And Another One

A customer asked me to make her cheese and charcuterie platter on her own rather cool-looking tray with bone handles. CHALLENGE ACCEPTED. Plus, Kat was there to take real photos with a real camera.

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(Photo: Katharine Azzolini)
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(Photo: Katharine Azzolini)
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Cheese and Charcuterie Platter by Mark Bilbrey (Photo: Katharine Azzolini)

This one includes Pecorino Wiscono from Wisconsin Sheep Dairy Cooperative, Old Kentucky Tomme from Capriole, and Blue Jay from Deer Creek, not to mention Lomo from Spotted Trotter, Tennshootoe from The Hamery, and PRB‘s house-made Beef Summer Sausage.

That Cheese Platter, Tho!

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Prairie Breeze from Milton Creamery, Beemster XO Gouda, Beer-washed Vallee from Baetje Farms, Blue Hills Bleu from Wisconsin Sheep Dairy Cooperative

I will at some point write a proper guide to creating cheese platters, but for now, I still feel like too much of a novice. Every time I think I’m getting pretty good at this, I log onto Instagram and am reminded of how far I have yet to go compared to some of the most extraordinary cheesemongers out there. They’re making such gorgeous stuff! But at a level a few steps below those masters, I think making a very attractive platter filled with delicious items and thoughtful pairings isn’t terribly difficult—it just requires some thought and patience and practice. And the beauty of being a novice is that I learn something new each time I make another platter. I’m constantly experimenting, which sometimes means flubbing up and always means that when I finish, I have ideas for how to do it better next time. I critique myself and say, “well, that’s ok but that part isn’t ideal–maybe try it this other way next time.” And I do learn a lot just from looking at the brilliant stuff others are doing on Instagram. Sorry / not sorry for stealing your ideas, fellow mongers! Hey, you can steal mine any time. Whether you’re a monger or just someone who wants to make a platter at home, I’m happy to share my thoughts or answer questions. I’m always eager to share what I’ve learned or am learning.

In the photo above, I tried to have some contrasting shapes, geometrically–some blocky areas in contrast to the big eye-catching curves of the cheddar and gouda. One thing I’ve found is that no matter how much energy I put into planning and mapping out how it will look, once my hands are in the thing and the reality of physical limitations of space and mass and crumbly-ass cheese begin pushing me around, I always end up improvising as I go. Sometimes the physical act of constructing it really leads the way more than my abstract planning. It feels like a puzzle with multiple solutions, but some solutions are more satisfactory than others.

One major consideration is always the balance of aesthetics vs. the practicality of placing the thing in front of people who want to actually eat it. The most beautiful platter for a photo might turn out to be rather poorly designed when it comes to actual hungry party guests wanting to nibble. In the photo above, for example, there are a few practical problems. For one thing, the wedges of blue and Vallee are faced toward the center because, frankly, I thought it looked prettier that way. But it would be easier for guests to enjoy if the wedges faced outward. Further, there’s really not much room to work with for a guest trying to cut out a wedge of Vallee, Green Hill, or Blue Hills. It’ll be a bit awkward for them. Yet another problem: after the first guest nabs a few wedges of cheddar, the shape’s effect will be completely lost. It’s not a design that will continue to look pretty for very long after guests start picking at it. I was mindful of all those problems, but chose to push the balance toward aesthetics rather than practicality. There’s a risk in going too far in one direction or the other—it often calls for a compromise.

When we’re considering aesthetics, we’re thinking of the shapes we’re creating, their variety or uniformity. We’re thinking of how it looks from above and from every side. We’re thinking of height, fullness, and color—a bit like a painter, we’re considering the composition.

At the same time, we’re trying to choose items that pair well together and provide something for everyone. We’re also managing costs to stick within an agreed-upon price-point. It’s an exercise in managing multiple concerns at once.

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Gotta love that ripe Sandy Creek from Goat Lady Dairy. 

I like the look of this small, simple platter. I imagine it’s pretty easy for guests to deal with. The standing wedges of cheese and rolls of salumi are easy for guests to grab with tongs. The nest of beef summer sausage in the back supports the olives, and there are enough layers of sausage slices to continue serving that purpose even after half of them are gone. But note: it’s clearly designed to face only one way. From the back, it’ll look terrible and be awkward for guests to access, which is fine if it’s set on a table against a wall, but less so if it’s on a table in the middle of a room.

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So many goodies! Red Rock from Roelli, Chevre from Noble Springs, Ewephoria, Pecorino Wiscono from Wisconsin Sheep Dairy Cooperative, Blue Paradise from Hook’s, salami from Smoking Goose and Tennshootoe from The Hamery. 

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This double-platter represents, I think, a pretty good balance between practicality and aesthetics. Only the curved line of Pecorino triangles in the middle will suffer much as guests fill their plates. The Ewephoria is crumbled to make for easy grazing that will still look good (and will even allow for further crumbling) as the night goes on. The honey is placed near its best pairing–the blue cheese–while the mustard is near the salami, which makes for a perfect match. I pre-sliced the blue, but that was probably a pretty useless courtesy, as it’s going to stick together and crumble as guests try to get some onto their plates. It would have been just as well to leave it whole and let folks knife in for what they want. The mirrored jars/bowls and curved triangle lines give a sense of tidiness, while other sections are piled in a way that’s less fussy. If it’s too neat and tidy, no one wants to mess it up, so I like to include plenty of suggestion that this is a plate of food, not a work of art—dig in!

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Green Hill from Sweet Grass Dairy, Ewephoria, Smokey Mountain Round from Goat Lady Dairy, Dunbarton Blue from Roelli, Tennshootoe from the Hamery, and Beef Summer Sausage made in house at Porter Road Butcher. 

This small platter will be perfect, I hope, for just a few people. I put a lot of love into this one because it was for my dear friend @edgesnashville, our shop’s knife-sharpener. It’s a pretty platter but will also be super easy for guests to manage. The only trick will be dealing with the lack of room around the Green Hill wheel, which might make it difficult to cut wedges. (Also, I’m glad the customer is my friend and will forgive me because I totally crushed the too-tall Dunbarton wedges when I put the lid on. GAH!)

At some point, as I mentioned, I’ll try to draw up some clearly-defined principles and guidelines for making cheese platters and throw in a few pro tips. For now, I’ll keep honing my skills.

Mark’s Heretically Modern American Guide to Pronouncing Cheese Words

One of the many reasons some customers feel a bit intimidated at the cheese counter is that they see so many words they don’t recognize and can’t pronounce with any confidence. We see not only among European/world cheeses, but also among American cheeses, words rooted in multiple languages, such that hazarding a guess as to their pronunciation feels like offering oneself up for ridicule. I’ll bet real money that some customers decide—consciously or otherwise–not to even try a particular cheese at my counter because they fear pronouncing it wrong and being laughed at. I want to say this loud and clear: anyone implying that he or she is more sophisticated than someone else because they know (or think they know) how to pronounce a foreign word is full of bologna. They probably pronounce bologna in a pretentious way, too.

My experience suggests that people fall into just a few categories when faced with this dilemma. Some say, “screw it, I guess I’ll just ask for cheddar.” Some show off their French or Italian or Spanish or Dutch or German skills and ask to try a cheese using a pronunciation that may (or may not?) be perfect in the language of origin (which sometimes results in a confused look on my own face, not being well-versed in any of those languages myself). More aggressive types barge ahead confidently with ridiculous pronunciations, usually accompanied by an accent they invented and a story about a Spanish hostel they lived in for a week in 1972: “I’d like to try the MoonchuGAA, please! I’ll bet it’s crap compared to the real thing I had in Madrid!” If I can figure out what they’re trying to say, I’ll grab it without daring to challenge their “expertise.” More modest types tend to say something like, “ooh, this one looks interesting, but… how do you say that… man-che-go?”

I’d like to make a few (hopefully helpful) remarks about this topic from the perspective of someone who faces this dilemma himself and watches others try to navigate it five days a week. Then, I’d like to offer some safe bets for pronouncing common cheese words in an American context. (For the record, I can’t use International Phonetic Alphabet symbols here, nor would I if I could, so I’m just trying to spell pronunciations in a way that I hope best reflects the sounds for English speakers. The result is imprecise, but that’s perhaps for the best. My post in general suggests that imprecision is normal and acceptable.)

  1. There’s no reason to be bashful in front of your cheesemonger. For one thing, you make more money than we do and have made better life choices. Congrats! If we were fluent in seven languages, we’d likely not be working a cheese counter. (Then again, a PhD in English didn’t keep me away from cheesemongering, so hey, maybe we just like it, and that shouldn’t be very intimidating either.) Cheese words show up from many languages and no one expects you to know them all. Cheesemongers mispronounce stuff all the time. I’ve done it more often than I’d care to admit. It’s fine. I’ve never once—not one time—made fun of a customer for not knowing how to pronounce a word. I HAVE, I’ll admit, chuckled heartily behind the backs of customers who came up with bizarre, inexplicable pronunciations I could never have dreamed of, pronunciations seemingly unrelated to the letters in the word and wholly distinct from any pronunciation any other human has uttered, and then seemed miffed that I was too dumb to recognize their unique creation. I mean, c’mon. That’s hilarious. My chuckling is at the expense of their arrogance rather than their ignorance. But here’s a truly shameful confession: one time I was sharing a laugh with a coworker after a customer had said MORE THAN ONCE, “PARE-uh-KEEN-yo” in an effort, as I finally deduced, to pronounce Pecorino. Same thing happened when a customer insisted on “pare-uh-MEES-ee-un” cheese. I felt pretty bad about it later when I considered that perhaps the customer might be dyslexic. Oof. Sorry, universe. I’m awful. So, I guess what I should have said is there’s no reason to be bashful in front of your cheesemonger unless he or she is a jerk like I was that one time. Ok, two times. But, truly, it’s 100% ok to not know how to pronounce a cheese word. I’m pretty terrible with the French cheese words myself.

 

  1. Often, it’s not a matter of there being a universally standard, correct and incorrect pronunciation. It’s just about communicating what you want. For a given foreign cheese word, there are likely multiple pronunciations, each of which is correct or close enough in a given context. For example: mozzarella. Americans pronounce it one way (usually MAHT-suh-RELL-uh). Italians pronounce it another way (something like MOATZ-zah-RELL-luh). Italian-Americans of the American northeast tend to drop the final vowels of Italian words (moat-zah-RELL). Those all work perfectly fine, don’t they? If I were in Italy, trying my best to order in Italian, I’d give the Italian pronunciation my best effort, but here in the US of A, I say MAHT-suh-RELL-uh or just MAHZ. Am I embarrassed that I don’t pronounce it in the most Italian way possible? Not even a little bit. I’d argue that the American pronunciation is, well, the American pronunciation—perfectly correct in the US. If you pronounce it the Italian way, that’s cool (even if a bit silly for non-Italians), but it’s not going to earn you a discount. Also, for some perspective, keep in mind that even words you think you know how to pronounce in your own language are pronounced differently elsewhere in your own language. Among native English speakers, ten can be pronounced TIN or TEN. Roof can be ROOF or RUF. A word as simple as car is pronounced differently in London than in Boston than in Nashville. So let’s not be too judgy. This stuff is Linguistics 101. It’s all okay.

 

  1. Some cheese words are funny! It’s ok to giggle! Butterkäse, Muenster, Scharfe Maxx! Challerhocker, Challerhocker, Challerhocker! (I CANNOT say Scharfe Maxx without using a Schwarzenegger voice and tee-hee-ing.)

 

  1. It’s ALWAYS okay to ask for the pronunciation or just avoid it altogether: “I’d like to try this cheese at the far left with the white rind, the one on the second row, please.” It’s not like it won’t be delicious if you can’t pronounce the name. You could even spell it out if that helps. “How do you say the name of this one at the top that starts with c-h?” Sometimes I’m selling a new cheese and have to admit that I don’t know how to pronounce it either. I’ll look it up eventually, but in the meantime, I’m not all that worried about it. Some of the names are made up, so there is no standard pronunciation. IT’S OKAY.

 

  1. Remember, we cheesemongers LOVE teaching customers about cheese. I’m every bit as excited about working with a customer who knows very little about cheese as a customer with sophisticated cheese knowledge. Don’t worry about it. It’s not like a car lot where you might get swindled if you haven’t done your research. We’re glad you’re at the counter either way, and we want to help! If you admit that you’ve never tried Manchego and don’t know how to pronounce it, hey, great! That’s an opportunity for me to tell you all about it and introduce you to one of my favorite cheeses of all time! I’ll walk you through it with glee. We’ll have a taste together and then grin stupidly. It’s great.

 

  1. Using words from one language in another language always requires some compromise. The phonemes are different. The cadences are different. English speakers don’t necessarily know how to make all the necessary sounds of another language. (I can’t roll my Rs and my gutterals are rubbish, for example, because, after all, those sounds aren’t used in the language I speak!). And that’s okay! We just want to understand each other. “Close enough to be understood” is my rule here. Not pretentiously making up dumb stuff is my other rule.

 

  1. It’s just cheese. You don’t have to know anything. You can just be like, “let me try something mind-blowingly delicious” and we’ll taste cheeses until you fall in love with something.

 

  1. You’re not the only person who’s stumped. I just did some super-basic Googling to look at other cheese pronunciation guides, and guess what: even the people presenting themselves as experts get this stuff mind-bendingly wrong on a mind-bogglingly regular basis. I mean, I saw a high-production-cost video that not only mispronounced but also friggin’ misspelled Parmigiano Reggiano while presuming to teach me how to say the term. So, my approach is necessarily loose and lenient. I just want us to all feel like we’re not dummies when we talk about cheese and to forgive each other’s differences because, guess what, guy-who-thinks-his two-semesters-of-French-makes-him-an-expert: people pronounce words differently and that’s okay because it’s how language works, always and forever.

 

Now for the informational portion of this broadcast. It’s either the part you scrolled down to immediately or the part you’ll skip. For your pleasure and (mis)education, here’s a list of some cheese words and their common American pronunciations (with alternatives as necessary):

ASIAGO: AH-see-AH-go. If you say this in a way that makes it sound like you’re about to name all the continents, you might wanna try again.

BLEU: This is the French word for blue. They say something like BLUH. But, you know, this is a word we can just as easily translate to English because WE HAVE AN ENGLISH COGNATE FOR THAT and it’s blue. I don’t know. Take your pick. BLUH or BLOO. They both sound kinda silly when you think about it.

BRIE: BREE. It’s unbrielievably easy.

CAMEMBERT: CAM-um-bear. Don’t say the t. In French, the middle vowel is more open, more like an OH or AH, and the R is barely audible (to my ear, anyway).

CHALLERHOCKER: HALL-ur-hock-ur. Were you Swiss, you’d pronounce the Ch with a guttural sound. (I recently impressed a Swiss customer by using the guttural sounds appropriately, but never told her that I was actually using a phoneme I learned in Hebrew class as my best approximation. Close enough!)

CHÈVRE: Fresh goat’s milk cheese is called SHEV or SHEV-ruh. I’ve heard the French pronunciation, but I can’t say it properly. Sorry, not sorry. I’m a cheesemonger, not an expert in the French language. I call it SHEV, which is perfectly common and acceptable in the US.

COMTÉ: I swear, I don’t know. Might be LAW-rul, might be YAH-nee. No one knows. I’ve heard, like, twelve ways to pronounce this very short word. I DON’T KNOW. I say COM-tee, which is wrong. And I’m not even embarrassed. But if you wanna correct me, please do so. (Just know that someone else will “correct” me in a wholly different direction.) I think it’s actually something along the lines of COHM-tu with a barely-there final syllable.

CRÈME FRAîCHE: CREM FRESH. Not as tricky as it looks.

FETA: Americans think they’re saying FET-uh, but they’re usually saying FEH-duh. That’s fine, I suppose (I can just barely hear the difference, to be honest), but it does seem to rub Greeks the wrong way. They keep correcting me. Sorry. One very kind Greek customer told me in the gentlest possible way that Greek customers would really appreciate me if I would say it the right way.

FROMAGE: froh-MAJ. (The J is more JH—a vocalized SH—I can’t quite spell it in a way that reflects the sound: think of the z in azure.) It’s fro like fro-yo and mage like Taj Mahal. Look, French doesn’t even accent syllables, so that’s an example of the transliteration problem I’m pointing out here. If you don’t speak French, you don’t have to say these words as if you do (you probably can’t anyway). And if you’re bilingual in French and English, use context to determine which language to use. Sure, it might be a little embarrassing to say fruh-MAG-ur, but, you know, let’s just get close-ish so we can understand each other. BTW, fromage just means cheese.

GOUDA: GOO-duh. Every now and then, a customer will correct me. I’m not unaware that the Dutch say HOW-duh (with a guttural H), but a) that guttural H phoneme isn’t part of my speech—I couldn’t do it properly if I wanted to—and b) Americans call it GOO-duh. Likewise, Americans pronounce the French capitol city PARE-iss rather than pah-REE (with some kind of deep-throated R that I can’t do). It’s okay. That’s how language works. It changes with time and place. No worries. Just don’t call it GOW-duh. You’re thinking of an inflammatory disease.

GRUYERE: Americans tend to say groo-YAIR, while Brits say gree-YAIR. I, for reasons unknown even to myself, use the British pronunciation. I think I’m afraid Gordon Ramsay will yell at me if I say it a different way.

HAVARTI: huh-VAR-tee or, if you wanna get real American about it, huh-VAR-dee.

KASE: KAY-zuh. You’ll see this term as part of many German or Swiss cheese names, like Butterkäse or Sennenkase. (Btw, I’ll accept BUT-ur-kay-zuh or BOOT-ur-kay-zuh, the latter being a little closer to the original. Hell, even if you say BUT-ur-case, I’ll know what you mean, and that’s fine.) Käse is just the German word for cheese.

MANCHEGO: man-CHAY-go or mahn-CHAY-go. I often hear Americans say man-CHAIN-go, and I know this goes against my basic principles here, but I have to draw the line at that one. There’s just no reason to add a second n. In Spanish, the second syllable is more CHE than CHAY. I don’t care.

MASCARPONE: mah-skar-POH-neh or mah-skar-POH-nay. But many Americans, including Italian-Americans, say MAR-skuh-pone, and I don’t really understand why, but it’s common enough that I’m fine with it. If it’s good enough for Tony Soprano, it’s good enough for me.

MUENSTER: MUN-stir. The “u” can sound like that in “cut” or in “push.” Close enough either way.

OSSAU-IRATY: Hell if I know. Just kidding. It’s oh-so-EER-ah-tee. Because CLOSE ENOUGH.

PARMIGIANO REGGIANO: PARM. Seriously, that’s fine. I often say PARM REJ to indicate I’m talking about the real Reggiano rather than some other parm-like cheese. The more authentic pronunciation, if you wanna know, is par-mee-JAH-no rej-JAH-no. When Italian words include double-letters, those letters are sort of lengthened across two syllables, included in both the end of one syllable and the beginning of the next. But you don’t need to know that to order cheese.

PECORINO ROMANO: peh-co-REE-no roh-MAH-no. FYI: Pecorino just means sheep. Romano means Roman. So Pecorino Romano is sheep cheese in the Roman (southern Italian) style. Likewise, Pecorino Toscano is sheep cheese from Toscano, or northern Italy (Tuscany, we say in English). And the cheekily-named Pecorino Wiscono is sheep cheese from Wisconsin.

PROVOLONE: Americans say PRO-vuh-lone, and I’d say that’s correct for American-made deli cheese in (very roughly) the style of Provolone. But if I’m feeling fancy, I’ll call real Italian Provolone by its name: pro-vuh-LOH-neh.

RICOTTA: Americans say rih-COT-uh. That’s fine. Italians say ree-COAT-tah.

ROQUEFORT: ROKE-fore or ROKE-fort. The former is closer to the French, but Americans often pronounce the T and that doesn’t bother me for even a second. If you wanna be real French and put some guttural R stuff in there, go for it.

TALEGGIO: tah-LEJ-jee-oh or, more Americanly, tuh-LEJ-ee-oh. I’m pretty sure I say the latter.

TOMME: TOM (like the name short for Thomas) or TUM. You’ll also hear TOME and tome-AY. Basically, Americans haven’t decided how to handle this one. I say TOM. To me, TUM sounds pretentious, TOME is a long book, and tome-AY is trying way too hard, especially considering that the French word is only one syllable. But it’s a free-for-all. Do as you please.

Did I miss an important one? Lemme know. Most importantly, get thee to the fromagerie and put so much cheese in your mouth that you can’t pronounce any words at all!

Cheese Tragedy!!!

The short and long of it: I received a wheel of Amoureux from Baetje Farms–a cheese I have fallen in love with from a creamery I adore–and it was busted. I can’t sell it. The ash line through the middle had separated into a chasm, such that it’s not possible to cut wedges from this wheel. It had “blown out,” as they say, a major flaw. It’s a flaw, I should explain, that should not reflect poorly on the maker, especially considering that they just recently starting making this particular style of cheese. And it’s an AMAZING cheese. Top five EVER in my book. But this particular wheel was just… busted. Cheesemakers use a trier tool to test the taste and quality of a cheese as they’re aging it, but that won’t necessarily detect a flaw like this. Every time I break open a wheel of cheese in the shop, I’m opening a mysterious box. Not even the makers know exactly what we’ll find. We cross our fingers that we won’t discover major flaws, and usually we don’t, but every now and then tragedy strikes.

As a cheesemonger, you order the cheeses you want but have no control over the quality at which they arrive. One thing that must be understood is that artisanal cheese isn’t like so many other products that can be expected to arrive exactly the same way every time, all year. Good cheese varies in quality for more reasons than I can name. It varies, most obviously, by season (which is why many artisanal creameries offer different cheeses depending on the season), but there are many other factors, some of which are difficult to control. The same wonderful creamery that cares deeply about quality might offer a cheese that’s wonderful one month and ho-hum the next. That’s just the reality of artisanal cheese. It’s also affected by how well it was transported. When I worked for Murray’s/Kroger, we’d sometimes receive shipments that would have been fine if the transporters hadn’t allowed them to be smashed in the truck or if they’d been better packaged to keep them safe. Or perhaps they didn’t control for temperature very well. I’ve seen wheels of brie absolutely demolished by boxes full of heavy olive mixes simply because, I don’t know,  life is tragic and people are either dumb or not paid well enough to care. Hey, if you want consistency, there’s always Kraft singles.

There’s also the reality of how time affects cheese. If you get a batch of soft-ripened cheese that’s perfectly ripe and ready for sale, well, that’s not necessarily a sign that it’s of a higher quality than another cheese. No, you just happened to receive it when it was perfectly ripe. That same creamery offering the same wheels of soft-ripened cheese might send you a batch next month that’s not nearly so ripe. They haven’t done anything differently. Instead, the difference is in the time between the making of the cheese and your receiving it. Had you received it any later, you’d say that it was spoiled. Had you received it earlier, you’d say that it was too firm. The creamery can’t control that. Time controls that.

A couple of cases in point.

  1. I recently received a wheel of Aux Arcs from Green Dirt Farms that was very, very different from the Aux Arcs wheels I’ve received in the past (which I loved). It was much softer. Its rind was sticky and orange, rather than hard and grayish, like a washed rind rather than the aged sheep cheese I normally sell as a domestic alternative to Manchego. I contacted my wholesaler, who contacted Green Dirt, to find that it was simply a matter of the cheese’s youth. One could argue that they shouldn’t sell the cheese until it’s ready, but on the other hand, I tasted it and it’s absolutely delicious–just not what I expected.
  2. The Amoureux tragedy is just that. Perhaps as Baetje perfects the making of this cheese, they’ll be able to avoid this problem, but as it is, I really can’t complain about a small, artisanal cheesemaker running into a problem. I think that’s inherent in cheese-making. I’m sure they’re embarrassed to find that a wheel of their cheese failed like this, but here’s the thing: it’s wonderful cheese and I want more. I’m happy to accept that failure happens in the pursuit of great cheese. My response wasn’t to say, “Gah, I’ll never order Baetje again!” Instead, I just wanted to know if I could get another wheel.

It can be frustrating, of course, but I have come to see variance as, in many cases, a sign of quality. It’s an inevitable product of artisans working with real ingredients full of living microflora and influenced by the environment’s whims. There’s something beautiful and natural about it, and I love that each wheel that arrives brings with it a bit of mystery, a bit of surprise, no matter how many times I’ve tried the same cheese before. There’s a bit of undesired gambling involved, though. If I buy a large, expensive wheel of something, I can get a refund if it’s faulty, but I can’t get a refund if it’s okay-but-not-great. And I’m one of those dummies who will tell customers, “I know you loved this cheese last month, but this particular wheel is a little more bland–still good, but not quite as mind-blowing.” But that’s the beauty of real cheese. Unlike commodity cheese, processed chemically to banal consistency and reflecting not a hint of terroir or season, real cheese varies as surely as the weather.

So this is also a reason to develop a relationship with your cheesemonger. If, for example, you tend to like your soft cheese super ripe and oozy, you can’t know that the wheel of, say, Mt. Tam that you buy today will be as ripe as the one you bought and loved last month. But if you came into my shop and asked me for the ripest soft cheese I’ve got, I would be able to point you toward what you’re looking for. I taste everything in the case, repeating the process over time until it’s gone. Perhaps I just got a shipment of Mt. Tam, but it’s still quite firm, not nearly as ripe as the last wheel you bought. I’ve got some Trillium from Tulip Tree, however, that’s as ripe as it gets! I could also advise you that if you’re not planning on eating the cheese for another week, you should go for the Tam–it’ll be perfect by then, whereas the Trillium may get over-ripe (if there’s such a thing)!

Alas, here’s the sad portrait of a busted Amoureux–the opposite of cheese porn. Cheese gore, perhaps. May the cheese gods bless you and keep you, creature of cream. You can’t tell from the pic, but the crack goes all the way to the rind, all around. If you hold it up to the window, you can see light on the other side.

amoureux blowout

 

The Return of the Truckle!

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I cracked another Flory’s Truckle yesterday. The excitement, somehow, hasn’t waned with repetition.

Customers often giggle at the term “truckle,” and I encourage every kind of giggling for any reason at my cheese counter, but in case you’re curious, a “truckle” is a British term describing a large-format, cylindrical (we often say “barrel-shaped”) cheese. Essentially, it’s in the shape of three wheels of cheese stacked on top of each other. A truckle is almost always a cheddar made in the traditional clothbound or “bandaged” style. (I’ve also heard the term used for a few other similarly shaped cheeses like Blue Stilton or even a non-English cheese like Pecorino Romano.) The cloth (often muslin) bandaging around the cheddar is typically slathered in lard before sending the wheel to age in a cave or cheese cellar. This technique protects the cheese as it ages, while also imparting earthy flavors and collecting beautiful, natural molds on the rind. Unlike cheeses aged in vac-seal, a clothbound truckle can still breathe and interact with its environment while aging, producing much more complex flavors and a more profound sense of terroir.

Mongers sometimes refer to cheeses in this format as “Barrel 3,” which just means that it should be cut horizontally into three equal sections (and then wedged out for customers from there). With a clothbound cheddar truckle like this lovely Flory’s Truckle from Milton Creamery in Iowa, I first score the cloth 1/3 of the way from one of the flat edges, all the way around. Then I cut through with a wire. With the disk I’ve cut away, I remove the cloth, cut it in half, and cut one of the two halves into quarters. These quarters will be placed in the display case, from which I can cut tidy wedges to order. The other half is placed in backstock. The remaining two-thirds of the truckle is still bandaged on all but the top side, so I can wrap it and place it in backstock knowing that it will still be in great shape when I’m ready to cut another disk from it and remove the cloth.

A truckle is a great format for a small cheese counter like mine because it holds up so well over time and yet allows me to cut very neat, proportionate wedges for customers without fully cracking into the whole thing at once, thus preserving its shelf life.

I tried to upload a video, but was reminded that I’m a cheapskate whose cheapskate plan doesn’t allow posting of videos, but feel free to check out my Instagram account to witness the process in action.

CHEESE FAQs, Ep. 1: How to Eat Cheese When You’re Lactose Intolerant

My plan to use this blog to answer common cheese questions and address the concerns of average cheese consumers has, uh, faced some competition from posts in the category of “omg lookie this cheese I cheesed today!!!” To that I say, it’s my party and I’ll cut the cheese if I want to.

But seriously, I still want to do the thing I wanted to do before. And I don’t have to be at the shop tomorrow, so I can stay up late drinking Dickel 12 in bed and typing. This post covers a concern I hear nearly daily: “I love cheese, but I’m lactose intolerant!” And the related question, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” I’ll offer a few words of advice*.

  1. Go for cheeses that contain little or no lactose. They’re not as hard to find as you might think. For one thing, most cheeses are made by separating the whey from the curds; when the whey is rinsed off, much of the milk’s lactose is removed along with it. Secondly, as cheeses age, lactose is broken down into lactic acid. Thus, fresh cheeses (cheeses that aren’t aged—e.g., mozzarella, ricotta, feta, and chevre) still contain quite a bit of lactose, but aged cheeses have very little lactose. And the more aged the cheese is, the less lactose remains, generally speaking. So, most naturally aged cheeses—even if they’re not aged for very long—contain little or no lactose. Cheeses that are aged for long periods are very safe bets. For example, Beemster XO gouda is aged for 26 months and contains no lactose at all. Parmigiano Reggiano, Pecorino Romano, Manchego, Jarlsberg, and aged cheddars are typically lactose-free or contain only trace levels of lactose.
  2. Look for a “lactose free” label. If you don’t find one, look at the nutrition information label. Lactose is milk sugar, so a cheese that’s high in sugar is high in lactose, while a cheese with little or no sugar is very low in lactose. The nutrition info label doesn’t list lactose, but it does list sugar, which in the case of cheese is basically the same thing.
  3. Consider your portion size. Most adults are at least mildly lactose intolerant. I certainly am! Some of us are more intolerant of lactose than others, but in any case, lactose intolerance is not an allergy—a little lactose isn’t going to send you to the ER or even to the bathroom in a hurry**. If you have Chron’s disease, it’s wise to avoid even trace amounts of gluten, but lactose intolerance doesn’t work like that. It’s more a matter of degree. You may find that you tolerate a little bit of lactose with no problem at all, a moderate amount with a bit of mild indigestion, and a lot with, well, let’s call it distress. Good cheese packs a wallop of flavor, so you may find that you can thoroughly enjoy a little bit of even a fresh cheese (relatively high lactose) without any trouble whatsoever. And frankly, a little bit is plenty anyway. And with low-lactose or lactose-free cheeses, you can pig out if you want.
  4. Know your condition. Are you sure that lactose is the problem? Or are you perhaps allergic to milk protein (casein)? If there’s an allergy to milk protein involved, then it doesn’t matter whether the cheese is low in lactose or not—it’s gonna mess you up***.
  5. If you’re eating a dish that contains cheese, you should know not only what kind of cheese is in it, but what other dairy products are included. If that big bowl of mac and cheese you want is made with aged cheddar, the cheese is probably fine for you as far as lactose goes—but your digestive system is still headed for chaos if it’s also full of cream or milk, or if you’re gobbling amounts of it appropriate only for a hot dog eating competition. If your lactose intolerance isn’t severe, you shouldn’t be worried about a bite of even a young cheese like brie****. But eating a large portion is obviously more risky.
  6. Stay away from the processed stuff. They’re not only unaged (high lactose), but they typically include added milk and/or whey (also high lactose).
  7. Consider non-dairy “cheeses,” I guess? If you must? A vegan friend tells me some of them are delicious. I’ve tried quite a few and ended up with McKayla Maroney-level chagrin on my face, but I might just have a bad attitude. The cashew- and almond-based cheeses aren’t the worst thing ever. Whatever you do, stay away from “imitation cheese” made with, I dunno, chalk and recycled chapstick or whatever they use. I’m not sure what loopholes they abuse to sell this as a food product, since it’s clearly more useful as a cheap construction material.
  8. Don’t get confused by all the bogus nutritional advice. I hear the results of misinformation every day. “I can only eat goat cheese because it doesn’t have lactose.” (Nope. Goat’s milk has slightly lower lactose than cow’s milk, but it’s more likely the difference in casein between cow and goat milk that’s making a difference in your digestion.) “I can only eat raw milk cheese because it doesn’t have lactose.” (Not exactly. If you’re eating raw milk cheese in the US, it’s going to be an aged cheese as required by law, so yeah, that helps. But raw milk has exactly the same amount of lactose as pasteurized milk, though there’s a decent argument that it’s easier to digest because it contains more lactase enzymes and probiotics.) “I only eat cheese from grass-fed cows because it has no lactose.” (No, I’m pretty sure calves would die of malnutrition if that were the case. But hey, grass-fed, pasture-raised animals make tastier, more nutritious cheese, so sure, let’s go with that.) I’m not a medical doctor or a dietitian, so it’s not my place to give medical advice. I try to help people find whatever it is they’re looking for, but I’m sometimes frustrated to hear these myths over and over again.
  9. Just, yeah, eat what you want and suffer the consequences*****. That’s what most of us do, isn’t it?

* I’m not a medical doctor. I mean, I’m a doctor, yeah, but not of the medical sort. I’m qualified to diagnose problems with prose, not problems with your guts, which I call “guts” because I’m not a medical doctor.

** I’m still not a medical doctor. I sell cheese. I’m biased. Go talk to your doctor, for chrissake.

*** You can tell I’m not a medical doctor because I just wrote “gonna mess you up.” Don’t take medical advice from me.

**** Not a medical doctor. Not a dietitian. Just a guy who thinks brie is delicious. I likely know more about cheese than your doc does, and your doc definitely knows more about health than I do, so perhaps you can learn something from both of us?

**** I don’t have malpractice insurance. Don’t listen to me!

Amoureux from Baetje Farms

My cheese counter was lucky enough to land THREE amazing cheeses from Baetje Farms, including a new addition to their line-up called “Amoureux.” I was absolutely stunned by it–an immediate addition to my all-time favorite list. It’s everything you love about aged Manchego with a few sweet and savory bonuses: notes of lemon zest, butter, and fresh grass. The sheepy lanolin and goaty citric flavors complement each other perfectly here. Despite a high price-point, the entire wheel sold in just a few days (which is really fast for a little cheese counter like mine).

One regular cheese customer and fellow turophile tried it and joked that it was so good it made her want to cry. I laughed, but then noticed her eyes were kind of misting over, and then my eyes kind of misted over too because taking that much pleasure in cheese (or anything, really) is a beautiful thing.

amoureux review
(Image: Katharine Azzolini)