Being stranded on a desert island with five French cheeses sounds a little more like a paradise than a problem, provided there's a serviceable baguette to be found. Narrowing the list of fabulous French cheese down to just a handful, though, is much more of an issue — but thanks to thousands of taste tests, I'm happy to report that it can be done.
From cow to sheep to goat, and from soft to firm to blue-as-can-be, here's my list of desert island cheese.
1. Epoisses, $27 for eight ounces at Murray's
Let's hope this desert island has a spoon, because ooey-gooey Epoisses, which is practically liquid at peak ripeness, will require one. Washed in marc de Bourgogne — a brandy made of the grape pulp, seeds, stems, and skins that remain after the production of noble Burgundian wines — Epoisses develops a yeasty, glistening rind that gives way to a veritable pudding of cheese. The paste is intensely savory and almost smoky, like a bacon custard served up in a sweet wooden box. If the desert island has a spoon, perhaps it could also muster up a bottle of Chablis?
2. Tomme Crayeuse, $22 per pound at Murray's
While crayeuse means "chalky," Tomme Crayeuse is anything but. While it ages, the chalkiness subdues itself into a delicate curdiness, surrounded by a generous cream line reminiscent of cooked mushrooms. Around this cream line, you'll find an intensely earthy rind that ranges from tasting of roasted cauliflower and chicory, to brisket and beets.
3. Abbaye de Belloc, $34 per pound at Formaggio Kitchen
It can't be all cow, of course, so every desert island should serve its share of sheep cheese. I'm partial to Abbaye de Belloc, an aged sheep tomme from the Pyrenees, whose firm curds taste of lamb chops and green herbs. Originally crafted by Benedictine monks, Abbaye de Belloc perfectly expresses the terroir of the Pyrenees and its shepherding culture. It's a most agreeable cheese, perfect with everything from cherry preserves to roast pork to big, earthy red wines.
4. Beaufort d'Alpage, $40 per pound at Formaggio Kitchen
Speaking of mountain cheeses, a desert island cheese board — nay, life — wouldn't be complete without a fruity, nutty hunk of Alpine cheese. The best is Beaufort d'Alpage, made in Alpine chalets using upwards of 100 gallons of milk per wheel. It's only made available to retailers once a year (usually in the fall), so snap up its wedges — with aromas of roasted hazelnuts and grilled pineapple — when you can.
5. Persille de Rambouillet, $33 per pound at Murray's
While I'd love to bring a dozen blue cheeses to a desert island, just to capture the incredible variety present in one cheese family (spicy Roquefort! Silky Fourme d'Ambert! Rustic Bleu de Basque!), I'd happily snuggle up with Persille de Rambouillet for the rest of my blue-cheese-eating life. A wee wheel covered in a dusting of blue-gray mold, it toes the line between creamy and custardy. The minerality of the goat milk shines through, bolstered by earthy blue, but the texture of the paste softens the black pepper bite surrounding the blue veins. It's terrific with ripe pears and dessert wines, or smeared on toast with beurre de baratte (butter doesn't count as one of of my five cheeses, right?).
About me: I started on a cheese counter in my home state of Oklahoma before moving to renowned Murray's Cheese in New York City as Director of Education and E-Commerce in 2009. I've lectured on cheese at the International Culinary Center, NYU, and the New School, and helped produce events like the Cheesemonger Invitational and Cider Week NYC. These days, I preach the curd in Santa Fe, NM, while trying to maintain an urban farm (read: two chickens and an apple tree) in a desert.
What cheeses would you bring with you to a dessert island? Bonus points if they're French cheeses.