Are you afraid of cheese? My editor posed the question in light his experiences at Scardello, the gourmet cheese shop in Oak Lawn. Certainly to an enthusiast, a veritable treasure trove of flavors wait to be discovered inside the cheese counter. But to the uninitiated, a cheese case can look like an overwhelming (and very expensive) minefield of mold and milk fat.
Terms like affinage confuse, creatures like cheese mites frighten, and the USDA repeatedly reminds us if we so much as smell raw milk, we'll likely die. It's no wonder some customers can feel intimidated when they walk into a cheese shop, which is a shame because there's really only one simple question you need to ask when trying to choose a cheese: "Does this taste good to me?"
From there you want to make sure you get a few different types of cheeses, from mild bries, to sharp cheddars, to funky blues. Thinking in terms of texture and choosing hard and soft cheeses will help you to put together a well-rounded cheese experience too.
With so many potentially overwhelming varieties, Lance Lynn, a manager at the shop, says that coming in with a pairing in mind can help limit the choices. If you have a rare wine on hand that you've been wanting celebrate with, or you just got a case of your favorite microbrew, Lynne can pull a handful of cheeses from the case that will work well with what you've got. And even without a pairing in mind he's more than happy to let you taste a few cheeses while he dials in on your palate.
On my recent visit to Scardello I told Lynn I was looking for big and bold flavors. I wanted to get as far away from the bland, lifeless commodity cheeses that top our pizzas and fill the shelves of our grocery stores.
Lynn started with a Brazos Valley brie made right here in Texas. It was a mild cheese, with a great texture and a subtle tartness, but I wasn't wowed. "Do you have anything with a little more personality?" I asked Lynn, who reached for a Saint Foin brie from the case. Handmade in northern France near Versailles, this cheese had a much stronger, almost musty flavor.
"We call it gamey, or barn-yardy" Lynn told me. I called it delicious, and asked to move on to our next cheese.
Next Lynn pulled out a Scharfer Maxx 365 from the case, shaved a small sliver from the wheel, and presented it to me on small, white slip of paper. "This is from the Studer Dairy, which is really close to the Bavarian border," he told me, as the cheese began to soften in my mouth. There were crystals imbedded in the cheese, which crunched between my teeth, and the flavor was deep and intense.
Finding cheeses that tasted delicious was the easy part. Now I was starting to feel like I'd have to choose favorite children.
Then Lynn appealed to my more sinister and illicit senses.
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"Tomme Crayeuse was held in customs for two months," Lynn said holding up the wheel to let me have a whiff. "Not this wheel," he clarified quickly. "They're finally allowing it back into the States." Lynn went on to describe a seemingly random array of obscure policies, random custom inspections, strikes and other events that can thwart imported cheese before it even makes it into the country. I did my best to listen, but I was having a hard time recovering from what felt like the equivalent of huffing bathroom cleaner. Many of the rinds on aged cheeses exude a similar odor, but this was intense. "Yeah, it's just straight up ammonia," Lance said.
While the rind didn't smell appetizing (or the least bit like food) the soft velvety cheese hidden inside it was amazing. It actually tastes like it was aged in a cave, with a damp, earthy funk. Cheeses like this make you realize why tastings always progress from mild to more intense flavors. The Tomme Crayeuse lingered for minutes.
Perhaps the only other hard rule you should follow when designing your own cheese board is to not buy too much. Good, hand-crafted cheese is so far away from the tasteless varieties in the dairy case at your grocery store that it's a wonder they bear the same name. Even the wedges in the cheese counter, which were cut and wrapped days ago, taste lobotomized compared with what you can find in a shop that specializes in cheese alone.
Also while aged cheeses may improve while they chill out in a damp cave, they decline quickly in your fridge. You only want to buy what you think you'll consume quickly -- figure about an ounce of each cheese per person. Not only will this assure you consume your cheese at the height of its freshness, but you'll also take it easy on your wallet. Good cheese isn't cheap.