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2015 Best Cheeses of the Year: Firm, Toothsome Cheeses


Ladies and gentlemen, get your graters and planes ready: It’s our Best Cheeses guide! In preparation for our upcoming 2016 Best Cheeses issue (on newsstands October 31!), each month we’ll be breaking down our expertly curated list of 75 oh-so-good wheels and wedges—the stuff of cheese dreams, really.

What’s our process? First we reviewed top finishers from some of the world’s most prestigious contests (held between September 2014 and August 2015): American Cheese Society Judging & Competition, the World Cheese Awards, the United States Championship Cheese Contest, the International Cheese Awards, the Canadian Cheese Grand Prix, the British Cheese Awards, the New Zealand Champions of Cheese Awards, and the Australian Grand Dairy Awards. Then we considered factors like style, flavor, provenance, appearance, and milk type to narrow the field and arrive at the year’s Best Cheeses, arranged by texture.

We’ve already covered hard, flaky cheeses (e.g. gouda and clothbound cheddar), semi-soft, fudgy cheeses (most blues and block cheddars), and soft, gooey cheeses (like Époisses and Vacherin Mont d’Or). Next up in our guide is Firm, Toothsome Cheeses. Toothsome cheeses are hearty and firm—a bite will leave behind a perfect imprint of your teeth. With a good cheese slicer or knife, you can cut toothsome cheeses into thin slices and they will not break, crumble, or flake apart. A long piece of toothsome cheese bent at a 90-degree angle will break, not stretch back into shape. Examples include Comté, Gruyère, and aged block cheddars.


Aged Heart of Basque

  • Onetik
  • Macaye, France
  • cow’s milk

Heart of Basque is produced, appropriately, at the center of the French region famous for aged sheep’s milk cheeses like Ossau-Iraty and Etorki. This tomme-style wheel has a lot in common with those classics (raw milk, pressed curds, a natural rind), but it’s made with cow’s milk—a fact that sets the World Cheese Awards Super Gold–winning Aged Heart apart from other local offerings, according to Onetik marketing manager Lucile Giquel. “It offers a taste typical of Basque and stronger than other cow’s cheeses,” she says. “This combination is really unique.”

Young versions are buttery, becoming earthier during six months of aging. If you find Onetik cheese, look for little red freckles on the exterior—it’s a special mold that lives in the company’s cellars and sometimes colonizes the rind. The dots recall the pattern on a trout’s skin, which is why the Onetik staff calls these cheeses fromages truités, or “trouted cheeses.”

FLAVORS: Roasted almonds, butter, floral, pungent
PERFECT PAIRING: This exuberant and aromatic cheese stands up well to a sweet, young Muscat de Rivesaltes.

Beehive Cheese Barely Buzzed

Beehive Cheese Barely Buzzed

Barely Buzzed

Ten years ago, brothers-in-law Tim Welsh and Pat Ford traded corporate gigs for cheesemaking in Northern Utah’s rugged Wasatch Mountains and earned industry fame almost immediately. The family-run Beehive Cheese Company’s most celebrated creation, Barely Buzzed—first released in 2006—is a pasteurized Jersey cow’s milk cheese rubbed with ground lavender buds and coffee beans roasted exclusively for the company by Welsh’s brother, owner of Colorado Legacy Fine Coffee.

The resulting wheel—a mad-scientist experiment inspired by Ig Vella’s cocoa- and pepper-rubbed Dry Jack, Ford says—boasts tannic, floral, and butterscotch notes that spread from rind to center during eight months of aging. The cheese’s cheddarlike paste is smooth and creamy with unforgettable zip. No surprise, then, that this true American invention nabbed first place at the 2015 American Cheese Society Competition & Judging for the fifth time.

FLAVORS: Butterscotch, toast, cream, tangy
PERFECT PAIRING: Espresso and lavender nuances in Barely Buzzed sing with roasted nuts, dark chocolate, strawberries, and cured meats. Caffeine fiends should seek an espresso chaser, specifically one from Colorado Legacy Fine Coffee.


Burren Gold

Produced in Ireland’s austerely beautiful Burren National Park, this gouda-style round is no stranger to awards. With numerous accolades from past British and Irish Cheese Awards, Burren Gold—which was first produced in 1985—cemented its relevance to the contemporary palate by scoring the Eugene Burns Trophy for Best Irish Cheese at this year’s British Cheese Awards.

Cheesemaker Diarmuid O’Callaghan crafts Burren Gold with Holstein Friesian milk from Daveron’s Farm—three miles away—in the on-site factory attached to the 1.5 million-year-old Aillwee Cave complexes. The decision to create gouda, he says, came from his predecessor Ben Johnson, who wanted a cheese that could be made in a day. Burren Gold is waxed by hand before aging between two months to two years (this year’s winning cheese was aged 10 months). The secret to success? O’Callaghan believes the wild grasses where the herd grazes imbue the cheese with its award-winning edge.

FLAVORS: Savory, tangy, herbaceous
PERFECT PAIRING: Burren Gold is delicious on water crackers with caramelized red onion chutney.

De Jerseyhoeve & Treur Dieken

De Jerseyhoeve & Treur Dieken

Dieken

Dieken refers to the dikes that stretch along the coast of the Dutch island of Goeree-Overflakkee to protect inhabitants from flooding during high tide. Thanks to these levees, the 80 Jersey cows munching on clover and wild herbs at De Jerseyhoeve farm keep their hooves dry. Their fresh milk is sent to local dairy De Mekkerstee—a goat farm that also serves a social mission by employing mental health patients—where it is transformed into this gouda-style cheese. Wheels are aged six months at Treur’s warehouse, where they find ample space among roughly 21 miles of wooden shelves, currently home to 2.4 million pounds of cheese.

According to Treur marketing and communications director Monique van der Meer, most gouda cheeses in the Netherlands are made with Holstein cow’s milk, so the higher fat and protein content of Jersey milk used for Dieken results in a creamier-than-usual finished product. After six months of careful aging, small crystals develop in the paste and the cheese has what van der Meer calls an “extra bite. … It sparkles on the tongue.” It certainly dazzled tasters at the International Cheese Awards in July, where the cheese was named the Reserve Supreme Champion.

FLAVORS: Nuts, butter, cream
PERFECT PAIRING: Nibble this cheese with sips of port wine or Belgian-style lager.


Emmentaler

Emmentaler is already a famous AOP cheese, meaning that producers must abide by strict criteria. However, affineur Walo von Mühlenen takes extra steps to ensure that his version stands out from the crowd. And not just during the aging process—von Mühlenen demands a high level of quality from the beginning. For example, he’s worked with his producers, various small dairies in the Emme Valley, to develop special starter cultures for wheels that he matures later. Raw milk is always sourced from within six miles of the dairies and delivered immediately to ensure its essential qualities are preserved. Minimum aging for Emmentaler AOP is four months, but von Mühlenen matures all wheels for export to the US a minimum of 14 months. This strengthens and deepens the flavors of the usually mild Swiss classic.

“It’s close to a Gruyère,” says von Mühlenen, “but you still have the sweetness and nutty taste of a normal Emmentaler. It’s a very complex and fine taste profile.”

FLAVORS: Nuts, fruit, citrus, sweet
PERFECT PAIRING: Sample this wheel with pinot gris, preferably from the Swiss region of Valais.

LaClare Farms Evalon

LaClare Farms Evalon

Evalon

Cheesemaking prodigy Katie Fuhrmann—née Hedrich—crafts this heavenly, four-month-aged beauty on her family’s goat dairy. She developed the recipe with a consultant and several colleagues, and outside of a cottage cheese she whipped up in fifth-grade science class, it was her first attempt at cheesemaking.

The decorated raw-milk Evalon is creamy with a dense paste. Named after patriarch Larry Hedrich’s grandmother, it’s also available with fenugreek or cumin, varieties that pair beautifully with charcuterie or pickled vegetables. (LaClare Farms is on a roll: Their Chandoka, a goat’s and cow’s milk cheddar, just won Best of Show runner-up at the 2015 American Cheese Society Judging & Competition.)

FLAVORS: Fruit, nuts, earth
PERFECT PAIRING: Evalon shines with fruit-forward, semi-dry sparkling wine or intensely flavored grapes.


Fat Bottom Girl

Bleating Heart Cheese proprietor Seana Doughty had no plans to make cheese when she left her research administration job in 2008 to work as a monger. But once she got behind the counter, “I knew I wanted to be a cheesemaker,” Doughty says. “It was like when people fall in love—you just know.”

Fat Bottom Girl, released in 2009, was Doughty’s first cheese. With a half-dozen awards, including back-to-back blue ribbons at the American Cheese Society Judging & Competition in 2014 and 2015, it’s also her most-decorated wheel. The flavor of this raw sheep’s milk cheese—aged between three and four months—varies with the season and the animals’ diets, Doughty says, but it typically has a “nice sheepy, nutty, buttery thing going on.”

FLAVORS: Butter, delicate citrus, toasted almonds
PERFECT PAIRING: Light red wine such as pinot noir or gamay will punch up the cheese’s subtle fruitiness and temper its richness—just a bit.

Central Coast Creamery Goat Cheddar

Central Coast Creamery Goat Cheddar

Goat Cheddar

Many Californians descended from pioneers who flocked west for the Gold Rush or during the Dust Bowl—so it’s no wonder that an intrepid spirit drives the state’s cheesemakers, says Central Coast Creamery’s Reggie Jones: “We’re all trying to do new things, try new techniques and culture combinations, and come out with exciting cheeses.” For his goat cheddar—which picked up a first-place ribbon at this year’s American Cheese Society Judging & Competition—Jones thought outside the block. Unlike many other goat cheddars, typically available in 20- or 40-pound bricks, Jones’s three-month-aged creation is made in presentable 10-pound rounds.

In addition, the cheese isn’t “cheddared,” Jones says; instead, large squares of curd are placed in forms. It’s also brined, then matured at 55°F, a temperature that’s higher than usual for cheddar. Extra water is added during the make process to create a moister, smoother paste sans the graininess that can characterize chèvre. “It’s different than anything else out there,” Jones says.

FLAVORS: Brown sugar, goaty tang, salty-sweet
PERFECT PAIRING: Bright, grassy sauvignon blanc is a fine foil for this straightforwardly named cheese.


Heidi

Canadian Cheese Grand Prix category winner Heidi is a firm, washed-rind cheese made with milk from pasture-fed Guernsey and Brown Swiss cows—prized for its high butterfat and elevated levels of beta carotene and A2 beta-casein protein.

Established and well-respected, Debra Amrein-Boyes of Farm House Natural Cheeses is a member of the prestigious Guilde des Fromagers Confrérie de Saint-Uguzon, or the French Cheese Guild, an organization that recognizes and protects time-honored cheese traditions. Similar in taste to Gruyère, Heidi is an ode to the craftsmanship and precision behind Europe’s Alpine cheeses—a style that’s still relatively rare in the Canadian artisan cheese world. Created using milk produced only during summer months and aged eight months to one year, Heidi has a deep flaxen paste and a firm, slightly crumbly texture. It has pronounced nutty and grassy notes and a satisfyingly sweet finish.

FLAVORS: Hazelnuts, grass, earth, sweet
PERFECT PAIRING: An impressive and wine-friendly table cheese, Heidi finds friends in nuts and dried fruit. Let guests help themselves to the slab and keep the dry riesling flowing.


Maxorata Curado Pimentón

This DO cheese embodies the ancient relationship between man and goat on the Canary Island of Fuerteventura. The first type of Spanish goat’s cheese to obtain designation of origin status, Majorero (meaning “from Fuerteventura”) cheeses like Maxorata are made from the milk of the hardy Majorera goat, which forages on the island’s arid landscapes.

Founded by local farmers, Grupo Ganaderos de Fuerteventura collects milk for its cured Maxorata cheese daily from 40 goat herders across the island. According to the group’s general manager, Esteban Alberto Pérez, Maxorata surprises from the get-go. “Normally, goat’s milk cheeses have notes indicative of the milk’s origin,” he says, “but that’s not the case with Maxorata, which has a toasted aroma and creamy texture.” Pérez adds that the cheese’s sweet, caramel notes stem from the pasteurization process, while six to eight months of aging further encourage its intense aromas.

Also key to this cheese’s character is its rust-colored rind, which is coated with pimentón (Spanish paprika). This traditional preservation technique infuses the cheese with a slight yet complex bitterness. Take note: Pérez advises eating Maxorata sans rind.

FLAVORS: Caramel, sweet, toasted
PERFECT PAIRING: Pérez recommends nibbling this cheese with an aperitif of dry, aged Spanish sherry, dried figs, and nuts.

Queso Idiazábal la Vasco Navarra

Queso Idiazábal la Vasco Navarra

Queso Idiazábal la Vasco Navarra

Idiazábal DO is made from the milk of small Latxa and Carranza sheep, ancient Spanish breeds that have been marking the seasons for millennia in the lush, mountainous areas of Basque Country and Navarra. In the summer, sheep are driven up traditional grazing routes to higher altitudes; from February to August, cheese is made down in the valleys. While milk production is very low (it takes seven sheep to produce just over two pounds of cheese), it is concentrated and rich, lending this raw-milk cheese a clean flavor and penetrating aroma, tempered by delicately smoky, nutty notes.

Collected daily from area shepherds, milk is heated slowly and curdled with traditional lamb rennet. The mixture is broken into rice-size curds and separated from its whey. The cheese is pressed, ladled into round forms, and brined in salt water for 24 hours. By law, Idiazábal must be aged at least 60 days, but export manager Jorge Marcos Ozamiz says that Quesos La Vasco Navarra strives for an optimal curing time of four months. During maturation, the cheese is smoked briefly over beech wood. The golden-brown, inedible rind reveals a firm, pale-yellow interior that is slightly elastic and creamy in texture.

FLAVORS: Nuts, smoke, slightly sweet
PERFECT PAIRING: Ozamiz suggests serving Idiazábal with fresh crusty bread or grilled pork. In Basque Country, it’s common to see the cheese on the menus of Michelin-starred restaurants, blended into ice cream, cheesecake, or rice, or served simply with honey, nuts, and fruit.

Stärnächäs

Stärnächäs

Stärnächäs

Cheeses aged by Walo von Mühlenen take home awards galore. Perhaps there’s something built into the Swiss affineur’s genetic code: His family has been maturing cheeses for five generations. The legacy began in the Bern grocery store that Andreas von Mühlenen opened in 1845, and it continues today in the network of caves around the country that the company oversees. Over the years, von Mühlenen’s focus has increasingly turned towards ensuring the quality of the milk and cheese crafted on small dairies such as the Appenzell creamery that produces Stärnächäs. The firm, raw-milk wheels are made in Alpine fashion and hail from the same Eastern Switzerland region as Appenzeller.

Stärnächäs—a Super Gold champ at the most recent World Cheese Awards—is matured a minimum of five months, becoming spicier, or more würzig, with age, eventually developing small crystals in the paste. Von Mühlenen describes the taste as quite strong yet pleasantly smooth.

FLAVORS: Nuts, spicy, sweet
PERFECT PAIRING: Le Vigne Winery in Paso Robles, Calif., carries Stärnächäs in their retail store, where it’s usually paired with a bright and balanced super-Tuscan blend.

photographed by Andrew Purcell, styled by Carrie Purcell | Evalon photo by Evi Abeler

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