Most people don’t care for snobs, unless you are the cheese snob. In that case, you are a favorite party friend who will always be asked to bring the cheese plate. The trick to becoming a working snob is to understand the basics and have four or five favorites that you know by name and cheesemaker. For simplicity’s sake, the seven categories are: Blue cheese, Cheddar, Alpine, soft-ripened, washed rind, Gouda and fresh goat.
It’s fine if you don’t like everything. You don’t have to put them on your cheese plate.
There is a wide variety of types within each group. Blue cheeses are an excellent example. I love Roquefort, but for my sitting-on-the-fence friends, I pick mild and creamy Blues. Rogue River’s Smokey Blue is a world class cheese and perfect for an introduction. I’ve used it as someone’s “first Blue cheese” and it has won many a convert over the years.
Cheddars seem to be the one cheese everybody loves. Favorites may change frequently, as you discover one more great cheese. I could make a case for a cheese plate with just one cheese – a hunk of Cheddar, paired with chutney, mustard or charcuterie.
Soft-ripened is an easy category. Brie and Camembert are the best known examples. They range from very mild and creamy with a texture like soft butter to ones quite powerful in flavor.
Suffice it to say, washed rind cheeses stink. Legend has it that shortly after WWII, Paris banned one of the most famous French washed rind cheeses, Epoisses, from all public transportation. If you can get past the odor, its taste is mellow and quite luscious.
Washed rinds are not my favorite cheeses. I was visiting the village of Epoisses with a friend, and we had dinner planned at a local restaurant with the owner and executives of a very famous maker of Epoisses. My friend enthusiastically ordered me the steak with Epoisses sauce. Wildly and unpleasantly smelly, the idea of it warm and all over my steak was horrifying. Reluctantly, I took my first bite. In my memory, this is still one of my top 10 meals.
Gouda is a type of cheese, but not a category. It is a classic cheese, and your favorite brand will go a long way in getting you street cred.
Fresh goat cheeses are beloved. These are mild and tangy and should not taste like Mr. Billy. They go with everything spring. If at all possible, try to find a local cheesemaker to support.
Take your time tasting, and write down notes in your personal cheese diary. With a little planning and an adventurous spirit, your local cheese shop can be your best friend. Or, you can have a good friend who knows cheese and is willing to make suggestions!