How to pick the perfect cheese for your picnic
I don't picnic much myself. Too many vermin, and not enough lower back support. Nor does my wife, who generally prefers the in-of-doors. Also, there are bears.
But for those who don't mind the sunshine, the incessant tweeting of birds, a cool mountain breeze and the inevitable bear attack, the Berkshires are lousy with picnic opportunities. You can't walk 20 feet in this county without tripping over a cobble or a glen or a perfect meadow.
In fact, the Berkshires, historically, is something of a Mecca for picnickers. The Gilded Age glitterati, as far as I can tell, emerged from their "cottages" only to picnic and for no other reason (except to pose for paintings of themselves picnicking). Melville and Hawthorne famously, and literarily significantly, picnicked atop Monument Mountain's rocky knob and, over champagne, talked whales and adulteresses.
Our storied cultural institutions also offer an array of relatively bear-free options. The lawn at Tanglewood, for example, is fabled for lavish picnics that would make a sultan blush, with gilded candelabras, crystal goblets and blankets the size of a small airfield. There's even a Tanglewood Competitive Picnic League!
Picnics, like everything else in the world, are better with cheese. But which cheeses are the most picnic-able? There are several factors to consider:
- Weather resistance: Can your cheese withstand the hostile picnic environment? Some cheeses will liquefy in the searing warmth of summer. Select firmer, or at least contained, cheeses.
- Transportability: Whether you hump over a mountain ridge to your picnic site, or are carried in a palanquin, your cheeses will be jostled and buffeted during the journey. Don't select anything too terribly crumbly or fragile.
- Specialized equipment: One hates to lug around heavy boards, slabs of marble, big sharp knives or other specialized equipment to a picnic. Don't select anything that a dull pocket knife can't hack through (though a big sharp knife is useful for bear defense).
- Olfactory sensitivity: If you are picnicking in a high-density area, it is important that the wafting aromas of your cheeses not offend your less-sophisticated co-picnickers. Unless you are prepared to blame the dog. Note also that bears have keen noses and a fondness for smelly cheeses (though, on the other hand, cheese might serve as a useful peace offering and mauling preventative).
Here are few selections to get you started:
Jasper Hill Farm Harbison
Custardy, Brie-ish cow's milk cheese from Vermont's Northern Kingdom. About the size of a hockey puck, but softer. Runny, but contained by a lath of spruce bark wrapped around the cheese's circumference. Cut off the top rind and scoop or dip. Hardcore turophiles scrape the last remaining bits of cheese off the bark with their teeth like an artichoke.
Rawson Brook Farm Monterey Ch vre
The queen of Berkshire cheeses, from Susan Sellew and her little flock of Alpine goats in Monterey. Bright and milky sweet, with a texture like ice cream, especially at picnic temperatures. Comes in a convenient, resealable, bear-proof cup. Spreads on anything: bread, crackers, potato chips, a piece of chocolate.
Four Fat Fowl St. Stephen
Another compact, portable, Brie-esque cow's milk cheese from Spencertown, N.Y., not too far away. Less prone to liquefaction than the Harbison. St. Stephen is a so-called "triple cream, "which means that the milk used to make it is enriched with fresh cream, pushing its butterfat content to the cardiological redline of 75 percent. A crowd and bear pleaser.
Cabot Clothbound Cheddar
Sweet, crystalline, fudgy textured Vermont cheddar bound in cloth, in the English manner. From the same maker as the famous waxed-dipped rods at the supermarket, but infinitely more complex and satisfying.
Vermont Creamer Bijou
Tiny, tufted, straw-colored cushions of goat milk cheese from Websterville, a little village in Barre, Vt. Get them young, when they're not too hard, not too soft, just right. Hey, wait a minute
Finally, if you think I'm being alarmist about bears, consider this ominous quote: "Hey Boo-Boo, let's go get us a pic-a-nic basket!"— Bear, Yogi The, to Boo, Boo, a smaller, but no less menacing bear.
Matthew Rubiner is a cheesemonger and the owner of Rubiner's Cheesemongers & Grocers and Rubi's Coffee & Sandwiches in Great Barrington. He was the inaugural champion of the U.S. Cheesemonger Invitational, and is a "Gard et Jure" of the Guilde Internationale des Fromagers.
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