There really is no other foodstuff as perfect as cheese, neither fruits nor vegetables, meat nor seafood, beans nor grains, breads nor pastries. Not one of these food groups comes close to cheese’s perfection in terms of its intensity and nuance of flavor and fragrance, its remarkable gamut of textures, its ambassadorial regional specificity. I love the way cheese gives such a happy, welcoming halloo to these other foods, as if a cheese is on a mission, a stalwart fellow traveler perfectly content to ride alone but evermore ebullient with company. I also love the way cheese always acts as the mediator between often quarrelsome tablemates, the whiny wine too young to be out this late, the bitter olive or almond, the tarted-up and shameless piece of fruit that seems to know everything about everybody and is not shy about pointing the finger.
Cheese is low-maintenance. I value that it requires little more than one’s knife and a sturdy surface. Nor is it so balefully evanescent like fruit and flesh. It will be there when you need it. No other foodstuff beckons in so sensuous a way either. Who can forget the voluptuous texture of Vacherin Mont d’Or? But cheese as an elegant and traditional coda to haute-cuisine? As you wish. For me, I prefer it down-and-dirty.
My philosophy of selecting cheese is a simple matter, whether the cheese this philosophy is to be applied is for my own personal enjoyment or that of customers here at Fairway. The simplicity of this matter is borne out by the questions I ask. Is the cheese made more by a person, or more by a machine? Cheese tools are one thing. Even the most hands-on cheese recipe requires vats, hoses, rakes, colanders and thermometers. But if the cheese is a product of mass-production, a Henry Ford-like assembly line where very soon the few humans involved will be replaced by incorporeal robotic arms, then the cheese has been made by a machine, in which case I say, “No thanks!” Mass-production factory cheese is anathema to a memorable cheese experience. There is no character, no rusticity, no individuality to a factory cheese.
Does the cheese taste good, look good, and does it give itself up nobly to the knife? I will forever be in awe of the fact that cheese is one of the few things in this life that runs roughshod over the old saw, “You can’t judge a book by its cover,” because with cheese, I don’t even need to taste it to know whether it’s good or not. If I behold a cheese that looks like it just stepped out of a limousine, rather than a truck, a cheese wearing a three-piece suit, rather than flannel and corduroy, a cheese sporting a label that is in some garish primary color within a logo crafted by committee, a cheese whose exterior is as flawless and glossy as the promise that its interior will be flabby and slabby, I say I will not select this cheese. It is not worthy of me.
If, on the other hand, the exterior of the cheese I behold is in some shade of an earth-tone, from bone-white, to beige, to khaki, to straw-colored, through the russet-reds, rawhides and chocolatey browns, and sports a toad skin or a pebbly surface, or a deer antler’s velvet, a surface that begs to be stroked, or is cloaked in gray gingham, or is stippled or tattooed over every square inch with its name and provenance, or is dusted or cobwebbed with some beneficent mold, or whose exterior, like that of fermier Saint-Nectaire, like some expressionist painting or Hubble telescopic photo of a distant galaxy, reflects the colors white, yellow, red, green and black, of five distinct and identifiable strains of wild yeasts, each a healthy, flavor-producing substance, I then know the cheese is going to taste good. Heaven knows it looks good. As for that business about which knife to use, don’t worry about it. Any will cut just fine.
With regard to my favorite cheese, I remain noncommittal. I’ve always found myself baffled by the question, exactly as I am when asked my favorite color, or which of my children I love the most. I’d have to say my favorite cheese is often the one presently before me.
Originally appeared in The Food Life by Steve Jenkins with recipes by Mitchel London (Ecco, 2008).
What’s your favorite cheese? Why do you love it?