Sunday, August 5, 2007

A Cheesy Post

Another one of my food obsessions, and there are many, is cheese. Having grown up in cheese rich Sonoma County, California, I've been eating great cheese for many years but seriously obsessing over it for about the last ten. When it comes to cheese, my tastes are totally eclectic. My very favorites tend to be runny, stinky French cheeses like Epoisse, but I also love blues, goat and sheep milk cheeses, cheddars, hard cheese, etc., etc. And no flavored cheese please.

And keep in mind that, while I like very stinky cheese, (and I'm talking old, gym sock stinky, scooped up from the floor of the petting zoo stinky), I also appreciate mild cheeses and will try to review a selection.

So, here is a brief introduction to prepare you to join me on my cheesy journeys, which I will be reporting here, interspersed with my usual rantings and ratings.

Where can I buy cheese in Los Angeles?

There are two LA temples of cheese:

1. The Cheese Store of Beverly Hills

2. The Cheese Store of Silverlake

Both of these are excellent stores with knowledgeable staff and great selections. Beverly Hills probably has the best selection but also the highest prices, though none are cheap. I find the Silverlake store, which was started by CSBH graduates, the most accessible (as well as the closest to me) so I frequent it the most often.

In general, a good cheese store should give you lots of individual attention. Cheese stores should cut to order and offer plenty of samples (except for small rounds). If you can't taste it, don't buy it!

If you walk into a cheese store and see chunks of pre-cut cheese in plastic wrap, turn around and run screaming. Long term storage in plastic wrap allows moisture to permeate cheese and can cause a dreadful ammonia odor. This is why buying cheese at supermarkets, even high-end "gourmet" supermarkets, is risky.

How should I serve cheese?

When serving a selection of cheeses for a party or cheese plate, I try to get a variety. A good rule is a variation of the old wedding adage:
Something old,
Something new,
Something goat,
Something blue.

In other words, mix it up a bit.

Be sure to serve cheese at the proper temperature. One of the biggest cheese mistakes is serving cheese too cold. Most cheese should be served at a cool room temperature. Unless your place is sweltering (like mine is now), take the cheese out of the fridge the morning you intend to serve it and let it warm up through the day.

I always serve cheese on good, crusty bread and usually have some accompanying snacks, such as olives, various cured meats, gherkins, figs or apples and pears. Different cheeses pair well with different foods, so the accompanying food will differ based on your cheese selection, but make sure it's good quality stuff. Good cheese should be served with good bread and good food.

How should I store cheese?

Practically every cheese book or cheese monger around will tell you that plastic wrap kills cheese, that cheese should be wrapped loosely in wax paper, if at all and that if a piece of Saran touches your cheese, it will be ruined.

Now this is partially correct. As noted above, long term storage in plastic wrap does kill cheese and leads to excess moisture and ammonia. But, in terms of home use, plastic wrap is really the best way to go. For most fine cheeses, you aren't going to be aging them at home or storing them for months and months, so slip on some plastic wrap and put them in the fridge. You can use wax paper, but your entire fridge will smell like cheese, and you will regret it when you bite into that piece of cake or chocolate pudding you've been looking forward to and think, hmm it tastes a little...goaty.

Where can I learn more about cheese?

The best book around about cheese is Steve Jenkins' Cheese Primer. Jenkins is a cheese fanatic on a crusade to turn Americans on to the glory of good cheese. While the book is a bit out of date, especially with regard to American cheeses, it is a great introduction to cheese and gives descriptions and buying guides for the classic cheeses of Europe. There is no better handbook for the beginning cheesehead.

Cheese articles to come:

Pairing wine and cheese, or not
Cheese from my hometown
Cows and Goats and Sheep, oh my!
And a myriad of cheese reviews.

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