I did not grow up in the great cheddar metropolises of New York, Vermont, or Wisconsin. Where I was raised, the cheddar was Cracker Barrel; it came in eight-ounce rectangular blocks from the supermarket, available in white or yellow (orange, really), and was offered in mild, medium, sharp, or extra sharp. When I got to working in the cheese world, I discovered “English” or clothbound cheddar, as opposed to the block American sort. The two seemed radically different to me, and clearly they are to most consumers, as the question I’m frequently asked is, “What makes a cheddar a cheddar?” I thought I knew the answer, but diving into FDA regulations and conversations with American cheesemakers has taught me that it’s a lot more complicated than I had realized.
Every holiday season I dream of blue cheese; at Saxelby Cheese, on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, these dreams come true. In a space slightly larger than a broom closet, Anne Saxelby stocks an amazing array of American cheeses, including more than a half-dozen intriguing blues. On a recent visit, I walked away with a creamy, milky-looking round of Maytag Blue, a gorgeous, blue-tinged chunk of Jasper Hill Bayley Hazen, and a wedge of Cayuga Blue from Lively Run Goat Dairy in the Finger Lakes region of New York State before it occurred to me that three blues on one cheese plate might be overkill.
Or it might have been just what I was looking for: a hedonistic, blue cheese bender.
How one cheesemaker brings his muse to the industrial model
Rarely, if ever, do you find the words artisan and corporation in the same sentence, and almost never do you find them under the same roof. But in the case of Sartori Foods, a Wisconsin cheese company made up of six plants in two states and hundreds of employees, there’s an artisan who works side-by-side with the corporate suits to produce an array of award-winning cheeses, along the way striking that seemingly impossible balance between artistry in the vat and a mega-bottom line.
The boxy blue Land Rover threads its way across Welbeck Estate in central England, heading toward Stichelton Dairy and its eponymous cheese. I sit in the backseat, being seduced at every turn by the irresistibly handsome landscape. Outstretched trees and fields hold green space between tall sandstone buildings fixed to the earth centuries ago; once upon a time these structures were part of the estate’s wealthy farm that employed more than a thousand people. Now many stand empty. The grandeur remains, but there’s a cool stillness to the place, as if it's under a spell. Maybe that’s why I catch myself falling for a cheese I haven’t even met yet.
Q: Are there any rules for choosing which jam to serve with a particular cheese?
A:First off, there are no rules when serving or eating cheese. Anyone who says there are lacks creativity and lives in France (just kidding!). There are, however, some great cheese-and-jam combinations I’d suggest. My favorites include:
Those are the standard combinations, but there are so many others that work really well. Savory onion jams, for example, are astounding with salty, Swiss-style, pressed-curd cheeses and sharp cheddars. And anytime you have a pungent blue or a robust washed-rind cheese, throw a bit of jam into the mix — the sweetness and acidity will balance the flavors of these cheeses and make them more approachable for the novice cheese-eater.
Caseus Fromagerie Bistro
New Haven, Connecticut
Q: I’m having a dinner party, and I’d like to offer cheeses for guests to nibble on during the cocktail hour. How many kinds of cheese and how much of each should I serve?
A:Too many different flavors before a meal can overwhelm your guest’s palates, so, for a group of eight or fewer people, I recommend serving just one cheese before dinner. A small goat’s milk cheese paired with an effervescent wine or craft beer can’t be beat. Avoid blues and washed-rind cheeses, as they might overwhelm the palate before the meal.
For each guest, allow approximately 11/4 ounces of cheese; if you have 15 guests, ask your cheesemonger for two cheeses each — about two-thirds of a pound.
Between 2007 and 2008, I lived in Beijing, China, with my friend, Ellen, the Cheddar Shark. The food we ate was amazing, but a question quickly arose: Why was there no Chinese cheese? After all, the region is surrounded by dairy-loving neighbors—the Tibetans, who like their cheese crunchy; the Mongolians, for whom it represents purity; the sheep-herding Uyghirs; and, of course, cow-venerating Indians. But the ethnic Han in northern China don’t share this enthusiasm for cheese.
The historical explanation is that crowded conditions made pasture animals impractical, so lack of exposure led to widespread lactose intolerance. But forget history and forget digestion. My friend Danwen, a local, gave it to me straight:
“I can’t eat cheese. It’s not the flavor; it’s psychological.”
As the cheese buyer for a very busy New York City food retailer, I give a lot of advice to customers about how best to serve a beautiful piece of cheese at home. That usually includes a bit of show-and-tell regarding the form and function of cheese knives, which come in a multitude of shapes and sizes.
When customers ask for a good starter set of cheese knives, either for their own kitchen or to give as a gift, I lead them to a basic three-piece set, which includes a knife for soft cheese, a cheese cleaver, and a planer. Nearly every cheese in the world, from the most unctuous Brie de Nangis to the firmest Parmigiano Reggiano Stravecchio, will yield to at least one of the tools in this set.
With a raclette maker and friends, melted cheese becomes a party
When the first frost hits the ground here in Chicago, that’s the signal: it’s time for me to host a raclette party. The planning is simple—dust off the raclette grill, buy a specialty melting cheese, cook some potatoes, gather a few accompaniments, and call a bunch of friends. That’s essentially all there is to creating raclette (rah-KLEHT), whose name derives from the French verb racler, “to scrape.” (When capitalized, “Raclette” also refers to a type of cheese used for melting.) Like fondue, only simpler, traditional raclette makes cheese the centerpiece of the meal, and guests serve themselves. Each person melts his own portion of cheese on an individual tray of a simple raclette burner and then scrapes it over his potatoes, adding a few seasoned condiments, if desired. It’s such an easy way to entertain that I almost feel like I’m cheating.