The global village is getting smaller as cheeses from France, Spain, Germany and even Iowa find their way to local markets. Do some homework before you buy.
By JANET K. KEELER
Published September 17, 2003
Kinds of common cheeses
Like wine, good cheese is intensely local and varies from place to place, depending on the animals grazed there, the quality of the grass they eat, and the technique used for cheesmaking, which often goes back centuries.
[Times photos: Patty Yablonski]
Wensleydale with Cranberries. Sharp English cheddar for snacking.
Cambozola. A triple cream blue-brie from Germany; spread on crackers or warm potatoes.
Aged asiago. Italian grating cheese.
Couturier goat cheese. Soft, tangy French cheese for cooking or snacking.
Romao. Spanish sheeps milk with rosemary rind for flavoring. For snacking or cooking.
Etorki. Mild sheeps milk cheese from the Pyrenees mountains of France. For snacking, sandwiches.
Maytag Blue. Pungent cheese from Newton, Iowa. For salads, snacking and cooking.
Mozzarella di bufala (fresh mozzarella). Mild; for salads and cooking. Italian and actually made from the milk of water buffaloes.
Fontina. Mild Danish cheese; melts well.
Buying cheese is starting to feel a lot like selecting wine.
The choices are dizzying and without a cheese primer in your back pocket, the lingo can be as overwhelming as deciphering a wine label.
Soft-ripened double creams. Bloomy rinds. Monastery techniques. Single-herd varieties. Cow, sheep or goat milk. Aged or young. Seasonal cheeses.
Even the French word terroir, most often used to describe the soil, climate and identity of a particular place where wine grapes are grown, is used now to discuss the subtlety of cheese.
Before you give up and settle for the mundane trilogy of processed cheddar, Swiss and Jack, know that your choices are only going to increase. Already, you've likely seen the selection at your grocery store double, with once-hard-to-find cheeses such as fresh mozzarella, goat and Maytag Blue now at your fingertips.
Even Smart & Final and other warehouse discounters stock hunks of asiago (ah-see-AH-go), the trendy Italian grating cheese that appears on Einstein bagels and Panera bread, among other foods.
Welcome to the Cheese Revolution, where individually wrapped slices are as tacky as Thunderbird at a wine tasting. Rather than be scared off like Miss Muffett eating her curds and whey, a little bit of knowledge can turn you into a budding cheesehead - or at least bolster your nerve to sample something called drunken goat, a Spanish cheese soaked in red wine.
The true foodie dream is not just a long list of exotic cheese imported from Europe, but distinctive, handcrafted "artisan cheeses" that are home-grown on American farms. That movement seems far from Florida, but there's already one Tampa Bay goat farm making cheese locally. The Golden Fleece dairy's goat cheese is sold in many health food stores.
Cathy Strange, president of the American Cheese Society and the national cheese buyer for a natural foods retailer in Arlington, Va., says the heightened interest in cheese can be attributed to three factors: travel, media exposure and low-carb dieting.
"Cheese and fat are synonymous. It's fat that gives cheese its flavor," she says. "So when low-fat dieting was popular, cheese fell out of favor. Now it's back because it doesn't have much carbs."
The Atkins effect boosts another food, it seems. Conversely, dessert and the restaurant bread basket are hurting.
The number of American artisan cheesemakers is growing as milk profits fall and dairy farmers look for ways to make more money from their yields, Strange says. Some are turning to cheesemaking themselves, and others are selling milk to cheesemakers.
At the cheese society's 20th annual conference and competition last month in San Francisco, there were 25 percent more entries than the year before. Two years ago, the organization's membership was about 430; today that number is nearly 900.
"Artisanal, handmade cheeses are the hot thing right now," says Barry King, executive director of the cheese society. "First there was wine, then olive oil and now it's cheese."
That's the trend coming from California and New England, but the Tampa Bay area is probably a few years away from seeing an abundance of handmade cheeses in markets. They have short shelf lives and the demand needs to be great to justify wide distribution. For now, the Internet is the best source of these specialty cheeses. (See information box.)
While interesting cheeses found in Tampa Bay area stores are mostly European, food magazines and TV cooking shows will be covering the American cheese movement, creating new demand. Expect to see California's Cowgirl Creamery and Vermont's Willow Hill Farm highlighted on the Food Network and Gourmet magazine, if you haven't already.
Arthur Bullard Jr. of Grand Cru Wine Cellar in Tampa says interest in cheese "has increased across the board" with the most popular variety in his cheese and wine shop being goat cheese. Despite the interest, he says, there still seems to be a lot of confusion about what to use the cheeses for.
When customers ask the "Cheese Lady" at Mazzaro's Italian market in St. Petersburg for caprino, she knows they've eaten at a Carrabba's.
She surmises they ordered Chicken Bryan, a chicken breast topped with caprino cheese, sundried tomatoes and basil-lemon butter sauce.
"They are trying to make it at home," says Maureen Parrella, who cheerfully guides customers through her 200-plus inventory of mostly imported cheeses.
Caprino is Italian, and the term refers to goat cheeses made in many parts of Italy; in French it's called chevre (SHEV) and that's the cheese Parrella suggests to customers looking for their Carrabba's fix. France, by the way, makes most of the world's goat cheese; Italians more often use a mixture of milk from cows, sheep and water buffalo, an ancient oxlike draught animal still used on farms.
Here are some answers to common questions about cheese. For more information about varieties of cheeses, see accompanying box on kinds of cheeses.
-- What's American cheese? For years, Americans have eaten a steady diet of processed cheese, which is cheese with a lot of stuff added to it. Think Kraft singles, Cheez Whiz and Velveeta. To make them, natural cheese, made from the milk of animals, is finely ground and mixed with an emulsifier to make it smooth. Flavorings and coloring are often added, too. The singles of grilled cheese sandwich fame are a mixture of cheddar and Swiss. The flavor of processed cheese is quite mild and, above all, consistent.
-- Where to buy cheese? Though grocery stores are increasing their inventories, shoppers are not likely to get a lot of information from staff there. And other than deli counters, samples are not usually available. Places like Mazzaro's (2909 22nd Ave. N, St. Petersburg; 727-321-2400), Grand Cru Wine Cellar (11724 N Dale Mabry Highway, Tampa; 813-269-8463), Castellano & Pizzo Italian Gourmet Foods (4200 S Henderson Blvd., Tampa; 813-289-5275) and the Fresh Market (25961 U.S. 19 N, Clearwater; 727-669-6111 and 13147 N Dale Mabry Highway, Tampa; 813-964-8001) are some of the best local places to buy cheese.
Ask lots of questions and take suggestions. Whenever possible have cheese cut fresh; avoid prewrapped; grate and slice yourself.
-- How do I know how strong a cheese tastes? If you can't get a sample, some of the words to look for on the label are aged and blue. As cheese ages, moisture is pulled out and flavor intensifies, making the flavor stronger and the texture more crumbly. A young Parmesan, for instance, can be sliced and eaten with crackers or by itself. As it ages, it is better for grating, and just a little adds a lot of flavor. Blue-veined cheeses are inoculated with mold spores to produce color and are generally quite pungent in smell and strong in taste.
The younger a cheese is, the milder, usually. Soft cheeses such as ricotta and cottage are the mildest of all.
-- How are cow, goat and sheep milk cheese different? Cheeses made of sheep and goat milk, such as feta and Montrachet (Monh-rah-SHAY), are tangier than cow's milk cheese.
-- What makes some cheese stink? Stinky cheeses, such as Limburger and Muenster, are classified as monastery cheeses because the technique used to make them was developed by European monks. These cheeses are cured by washing or brushing the rind with liquid, which fosters the growth of flavoring bacteria. The curing also makes the cheese smell rather unpleasant. Stinky cheeses are strong in flavor, too. Definitely taste before you buy.
-- How long does cheese keep? It depends on the cheese. Kraft singles have an amazingly long shelf life but fresh mozzarella does not. As a rule, the moister the cheese, the more quickly it will spoil; you'll know because it will take on a curdle-y smell like bad milk. Aged, hard cheeses last longer, some for several months once cut from the wheel. Wrap tightly in plastic wrap and store in the refrigerator. Mold may form on the surface of cheese, but it can be pared off.
-- Is cheese rind edible? Wax rinds, such as those on Edam or fontina, should not be eaten. The rind on most other cheeses is edible, but eating it is a matter of taste. The "bloomy" rind on brie or its trendy, triple-cream cousin St. Andre is what helps flavor the cheese. Sometimes the rind is salty and becomes stronger as the cheese ages. In some cases, cheeses are washed or marinated in wine or olive oil, or rolled in herbs for extra flavor to make the rind worth eating.
Taste the rind first; if you don't like it, remove before serving.
-- What's with the double and triple cream? All cheeses begin as coagulated milk. The flavor is affected by three factors: milk source, treatment after coagulation and aging process, according to the California Culinary Academy's Cooking A to Z (Ortho Books, 1988). To make a good thing better, the French often add double or triple shots of cream to produce smoother, lusher cheese.
-- Is cheese good for you? Nutrition experts will say yes, for most folks, but in moderation. While cheese is a source of calcium and protein, it does have a high fat content, 7 to 12 grams per ounce. Of course, there are low-fat and nonfat varieties available. An ounce of most cheese has about 100 calories. To save on calories and fat grams, buy a flavorful cheese. You'll use less. Like ice cream, cheese comes in various forms to meet the needs of the lactose intolerant and vegetarians.
-- What about the expense? There's no question that cheese can be expensive. A pound of Maytag blue costs about $20 and a French goat cheese about $9. Price is set by many things, including origin of the cheese and how much is made. Unless you've got kids with gourmet tastes, you probably won't want to make grilled cheese sandwiches from $12-a-pound English Wensleydale.
-- What should I put on a cheese platter? A cheese platter should include a variety of tastes and textures as well as color: a cheddar, a blue, a Swiss and maybe a cheese studded with cumin seeds or apricots. Parrella suggests four cheeses for a party of 10; about seven for 25 to 50. Most fruits pair well with cheese except for citrus and tropical varieties. Their high acid content clashes.
For a big party, buy in large quantity, a half pound or more, even if it means buying fewer kinds; they make a better, more generous presentation. And leftovers, refrigerated promptly after the party, have dozens of uses, from salads to omelets.
Books on cheese:
Cheese Primer by Steve Jenkins (Workman Publishing Co., 1996, $16.95).
The All American Cheese and Wine Book by Laura Werlin (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 2003, $37.50).
The Cheese Course by Janet Fletcher (Chronicle Books, 2000, $19.95).