How to Buy, Store, and Eat Cheese
By Edward Behr
How to buy. If you can, buy directly from a talented farm maker, an excellent cheesemaking dairy, or a great shop with high turnover. Good signs in a shop are a pronounced but clean smell of cheese, order and cleanliness, caring, a ready offer of a taste, and cutting all but small cheeses to order. It’s okay if some high-volume items are pre-cut, wrapped in plastic, and ready to go — hope they haven’t waited longer than a day or two.
Color tells something. Cheeses made from goat, sheep, and water-buffalo milk are white, while the interior of a cow’s-milk cheese is more or less yellow, and summer cheeses from cows on pasture are yellower still, compared with winter ones. All else being equal, summer cheeses are better. But all isn’t necessarily equal. More important than pasture are other aspects of milk quality, including freshness and cleanliness (not to be confused with sterility), whether the fat globules are intact or have been damaged by pumping or trucking, and whether the milk has been sloshed about and exposed repeatedly to air. Beyond that, no cheese is better than the skill of the person who makes it. But milk from animals on pasture certainly helps the greatest aged cheeses leap into immortality.
Farm-made cheeses, coming from the milk of a single herd in a single location, with its specific weather and plants, have the strongest association with place. The fresh milk and the close tie to nature, including its variability, open the way to potentially superior cheese.
How to store (if at all), serve, and eat. As soon as any cheese is cut open, it starts to lose flavor through the exposed surface. Especially if you buy a slice, try to serve the cheese that same day. Serve small whole cheeses promptly too, unless you have a cool, humid spot in which to keep them.
In theory, I’m anti-refrigeration, probably because of the outsized influence of Patrick Rance’s cheese books, which I read when I was first learning about cheese. Cold inhibits the organisms that ripen cheese, some more than others, and it alters the results. Cool cellar temperatures would be better for most if not all cheeses, but shops tend to refrigerate, and if you live in a warm apartment your only choice may be the deep chill of a refrigerator. Very dry, aged cheeses, such as for grating, withstand refrigeration better, and Roquefort, to cite another example, has been matured largely in an artificial temperature at or near freezing (rather than spending most of its time in the famous caves), so further refrigeration does it little harm and perhaps only good. Above all, avoid changing temperatures, which are very hard on cheese.
And remember that cold cheese has less flavor. Even a relatively small piece of cheese may take several hours to warm enough to give full pleasure, somewhere around 10 to 16 degrees C (50 to 60 degrees F).
If you have enough experience and feeling for the state of a cheese, you may be able to tell that the small, soft, surface-ripened cheese you just bought can be ripened further. But you need a place in that 10 to 16 degree C range. Put the unwrapped cheese on a plate. Spray water lightly over the inside of a glass bowl, one somewhat larger than the cheese, and place the bowl upside-down over the cheese, terrarium style. The glass allows you to see the condensation that after a few hours should always be present. To ensure that, at least once a day add moisture to the underside of the bowl; at the same time, you’ll release the accumulating ammonia. Every other day, turn the cheese. In a few days, assuming the surface flora are still lively, a fuzzy growth will reappear. Somewhat similarly, if you have a washed-rind cheese that you know has further potential, you can slide your wet hand over one surface, set the dry side down on a plate, and keep that cheese, too, under a bowl, maintaining the humidity, turning the cheese, and repeating the “washing” every day or two for about a week.
How to put together a cheese course. I like a cheese course in its classic spot before dessert — cheese can end the meal, if there’s nothing sweet. Fresh cheese works early in a menu, but at this late point, only more mature cheeses make sense. A cheese course can be composed of a single cheese, which for guests should be a little showy or otherwise special, such as a generous slice of Gruyère d’Alpage, a dewy section of Cheshire, a creamy bark-bound Vacherin, a whole Banon in its leaves, a very creamy and odorous Époisses, a piece of fine Parmigiano-Reggiano, a tender and largely ewe’s-milk Robiola di Roccaverano, or a complicated dry southern Italian pecorino, which might be an aged, saffron-tinged, peppercorn-spotted Piacentinu Ennese. If you offer a pair of cheeses, they might be two versions of the same thing, such as a Sainte-Maure de Touraine in a younger, creamier state and an older, drier one. Or you could compare a winter and a summer version of Comté. Or you could offer three different ages of Comté, including the oldest. With four or five cheeses, the idea is variety. Ranging somewhat wide, you might choose a small goat’s-milk cheese (maybe Pélardon), a tender cow’s-milk cheese (maybe Saint-Nectaire fermier), a firmer, older cow’s-milk cheese (maybe Fontina valdostana), a smelly washed-rind cheese (maybe Munster), and a blue (maybe Valdéon). My prejudices, it may be obvious, are for cheeses with a clear sense of place.
Fresh bread makes any cheese taste better, and in fall freshly harvested walnuts are an excellent complement to almost any cheese. Crisp crackers, made with only whole grains and perhaps seeds, are good. I like to eat cheese with a knife and fork, which strikes my children as an incomprehensible relic of ancient manners, but it respects texture, especially of soft, hand-ladled goat’s-milk cheeses.
I mention specific drinks in each article, but general advice is that a simple, dry white wine goes better than almost any red, and a sweet white wine can soothe a saltier, more intense cheese. Beer is an underappreciated complement; you match the strength (more or less the alcohol and the color) with the strength of the cheese. Good cold water is never a mistake.