Planet Cheese is a weekly blog devoted to everything cheese: products, people, places, news, and views. James Beard Award–winning journalist Janet Fletcher writes Planet Cheese from her home in Napa Valley. Janet is the author of Cheese & Wine, Cheese & Beer, and The Cheese Course and an occasional contributor to culture. Visit janetfletcher.com to sign up for Planet Cheese and view Janet’s current schedule of cheese appreciation classes.
Everybody knows what stale bread tastes like, and we all recognize stale crackers when somebody serves them. (Not you, of course.) But have you ever had stale cheese? Not moldy, not stinky, but stale?
I have, all too often, and I’m getting cranky about it. I’m sure you’ve tasted stale cheese, too, but you may have just thought you didn’t like it. It may have tasted cardboardy or faintly oxidized, or perhaps like the plastic film it was wrapped in.
Cheesemongers don’t create the phenomenon, but often they can fix it. When a wedge of cheese is stored in plastic film for more than a day or so, the cut surfaces can start to smell like the plastic. The wet-cardboard scent that I sometimes detect comes, I presume, from lipid oxidation, but I’m also starting to suspect the cardboard boxes that cheese is shipped in. If the boxes get damp in transit or in a warehouse, could they impart that same slightly musty aroma that “corked” wine has? Dairy scientists, please weigh in.
Fortunately, the fix is easy. At some good cheese counters, you may notice the clerks scraping the cheese with a knife before they give you a taste. The staff at my neighborhood cheese shop—Oxbow Cheese Merchant in Napa—routinely does that and I appreciate it. Mongers call it “facing” the cheese, and new hires are trained to do it. The off-aromas rarely penetrate deeply, so a quick facing typically banishes any staleness or plastic taste. When I sample a cheese given this treatment, it smells refreshed and more like the cheesemaker intended.
Lassa Skinner, founder and co-owner of culture magazine, instituted the practice at Oxbow Cheese Merchant when she managed the store several years ago.
“You always ‘face’ cheese before you give someone a taste,” says Skinner. “You don’t want to give them the taste of the plastic.”
Brisk-selling wheels that store clerks unwrap and re-wrap several times a day probably don’t need scraping. But if you purchase a grab-and-go wrapped cheese that has not been freshly cut, chances are you’ll improve the taste experience if you first give all of the cut surfaces a swipe with a knife or cheese plane.