Ask the Cheesemonger
Q: As with fruit, a ripe cheese seems to be a good thing. But when can you tell that it’s at that peak stage and not gone over the edge?
A: Knowing what to look for when selecting cheese will help you pick out that perfectly ripe piece. When examining bloomy and washed-rind cheeses, look at the cream line. This translucent layer just below the rind signals where the bacteria on the surface have begun to break down the proteins in the paste—from the outside toward the center. This layer is softer and usually more assertive than the middle and adds a welcome variation in flavor and texture from the rind and center paste. But here’s the important thing: the wider the cream line, the riper the cheese. Left to age, the cream line would overtake the smooth, compact interior, leaving a core that is more liquid than paste.
Generally speaking, you’ll want to avoid soft cheeses that look very runny and are wrapped in plastic. While the interior may be just ripe, the cheese closest to the rind is likely to be overly assertive and ammoniated. This means the flavors and textures could be out of balance because the cheese has matured too much.
Semisoft or firm cheeses tend to hold up better over a longer time. In the case of semisoft cheeses that are wrapped in plastic, the color of the paste should be bright and fresh looking—not slimy or greasy. The greatest enemy for hard cheeses is either being stored at too high a temperature in plastic wrap, in which case the oils from the cheese will start to pool on the surface, or not being wrapped sufficiently. In the latter case, the surface of the cheese will appear dry and cracked.
The key for you and your cheesemonger is to learn the right balance of ripeness for each cheese according to your tastes. That’s why it’s wise to ask for a freshly cut piece of cheese, rather than feeling obliged to choose what is already in the counter, especially if it looks overly ripe or subpar. Cheese is living and breathing, and each one will ripen differently based on the environment in which it has been kept.
Q: Given the amazing variety of artisan and flavored breads now available, what advice would you give for pairing cheeses with unusual loaves?
A: The rise of artisan bakeries has indeed led to a myriad of specialty breads; pairing them with cheese can be really interesting and bring out unique characteristics in both. At the bread counter, you have the option of choosing a loaf that complements your cheese or one that has a contrasting flavor. While the latter can be fun to experiment with, the former is almost foolproof. Here are a few combinations that I really like:
• Savory nut breads work very well with fresh chèvre, farmhouse cheddars, and blue cheeses.
• Breads with dried fruits, such as raisins or cranberries, are perhaps the most versatile. They pair easily with many cheeses, ranging from fresh ricotta and fromage blanc to triple crèmes and pungent cheeses.
• Olive breads pair well with feta and other salty sheep’s milk cheeses. A little drizzle of vincotto vinegar (a sweet, velvety condiment with subtle overtones of spice and dried fruit) lends a sweet tang that adds a counterpoint to the saltiness of the olives and feta.
• The classic crusty baguette is appropriate for any cheese, but it is absolutely perfect with an unctuous, soft-ripened wheel or assertive, washed-rind cheese.
Whole Foods Market - Raleigh NC