Cheese FAQs, Ep. 3: When to Eat the Rind

There’s actually a very simple test that answers this question without fail: try a little bite of the rind in question. If you like it, keep eating it. If you don’t, don’t.

Nooooo, Mark! I’m at a party and there’s cheese and I don’t wanna look stupid biting into rinds I’m not supposed to eat and avoiding rinds I should be eating! SEND HELP NOW!

Ok, ok, ok, I hear you. I stand behind my original answer, but let’s address which rinds are typically intended to be eaten and which are not.

There are many kinds of cheese rinds, and they serve a variety of purposes. They come in so many textures and colors that it can be hard to sort out what’s what. Let’s start with one that’s easy to identify and offers a very easy answer to the question of whether it should be eaten or not.

WAXED RIND

(Short answer: they’re pretty, but not tasty—don’t eat the wax.)

Waxed rinds are easy to spot because the rinds don’t look like cheese. They look like wax. They feel like wax. They might be a single, bold color—often red or black. Think of those little red Babybel cheeses or a big hunky wedge of red wax gouda or a Manchego with a dark tan or gray wax rind. Some cheddars are aged in wax as well. Some will have artwork printed on them—think of the iconic Midnight Moon, a goat gouda from Cypress Grove. Some have a thin layer of paper glued on to the wax (or even between two layers of wax), typically for artistic adornment and to display information about the cheese. One of my favorites, Ewephoria, has such a rind.

beemsterxo
This wheel of Beemster XO Gouda features a lovely waxed rind.

Waxed rinds are added to protect the cheese both while it ages and as it is transported and displayed for sale. They’re essentially a more old-fashioned way of vac-sealing a cheese, maintaining moisture and blocking out contaminants. The wax imparts no flavor to the cheese. It adds only color and a protective seal, so its value is utilitarian and aesthetic, but not culinary.

Obviously, you don’t want to eat wax. It’s not meant to be eaten. But these rinds are made with food-grade wax, so it’s not like eating some would hurt you—it just wouldn’t taste great. You might find that the cheese tastes different closer to the rind than in the center of the wheel (where more moisture remains), and you’re welcome to develop a preference for one part or the other.

Tangential story time: I once saw a customer pick out a cheese nub (these are just little single-serving cuts of cheese that I sell for under 3 bucks each for the sake of folks who just want a bite or two of some different cheeses) and slam the whole thing in her mouth, rind and all, right in front of me. It was a waxed rind gouda with a fair portion of rind on one end. My eyebrows glued themselves to my hairline in astonishment, but she didn’t seem to care about the wax she was chewing so gleefully. Hey, to each their own.

BLOOMY RIND

(Short answer: eat it, unless you don’t like it.)

These “mold-ripened” cheeses have a puffy, white rind made of mold—typically penicillium camemberti or penicillium candidum. Less often, you’ll see a wrinkly-looking bloomy rind made of geotrichum candidum. These molds are all actively and intentionally developed on the cheese. Sometimes powdered vegetable ash is added to control ripening and neutralize the surface, creating a grayish layer just under the rind. Some will have a more yellowish hue, but usually these rinds are bright white. You’ll find bloomy rinds on soft-ripened classics like Camembert, all varieties of Brie, Bucheron, and a long list of cheeses made in those styles (like Humboldt Fog or Green Hill). The white rinds serve at least three purposes: 1) they look lovely, 2) they help the cheese age and ripen properly, and 3) they taste delicious. We call these rinds bloomy because if you look at them under a microscope, you’ll see a field of what looks like lovely white flowers! Or something like that. Left to their own devices, these molds puff up like cotton candy, but cheesemakers pat them down over and over as they grow to develop a firmer, flatter rind. Under that rind, you’ll find the creamline, where the cheese is ripest and gooiest, and under that layer, in the middle of the wheel, is a more firm, caky layer.

Greenhill
Green Hill: a soft-ripened cow’s milk cheese with a bloomy rind from southern Georgia, USA.

Should you eat these rinds? Yes! Or, at least, they are meant to be eaten. I find them absolutely delicious—mushroomy and earthy, balancing the bright, buttery flavors of the paste. If you like the paste (that is, the cheese underneath the rind) but not the rind, I think you should eat the parts you like and skip the rind. Fair enough. BUT! If you’re enjoying the cheese with other guests, don’t just scoop out the paste onto your plate like a goddang cheese pirate. No, cut your wedge and then eat around the rind or remove it on your own plate so you don’t leave a deflated, rindy mess for the next guest. I suppose avoiding the rind is like cutting off the crust on your pbj sandwich—one kind of hopes you’ll grow out of it but, ultimately, there’s no shame in doing your thing your way and enjoying what you like.

sofia
Sofia: another American bloomy rind cheese, this one made with goat’s milk. The dark lines are vegetable ash. Check out the gooey creamline! Yum!

WASHED RIND

(Short answer: there is no short answer.)

This one’s a broad category, also sometimes called bacteria-ripened (as opposed to the mold-ripened bloomies discussed above) or smear-ripened. A washed rind is one that has been carefully developed and manicured by the cheesemaker every day of its aging process using a brine solution. A wide variety of ingredients are added to that solution—beer or other alcoholic beverages are common, and bacterial cultures like brevibacterium linens are typical, not to mention the host of other microorganisms in the environment that compete for territory there. The result is typically a cheese with a meaty flavor and pungent rind (aka, stinky cheese). Each unique wash imparts equally unique flavors to the cheese. These rinds take on a burnt orange hue, sometimes more pink, sometimes more gray or tan, sometimes dappled with multiple colors.

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French Raclette Livradois, a classic French washed rind melter

I suppose it’s fair to divide washed rinds into two sub-categories:

1) young, gooey, sticky, soft-ripened stinkers in a smallish format (e.g., Taleggio, Epoisses, Limburger, and Alsatian Muenster—“monastic” cheeses, as they’re sometimes called), and

2) firmer, well-aged Alpine cheeses in a larger format (e.g., Raclette, Comte, Gruyere, and Appenzeller).

 

challerhocker
Challerhocker is a washed rind Alpine cheese much like an Appenzeller or small-format version of Gruyere: the rind smells funky, but the paste is all toasty, nutty, onion grassy, savory perfection.

Some are room-clearingly stinky, while others are quite mild. Often, the pungence of the rind is not reflected in the taste of the cheese underneath it—such that if you smelled the rind first, you’d be afraid to eat it, but you’d be missing out!

Ok, Mark, fine fine fine, blah blah blah, but do you eat the rind?

The rind of the younger, gooey cheeses is typically meant to be eaten. With the firmer Alpine cheeses, the rind isn’t necessarily meant to be eaten, but it can be. In both cases, try it and discover your preferences. Typically, a thin, delicate rind is meant to be eaten, but a hard, thick rind is not. Me? I sometimes enjoy the rind of the younger cheeses if they’re not too gritty, but I almost never eat the rind on the Alpines. They’re flavorful, but the texture is too tough to be enjoyed, in my opinion. That said, I LOVE the bites closest to the rind, as they’re often the most rich in flavor.

NATURAL RIND

(Short answer: usually yes, but you’ll have to try it to know.)

Natural rinds, also known as wild rinds, are carefully tended to by cheesemakers, but the cultures present on the rind are not actively added. The cheesemaker’s role is more passive, allowing ambient cultures to grow on the cheese (remember, after all—you are at this moment covered in and inhaling microorganisms—it’s really ok). Molds, yeasts, and bacteria all compete with each other for space on the surface, ultimately giving a true sense of terroir to the cheese, since no one but mother nature can fully determine the results, which will vary from one aging cellar to another. The cheesemaker might turn, flip, and brush the cheese regularly while tending to the aging room’s temperature and humidity, but no cultures are added during the aging process. One common example is a cloth-bound cheddar. These are bandaged in cloth and slathered in lard before aging for months or even years. The result is often very colorful and flavorful. Sometimes blue molds sneak into crevices to the chagrin of the cheesemaker, but these are naturally-occurring, tasty, and harmless. Many blue cheeses have a natural rind, as do most farmhouse-style tommes.

clothboundflory
The rind of Flory’s Truckle, a clothbound cheddar, after removing the cloth.

But do you eat it? Well, I always try it. Sometimes it’s too tough or gritty or leathery. With other cheeses, it’s so delicious that I don’t want a bite without a little rind in it. When I eat Flory’s Truckle, for example, I adore the bites closest to the rind, but I typically cut off just a few millimeters of rind to avoid that grainy texture. On the other hand, I recently opened a new wheel of Sleeping Beauty from Cascadia Creamery and am in love with the rind, which gives a perfect balance of barnyardy flavor and crunch to the more delicate, buttermilky paste. With blues, I almost always love a bit of the natural rind in my bite—Blue Stilton, Glacier Blue, Caveman Blue, and Bayley Hazen all offer delicious mottled gray rinds with just the right amount of texture. Missing out on the rind, in those cases, means missing out on the full flavor of the cheese.

 

This list isn’t exhaustive. There are other types of rinds. For example, the rind of Parmigiano Reggiano is often called a dry rind, which is a bit of a misnomer considering that it’s created with oils and brines. But it’s easy to know that you shouldn’t eat a Parm rind because, well, you can’t. Not without breaking your teeth.

On the other hand, there are FLAVORED RINDS that are very clearly meant to be eaten. Think of those delicious BellaVitano cheeses from Sartori that are bathed in rosemary or black pepper or merlot. Or think of the popular Drunken Goat cheese from Spain, a crowd-pleaser bathed in wine.

Many of us, at least in the U.S., grew up eating almost exclusively RINDLESS CHEESES. Those don’t really belong in this post, for obvious reasons. I will say this about rindless cheeses: sometimes they do have a sort of pseudo-rind, and that pseudo-rind raises questions. For example, a vac-sealed loaf of aged cheddar will look a little different, a little more crystallized, on the outside edges. Customers have asked me if those ends are okay to eat. Is it moldy? It’s not moldy, but you’ll see more calcium crystallization on the outside edges of a cheddar aged in plastic vac-seal. The crystals are not only ok, but desirable (because crunchy cheddar is RAD). Likewise, rindless smoked cheeses are obviously darker and firmer at the outside edges. In those cases, smoking has created color and dryness around the exterior of the cheese—no worries. If you get a cut from the end of the loaf, it might have a little more smoke flavor, but that’ll be the only difference from any other cut.

pbreeze
A rindless loaf of Prairie Breeze cheddar from Milton Creamery.

Drop me a line if you have questions I haven’t answered here! Just remember: if you’re not sure, TRY IT! I’m unaware of any cheese rinds that are actually dangerous to eat (other than the risk of cracking your teeth on an especially hard rind, but I’m sure you’ll figure that one out before needing an emergency appointment at the dentist). Happy cheesing!

Cheese FAQs, Ep. 2: How to Cut and Serve a Wedge of Gouda

It seems like something that should be obvious. It seems like it shouldn’t even be a question—so much so that we’re often too embarrassed to ask it at all.

Here’s the thing, though: you get home with a few pieces of cheese to share, but the beautiful wedge of aged gouda you bought suddenly looks clunky, unwieldy. It’s delicious, but you can’t really cut it into cubes or cracker slices like you did with the cheddar or the pepper jack. The brie and blue can be presented as-is—your guests can handle those with a knife or even a spreader if the cheese is soft enough—but this gouda is too hard to expect guests to cut it for themselves. What do you do with this thing?

You ask your friendly neighborhood cheesemonger for advice, of course! Here are three simple approaches you can handle at home without any special equipment beyond a kitchen knife and a cutting board.

1. When life gives you wedges, make more wedges!

goatgouda
A half-pound wedge of Goat Gouda from Central Coast Creamery. Nice choice! But how to serve it?

Just cut that beauty in long, thin triangles running the length of the original wedge. You can remove the rind on top and bottom, if you’d like, but leave the rind on the back edge. This works particularly well with a wedge that’s thick enough to offer long isosceles triangles with a decent-sized base of rind. If the wedge is too thin to begin with, your triangles will also come out looking a bit spindly—more cheese stick than triangle.

goatgoudasliced
Goat Gouda cut into triangular slices, then reassembled as a wedge.

If the cheese is especially hard and crumbly, it’ll have a tendency to crumble under the knife. Thin wedges are preferable, but you may need to cut them a bit thicker to mitigate the risk of crumbling. (If a wedge crumbles, I say serve it anyway—it’s not like it loses any flavor when a triangle breaks in half!) With a younger, softer gouda, you can cut the triangles as thin as you like. A sharp knife certainly helps.

For presentation, you can reassemble the pieces so it looks like the original wedge or you can sort of fan them out or get as creative as you’d like. You may even be able to stand the pieces upright.

goatgoudaslicespread
Goat Gouda triangle wedges ready to serve! 

2. Radial cuts radiate joy!

goudawedge
A quarter-pound wedge of Seven Sisters by the Farm at Doe Run. 

Imagine you’re cutting half a pizza into triangles. All the cuts point toward the center (or the center of the straight edge without crust, in the case of a half-pizza). At the edges, every piece has a bit of crust (or rind, in the case of cheese). Because your cheese is oblong rather than perfectly round, the pieces won’t all be the same shape—that’s okay. I like to piece the wedge back together for presentation.

radialgoudacut
A serving of Seven Sisters for each of the seven sisters! Note that it would be easy to cut more servings from this wedge. I could have cut twelve servings rather than seven. It would probably look more enticing that way, too. 

This approach works well when you have a thinner wedge to begin with. It also helps if the wedge isn’t especially long—but if it is, you can always cut a few servings off the nose  (the thin, pointy end) and then cut the rest radially.

3. Crumblers gonna crumble.

If you’re working with a long-aged, dry, hard, brittle gouda, it wants to crumble. It’s made to crumble. So be it! Let that crumbly cheese be its authentic, crumbly best self! Jab it with whatever knife or spreader you’ve got and start crumbling! Leave the rind on the plate and the crumbles piled up inside, as if the crumbles are on stage in an amphitheater. I like to crumble most, but not all of it, not all the way to the rind. That way, guests eventually get the pleasure of breaking off some bits themselves, which is really quite satisfying! It works best with a big thick wedge sporting a handsome rind.

crumbled gouda
I removed one side of the rind on this aged gouda to improve guests’ access to the cheese crumbles. Aren’t they gorgeous? And so very easy for a guest to snag a bite or five. 

Final Thoughts

These aren’t the only options, but they’re my favorites. You could also cut the wedge in half and use a cheese planer to make paper-thin triangular slices. Or, heck, just ask your monger to cut it up for you if you’re planning on serving the same day. (If you’re not planning to serve for a few days, it’ll hold up better intact until then.)

Also, nota bene, if you ask a monger to take an extra few minutes to do this for you, take note of whether there are many other customers around or not. If you see a line of customers behind you, it would be very thoughtful and much appreciated if you’d offer to come back to pick up your neatly-sliced wedge a little later, so the monger can serve the customers waiting in line.

Note that these approaches can be used for other cheese wedges, too, not just gouda. I always use that first option with Manchego, for example. Perfect triangular servings every time!

As for pairings, I’ll have to address that issue in another post. Aged goudas are tricky to pair because they’re such a mouth-bomb of sweet flavor all on their own. Sometimes, they need nothing more than a full-bodied red wine or an oaky, oily, savory white.

Let me know how your gouda crumbles! Pics or it didn’t happen!

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)
cheeseplatter13
(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!

cheeseplatter11
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.

cheeseplatter07
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.

cheeseplatter10
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. 

cheeseplatter09

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!

cheeseplatter08
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-tuh 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, which is apparently something like FET-TAH.

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 cheese. 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-voh-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 and considered more “correct,” 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!

IMG_20180429_120630371.jpg

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.