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Cheese 101: Like wine, this dairy delicacy is increasing in number and variety

Like wine, cheese is increasing in number and variety, so it’s important to know how to choose and serve it.

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At a wonderful upscale restaurant, my husband and I were enjoying our last sips of wine when a waiter offered a cheese tray. It was loaded with ripe cheeses, hard cheeses, creamy goat cheese, bleu cheese — a real wonderland with maybe 20 different varieties.

I was having a tough time choosing, but hubby didn’t choose at all. “I’ll have some of each,” he said, smiling expectantly.

Doh!

When the cheese tray comes, you select a few and are served fairly dainty portions. That’s the way it’s done.

Of course hubby wouldn’t know. He’s Canadian, and in his country they eat soooo much of it that cheese is practically a vegetable.

Although he’s from the Great White North, he’s typical of many Americans. What we don’t know about buying and serving fine cheeses could fill volumes.

We’d better learn fast, says cheesemonger Starr Cornwall of Sapphire Pantry in Laguna Beach, Calif., because cheese is the new wine. “Cheese is where wine was 20 years ago,” said Cornwall, who was hosting a tasting of cheeses from 5 Spoke Creamery on the patio at Sapphire Restaurant.

“In 1980, there were 75 cheesemakers in the United States. Now there are 900. It’s growing by leaps and bounds.” And, she noted that the American Cheese Society Awards had grown from 500 to 1,000 in three years.

More Americans are getting into the cheese business in a boutique way. Alan J. Glustoff, president of 5 Spoke Creamery, was a dairy technologist who tired of testing yogurt and other products for big corporations.

“I always loved cheese, and the first time I went to the market in Holland that was it. Then I went to France and saw the way they displayed all the cheese and thought every one of them has to be wonderful.”

He convinced an Amish farmer to make raw-milk cheeses — unpasteurized cheeses can be sold in America if they’re aged 60 days — and now he’s living his dream.

At the Sapphire tasting, Cornwall paired three 5 Spoke cheddars with wines from Alsace, Spain and New Zealand.

Across the pond — and back

Any good cheesemonger knows the traditional cheeses of Europe. Like the wines, many are regional. Certain cheeses can only come from specific parts of France; these are as highly regulated as Champagne.

If you like European wines, find out which cheeses match the flavors you love. Burgundy goes with Epoisses de Bourgogne, Sancerre goes with Crottin de Chavignol and so on.

As with wines, in the United States, it’s a different story. There are many wonderful goat cheeses produced in California. They don’t all go with our favorite white wine, Chardonnay. That’s OK. Just find the cheese you love and pair it with wines from anywhere.

The American artisanal cheese scene is growing exponentially and not just in California. Among the great California cheesemakers: Cowgirl Creamery, Laura Chenel’s Chevre, Andante Dairy, Vella Cheese Company.

Try some other American cheeses and find a new favorite. Rogue Creamery in Oregon makes fantastic gorgonzola. Maytag Dairy Farms in Iowa makes a famous blue cheese as well as Cheddar and Edam.

The Mozzarella Company in Dallas makes a unique dense mozzarella. “We smoke our Scamorza over pecan shells,” says cheesemaker Paula Lambert. Barbecued mozz? Yee haw!

Basic cheeseboard

Steven Jenkins, author of “The Cheese Primer,” gives 16 “precepts” on cheese. Learn just a few of these and you’ll be off to a flying start:

• Find an impassioned cheesemonger.

• The younger the cheese, the less flavor it will have.

• The edibility of a cheese’s rind is a matter of taste and common sense.

• Cheese suffers enormously from being frozen.

• Cheese must be brought to room temperature before it is served.

• When serving two or more cheeses, select cheeses of divergent milks (cow, sheep, goat), textures, and flavor intensities without regard for shape, color or origin.

• Serious cheese requires serious bread (not crackers).

•Try fresh cherries with creamy Dolce Gorgonzola. How about apple slices with gejost, a caramel-flavored Norwegian goat cheese? Fruit chutneys bring out the flavors in sharp and mild cheeses.

•Definitely serve wine, but remember what Jenkins says: “A great cheese will make an average wine seem greater than it is and an average cheese will drag down a great wine.” Whoa!

CLASSIC SWISS FONDUE

Yield: Serves four

1 garlic clove, halved

1 cup dry white wine

1 teaspoon lemon juice

2 cups (8 ounces) shredded Gruyere cheese

2 cups (8 ounces) Emmentaler cheese

2 teaspoons cornstarch 2 tablespoons kirsch

Dash white pepper

A pinch of grated nutmeg

French bread cut in cubes

1. Rub inside of fondue pot with cut garlic clove.

2. Pour in wine and lemon juice; cook over medium heat until bubbly. Turn heat to low and gradually stir in cheese with a wooden spoon.

3. In a small bowl, blend cornstarch with kirsch. Blend into cheese and continue to cook, stirring, 2 to 3 minutes or until mixture is thick and smooth. Do not allow fondue to boil. Season with white pepper and nutmeg. Serve with bread cubes.

(Source: “The Book of Fondues”)

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