I must have been a mouse in a previous life. Cheese is one of my most favorite things in the world. During the holidays I tend to load up for hosting friends and family and the Holidays typically finish with a glutenous macaroni and cheese made of the leftovers of a month of feasting.
I have learned a few tips (most are straightforward) that have made a major difference in the quality (and sometimes price) for my fromage:
- Buy directly off a cheese specialty store when possible. Even if other places sell “the same” thing, be weary. Cheese is sensitive and storage, humidity, access to air (or not), age after cutting and general handling can change the taste considerably.
- Expensive cheese may not be. Some flavors are so intense that small portions are better than big.
- Forge a relationship with your cheese dude or dame. This is a bit too late for this year but go back to the same person behind the counter each time. Pick someone you like and someone who knows their stuff. I have 3 cheese dudes which I know by name who help me learn a great deal. If they are with someone I will wait. I have learned so much off these passionate people and love interacting with them. I have also learned that there are cheeses that are so limited that they are not put on display or available to most dairy seekers.
- Find out when the Holiday shipment arrives. My cheese shops ordered their Holiday cheese 6 months ago and most of the specialty items arrive on a single day. Some of the best cheeses will be gone before most customers even see it. One of my cheese guys is hiding a selection of cheeses away for me until I arrive so I don’t lose a chance.
- Although a busy day at the shop is not the time to challenge your cheese tutor, ask lots of questions when they appear to have some time (I ask if they do). Ask what to pair with your cheese or, even better, tell them what you are eating or drinking and ask them for a recommendation.
- Have a budget. Know if you are going for variety, quantity or quality. It’s ok to share this – sometimes I am looking to buy cheap and plentiful and will ask for guidance.
- Learn the temperature your cheese tastes best at. I leave most of our cheese on the counter for 3-4 hours before serving. Some are better warmed in the oven (and in one case, covered in wine).
- Ask for tips on pairing jams, breads, crackers.
- Texture can change the flavor. We slice some, shave others and crumble more. A set of 3 cheese knives can be had for around $15 and learning what to use when can add to the enjoyment (and it’s not complex).
- Understand seasonality and find out if there are cheeses that are only available this time of year – Christmas is typical of this. These tend to be the more expensive and sticker shock can be hefty so be comfortable enough to ask.
- Taste, taste, taste…and enjoy!