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how to shop for cheese: maximizing your buying experience

Following is some practical advice for buying fine cheeses. Always remember to sample
plenty and be sure of what you’re getting. Be adventurous: If you’re buying more than a
couple of cheeses in a good shop, leave at least some of your requests open ended; this way,
you have a chance of discovering something new and exciting every time you go shopping.

Reading Labels
Here are a few tips to help you decipher labels when browsing.
cheese name—If you have any difficulties with pronunciation, your cheese retailer should
be able to help. Note instances where the cheese name is also a place-name. American
artisanal cheeses, generally being more recent arrivals on the scene, tend to have more
fanciful, made-up, and sometimes even “cutesy” names as opposed to European ones, which
are more often associated with the cheese’s place of origin.
provenance—Apart from the name, the label should state specifically where the cheese
comes from—its country, region, village, and so forth.

type of cheese—Is it categorized on its label? For example, the label should specify whether
the cheese is fresh and/or aged under 60 days; bloomy-rind; hard, aged.

type of milk—Is it made from cow’s, sheep’s, or goat’s milk, or is it a mix? Is the milk raw
or pasteurized?

producer—Who made the cheese and what type of operation is it? Is it a factory, a
cooperative, a dairy or creamery, a farmhouse? Each and every artisanal cheese has a story.
Most U.S. producers have their own websites, where at least a bit of their history is
explained. If you see that cheese comes to you via a co-op, an affineur, or a foreign source, by
way of an importer, you may find interesting information on these individual companies’
affineur—Certain operations source their cheeses from very small and/or independent
producers whose names are not listed on the cheeses. You are essentially buying the affineur’s
brand, which becomes your quality guarantee. This is also true of a major cheese such as
Parmigiano-Reggiano, which comes from a huge consortium of producers (of all different
sizes), each indicated by number only. In the case of Parm, if it is selected and aged under
the supervision of a quality affineur exporter such as Giorgio Cravero, there is your guarantee.
Another good example is Neal’s Yard Dairy, which is the brand for British artisanal cheeses
and which allows for no confusion about the exact origins of its cheeses.
content—The fat content of cheeses is expressed on their labels as a percentage of “fat in
dry matter” or “fat on a dry basis”—in other words, what portion of their solids are fat. (The
term is matière grasse in French; grassi in Italian; Fett in Trochenmasse, or F.i.T. in German.)
Whole-milk cheeses range from about 35 to 50 percent butterfat; double crèmes are 60 to 75
percent and triple crèmes over 75 percent.
designations—How is the cheese qualified in terms of official designations of origin such
as the European AOC or DOP labels? (See appendix 1, page 363.) Check to see whether
there are any other official stamps on the cheese itself or its labels—and if so, what
additional qualifications they may indicate. France, for example, has four categories of
• fermier (farmhouse): Raw milk from the farm’s own herd is made into cheese there by
traditional methods; small-sized operations.
• artisanal: This is an individual producer, like the fermier, but milk may be bought from
other farms; small-sized operations.
• coopératives (or fruitières): An individual local dairy, to which co-op member farms
contribute their milk for cheesemaking; small- to medium-sized operations.
• industriel: Factory-style dairies, which may receive milk from distant regions; medium-
sized to large operations.
Mountain cheeses may have additional qualifications such as alpage. (For more on
appellations, see appendix 1, page 363.)
certifications—Cheeses, particularly U.S. artisanal ones, may make other claims and/or
have other types of certifications as to whether they are organic, biodynamic, natural,
sustainable, and so on. Rogue Creamery’s cheeses, for example, have three different third
parties certifying them organic, sustainable, and quality assured (for cleanliness and proper
sanitary procedures). Since the United States has no appellation designations, these third-
party certifications tend to hold more weight. As always, when in doubt ask your

Know What You’re Getting

Beware of “brand confusion,” which can happen if you don’t read the labels carefully.
Sometimes industrial, commercial cheeses may be masquerading as the real thing.

How Much to Buy

The rule of thumb I follow is about 1 ounce of cheese per person for a tasting of 5 to 8
cheeses. If you’re presenting more cheeses, you can reduce that to around ¾ ounce per
person. For a main course or a deluxe after-dinner plate, you’ll want to figure on as much as
1½ ounces per person. If you’re organizing a cheese-centered event—particularly, a tasting
or a dinner where a plate of special cheeses with more than a couple of wines is the main
focus—you may want to increase it to as much as 2 ounces per person.
Generally speaking, with softer cheeses you can increase the quantities. For blues, I increase
it by about 20 percent per serving; for the bloomy rinds and other softer selections, I’ll go up
as much as 50 percent. With washed-rind cheeses and some of the bloomy-rind ones, there
is going to be a certain amount of waste, so you need to figure that into the equation: First
of all, people are not necessarily going to eat the smelly and slimy (should we say “fragrant
and moist”?) rinds. For your cheese eaters to get their money’s worth in this case, again you
should probably figure on between 25 and 50 percent more—about 1¼ to 1½ ounces if you
want them to consume 1 ounce and so forth.

guidelines for home

• Never serve cheeses too cold; it masks all their wonderful flavors and aromas. This is the
biggest mistake cheese novices make. In general, if they’re in the fridge, give them at least 1
hour out of it to make sure they come to room temperature.
• Blue cheeses may get bluer quite fast, so they can be given less than an hour out of the
fridge before serving.
• For soft, ripe, gooey, runny cheeses, provide a separate plate onto which they can melt and
• Sharp steak knives and/or small- to medium-sized kitchen knives are all you need to cut
• If you’re using a board for cutting or presentation, be sure it is made out of an inert
material: hardwood works well as do different types of nonreactive plastic and glass or stone
• Cut all cheeses fresh; don’t precut.
• Consider keeping separate knives and other utensils for each cheese or cheese type.
• Keep utensils clean by wiping them with a clean cloth napkin or thick paper towel
immediately after cutting each cheese.
• Slice harder cheeses into smaller, thinner pieces.
• Slice semisoft cheeses in long wedges.
• Slice soft cheeses in shorter, thicker wedges.
• Include a portion of the rind (if applicable).
• Serve cheeses on dinner or salad plates with dinner knife and dinner (or salad or dessert)
fork; add a spoon if they’re gooey.
• Rewrap cheeses as they were wrapped in the store, with semipermeable paper touching the
cheese and plastic wrap encasing the package; use a zip-locking bag or some scotch tape if
• Storing most cheeses, particularly firm to semisoft types, at cool room temperature condi-
tions, away from any sources of heat or light, is fine for probably longer than you would
• For refrigerator storage, treat your cheeses like bread or any other fragile food you don’t
want to dry out: Put them in the vegetable drawer—or perhaps the smaller cold-cuts tray—if
possible alongside other foods that provide some moisture (vegetables and/or other
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Mastering Cheese 

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