The 7 Things You Need to Know About Buying Cheese

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So you want to upgrade from that rectangle of Helluva Good or Cracker Barrel you buy in the dairy section of your local supermarket? Great. But where do you start? Is it a short walk over to the specialty foods section of the store, where you have stacks of cheeses with fancy names, some with French flags flying proudly, and just spin around three times and grab some Gouda? (Because how often is there actually someone there to offer guidance?) Or do you go to a shop that specializes in things like wine, cheese and charcuterie?

You could do OK in either scenario with the benefit of a little cheese 101, says Perry Soulos from Arrowine and Cheese in Arlington, Va., who in January won the West Coast Cheesemonger Invitational. If you’re lucky enough to pass through Washington, D.C., you can visit Soulos at the store in a small strip mall just a few miles from the Lincoln Memorial, where you’ll find the championship trophy proudly displayed above stacks of aged Manchego, Pecorino Toscano and farmstead cheeses from Wisconsin and New Hampshire. If you don’t have a store like Arrowine close by, there’s a good chance you can find some interesting cheeses at grocery store like Whole Foods or Wegmans, where employees are more experienced with the world of cheese. One warning, however: unless you’re stuck without any better options, avoid the huge piles of vacuum-packed cheese at a warehouse store or large supermarket. There’s no telling how long it’s been sitting around.

Soulos, 29, who got his start bagging groceries and ordering beer for the store while still in high school a little more than a decade ago, worked his way up to the cheese counter by tasting whatever came through the door. Even with a refined palate capable of distinguishing one farm’s cheese from another’s based on the type of tree bark it’s wrapped in, he still comes up wacky new ways to enjoy cheese, as shown by the “perfect bite” he created in the finale of the San Francisco competition. After a day of tests which included pen and paper, blind tastings and slicing quarter-pound portions of various cheeses without using a scale, he presented judges with The Perpetual Goatstopper, a grape-stuffed ball of goat cheese rolled in candied ginger and Poppin’ Pebbles, the fizzy version of childhood fave Fruity Pebbles.

While you might not go that far in your quest for perfection, there’s no need to be intimidated while talking to a “monger.” If you’re going to be spending upwards of $25/lb on cheese, it pays to do some prep.

What’s are good questions for a cheesemonger?
Soulos says a good cheesemonger constantly tastes new cheeses. And even though it sounds simple, the perfect opener is: “what is the monger is enjoying today?”

“We know what’s, fresh, exciting and what’s just coming in. Today we ate a bunch of organic Manchego (Spain); got the Rogue River Blue (Oregon) which is only released twice a year, and that’s pretty awesome; and some Italian cheeses from Casa Madaio Paglierino, Cinerino and Caprotto,” says Soulos. Make sure you get a taste, he advises, and compare the flavor to what the monger describes to see if your palate meshes with his. If he says it’s nutty, for example, see if you can peg what kind of nut, because a cashew tastes different than a pecan, and your monger should be able to differentiate the flavors.

Another good question is how often the store “faces” the cheese and whether it uses cheese paper to wrap its cheeses. Facing the cheese is just monger jargon for slicing off the edge of a piece of cheese closest to the surface, discarding it, and then re-weighing and re-wrapping it. “We re-wrap our cheese every week. I just faced 120 pieces of cheese the other day,” Soulos says. And along with that attention to detail, when a store cuts your cheese to order, it should be wrapping the wedge in a special cheese paper which protects the cheese but also allows it to breathe and maintain its proper humidity. 

I’d like to put out a cheese plate for my guests. How much cheese per person should I order and what kind should I choose?
Plan on 2-3 oz. per person, says Soulos. If you’re planning on six people, aim for 15-18 oz., and divide that up by three, so you can have cheese made with goat’s, cow’s and sheep’s milk. That way you’ll be sure to have something to please any palate. “I would pick just three bigger pieces, because I’d want to impress my friends. I don’t want to have a little sliver that looks like it’s been in the back of my fridge and I forgot about it,” says Soulos. For a goat’s milk cheese, try L’Amuse Brabander, an aged Gouda from Holland ($30/lb.). For the cow’s milk, you’d want Brillat-Savarin, a mild triple cream cheese from France ($22/lb.) and a good sheep’s milk choice is a Tuscan Pecorino, and a hunk of herbal-accented goodness should run about $8.

Okay, I’ve got the cheese, now what should I serve to drink with it?
When he’s tasting cheese professionally, Soulos doesn’t drink anything in order to get the full, undiluted flavor of a cheese. But social conventions say you ought to let your guests have a few crackers or some fresh bread to go along with your cheese, and some festive drinks, too. A good cheesemonger should be able to recommend a beverage for every kind of cheese, but here’s a good cheat sheet for your starter cheeseboard. For the cow’s milk cheese, go with a white wine, Champagne or even a cider. If you wanted a red wine, Soulos, says don’t choose anything too dry. For the goat cheese, a cabernet could hold up to the strength of the Brabander, or a pinot gris would do the trick. A sheep’s cheese would require an Italian red, like Barolo, or a good pilsner or kolsch.

What’s the right temperature for my cheese, and what can I serve with it?
The best temperature for cheese is around 70 degrees. And you can arrive there different ways depending on the season. In the winter, for example, taking the cheese out of the fridge and leaving it near a warm oven before serving would raise the temperature a few degrees without much trouble. In the summer, it’s a good idea to keep the cheese indoors before serving so that it doesn’t match the outdoor temperature too quickly. As an accompaniment, you might be surprised what you have in the pantry that goes well with cheese. “Jazz it up a little,” says Soulos. You have things at home you probably wouldn’t think about putting on the platter. Drizzle a little honey on the plate. Cut up some fruit, it adds color and sweetness. Fill some ramekins with that jam your grandmother sent as a holiday gift. “Jam’s not just for sandwiches, biscuits or bread. Serve it along with the cheese.”

The only kind of cheese from Switzerland has holes, right?
Wrong. Switzerland is one of the best cheese-producing countries in the world with almost 400 different styles of cheese. “They have some of the best pastures available in the world. Their high elevation keeps them away from a lot of the pollution that other farms have trouble with (for example, stormwater runoff). And there are more cows there than people, so the animals are respected and well cared for,” says Soulos. A good Swiss cheese that doesn’t have holes is called Forsterkase, a soft cheese wrapped in spruce bark. “Lumberjack cheese,” as it’s known, picks up the woodsy notes from the bark as it rests. Another is a blue cheese made by Willi Schmid from the milk of Jersey cows ($40/lb.). “He makes it by hand, cuts the curds extra large, and when he rubs the mold on it, the blue penetrates the natural cracks and it looks like marble. It’s a beautiful, hand-made cheese.”

What kind of cheese should I look for where I live?
As the winner of a national cheesemonger contest, Soulos needs to be up on all the cheese that’s being produced in the U.S. So that means whether it’s from Vermont, upstate New York or a loft in Brooklyn, he’s given it a try.

This is what Soulos is excited about right now from the top-5 cheesemaking states in the U.S.:

Vermont – You can get anything you want in Vermont: sheep, goat, cow. Anything from Jasper Hill Farm is great, or Vermont Creamery for goat cheese.

California –The diversity of what’s available moves it high on the list. Point Reyes Blue is famous and Bleeting Heart just won a major award.

Wisconsin – Lots of great cow’s milk cheese in Wisconsin. Hook’s Cheddar is famous, and Uplands Creamery produces Pleasant Ridge, which is a cheese that won “best in show” three separate times.

New York/Pennsylvania (tie) – Jos Vulto of Vulto Creamery (NY) started producing cheese in his Brooklyn apartment, and now he has access to a farm to make more cheese. In Pennsylvania, look for cheese from The Farm at Doe Run, which is bankrolled by Urban Outfitters CEO Richard Hayne

Indiana – We get a lot of our cheese from Indiana, says Soulos. Capriole is phenomenal for goat cheese, and we just started carrying Ameribella from Jacobs and Brichford.

What’s the best day to buy cheese?
If you live in the northeast, with easy access to farms in Vermont, says Soulos, you’re safe buying cheese any day of the week. But when you’re a little further away from the top cheese-producing regions of the U.S., search out a good cut-to-order cheese shop and pay the cheesemonger a visit early on Saturday morning. “Most people get their last orders of the week in on Friday. Shops are fully staffed and at their best-looking on Friday and Saturday,” says Soulos. “Parking is tough, so if you are going to go on the weekends, go early. But on Saturday morning, we’re not expecting any orders, and there is nothing else for us to worry about beyond customers and selling cheese.” And the worst day? Tuesday.