You can learn to appreciate the varieties of cheeses from around the world.Say Cheese!A Wide World of Flavor Awaits the Adventurous Palate
By Raina McLeod and Rosanne Dunkelberger
Not just the rubbery, bright orange confection that we drape over burgers and roll up with bologna – it can taste sour, sweet, flowery or nutty and comes in shades of gray, white and brown. And forget that flimsy plastic wrapper – cheese in America isn’t just American cheese. It comes from all over the world and can be coated with ash, dusted with ground pepper or crushed herbs, soaked in wine or wrapped in grape leaves.
Cheese making is a time-honored art that, like winemaking, originated in the Middle East as early as 6000 B.C., with the process soon spreading throughout western Europe. Using only four ingredients – milk, salt, rennet and cultures – and manipulating the variables, more than 400 different types of cheese can be made. This fusion of simple ingredients and intricate technique makes the cheese-making process a complicated one, combining both art and science.
All ‘American’ Varieties
Artisan cheeses decidedly lean toward the “art” side of cheese making. They are made in small quantities and by hand, using techniques that respect the tradition of the cheese.
Though artisan cheese making originated in Europe, many American cheese makers now create a wide array that can rival Europe’s best. What started in California in the late 1970s still is made there today, as well as in other traditionally cheese-producing states such as Wisconsin, New York and Vermont. And as Americans’ desire for fine cheeses increases, so does the list of states that make them. You now can find cheeses that come from states not usually known for making it – think Louisiana, North Carolina, Maryland and Colorado.
One nearby farm is trying to put Georgia on the cheese-making map as well.
Sweet Georgia Cheese
Sweet Grass Dairy is a local farm sure to make Georgia known for more than its peaches. Located in Thomasville, the 140-acre farm produces around 15 types of cheeses. Sweet Grass Dairy is located on a beautiful stretch of land with rolling hills where the goats graze freely, unlike most dairy farms where the animals are housed in barns with concrete floors. The cows that provide milk for the Sweet Grass cheeses are located about 30 minutes away at Green Hill daily, which also follows the New Zealand rotational style of sustainable farming.
One of the main objectives of the family-owned and operated dairy farm is to make a different kind of cheese.
“There are so many cheeses on the market that are filled with hormones and additives and preservatives, and the animals aren’t treated very well,” said Sweet Grass Dairy owner Jessica Little. “So we want to show people the difference between cheese that comes from animals living out on pastures and animals living in barns.”
While most of the cheese Sweet Grass Dairy produces is made from cow’s milk, Little is fond of the goat’s milk variety because “it’s so tangy, fresh and lower in fat than cow’s milk,” she said. And the proof definitely is in the taste. The farm’s signature cheese, the Georgia Pecan Chevre, made from Georgia’s own famous pecans and Sweet Grass goat’s milk, is a perfect union of nutty and creamy, all in one bite. And the grapevine ash-infused Lumiere, named by Saveur magazine as one of the top 50 American cheeses, delights the taste buds with a clean, smooth taste.
From Kaas to Formaggio and Back
Beyond shaking it onto pizza and dipping tortilla chips into it, cheese can be the star of a course of its own. Take an assortment of cheeses, some aged and some soft-ripened, some made from sheep’s milk and some from goat’s milk. Then add some thinly sliced deli meats, pastramis and hams, and adorn the plate with fresh grapes or peaches. Some enjoy the cheese course before dinner, some just before dessert, and some substitute it for dessert. Any way you choose, a cheese plate can be an unexpected treat for a bored palate.
Kent Steels, owner and head chef of the Tallahassee gourmet cheese and wine retail shop and restaurant Clusters & Hops, offers a meat and cheese board filled with selections from all around the world.
“With my meat and cheese board, people never know what they’re going to get because I change them each time,” he said. “I want people to experience a different cheese each time, nibble it and see what they like.”
An unofficial connoisseur of cheeses, Steels rattles off the names of cheeses from around the world with ease. The shop is home to more than 100 selections of cheeses that will take you from Italy (where it’s called formaggio) to Holland, Greece and Canada and, of course, back to the United States.
Let It Breathe
Jeffrey Hileman, co-owner of Clusters & Hops, gives a primer on serving cheese:
While it should be stored cold, when you’re ready to serve, “slice it and leave it out at room temperature and let it ‘come up,’” he said. “The flavors are going to come out considerably more – not unlike wines. When you serve it cold, it kind of shuts down the flavor.”
A half-hour out of the fridge usually is enough time to “let them show themselves,” Hileman said.
Hileman also encourages consumers to venture beyond the grocery-store dairy aisle – where prepackaged cheeses often are loaded with preservatives to extend their shelf life – and try something cut to order off the wheel. Most cheeses are pasteurized, but adventurous sorts might give a try to “raw” cow’s milk cheese from France.
“It’s almost like liquid; you can sort of spoon it out,” Hileman said. It’s very rich, “almost like butter, and tastes very earthy . . . A little bit goes a long way.”
Like love, marriage, horses and carriages, wine and cheese most definitely go together. In many ways, they’re very similar – simple main ingredients, regional traditions for creating the product, and differences in their manufacture that can create a seemingly infinite variety.
And like wine, a great part of the fun of enjoying artisan cheeses is discovering the perfect pairing.
Hileman gives a few examples:
“Cheeses in general, especially in the case of Stilton (an English blue cheese), go great with fresh fruits,” he said. “Probably I would serve it with Anjou pears. We do have some excellent French triple crème cheeses. One that comes it mind is St. Andre. This is one that is so creamy you’d want some nice acidity to cut through it. This would pair wonderfully with champagne; the effervescence will clean your palate, but the acidity will cut through it.”
It would be a mistake to be intimidated by the variety, or to avoid enjoying cheese because you don’t have the “right” food or drink as a complement, Hileman said.
“Personally, I eat cheeses by themselves. Little water crackers and things like that are good for cleansing the palate but, honestly, with cheese – as in the case of wine – there’s no really no wrong way to enjoy it,” he said. “If it tastes good to you in that moment, in that setting, then enjoy it. Have no preconceived notions and be adventurous. There’s lots of great stuff out there – all you have to do is taste.”
Jeffrey Hileman’s World Cheese Tour The co-owner of Clusters & Hops gives a short introduction to a variety of cheeses from around the globe.
Brie de Meaux
Created in wheels that can weigh up to eight pounds, the cheese is a lovely straw or ivory color inside the rind (which you can eat). Prime eating temperature is when the cheese is soft, but not runny. Brie can have the flavor of roasted nuts or be earthy, like mushrooms.
From Spain, it’s also known as “drunken goat” cheese because it’s been washed in Rioja wine, making cheese rind a bright purple color. “The flavor of the wine doesn’t come through so much, but the aroma is there.”
‘Prima Donna’ Gouda
A two-year aged gouda from Holland. Like cheddar, but considerably more mild. “It’s the sort of a cheese that will hang around on the palate for a little while” and pairs nicely with a light pinot noir.
Tillamook Oregon Cheddar
The most widely made cheese in the world, the longer cheddar ages, the sharper it gets. This one has aged for 18 months, making it extra sharp. All it takes is a crisp apple and a wedge of cheddar and you’ve got lunch!
Wisconsin Buttermilk Blue
Injected with a little bit of culture (i.e. mold) and left to age, blue cheese is usually very creamy. “It has that tang and a little spice to the finish.”
A great melting cheese from Switzerland, it’s often found in fondues. “It’s got a very distinct flavor a very earthy aroma.”
Mild and creamy and very buttery, havarti is a great “anytime” cheese. Made in Denmark, the dill gives it “a nice cooling aftereffect.” Pair it with a very lively young wine that’s got lots of acidity, like a sauvignon blanc.
Pronounced “yee-toast,” this cheese from Norway is a combination of cow and sheep milk cooked at low degree of temperature for an extended amount of time, creating a dark brown color. Hileman describes the taste as “a nice caramelly sweetness” that goes well with fresh fruits such as apples and grapes. It’s traditionally eaten as a breakfast cheese.