This is the time of year when entertaining is on everyone’s mind. Now is when cheese buying blooms. To make the process more difficult, there are new cheeses and choices available at more locations.
The simplest way to make great choices is to visit your favorite cheese market and let the in-house cheese monger decide for you or at least guide you. If you are not allowed to sample each cheese you purchase, just walk away. With a few questions, most mongers will be able to point you in the best direction for your tastes. Include quantity recommendations, pairing suggestions and different varieties that go well together, and you have your own personal consultant.
Of course, for adventurous types, try anything that spurs your interest. Try to get an idea ahead of time about the types of cheeses you like. If you like Brie, most soft-ripened bloomy rind cheeses will also suit your fancy. Cheddars, Gouda, Gruyère and Emmenthaler are typically crowd pleasers.
When choosing a cheese, it should look fresh. Black is not a good color for a rind, although there are delicious cheeses that have a black ash layer. Regardless, the rind should never have black circular spots or holes; it should never be slimy. Many washed rind cheeses are sticky and often stink, but that is the nature of the beast. However, the rinds still look fresh and are usually a very pretty shade of orange. Great cheeses have beautiful rinds.
The paste or interior of the cheese also should look fresh. Colors may range from bright white (goat cheeses) to shades of cream for cow and sheep cheeses. Sheep cheeses are often an off-white color. Many times, especially with soft-ripened cheeses, you will find a layer of cream next to the rind. Often, this is the best part, and the cream or liquid layer will continue to develop as the cheese ages. Gray is never a good color; it can mean the cheese is past its prime or poorly made.
Taste is very subjective. If you are trying to please a diverse crowd, there are excellent middle of the road varieties that are exceptionally well made with complex flavors. Pick what you like. I, for example, do not like sharp Provolone, but many people do. On the other hand, I love aged sheep milk cheeses – even the gloriously stinky ones that smell to me like warm toast. I now have a small refrigerator in the basement for them.
When it comes to pairings, let your imagination be your guide. Try chocolate, banana, oranges or lemon zest. Nuts, pears, apples, figs and dates are winter favorites. Just have fun, relax and enjoy. There’s no need to fix anything. You are fine. Stay with what you like, and the end result will be wonderful.