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!), 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 soft, gooey cheeses (like Époisses and Vacherin Mont d’Or); soft, dollopy cheeses (fromage blanc, ricotta, and mascarpone, for example); semi-soft, fudgy cheeses (most blues and block cheddars); semi-soft, spreadable cheeses (fresh chèvre, Camembert, and cream cheese); semi-firm, supple cheeses (Abondance, Jarlsberg, and young gouda); semi-firm, crumbly cheeses (think ricotta salata, cotija, and Caerphilly); firm, toothsome cheeses (such as Comté, Gruyère, and aged block cheddars); and hard, flaky cheeses (e.g. gouda and clothbound cheddar).
Next up in our guide is Semi-Soft, Stretchy Cheeses. This is cheese you can stretch with your fingers or that seems like it might bounce if dropped. Unlike gooey cheeses, which cna start off slightly firm when young but may age into gooeyness, stretchy cheeses maintain their elasticity even as they age. Examples include mozzarella, cheese curds, and halloumi.
- Natural Pastures Cheese Company
- Vancouver Island, Canada
- cow’s milk
Natural Pastures is a small cheesemaking company—fresh off a win in the 2015 Canadian Cheese Grand Prix’s Fresh Pasta Filata category for its Cherry Bocconcini—that specializes in cow’s and buffalo’s milk cheeses. Paul Sutter, equipped with master cheesemaking skills gleaned in his native Switzerland, became head maker for Natural Pastures in 2002. He crafts bite-size Cherry Bocconcini from locally sourced cow’s milk with care to ensure that the fresh cheese doesn’t turn rubbery. The cows graze on pastures nurtured by the sea air and rains of the Pacific Ocean, which lend a lovely hint of grassiness to the mozzarella. Boasting a pristine white paste and a meltingly creamy interior, its taste is clean and delicately sweet.
FLAVORS: Grass, cream, sea spray
PERFECT PAIRING: Relatively mild in flavor, these little balls make a great canvas for other ingredients. Try them with a generous drizzle of fruity olive oil, a pinch of Maldon sea salt, and toasted baguette, or combine the orbs with grilled or roasted tomatoes, peaches, aged balsamic vinegar, and fresh basil.
Fresh Mozzarella Ovoline
- Crave Brothers Farmstead Classics
- Waterloo, Wis.
- cow’s milk
One of Wisconsin’s most decorated cheese producers, the Crave family milks 1,000 cows on their farm, ensuring their cheeses (including the United States Championship Cheese Contest–winning Ovoline) are made with the freshest milk possible. Verdant pastures of grass rich in beta-carotene and other nutrients lend a buttery quality to their products. Also notable: The company, managed by brothers Charles, George, Thomas, and Mark, is carbon-negative and employs various green initiatives such as water reclamation and a bio-digester in its cheese production. It’s just another reason to celebrate the Crave Brothers, who recently scored big at this year’s American Cheese Society Competition & Judging, racking up four first-place ribbons.
￼￼FLAVORS: Butter, milk
PERFECT PAIRING: Break out of a Caprese rut by layering ovoline mozzarella with fresh strawberries, chopped mint, extra-virgin olive oil, and balsamic vinegar. Season with kosher salt and freshly ground pepper, and enjoy with prosecco.
Pasture Pride Juusto
- Pasture Pride Cheese
- Cashton, Wis.
- cow’s milk
Juustoleipä, or “bread cheese,” is named for the crusty, caramelized exterior and toasty flavor it develops when cooked. The cheese hails from Scandinavia, where it’s often made with reindeer milk, and it’s always served warm, whether pan-fried, grilled, or added fresh to hot coffee. Pasture Pride Cheese—helmed by the Everhart family—developed its buttery Juusto, as well as flavored and goat’s milk varieties, after attending a workshop offered by Wisconsin Center for Dairy Research members who had taken an educational trip to Finland.
FLAVORS: Butter, salt, lactic
PERFECT PAIRING: The Everharts tuck into juustoleipä (pronounced oosto-leep-ah) topped with local blueberry preserves or drizzled with maple syrup for breakfast.
Polly-O Reduced Fat Mozzarella String Cheese
- Kraft Foods
- Campbell, N.Y.
- cow’s milk
Bendable, briny, and Brooklyn-born, Polly-O reduced-fat string cheese is still made the old-fashioned way: with cow’s milk sourced from farms in upstate New York and traditional mozzarella techniques dating to 1899. (Kraft, Polly-O’s parent company since 1986, sells 100 million pounds of the Italian-style cheese per year.) These smooth snacks netted a Best of Class nod at the 2015 United States Championship Cheese Contest—cue the cheering school children (and health-conscious adults).
FLAVORS: Butter, milk, brine
PERFECT PAIRING: These portable sticks can certainly fly solo, but crackers or grapes make cool travel companions.
- Gringa Dairy
- London, England
- cow’s milk
When asked why she chose to open a dairy producing Mexican cheese beneath a railway arch in South East London in 2012, owner, cheesemaker, and California-native Kristen Schnepp has an easy answer: “Well, no one needs another cheddar.”
However, Schnepp’s flip response belies her market savvy; over the last five years, Mexican cuisine has surged in popularity in the UK. Her timely decision to swap the gray business suit of a finance career for a white cheesemaker’s jacket—with only a modicum of home cheesemaking experience and a course from the School of Artisan Food under her belt—has proven inspired. Demand from the city’s chefs for quality fresh Mexican cheese has already pushed Gringa to expand.
Schnepp is adamant that increased production won’t compromise her artisan ethos or the quality of her prized raw cow’s milk Queso Oaxaca, however. She describes the cheese, which won gold at both the British Cheese Awards and the International Cheese Awards this year, as “farmier mozzarella.” Schnepp’s cheesemaking inexperience came in handy when developing Oaxaca’s unique flavor profile. Indeed, thoughts such as, “Oh, we couldn’t possibly do that because nobody does that in Mexico,” never crossed her mind, she says. Hence, a true original was born.
FLAVORS: Nuts, salt, earth, tangy
PERFECT PAIRING: This cheese is ideal in enchiladas—and if you find mozzarella insipid, try melting Oaxaca atop homemade pizza.
- Montreal, Canada
- cow’s milk
Italian immigrant Giuseppe Saputo founded his eponymous company in Montreal in 1954 upon noticing a demand for Old World–style cheeses among the growing immigrant population in his adopted country. Though it’s grown from a bootstrapped family business to one of Canada’s largest dairy companies over the past 60 years, Saputo still makes many of its signature cheeses in traditional ways, says Pamela Nalawajek, vice president of business development.
This includes smoked caciocavallo—first-in-category winner at the 2015 American Cheese Society Judging & Competition—a russet-colored, pear-shaped cheese that’s hand-molded and hung in a maturing room before it’s vacuum-packed. The cheese’s butter and almond notes mingle with the essence of slightly sweet applewood smoke, which intensifies with age. Because it’s a stretched-curd cheese, caciocavallo shares mozzarella’s melting properties—try this smoked version over pizza or pasta.
FLAVORS: Woodsmoke, toasted almonds, butter
PERFECT PAIRING: Complement caciocavallo’s smokiness with salami and sip dry white wine for contrast.
- Ellsworth Cooperative Creamery
- Comstock, Wis.
- cow’s milk
Located in a circa-1901 former butter factory in Comstock, Wis., Ellsworth Cooperative Creamery’s cheese plant makes Muenster, Colby, cheddar, gouda, and the American Cheese Society Judging & Competition award-winning Wisconsin Brick, among others. The latter, a soft, pliant cheese, is packaged within 24 hours of production; since it’s so young, the flavor is quite mild and buttery.
Comstock is currently home to little more than a post office, a trailer park, and the plant. Ellsworth operations manager John Freyholz says that although the town’s heyday has come and gone, there’s still plenty of milk flowing through area creameries: Last year, Ellsworth transformed 58 million pounds of milk into almost seven million pounds of cheese. That’s a lot of Brick—about 200,000 pounds, Freyholz says.
FLAVORS: Butter, grass
PERFECT PAIRING: Brick sings in kid-friendly turkey sandwiches.