Aside from the instant eye appeal, there are plenty of reasons why cheeses that hide beneath a leaf wrapping taste so delicious, too.
Truly, cheeses wrapped in leaves stand alone. They're classy-as-can-be on a cheese board, reveling in their natural elegance. Your Thanksgiving meal may offer the greatest excuse to become entirely fanatical about these types: pair a bevy of them together to become an instant (and edible) centerpiece.
Traditionally, cheesemakers wrapped cheeses in leaves in order to protect them. This method was similar to how cheeses were often coated with a sprinkling of black vegetable ash in order to fend off flies and other insects. Now, just as you find cheeses that still don ashed rinds to maintain tradition, many cheeses still have leaf-wrappings, but more for form than for function.
There is aesthetic allure and traditional rationale for wrapping, but leaves can be appealing to your taste buds, too. You'll often find cheeses encased in leaves that have been smoked or soaked in some kind of liquor or wine, which then impart something to the cheese. Look out for these intriguing options for a unique boost in flavor profile.
Some great leaf-wrapped cheeses to seek out:
Hoja Santa (pasteurized goat milk, Texas):
One of my very favorite cheeses. Wrapped in hoja santa leaves, this fresh goat cheese is tangy and bright, with an incredibly distinct sarsaparilla note. This comes entirely from the hoja santa leaves, which are traditionally found as wrappers not of cheese but rather of fish or chicken Mexican cuisine. Made by The Mozzarella Company in Dallas, Texas.
Pecorino Foglie di Noce (raw sheep milk, Emilia-Romagna, Italy):
Crumbly, tangy, and creamy, this is one of the better pecorinos out there. The nuance of this cheese would be lost in cooking, so savor it on the table rather than in the kitchen. Looking rustic in a wrapping of walnut leaves, this cheese is tasty, tasty, tasty. I'm not sure if the nuttiness comes from the leaves or the presence of raw sheep milk, which has a distinctly nutty flavor, but I'm inclined to think the latter. One of the most beautiful leaf-wrapped cheeses around.
Valdeón (pasteurized or raw cow, goat, and/or sheep milk, Castile and León, Spain):
Spicy blue, wrapped in chestnut or sycamore maple leaves. What also changes is the presence of goat and sheep milk in the cheese. Cow milk is nearly always the major component, but seasons dictate the potential addition of other milks. Drier than most blues, but lingering on the tongue. Firm paste and beautiful blueing throughout, as opposed to intermittent pockets of mold. At its best, this is a salty but balanced blue, velvety and smooth, with an aggressive finish.
Rogue River Blue (raw cow milk, Oregon):
The cheesemakers at Rogue Creamery start with the recipe for their classic Oregon Blue Vein cheese, and amp it up a notch. It's now become one of the most prized American cheeses on the market. The wrapping? Pear-brandy macerated grape leaves. And impart a flavor, it surely does. Boozy, pungent, and heady, boasting a sharp, distinct aroma of fermented fruit. Truly special and worth the hefty price tag, too. They make this cheese once a year only, from summer milk, which the cheesemakers find superior for its flavor.
Capriole O'Banon (pasteurized goat milk, Indiana):
Chestnut leaf-wrapped goat cheese. Leaves soaked first in Bourbon. Nothing not to like. When unwrapped, beautiful veining from the leaves remain imprinted on the rind of the cheese. Soft and creamy, distinctly goat cheese but not tangy or sharp. A classic American original recipe, which seems especially fitting on your Thanksgiving plate.
River's Edge Up in Smoke (pasteurized goat milk, Oregon):
Five ounces of smoked goat cheese, wrapped in maple leaves that have been smoked over the same fire as the cheese. Intense, woodsy aromas, all amped up by the presence of bourbon in the leaves, too. If you've ever questioned the taste buds of someone who likes smoked cheese, this may be the cheese to change your tune. Smokey, yes, but balanced by a freshness that cuts the smokiness and makes for a most compelling puck. If the farm runs out of maple leaves from their property, they use leaves from the Salal shrub, native to the Northwest.
Robiola La Rossa (raw goat milk, Piedmont, Italy):
So sad. I haven't seen this cheese in awhile, so I'll keep this brief so as not to unnecessarily tempt. Wrapped in cherry leaves brandy-steeped cherry leaves, this cheese has amazing aromas of cherry and sweet tobacco. It's aggressive and husky and in your face while also nuanced and mysterious and super complex. Has anyone seen this cheese lately? It had been tricky to get into the country since it is both raw milk and young. I'm afraid the authorities had their way with this one.
Perhaps the only greater holiday for wrapped cheese would be Christmas. Or a birthday. (Cheese has always been the greatest present, no?)
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: All About Pecorino: The Cheesemonger
(Image: The Roving Cheesemonger, used with permission)