You can’t go wrong with a classy cheese. It can be goat cheese, sheep cheese, cow cheese, yellow cheese, white cheese, orange cheese…it can have gray ash or dried cherries or dried herbs in it. It can even have blue mold in it. Whatever its story, top-notch cheeses always have a welcome placemat on my table.
One of the great things about cheese is that it’s delicious served alongside something (or melted into something or sprinkled on top of something) or all by itself. Another great thing is that there is an astonishing array of cheeses out there Spain alone boasts over 100 native cheeses. And nowadays, smaller-scale stores are starting to offer small pieces of cheese amongst the larger chunks. Samplers, if you will. (Large chain stores, however, are not good places to explore new fromage frontiers.) That way, you can get a nice piece of a $15/lb. cheese for $2 and see if you like it.
Whenever I’m poking about in the cheese basket, I go for variety: I try to find one cow’s milk cheese, one made from goat’s milk, and one from sheep. Not only is it more interesting to taste the (very!) different flavors each one offers, but it’s also a good way to avoid overdoing it on cow’s milk and risk developing an allergy to it. I also try to get raw cheeses whenever possible they’re more flavorful and easier to digest. (Again, mixing things up helps prevent problems down the line.) And when you’re talking top-notch cheeses, you’re also talking milk from grass-fed animals, which is another big nutritional and gustatory plus.
The above selection, for example, includes a Benning goat Gouda from Holland, a 12-month Manchego sheep cheese from Spain, and an American St. German artisian white Cheddar. (My all-time favorite American cheese is Prarie Breeze.) On that same trip to my great delight! I also found a cheese made from cow, goat, and sheep milk…quite an intriguing blend of flavors. (I ate that wedge before I got a chance to take the picture. Oops…but yum!)
A few things to remember when serving cheese for yourself or others: let it come to room temperature, and don’t be afraid of mold. If it molds, that just proves that you have some very lively cheese. Cut off the specks and eat the rest before the bacteria beats you to it. (As a matter of course, you might want to cut off the sides of the cheese that touched the plastic wrap since it can sometimes leave an aftertaste.) As far as the room-temp thing goes, if you’re not going to eat the whole wedge, it’s best to cut off the part you do want, tightly re-wrap the remainder and stick it back in the fridge, and then let the sacrificial chunk come to room temperature. (You can speed that process up by slicing or cubing it. That also makes it easier to eat the cheese.)
If you’re lactose-intolerant, you may very well be able to consume raw dairy products, so you might want to give raw-milk cheese a shot. (Look at the ingredients to see if it’s made of unpasteurized milk.) If you have a problem with cow milk, you might be able to consume goat or sheep milk. Plenty of European cheeses –and some American ones are made with those.
And if you’re shopping in boutique markets in New York, you might just stumble upon Caravane. It’s the only cheese in the world made of camel’s milk and it is at the top of my Fantasy Food List. (Along with Moroccan argan oil and Tibetan yak-butter tea.) If anyone out there has sampled Caravane, please let me know how it tastes!