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Tips for Exploring Cheeses

Buying cheese is hard. Start with your average grocery store. Sure, there is cheese.  It’s just limited: to quasi-shelf-stable, plastic-wrapped versions of national favorites: Cheddar, Mozzarella, and Parmesan, which is not the real Italian Parmigiano-Reggiano, whose name and style is legally protected by the European Union.

Tiptoe into a fancy food store, and there’s a different kind of cheese: aromas of funk and cream hit your nose as you open the door. Hard-to-pronounce names like Ossau-Iraty, Hittisau or Époisses are enough of a barrier to stomp right out.

And then, there’s the internet. A cheese may look beautiful, the description may sound beautiful, but will it taste like what you want?

I’ve been there: hungry and frustrated. Cheese Stalemate. Go with the tried-and-true Brie or take a risk with Brillat-Savarin? All this boils down to one answer: you need your own Cheese Rolodex. But no, I don’t mean a physical Rolling Index.

What I’m describing is developing a basic idea of the separate characteristics you like, and hate, in cheese. Then you can walk into a store or restaurant, “flip through” traits you know you like, and say, “I love the hard bite and silky, almost sweet taste of Gruyere, show me something similar.” And you’ll also know, when you’re surfing the internet for a late night cheese purchase, that “hard mountain cheese with a nutty finish” is probably close enough to Gruyere that you’ll polish it off in one sitting.

Start small. Pick a cheese you like, say Mozzarella. The next time you’re on a cheese safari, preferably at a store with at least 30 types of cheese, ask for one similar to Mozzarella. If the cheesemonger has it, he or she will point to Burrata. Burrata is made with the same technique, by stretching fresh curd in boiling water to make its shiny white ball and stuffing it with pieces of curd and cream. Heaven, right? Or, he might suggest a sharper, salty version of Mozzarella, in which case he’d let you sample at least two stretched-curd cheeses from other regions in Italy. Ragusano and Caciocavallo are both made with the same basic technique, but are salted, stretched into different forms, and aged. And if you like the Ragusano, he might jump styles, to the sharper, creamier (and more familiar) Cheddar or to the sweeter, firmer Comté. Tasting through these connections will give you a more tangible idea of your taste, and add cards to that Rolodex.

It’s similar to wine. If you know you like Napa Cabernet, why not try one from Sonoma? And if you like the slightly drier wine, why not try a Cabernet blend, maybe with a touch of Merlot? It’s not a huge leap over to Bordeaux, for the same blend in an Old World style. Once you’re in France, you might be intrigued by the complicated region of Burgundy, and heck, from an Old World Pinot, it’s not a stretch to jump back to Oregon for some New World Pinot Noir.

As Lot18’s gourmet food specialist, I recognize that this isn’t a small task. After all, I’ve probably tasted over 350 types of cheeses, and I can still be indecisive. You may not have a good local cheese store, or you may not stop by more than twice a year. But every trek is time well-spent; there are delicious returns on even the most basic Cheese Rolodex.