Think of this as a sort of CliffsNotes, a starting point for where to begin if you want to learn more about cheese. It's what I'd consider my desert island cheese list, that is, the not-to-be-missed essentials. (Though a desert island with a whopping selection of 13 cheeses sounds like anything but a desperate situation.)
And take the list with a grain of salt. It's my for-what-it's-worth compilation of favorites after seven years of working with cheese. They're some of the cheeses that have blown my mind, and others that I just find essential to understand the varied span of styles that cheesemaking can cover.
Realize, also, that this list is terribly subjective. But I have good taste, swear. Some are general styles—like Farmhouse Cheddar, or Fresh Goat Cheese—and some are specific cheeses that deserve their own mention.
And here they are (in no particular order):
1. Farmhouse Cheddar When of the clothbound variety, this cheese can be overwhelmingly rustic, toothsome, and complex, a total celebration of what can happen when cheddar goes right. It's one of the more versatile cheeses to pair with beverages of all sorts, from beer to wine to whisky to cocktails. (Pictured: Cabot Clothbound Cheddar, $14 at Market Hall Foods)
2. Fresh Goat Cheese This simple pleasure can heighten the most mundane of dishes (I still find an unadorned piece of goat cheese atop a salad immensely enjoyable) and is an incredible foil for other flavors. (Pictured: Celebrity Chevre, $9.99 at iGourmet)
3. Burrata This is my Last Meal cheese. It's truly is the stuff that dreams are made of. Enough said. If there was a particular order to this list, Burrata may make number one. (Pictured: Burrata Burro by Paula Lambert, $12.99 at iGourmet)
4. Aged French-style Goat Cheese Aging brings a fresh goat milk cheese to entirely new heights. Imbued with geotrichum candidum mold (which gives the rinds of these cheeses a wrinkled, brainy texture), the best versions of this style tend to have chalky interiors, a voluptuous layer of creamy goo beneath the rind, and a firm and entirely edible rind, making each drum an intriguing combination of texture and flavor, nearly three cheeses in one. (Pictured: Murray's Cave Aged Valencay, $13.99 at Murray's Cheese) 5. Epoisses In my mind, one of the most perpetually pleasing washed-rinds around. If you don't know what a washed-rind cheese is, this one will surely make you a believer. It's stinky, sure, but it's creamy as can be. And its packaging gets me every time: it comes in a round, wooden box, perfect for containing its lusciously viscous interior. (Pictured: Epoisses, $27 at Artisanal Cheese) 6. Colston Basset Stilton At its best, this is the epitome of what a blue cheese can and should be. It's like velvet on the tongue: perfectly balanced between salty and sweet, stingingly strong and mellow. With a nearly sweet finish, it'll make anyone a believer in blue. (Pictured: Blue Stilton by Colston Bassett, $13.99 at iGourmet)
7. Pleasant Ridge Reserve I very easily could have made this a "Mountain Cheese" mention. Instead, it's worth bringing a bit of attention to a superlative version made in Wisconsin, modeled after Beaufort, the Old World classic. Nutty, sweet, and deep, with a dynamic finish redolent of wood, meat, and brown sugar. If you love Gruyere and the like, this cheese will pretty much change your life. (Pictured: Pleasant Ridge Reserve, $12.99 at iGourmet) 8. Lazy Lady Cheeses. All of 'em. To me, nothing typifies the art of small production American cheeses like Lazy Lady, out of Westfield, Vermont. The cheese names—super tongue in cheek-y, like Tomme Delay, Mixed Emotion, Barick Obama, Big Bang, and Lady in Blue—don't hurt either. Laini Fondiller, head cheesemaker, runs her farm entirely off the grid, and has been practicing organic methods of farming since 1987. She makes her cheese entirely from her small herd of goats, too. They'll speak to the goat cheese lover in all of us. (More info at Vermont Cheese Council)
9. Super-Aged Gouda If a gouda's been aged for more than three years, it turns into something more akin to candy than cheese. Hard, nearly crystalline, and straight-up sweet, this style of cheese can stand alone on a cheese plate, and serves a most excellent option for dessert for those persnickety non-dessert lovers. (Pictured: Beemster X.O. Aged Gouda, $11 at Market Hall Foods) 10. Tomme Crayeuse This is a natural-rinded cow milk cheese from the Savoie, and is downright spectacular. Its creaminess makes it eat like a brie, but with an earthiness akin to pate or truffles. Mushroomy, eggy, and buttery, there's a unique flavor and texture to this cheese that I can somehow never seem to tire of. One of my all-time favorites. The trick is to find it when it's perfectly ripe. (Pictured: Tomme Crayeuse at Formaggio Kitchen. Available for $19.98 at Ideal Cheese) 11. Roquefort Sitting gloriously at the "strong" end of the strength-in-cheese spectrum, this aggressively-veined blue has some serious bite, and at its best, this cheese tastes nearly like the sea: salty and sharp. And so, so creamy. A true Roquefort isn't for everyone, but for those of us who love a strong blue, there's nothing that can quite top it. (Pictured: Roquefort, Artisanal Cave Aged 3 Months, $33 at Artisanal Cheese) 12. Vacherin Mont D'Or This cheese is truly one of the more unique recipes around. It's wrapped in bark, and so imparts a serious woodsiness to the interior paste. It also showcases true seasonality; it's only available in the winter months. Unctuous, eggy, and full-flavored, there's nothing quite like this one. (Pictured: Vacherin Mont D'or, $36.50 at Artisanal Cheese)
13. Queso de la Serena Again, one of the more unique cheeses out there, mainly because it's made with raw sheep milk and thistle rennet. Any cheese of this style would suffice in my list, as this type of cheese is its own animal entirely. These cheeses are nearly sour, but floral. You'll find these cheeses in Southern Spain and Portugal, and it's partly for this reason—that they're so geographically specific—that cheeses of this style make the cut. (Pictured: Murray's Cave Aged Queso de la Serena, $22.99 at Murray's Cheese)
After looking at back at the Serious Eats list, I know I missed a lot. But I'm still happy with my compilation. Among the more controversial forgotten cheeses are sure to be brie, Parmigiano Reggiano, and maybe Mozzarella?
According to you, what were my omissions?
Nora Singley used to be a cheesemonger and the Director of Education at Murray's Cheese Shop in New York City, where she continues to teach cheese classes for the public. She is currently a TV Chef on The Martha Stewart Show.
Related: Cheese Review: Tomme Crayeuse
(Images: Market Hall Foods; iGourmet; Murray's Cheese; Artisanal Cheese; Vermont Cheese Council; Formaggio Kitchen; Nora Singley)