I sat down for a cheese tasting with Gordon Edgar at San Francisco's Rainbow Grocery. Gordon buys the cheese for Rainbow, and sits on the Board of Directors of the California Artisan Cheese Guild. In between noshing on Franklin's Teleme, Dante, Gaupier, Gravenstein Gold Washed Rind, and Truffle Tremor, I picked his brain on all things fromage.
Q: How do you know how to serve particular types of cheese? Thinly sliced, cubed, wedged?
A: I would serve them as the cheesemaker intended: in a big hunk with as little aesthetic change as possible. Buy some small knives and a cheese plane and let people cut it themselves. After all, that's half the fun of eating cheese.
Q: When is it OK to eat the rind?
A: It's OK to eat the rind whenever you feel like eating the rind. It's OK to leave the rind too. Taste a little bit if you can't decide. If it's bitter, dirty-tasting or too hard, don't eat it.
Q: What sorts of cheese knives do you recommend?
A: For home use I would recommend having a brie knife (one with holes in the blade so it won't bind up while cutting), a cheese plane, and a bunch of little spreaders and servers for home entertainment.
Q: Cheese boards - what materials (marble, slate, wood) are best?
A: Marble keeps cheese cool longer so it has its uses. You can often find broken pieces fairly cheap at home improvement stores. Just clean up those shards before serving cheese on them. You can also find floor tiles there which are very heavy but work great.
Q: What are some rules of thumb with cheese variety/cheese pairings?
A: Unless you have a theme or are doing a vertical tasting, go for different textures and different milks. That'll get you a long way and the cheese is pretty much guaranteed not to be too similar. A fresh goat, Basque-style sheep, and aged cow will make almost anyone happy.
Q: What are good things to accompany cheese - chutneys, pickles, jellies, honey, nuts?
A: All of the above! I recommend digging condiments out of the fridge and pantry and just trying them out. One of the simplest things I do that overly impresses people is a drop or two of truffle oil mixed in some dark honey. Cut a Parmigiano Reggiano into sticks and dip.
Q: What's the best way to store cheese?
A: The best way to store cheese is to only buy as much as you eat in a week.
The best thing for soft rinded cheese is to get a cheese dome. Without that, wrapping in wax paper (with or without a plastic wrap over that) is the best method. For a cheddar or other hard cheese my advice is to not stress about it and wrap air tight with clean plastic after every use. Do not use Ziplocs because the air will cause it to mold faster.
Q: What's the most expensive cheese Rainbow sells?
A: Right now the Fourme au Sauternes is an amazing, creamy, fruity French blue cheese washed with Sauternes for a boozy bite. It sells for $34 per pound.
Q: What are some of the rarest/hardest to find cheeses Rainbow has?
A: We have a lot of American cheeses that are hard to find: the Wisconsin Sheep Dairy Coop's Dante, Jasper Hill Winnimere, Pug's Leap Petit Marcel, Hidden Springs Ocooch Mountain, and the Rogue River Blue are some of my favorites that aren't available in most other stores. However, cheese is a perishable business and what is here today may not be here tomorrow.
Q: Why should I buy cheese from Rainbow - what makes you different from other cheese mongers?
A: Well, we are a grocery store cut-and-wrap cheese shop so we have better prices than a lot of places. Plus, being a worker-owned coop, we have very little turnover. Our core group of cheese workers has about 60 combined years of experience.
(Photo by Anna Costa)