This week, I'm trying something new. I've asked a cheesemonger from my neighborhood cheese shop for a handful of current favorites for holiday tables. Forget what I like for once. And since I haven't worked in an actual cheese shop in over four years, I realized that it might be nice to get some hot tips from the front lines.
But some things never change.
First things first: My neighborhood source for cheese is the always-dependable and consistently well-stocked counter at Greene Grape Provisions in Ft. Greene, Brooklyn. On this most recent evening, cheesemonger Sam Parsons helped me out. He fed me-- literally and figuratively-- six great cheeses that you've probably heard of and hopefully won't have too much trouble finding, and three that may be a bit trickier to seek out, but are worth the effort to do so.
I started off by asking Sam what he was bringing home for the holidays. The following six picks are solid, dependable cheeses, very much capable of pleasing the varied members of your family: the young and old, the picky and adventures, the lowbrow and highbrow.
At first I found it funny that so many of his selections were cheeses I'd have chosen years ago during my behind-the-counter years as a cheesemonger. Surprising, I thought, that these cheeses are still great enough to warrant a place on a cheesemonger's table. But I was quick to realize why. These are stand-up choices with consistent quality and are-- most importantly-- reliably delicious. So much so that even after a day on the job tasting cheese, a cheese professional would take them home.
- La Tur (Pasteurized Cow, Sheep, and Goat, Italy, $14.99/8 oz. piece): A bloomy-rinded drum made with a varied proportion of three milk types, depending on the season. Wet and cakey texture, mild and creamy on the nose, sweet and milky going down. Oh-so-spreadable, and more-than-able to fit the whole luxurious-cheese-during-the-holidays bill.
- Mimolette (Pasteurized Cow, France): Gouda-like, especially in its appearance. One of the more festive-looking cheeses around, with a bright orange interior and beautiful spherical wedges that emerge from its cannonball-shaped wheels. Slightly sweet and nutty, and quite firm. Makes a great cheese at which to hack away, and would go perfectly aside some wintery spiced nuts or other savory condiments. Save the bread for other cheeses; this one stands on its own perfectly well without a starchy vehicle.
- Mahon (Raw Cow, Spain, $18.99/lb): One of my favorite cheeses to serve pre-dinner or for cocktail hour. Salty and briny, it'll get your taste buds going, and pairs well with other typical snacks served for the same moment: olives, crudites, and nuts. But best of all with this cheese? Beer.
- Midnight Moon (Pasteurized Goat, Holland, $25.99/lb): If you've never tried this cheese, get with the program. It's one of those guilty pleasures: though not terribly complex, it's downright delicious, and I mean, delicious. Sweet, nearly crunchy with amino acid crystals (textural complexity at its best), and endlessly snackable, this is one of those cheeses that's crowd-pleasing to a fault: You can never seem to buy enough. Makes a great melter, too.
- Garrotxa (Pasteurized Goat, Spain, $24.99/lb): Another all-time favorite, and one of the best expressions of how goat milk-- the most acidic and bright of milks-- can mellow and sing sweetly when aged. Creamy, semi-soft, and relatively mild, this is a solid cheese that is nearly always the first to go from a cheese plate.
- Brillat Savarin (Pasteurized Cow, France, $22.99/lb): The requisite triple creme cheese, with a bloomy rind and a texture closer to butter than cheese. Mushroomy, luscious, and as creamy as it gets, serve this as a luxurious course before dessert, or alongside dessert with some port. Honeys, dried fruit, and sweet compotes make great complements, as does champagne, if you can't wait to serve it until dessert.
And for the few more esoteric choices, Sam selected the following:
- Zimbro (Raw Sheep, Portugal, $26.99/lb): A great introduction to Portuguese cheeses. Made with a wild thistle rennet, this cheese has that characteristic sour-funky-floral quality so typical of cheeses from Portugal and Southern Spain, with a distinctly yogurty flavor. Beautiful texture, too: soft and pudgy, and slightly oozing under the rind, especially since the specimen I tasted was perfectly ripe. Not too strong, though, and so won't overwhelm any other cheese on offer.
- Wisconsin Sheep Dairy Dante (Raw Sheep, Wisconsin, $29.99/lb): Reminiscent of Ossau-Iraty with its mountain cheese-like firmness and totally in-your-face sheepy-nuttiness. Lovely balance of saltiness and milkiness. A really great pick for sheep cheese lovers, as it showcases some of those characteristic attributes that come along with that milk type: fatty, full-flavored, and gamey in that sheepy-sweet kind of way.
- Blue Ledge Farm La Luna (Raw Goat, New York, $25.99/lb): Blue Ledge Farm is best-known for their Crottina, a small round of young goat cheese clothed in a bloomy rind. This couldn't be more different. They've aged this one a bit into a semi-firm wheel that is reminiscent of a young goat gouda. I can't think of much like it, at least that's made in the States. Unique, indeed. Quite mild and subtle, but aren't those the characteristics of the cheese world's unexpected gems? This one makes such a solid choice I wouldn't be surprised to see it on my list of favorites four years from now.
Nora Singley is an avid lover of cheese, and 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: Five Tips for Flawless, Fabulous Cheese Plate Construction
(Images: Nora Singley)