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.

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(Image: Katharine Azzolini)

Jar Woman and Her Jars and Her Cheese in Her Jars

One of our favorite customers at the shop is a delightful professional cellist and proud owner of many, many jars. Jars of all shapes and sizes. Jars in which she keeps and transports the food she buys at the shop.

It wasn’t that long ago that many shoppers recognized the folly in amassing a dozen plastic bags every time they went to the supermarket. Many of us decided to take our own reusable bags. The plastic ones are convenient, and they’re not terrible for dog-walk cleanup (except when they have a hole in the bottom you didn’t notice until you went for the scoop), but they also happen to be an environmental nightmare. Plastic shopping bags decompose at a rate of never-in-a-million-years and you’ve probably already used enough of them to fill your own personal landfill. So even if you couldn’t care less about environmental damage, they’re simply a pain to deal with–you stockpile bags into other bags or stuff them into the trash, where they expand and fall out, then make a beeline toward the nearest child’s esophagus. Malicious things, they are!

Anyway, this customer’s solution is jars. We fill her jars with chicken, with steaks, with glorious cheese. Another customer came in today, actually, with metal containers she wanted us to fill with delicious foods. “They won’t touch my containers at [insert corporate grocery store here],” she complained. Would we be willing to use her containers instead of paper and plastic? Of freaking course we would.

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Backlit, poorly framed, hastily made photographic genius. Like I do.

Look, I take a pretty mainstream view of global warming and pollution: it’s very real and very bad. But I also take a pretty mainstream approach to dealing with it–one best described as lazy and hypocritical. I reduce (when convenient), reuse (when convenient), and recycle (when convenient). I don’t justify my behavior, but I admit to it.

But our beloved customer with the jars takes action. And you know what? It doesn’t look very inconvenient. Her jars are lovely, especially when filled with beautiful cheese. She can use them over and over without filling her trashcan (and our planet) with plastic. When she gets home, she simply puts her jars in the fridge–no unpacking necessary. They keep her food safe and air-tight as well as visible. She tells me that her food keeps quite well and resists spoilage in the jars better than it would in the butcher paper or plastic she’d get otherwise. Even the blue cheese she buys does just fine in the jars–it doesn’t dry out, nor does it turn soupy. Her meat holds up much better than it would in butcher paper. And when she wants to marinate her beef she simply pours the liquid into the jar–couldn’t be easier.

Is it a pain for us to use her jars instead of doing what we normally do? Not really. Maybe a little. But not really. We tend to delight in the opportunity to support her efforts and please a customer and be one of the few places in town willing to take an extra few seconds to  cut cheese to fit or roll a skirt steak to fill a jar.

I don’t really know what the health department would have to say. But ethically, we couldn’t be more well-assured. We run a pretty low waste operation. I’ve worked at corporate groceries, so I’ve seen how disgusting waste can be, throwing away multiple garbage cans of food and plastic garbage every day, pretending I’m not outraged. Even now, I wish we could reduce waste further, but food safety requires disposable gloves and plastic sheet barriers and so on–and safety is certainly a priority. But when jar woman gives us an opportunity to *not* waste another paper bag, another sheet of plastic, another swath of butcher paper or cheese paper? We’re in. And what’s the cost to us? Well, it’s lower than the status quo, isn’t it? We spend a boatload on paper bags and plastic. In fact, she’s unfortunately paying for those items even though she doesn’t use them. If more customers brought their own jars, I bet costs would come down as our expenses decreased. And the jars cost her nothing. Jars come into our lives all the time–she simply uses them rather than hauling them to the recycling center. From all angles–practical, financial, and environmental–it would seem that jar woman is on to something.

I also just love the aesthetics of it–a home display of glass jars filled with beautiful food. Every refrigerator a museum of lovely foodstuffs! Bring me your jars! I will put luscious cheeses into them!

Can I Afford Good Cheese?

If you can afford cheese, then HELL YES, you can afford good cheese. I say this as someone who literally can’t afford new shoes even though mine have holes in them. If you hear squishing sounds when I walk, that’s because mop water has saturated my socks. Still, I don’t have to set aside some kind of cheese savings account so I can one day splurge on a bite of Roquefort. Cheese is expensive, yes, but if you can afford the cheap stuff, which isn’t actually cheap, then you can afford the fancy, delicious stuff. In fact, if you do it right, it’s a bargain. Consider this:

  1. The best cheeses do indeed cost much more per pound than store-brand processed cheese. But they’re also typically very powerful cheeses, so you may not need very much. A cheesemonger can cut you a very small wedge of something extraordinary for the same price as that big hunk of flavorless, overpriced cheese you were going to buy anyway. So you end up spending the same amount, receiving less cheese, but having a much better experience. Think of it this way: if you’re going to spend five bucks on cheese, you can buy a lot of forgettable cheese or you can buy a little bit of something that will be a memorable delight.
  2. Cheap cheese isn’t necessarily a good bargain. It’s often overpriced, actually. When you buy a big plastic package of shredded jack or cheddar, you’re paying a lot for the convenience. I’d guess most of the cost goes toward the packaging and the premium for having it pre-shredded. Then it molds a few days after you open it up, right? And moldy shredded cheese is done for, unlike a block of firm cheese with a bit of mold on the edge which can be cut off. But you could pay a little more per pound for good cheese from your cheesemonger and know that your money is going toward actual cheese instead of packaging—just delicious, exciting cheese—that you can grate or shred at home in a matter of a couple minutes. Plus, you can shred only what you need and the rest of the block will last longer in the fridge. Ultimately, you can get better cheese at a better value that way—when you’re not paying for a factory to shred and package your cheese for you.
  3. Let me go a step further: just don’t buy shredded cheese. Ever. It’s over-priced, molds quickly, and is always dried out. I went to the grocery and found a block of Kraft sharp cheddar next to a package of Kraft shredded sharp cheddar. I couldn’t believe they were listed at the same price! But then I noticed the small print. The bag of shredded cheese included an ounce less of cheese. For good measure, I looked at the ingredients: the shredded option included an ingredients list even longer than the block did, full as it was of cornstarch and chemical mold inhibitors. You have to pay for those. Don’t. Unless you suffer from a physical disability that makes shredding cheese by hand difficult, just shred it yourself. It takes two minutes, and another minute to clean the grater. Hell, just call me and I’ll come over and shred it for you. (But you’ll have to feed me.)
  4. If you’re looking for an assortment of cheese for a cheese plate, buying big hunks of pre-packaged stuff is going to waste money and precious (or even not-so-precious) cheese! Buy smaller wedges of several amazing cheeses from your monger and you’ll have better cheese and less waste at a comparable price.
  5. As with wine and cars and so many products, it’s entirely possible to buy something of a high quality for a middling price. Your monger can sell you something amazing for $36/lb, but probably also has something just as amazing for $18/lb. Remember when you figured out that there’s an Australian wine you like that’s cheap and also really good? Same thing with cheese. Let a monger help you find something that you love but that’s also comfortably within your budget. The difference in taste between that and a cheap block of cheese from the grocery will be great, but the difference in price may be quite minimal.
  6. Don’t be overwhelmed by the per-pound price. You’re probably not buying a whole pound, right? If all you need is a quarter pound, check this out: the price difference between a quarter pound of a $30/lb cheese vs a $20/lb cheese is only $2.50. That’s not nothing, but if you want the fancy $30/lb cheese, that extra $2.50 is probably not going to bankrupt you. I can’t tell you how many customers in my shop look at the high price of our amazing salumi products and say, “Damn, is it made of diamonds? I can’t afford to buy food at $50/lb!” I totally get that, believe me. I’m a big fan of making entire meals for under three bucks, and no stranger to the fast food dollar menu. But in reality, what happens is customers buy a tenth of a pound because such strong flavors are best savored with just a few bites, and paper-thin slices mean that you might get twenty slices in that little 1/10th of a pound. The five-dollar price they pay at the register is well worth it. I certainly haven’t heard any complaints, but we have plenty of folks coming back for more. We pay five bucks for a good beer. Five bucks for great, memorable food shouldn’t be such a shock.
  7. Consider where your money is going. Is it supporting a corporation and corporate distributors, with very little of it paying the wages of local employees or food producers? Or is it directly supporting a small, local business and its local employees and artisan food-makers? Are staff at the store well-paid, or are the low prices made possible by extremely low wages? Is the low price of the cheese a reflection of cheap, inhumane, unsustainable factory farming techniques and underpaid farmers? Or is the cheese made by principled farmers and artisan cheese-makers using sustainable practices and healthy, humanely raised animals?
  8. Do the math. I took a trip to the grocery and found that a half-pound block of store-brand sharp cheddar (store brand—not even Kraft or Sargento) cost $2.50. Wow, that’s great, right?! An organic sharp white cheddar cost $4 for slightly less cheese (6 oz, packaged to look like the 8 oz blocks). If all you need for a dish you’re making is cheap processed cheddar, either of those are a good deal, I think, but I wouldn’t bother snacking on them. In contrast, I can sell you 6 oz of an amazing Hook’s 4 Year cheddar for less than $7. Yes, that’s a big difference in price. You could buy a whole pound of the store-brand cheddar for less than that, and it’s almost $3 more than the organic white cheddar at the grocery. If I were making a ho-hum mac and cheese for myself on a Tuesday night budget, I might very well go for the cheap stuff. But if I wanted to make an especially flavorful dish or if I wanted to snack on the cheese, I’d simply spend the extra three bucks to enjoy something special—something made by artisans and aged to perfection rather than hustled out of the factory as soon as possible. And if you think about it, three bucks is a small price to significantly upgrade your cheese. If you wanted to upgrade your wine, you might go from a ten-dollar bottle to a twenty-dollar bottle or a thirty-dollar bottle. There’s no shame in buying the less expensive option, and sometimes that may be the best choice, but you shouldn’t feel like it’s a great splurge to upgrade your cheese. It’s three bucks.
  9. Good cheeses are likely more nutrient-dense and easier to digest. Aged cheeses have already done a lot of the digestive work for you. They’ve already converted lactose to lactic acid, for example, which is good news for the lactose intolerant. And cheese made from the milk of grass-fed animals is much more nutritious than that produced at factory feedlots where animals are fed only grain. You can see the difference in color and can certainly taste it. Most quality creameries use milk that is either labeled as organic or made using organic practices (many farmers don’t want to pay for the certification even if they’re following organic practices). I’d argue that the price of cheese often reflects the nutrition provided therein. Good, real cheese is full of probiotics and micronutrients, and its proteins and sugars are easier to digest than those in quickly and poorly made factory cheeses.

I know very well that we can’t all afford the foods we want. But I’d argue in the case of cheese that if we can afford cheap cheese with little nutritional value, we may be quite wise to spring for buying less of a high-quality cheese with more nutritional value and more flavor.

A Cheese Platter a Day…

… is maybe too much. But on special occasions, it’s hard to imagine guests not being overwhelmed with joy to see a spread like this.

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Edible arrangements by your friendly neighborhood cheesemonger.

Real talk? The customer who bought this paid about $180. That’s not chump change, but it’s also hardly any more than he would have paid if he had bought all of these items individually and spent hours trying to arrange it so nicely for guests. And it beats the hell out of a stack of pizzas in cardboard boxes or a table filled with chips and grocery store hummus.

It’s a joy to arrange these cheese and charcuterie plates at work. I went for a tidy, geometrical look with this one. What’s in it?

Cheeses: Pecorino Wiscono, Hook’s 4 Year Cheddar, Goat Gouda from Central Coast Creamery, Brillat Savarin, Bayley Hazen Blue from Cellars at Jasper Hill. (One goat, one sheep, three cow, covering a range of styles, textures, and flavor profiles.)

Meats: Finocchiona from Spotted Trotter, Porteroni made in house, Tennshootoe from The Hamery.

Accompaniments: Mustard made in house, local wildflower honey, Marcona almonds, dried apricots and dates, cornichons, carmona mix olives, grapes, sesame crackers from Accidental Bakery.

In another post, I’ll break down how I put it all together and how you could prepare something similar yourself at home.

Cracking the Truckle

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Cheesemonger happiness is preparing to cut open a new wheel. (Photo: Taylor Fregoe)

In a recent post, I gushed about Milton Creamery’s Flory’s Truckle. A couple days ago, I had the pleasure of cracking open another wheel. This one isn’t quite as aromatic and fruity as the last, but it’s still damn good. And frankly, let’s not expect real cheese to be especially consistent. It should vary for a long list of reasons (maybe I’ll address that in another post). McDonald’s is consistent. Ritz crackers are consistent. Kraft slices are consistent. But real cheese isn’t, and that’s okay. There’s always some anticipation when I open a new wheel–how will this one differ from the last? Sometimes I find something special, sometimes I’m mildly disappointed, but such is cheese.

In any case, cracking a big wheel of a beloved cheese is always a great pleasure. I feel like it deserves a parade. Sometimes I actually do take a little lap around the shop, holding the cheese above my head and making trumpet noises. It’s just so exciting! It’s an event! Clothbound cheddar is especially exciting because there’s such a buildup of anticipation as one peels the cloth away–the dust flies, the barnyard aroma fills the air. You convince a co-worker to sniff the cloth and then laugh when they make an ugly face. You cut into it, hoping not to find major flaws. You take the first taste and offer samples to co-workers and any lucky customers who happen to be in the shop.

For many cheeses, that first bite of a freshly cracked wheel is the pinnacle, the best it will ever taste. This truckle of Flory’s sat in an aging room for a year so some lucky jerk–me!!!–could finally open it up and enjoy the benefit of that long wait.

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Hi, Flory, you lovely thing, you!
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Flory in her element. (Photo: Katharine Azzolini)

Cheese Platter of the Day

I made only one cheese platter today, so it’s fair to call it the undisputed champion. The competition may not have been especially fierce, but I imagine things got pretty tense later when the only pearl onion on the plate was snatched up by some obnoxious party-crasher. Probably the same guy who scooped out all the triple-creme paste with a spoon. There’s always that one guy.

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Mt. Tam from Cowgirl Creamery, Thomasville Tomme from Sweetgrass Dairy, Ewephoria (sheep’s milk gouda from the Netherlands), beef summer sausage made in-house at Porter Road Butcher, finocchiona from Spotted Trotter, Carmona mix olives, cornichons, Marcona almonds, Virginia peanuts, local wildflower honey, strawberry-fig jam from Blackberry Patch.