Thursday, July 12, 2012

Gettin' Cheesy in South Florida

by Erik Mathes

There are few foods in America quite as polarizing as cheese, and it’s not difficult to understand why.  From gooey textures to off-putting aromas, these edibles are either adored or abhorred by the masses.  The thing is, it seems that even those who love it -- and especially those who loathe it -- simply don't understand the big picture when it comes to cheese.  

If you ask the average American cheese-eater what the savory substance is made of, why it looks the way it does, and why there are so many appearances, scents, flavors, and textures that fit underneath its heading, they’d probably respond with a dull, blank stare.  This would certainly be different in Europe, where cheese-as-art has long been ingrained into the cultures (no pun intended) of most nations. Here, we’ve been weaned on Kraft singles and Cracker Barrel. As children, our sponge-like minds soaked it up when Looney Tunes portrayed Limburger as something as potent and avoidable as a stinkbomb.  

While I have never tried Limburger (I’m brainwashed, brainwashed, I tell you!), I’ve dabbled in some pretty nose-tingling cheeses in my day, and I’ve learned the incredibly valuable lesson to never judge one by its olfactory presence alone.  You see, the taste of a supremely smelly variety could very well be indirectly proportional to its odor, possessing a pleasant mellowness; or, cheese that causes relatively mild nasal reactions could surprise you with its pungency on your tongue.  It’s for this reason that I urge all of you fromagynists (that’s a new word I’ve coined for cheese-haters that doesn’t exactly adhere to rational English-language standards) to reconsider your stance and find out what exactly this misunderstood snack is all about.  

For starters, it’s silly to go around proclaiming that you like or dislike “cheese,” as there are a handful of subcategories that fit beneath the umbrella term, and you may feel differently about each one.  Books by experts on the subject break down the world’s 700 to 1,000 recognized cheeses into between five and seven general types. My source, The Murray’s Cheese Handbook, lists seven (to which I’ll add examples in parentheses):  Fresh (mozzarella, chevre), bloomy (brie, camembert), washed rind (tallegio, livarot), semisoft (fontina, morbier), firm (cheddar, manchego), hard (aged gouda, Parmigiano-Reggiano), and blue (St. Agur, gorgonzola).  Then, delving deeper, you must also consider if the milk used in making a cheese came from a cow, goat, sheep, or, dare I say, water buffalo. That's before you even figure out the country of origin and what special techniques were applied in producing it to distinguish it from the crowd.  So many variables, so many unique tastes, so little time.  

If you’re ready to make the leap from commercial, processed “cheese” to artisanal creations concocted in small batches and celebrated worldwide, head over to Cheese Culture, located at 813 East Las Olas Boulevard in Fort Lauderdale.  Its owners, Mitch and Susan Phipps, are a hilarious, fun-loving couple who “strive to be better at being different” when running their quirky queso shop.  Spend enough time inside, and you’ll surely get wrapped up in conversation about everything from how cheesemaking was likely first discovered (a phenomenal story involving a young boy from ancient Rome who made a shocking find after transporting fresh milk inside his era’s container of choice, a cow’s stomach), to their favorite (and least favorite) wine and cheese pairings.  Plus, they’ll make it easier than unwrapping a slice of processed yellow American for you to decide which real cheeses you prefer, by letting you to taste an array of samples and providing detailed background info on each one. 

According to Mitch, he and Susan have “taken the time to eat and drink a lot,” so they know plenty of perfect pairings from personal experimentation. It can be as easy as matching virtually any dessert wine with any blue cheese (Mad Cuvée with Colston Bassett Stilton, for example, is simply divine). Other times, it can be more nuanced, such as when selecting aged cheeses (like gouda, cheddar, pecorino, or manchego) to counterpart with fruitier reds.  As for what to avoid, Mitch says Arneis (an Italian white) paired with Dauphinoise brie is “like an explosion of ammonia in your mouth,” as are most whites with most brie. It pays to ask around and do your research when proper pairing is part of your plan.  

All of this cheesy talk is just the tip of the ol’ wedge when it comes to this meltingly delicious meal-maker, and I hope my words serve to motivate you to find your nearest ‘monger so you can get your fromage-fest started.  With so many flavors to sort through, you might as well take your time to savor each one slowly and take notes on how you feel. Once you’re hooked on the good stuff, you’ll know exactly how to navigate your way toward the next cheesy discovery.  

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