Matthew Rubiner: Why you can't eat the same cheese twice ...
A few quick things: Manchengo?! It's Manchego. Mahn-Chay-Go. One N. And three dollars worth of Rogue River Blue? That's not even visible to the naked eye. And a "cheesemonger" is not someone who eats a lot of cheese, as some customers mistakenly believe (as in: "Dude, I'm a total cheesemonger too!") *
Now, I mock the clientele, but out of love. I know buying cheese** is hard. It's hard even for me, with my vaunted expertise, finely tuned palate (and fabled humility), let alone for the lay-turophile. There are just so many types of cheeses. And one is more unpronounceable and unspellable than the next. If you can't get Manchego straight, good luck with Obere M hle Bayerischer Blauschimmelk se and Almn s Bruk Wr ngeb ck. (Note: cheesemongers can't really pronounce cheese names either, we just mispronounce them with greater authority).
And it doesn't stop there. Say you like cheddar. There are scores, maybe hundreds of cheddars to choose from: Big-block, prickly-sharp North Americans (your Graftons, your Cabots, your Black Diamonds) and drums of English Cheddar — and their Anglophile American cousins — bound in larded cloth. And even should you find a cheddar you like, it goes and changes on you, batch to batch and wheel to wheel. A Montgomery's Cheddar from cows grazing the spring pastures of Somerset will be different than a February cheese, made from cows eating sweet winter hay. Parmigiano-Reggiano made in the spring will fill a room with aromas of pineapple, while September cheeses are sweeter, less tropically aromatic. (Seriously, it's more of a canned pineapple juice pineapple, but magical nonetheless.)
And every single wheel of cheese changes and evolves as it ages and ripens. Molds and bacteria and yeasts transform a Camembert from a bone white, crumbly, tart puck to a supple (see below), unctuous (see below) mushroomy, downy cushion, and tease from an Appenzeller aromas of butter and onions. As I often say, riffing on Heraclitus***, "You can't sink your teeth into the same cheese twice."
So how will you know when it's ripe and ready? And how much to buy? And what to serve with it?
Lady/Sir, you need a cheesemonger. Doesn't have to be me; there are several in the Eagle readership area. Don't be daunted by our jaded scowls (moi?)****, or worse, our impossibly chirpy enthusiasm (not moi) that makes you want to throttle us. We'll guide you. We can tell ripe from underripe, or over. We've labored in caves, turning cheddars, triaging Camemberts and Epoisses, brushing mites from Stiltons and molds from Gruyeres. We've apprenticed with masters. We write pithy signs chock full of useful information like: What is it? Where's it from? Who made? What kind of gourmet dairy animals were involved? We say supple more than most people, and unctuous a lot. And nutty. And when pressed, empyreumatic and conchoidal.
And we'll give you tastes. You have to taste. We want you to taste. We're flattered and honored that you just trust us to choose — and we will gladly choose — but there's no substitute for tasting. If you want Gouda and see four, taste four. One will be sweeter, one more crystalline, one more supple (see!), one nuttier (see!). We won't be put out. And your satisfaction will be guaranteed. *****
* Monger, from the Old English, mangere, from the Latin mango meaning dealer, or trader. See also: iron, fish, rumor and war.
** When I say cheese I mean artisanal cheese; cheeses that are made on a small scale, by craftsmen. Real cheese. Cheeses that speak of land, and the animals and the traditions they come from. I do make occasional allowances for cheeses made on a
larger, more industrial scale — starter cheeses — if they are made well. And sometimes, I do enjoy crap. I am occasionally seen at the supermarket late, when the lights are dimmed, with a red net sack of BonBel (and some organic this or that to distract from the "cheese"). It's the crap-cheese buying equivalent of sandwiching a Playboy between copies of US News & World Report and the New England Journal of Medicine, as I'm told teenage boys did back when there was print media.
*** A Greek who said you can't step in the same river twice.
**** I'm nice! It's just the way my face is structured. Dogs and babies love me.
***** OK, some cheeses you can't really taste. We're loathe to breech the rinds of the little gooey ones. They'll get away. But we'll squeeze and smell (the cheese) and give you our expert ripeness diagnosis.
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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