When I told my wife I was writing a column about buying cheese, she said, “What’s to know? You just go out and buy it, right?” Unfortunately, the cheese explosion of the past decade or so has created the enviable dilemma of more cheese– in volume, variety and quality—than ever before. Coupled with prices that routinely exceed $30 a pound, this can make buying cheese as intimidating as reading a phonebook-size wine list.
I purchased cheeses anonymously via phone from igourmet.com and Bedfordcheeseshop.com and in person at Downtown Cheese and Whole Foods Market in Philadelphia. At each I asked for recommendations on four cheeses for a cheese course for six people. I gave a broad outline of cheese types I wanted: goat’s and sheep’s milk cheeses, a blue and a washed rind cheese. Such an outline will narrow things down a bit but still leave plenty of room for choice.
The best experience was at Downtown Cheese, a small retailer in Philadelphia’s bustling Reading Terminal Market, partly because I was waited on by the owner, Jack Morgan. You should expect no less than my experience with Morgan from anyone who serves you at a good cheese shop. Morgan asked the most probing questions, such as how adventurous my guests were and if I liked my blue cheese mild or robust, crumbly or smooth.
His recommendation for a washed rind cheese was Affiné au Chablis, a milder Burgundian cousin of the more well-known Epoisses. Its rind is washed with Chablis, unlike Epoisses, which is washed with the grape brandy called marc. The Affiné illustrates the principle that it’s often fun to try something a little different from the more familiar cheese but one that is still in the same ballpark. Unfortunately, the Affiné is a self-contained cheese that doesn’t allow for sampling. I was given samples of all the other cheeses, which customers should always ask for and get.
The problem with portioned cheese is that extended contact with plastic wrap can compromise aroma and flavor, which is why you should rewrap cheese with fresh plastic wrap after cutting into it at home (and why good retailers do the same with wheels from which they’ve just cut.)
While there were fewer suggestions and probing questions, recommendations at Whole Foods were generally quite good and included Cabot’s Clothbound Cheddar (one of my all-time favorites) and Valdeón (a Spanish blue that made our top 100 cheeses list a few years back).
Shopping online rules out sampling, so you are more dependent on the competence of who is taking your order, a major handicap at igourmet.com. The service person suggested a particular Cheddar because “it tastes like pirogues” and volunteered that she didn’t like goat cheese. If you don’t need assistance, igourmet’s web site contains some 800 cheeses that are clearly described with groupings by style (blue cheeses, for example) and country as well as recommendations for wine and other accompaniments.
The Bedford Cheese Shop is a well-regarded small retailer in Brooklyn, NY. Its web site is informative and easily navigable, though with only a fraction (about 60 cheeses) of what igourmet.com carries. Phone
orders don’t appear to be a big part of its business. My call went directly to the store, and the service person, though knowledgeable, was clearly rushed. Nonetheless, her recommendations were first rate, such as Pleasant Ridge Reserve, the alpine-style cheese from Wisconsin, and pecorino di Parco, a raw sheep’s milk cheese from Abruzzo, Italy.
As with other specialty foods such as coffee or chocolate, finding a local supplier you trust is usually the best option when buying cheese. But don’t lower your standards because you shop via mail order. Incidentally, in my experience, mail-order purveyors generally do a good job with shipping. However, make sure someone is home when the package arrives in warm weather. Unless you want some very expensive fondue.
Next: What (or who) is an Affineur?
(all photos are from http://www.cellarsatjasperhill.com)