Ask the Cheesemonger
Q: When I buy cheese from my local cheesestore, it comes in special paper. Is this better than plastic wrap?
A: Every style of cheese has a different rind and moisture content, and because of that, each has different storage needs. For the small, soft cheeses, I often use plastic containers so that air will circulate around them and they will not be squeezed by the wrapping. For harder cheeses, cheese paper (used by most cheesemongers) is the best way to keep cut pieces fresh yet protected.
This special paper has two distinct layers: a waxed paper on the outside and a very thin, porous plastic layer inside. The cheese’s moisture can escape through the tiny holes in the inner layer but is held within the package by the waxed outside; that moist atmosphere is good for the cheese. By contrast, regular plastic wrap doesn’t allow moisture to escape; it stays on the surface of the cheese, which can lead to mold growth and spoilage.
You can rewrap your cheese in the same paper that the cheese is purchased in. In general, though, it’s best to buy only as much cheese as you’ll eat in about a week. This way you’ll enjoy it in its best condition. Cheese that is cut directly from the wheel for the customer is at its prime. Once it’s cut, the quality of the cheese starts to diminish over time, even with good paper.
Q: My cheesemonger says I often like “nutty” cheeses. What does that really mean, given that I eat many different kinds of cheese?
A: The cheese descriptor “nutty” is one of the most commonly used and hardest to define for a cheesemonger. What one person calls nutty isn’t always the same for another person. Like wine, the language we use to describe cheese isn’t widespread or universally known (yet). It’s my job to figure out what “nutty” means for the customer, so I can serve him or her the best cheese for his or her palate. I will often begin with, “Do you usually like harder or softer cheeses?” and “Do you generally like cow, sheep, or goat’s milk cheese?”
If the customer has a preference, I’ll move forward with more specific flavor references. In general, though, the “nutty” cheeses that most people refer to are firmer, longer-aged cow or sheep’s milk wheels. But sometimes a soft-ripened Brie is what the customer thinks of as nutty, so it’s best to find more descriptors and sample some cheeses at the shop to crack that nut (so to speak). Once you have a cheesemonger who knows your palate, the cheese dialogue gets easier. As you taste and learn more about different cheeses and styles, your cheese vocabulary expands. Before you know it, you’ll be describing your cheese in all sorts of ways.
Originally from Guanujuato, Mexico, Ricardo Huijon has worked in both wine and cheese in California for the last 20 years and is known throughout Napa Valley as "The Cheese Guy." He is the cheese buyer and manager of the Oxbow Cheese Merchant in downtown Napa, CA.