Friday, May 11, 2012

Today’s Cheese Plate, Or: Cheese Worship For Beginners

Well, it’s actually yesterday’s cheese plate, because while I wrote this on Thursday, I’m posting it on Friday.

I have three lovely cheeses on my plate today, all purchased from  Manchego, Walder, and Istara Ossau-Iraty.  You can find descriptions of those three on or in my cheese journal on my web page,  All three are definitely in my top ten favorite cheeses.  Manchego probably tops my favorite list.  I’ve found Manchego at Trader Joe’s and even Kroger’s, but the Manchego from is no more expensive, and it’s special – a little more aged, more intense and flavorful, with a slightly grainy texture that comes from a crystallized amino acid called tyrosine.  These grainy bits are the mark of a wonderfully crafted and aged cheese – what separates “parmesan” cheese from real Parmiggiano Reggiano, for example.

My cheese plate would scandalize a real cheese gourmet because I really haven’t observed any of the conventions for putting together a real cheese plate.  I haven’t chosen the cheeses properly; I just picked what I felt like nibbling on.  There’s no fruit or bread on my cheese plate.  It’s not served on a cheese board, just a <snicker> paper plate.  And with my cheese, I’m drinking <gasp> hot tea.  With cream.  Definitely, definitely a no-no.  But the fact is, I just do not like wine.  Yes, I realize that’s sacrilege, so I’ll flip convention the bird and say it again:  I don’t like wine.  Like beer, it’s fine for cooking – I love to cook with wine, beer, stout, what have you – but I’d no more pour it in a glass and drink it than I’d sit down to a nice big bowl of bacon grease.  Lovely to cook with, but that’s where it ends.

There are times when I do enjoy fruit with my cheese – mostly when real local strawberries or cantaloupe are in season.  More often, however, I find I like fresh, crisp vegetables with my cheese.  A thinly sliced cucumber is lovely with cheese, but my all-time favorite is slices of jicama.

If I’m eating a soft, gooey cheese, I can put it on a jicama slice, but I do have my cracker indulgences.  The two low-carb crackers I favor are readily available on Netrition:  GG Scandinavian Bran Crispbreads (2g net carbs per playing-card sized cracker), and Rault Foods’ Smackaroos (plain) (1g net carbs for three crackers, probably about the same size as the GG Scandinavian but longer and narrower).  Both are very heavy in fiber.  The Smackaroos are more expensive, but I like them better.  If you get the GG Scandinavian, toast them lightly or they’ll be like biting off a piece of particle board.

But today’s plate is just cheese:  A salty Spanish sheep’s milk cheese (Manchego), a mild and slightly spicy unpasteurized Austrian cow’s milk cheese (Walder), and a sweet, nutty French pasteurized cow’s milk cheese (Istara Ossau-Iraty).

Cheese is my wine.  I choose it carefully.  I savor it.  I appreciate every flavorful molecule drifting over my tongue.  I think I should probably have a little with every meal and maybe some before bed, too.<G>

About the only thing I haven’t warmed up to is goat cheese.  Oh, I’ll gladly try it, but I’ve never found a goat cheese that I’d buy a second time.  People describe a flavor they call “goaty” and I call “soapy.”  Add to that the fact that most goat cheeses are tangy, plus the fact that tangy cheeses are my least favorite, and the end result is that I generally stick with cow’s milk and sheep’s milk cheeses.  I also avoid whey “cheeses” like Gjetost because they’re super carby.  The word “cheese” there was in quotes because Gjetost teeters on disqualifying as cheese – it’s not made like other cheeses, but is kind of a byproduct, whey (which contains most of the milk sugar, lactose) from other cheesemaking boiled down and boiled down until it solidifies into an extremely sweet, caramel-y, almost fudgelike “cheese.”

Most Americans don’t appreciate cheese.  Just walk into the grocery store and look at what’s available and you’ll know that immediately.  I’ve been privileged to go to London a couple of times and France once, and let me tell you, once you hit the British Isles or Europe, the story changes drastically.  Grocery store cheeses are real cheese, not rubbery, dumbed-down mass-produced versions (taste grocery store Muenster, then real Alsatian Muenster – go on, I dare you!).  Nobody eats Velveeta (read the label – “pasteurized processed cheese food product”?  That’s four adjectives removed from “cheese,” and if they actually have to tell you on the label that it’s a food product, it’s not).  Parmiggiano-Reggiano is sold in irregular hunks, not slices, and certainly not pre grated in a green can.  You can walk into Neal’s Yard Dairy and they’ll match you up with a cheese the same way a designer shoe store will match you up with the perfect pair of heels.

Most Americans, however, have dumbed-down tastebuds from dumbed-down grocery-store cheese and go into tastebud shock the first time they taste real farmhouse, artisanal or even small-factory cheeses.  News flash:  There’s no such thing as a cheese called “blue cheese” (there are hundreds, maybe thousands, of blue cheeses, each with their own name and country of origin), nor “swiss cheese” ( alone sells a couple dozen different Swiss cheeses), and American cheese isn’t cheese; it’s a processed cheese food product (  Even “cheddar” isn’t a cheese – it’s a family of cheeses made by a particular process.

There’s nothing wrong with buying mass-produced cheese at the grocery store.  I do it all the time – inexpensive cheese to use in casseroles or quiches or what have you.  I use “the stuff in the green can” to make my pizza crusts.  I even buy whole restaurant-supply-sized blocks of mozzarella at GFS because that’s the only place I can buy whole milk instead of part-skim mozzarella, and I love that stuff.  I’m also a big fan of string cheese, particularly paired with almond butter or macadamia nut butter.

But please, please, find an opportunity to try real artisanal or farmhouse cheeses.  If there’s no cheese shop in your area, or no farm market selling cheese from local cheesemakers, find a restaurant that serves a cheese plate.  Or look for a winery – most of them also sell cheeses.  Or get together with a couple adventurous friends, chip in and order a couple hunks of cheese online and have a cheese tasting.  And for goodness’ sake, don’t buy any “cheese” with disclaimers on the label.  Just shake your head and walk on by.  Take a chance and raise the bar on your tastebuds with a moment of sensory indulgence.

Mmmmmm, Manchego . . .

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