet finish.
7. Fresh Mozzarella (Italy/Buffalo’s Milk or Cow’s Milk)
Who doesn’t 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 offering. Where would pizza be without it?
8. Point Reyes Blue (California/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.
9. Challerhocker (Holland/Cow’s Milk)
Challerhocker means “sitting in the cellar,” which is actually how it ages. Only one man, Walter Rass, makes this truly artisanal cheese. At one time, Walter made Appenzeller, another great Swiss cheese, but he decided to age that cheese a little longer and increase the butterfat to 58%. The result was Challerhocker – a new version with great depth of flavor reminiscent of nuts and spice, along with a very popular crystal formation, which actually adds to the overall taste.
10. Kokos (Holland/Cow’s Milk and Coconut Cream)
I go out on a limb with this one. I was always a purist when it came to added ingredients in cheeses. However, my love of coconut won out here. This beautifully-made Gouda cheese from Holland is a real treat for me. In addition to cow’s milk, the perfect amount of coconut cream is added to create this new favorite. This semi-soft cheese is made with pasteurized milk by the same people who make Ewephoria.
So there you have it – my Top Ten list of cheeses for 2016. But don’t hold me to it. If you asked me tomorrow…