A growing taste for maduro (aged) cheese expands opportunity for farmers and food tourists
Upon my arrival at Hacienda Zuleta in Northern Ecuador, Fito, by way of greeting, takes my hand and leads me to my room. I am delighted, rather than taken aback by his brashness, despite the fact that my palm is left damp. Fito, you see, is the farm dog, a puppyish, brindled Great Dane-Golden Retriever mix. But even without Fito’s attendance, I would still have been immediately charmed by this hacienda with its vast cobblestone plaza, its long, whitewashed adobe buildings trimmed with cobalt blue, and the hundreds of flowering geraniums lining porches, walls, and walkways. Zuleta is a living postcard of preserved Colonial architecture. And beyond its walls are steep Andean valleys lush with temperate cloud forest rising up from emerald pastures dotted with grazing cows and horses. It is as though I have arrived in a Happy Place of my own design . . . complete with cheesemaking.
In the ever-changing game of wordplay, cheese is much more than a noun
Even a cheeseAholic might have to think twice when asked if he is a cheesepodder or a cheesecaker. Likewise, would he know how to dodge a cheese-knife? Or would he just cheese it?
Barcelona may get all the attention these days, but if you’re looking for Spain’s best food, head to Madrid. Madrileños are notoriously obsessed with ingredients, opining vociferously on everything from the freshness and type of dried beans for their cocido to the “best” museo del jamón. The city even claims the second largest fish market in the world, after Japan’s Tsujiki. What was missing until recently, however, was a world-class cheese store.
Here at culture, we celebrate some seriously impolite smells: the rich pieds-de-Dieu (God’s feet) odor of a washed rind, or the powerful barnyard whiff of a raw-milk blue. But there’s a once-common cheese with a nose so strong that, even as we embrace these sophisticated stink bombs, it’s nearly been effaced from America’s culinary landscape.
Limburger—the once iconic stinky cheese of America—I knew only from cartoons. All Jerry had to do was show you the label, and you’d know that the lump he was about to stuff up Tom’s snout meant pain. Conversely, Mighty Mouse actually eats it to gain his super-mouse powers and defeat Frankenstein’s cat.
I’ve got Limburger in my roots: Mom’s from Michigan, with German on both sides of the family—Limburger being a place in the German-speaking region of Belgium. So I ask her about the cheese.
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.
Like layer cake, the texture and flavor of a wheel or a piece of cheese varies throughout. The flavor is likely more intense near the rind, and the texture there will be different from that in the center of the wheel. These contrasts heighten with age. For the sake of fairness, there is a courteous and practical rule to cutting cheeses that results in a democratic distribution of both the rind and the interior of the cheese.
Although many cheeses are round or wheel-like, the following diagrams show how to cut different-shaped cheeses or wedges so that each portion offers the same gustatory experience.
Illustrations and text by Kate Arding
The suggested way to serve cheeses in a box:
1. With a small, sharp knife, insert the blade just through the top rind (about a quarter inch shy of the circumference).
2. Cut a circle in the rind, effectively making a "lid."
A slice of advice for would-be cheese retailers from a veteran monger
It is my duty as a cheesemonger to protect my beloved trade from those who would enter it willy-nilly, without sufficient preparation or a clear understanding of its rigors. Be warned: operating a reputable cheese shop is serious business. It is not for dabblers and dilettantes seduced by its glamour and romance.
Chef Harris likes to serve these macerated berries in individual ramekins alongside a bloomy-rind cheese like Sweet Grass Dairy Green Hill from Thomasville, Georgia.
In a large bowl, combine the berries. Pour the vinegar over the berries, and stir in the sugar, to taste, and the salt. Fold in the chopped mint. Cover and allow the mixture to macerate for several hours before serving.
By Jenny Harris, executive chef at Tria in Philadelphia
Photography by Alison Miksch