There was a time in the Deep South when not many people could name more than a few cheeses.
Cheddar, Swiss and a some American cheese-like products (Velveeta being the prime example), were about the extent of the list. But times change.
Today, many grocery stores have a fair selection of domestic and imported cheese.
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Do you consider yourself a Maître Fromager (cheese expert, pronounced met for-ma-jay)?
Here is a quick test: In France there are more than 300 recognized cheeses.
Can you name 10?
I can’t either, but the point is we should all endeavor to learn and grow our knowledge of cheese.
If you want to learn more about cheese, get a copy of Steve Jenkin’s “Cheese Primer,” which is a classic that should be in your cookbook library.
Remember to serve all cheese at room temperature.
Let’s examine three excellent cheeses for the novice to consier: Swiss Gruyere, Parmigiano Reggiano and Italian Gorgonzola.
Gruyere is a good place to start. It is cave-aged, made only in France and Switzerland, and it is one of the great cheeses of the world.
It is a cow’s milk cheese, the rind is not edible, the body is firm and creamy and there is no other cheese that compares to it as a melting cheese. When you try Gruyere, start with a small bite, look for hints of fruit and nuts, with an equally fruity aroma.
If you want to pair this cheese with a wine, and it is highly recommend that you do, try a Pinot Noir (especially the Pinots that are coming out of the Willamette Valley in Oregon), if you can afford it, a wine from Burgundy or a Rhone. Chateauneuf-du-pape would be a great choice.
Gruyere is not bland, like some of the cheeses we often melt on a sandwich or otherwise. If you have ever had a fondue, then you have most likely tried Gruyere, but in that recipe, it is paired with Swiss cheese, and other herbs and spices.
If you try Gruyere on a grilled cheese sandwich, you might want to combine it with a Swiss cheese, just to tone it down a bit. The best ham and cheese sandwich I ever had was made with Gruyere, and it also is good on a burger or when diced and served in an omelet. There is nothing wrong with serving it neat with a good red wine and a loaf of crusty French bread.
Parmigiano Reggiano is considered by many experts to be the king of all cheeses. It is only made in one of six provinces in Italy. If it was made anywhere else, it isn’t the real deal. Parmigiano Reggiano has been made in Italy for 900 years, and no one else comes close.
It is a cow’s milk cheese, the rind is not edible (although you should save it to season your red sauce with) and a full wheel weighs about 80 pounds. If you are a Maître Fromager you will remember for the rest of your life the first time you saw someone crack a wheel of Parmigiano Reggiano, the buttery aroma is nothing short of heavenly.
Serve it in curls or in chunks, and it is so delicious it requires nothing but a big red wine and a little crusty French bread. It is wonderful over pasta, but perhaps reaches its very best when served with a few drops of balsamic vinegar from Modena or Reggio Emilia.
Gorgonzola is an Italian blue cheese, and it is stout. It is a cow’s milk cheese, soft and a bit crumbly, and as with any strong cheese, a little goes a long way, especially if you are new to blue cheese.
Cut a piece from the wheel and the inside will be beige, slightly reddish brown, with noticeable blue veins so typical of blue cheese. If you are going to pair this cheese with a wine, go with a big Italian, like Amarone or Barbaresco.
Perhaps the most common way to serve Gorgonzola is with mascarpone and walnuts, but fruit, such as pears and apples, will do nicely as well.
You can also break this cheese up and serve it in a green salad with fresh tomatoes. If you do, avoid any salad dressing other than a good quality olive oil. Another good pairing is with raw honey.