Saturday, August 2, 2008

How to Buy Artisan Cheeses

Instead of buying a waxy yellow block without much taste, why not indulge in handcrafted, high-flavor cheeses? Though many of the best cheeses are made in Europe, artisans everywhere are using the time-tested techniques of France and Italy to produce wonderful cheeses for cooking and tasting. Explore texture and taste, fresh to aged, as well as a variety of milk sources.

Be able to distinguish among the main types of cheese. Most cheeses fall under the following primary categories: Fresh cheese, natural rind, soft-white rind, semisoft, blue and hard cheese.

Learn where cheese comes from. This is sort of the "birds and the bees" talk of cheese. Of course, if comes from milk. But most cheeses come from three types of milk: Cow, goat and sheep's milk. Goat's milk is, for the most part, used in fresh cheeses like feta, ricotta, or chevre, and natural rinds like Crottin de Chavignol. Cow's milk is fairly versatile, with the ability to make nearly any kind of cheese. Most hard cheeses--cheddar, parmigiano, manchego, et al--come from cow's or sheep.

Familiarize yourself with the textures of the cheeses. It helps to know how they feel to better understand what they can be associated or eaten with. Fresh cheeses or typically soft. Feta is crumbly, while mozzarella is delicate and stringy. Blue cheeses are usually creamy with a pungent odor. Most hard cheese is firm, smooth and brittle. Even cheddar, which we so commonly link to sandwiches, breaks of in jagged chunks like limestone.

Educate yourself on when to eat cheese. Most cheeses are best at a specific part of the meal, yet few are done justice as a part of the entree. Many are good standalone cheeses, to be eaten off the cutting board. Others are a nice addition to salads. Most do well as spreads or with a cracker or piece of bread. Some, notably soft-white rind, are best alone, after a meal. They serve as great palette cleansers. Still others taste fantastic with a drink. Roquefort salty, bitter flavor is balanced nicely with a dessert wine. The thick, sweet feel of port enhances the flavor of the cheese. Gouda or edam is wonderful when washed down with a dark beer.

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