It may seem counterintuitive, but cheese is the perfect summer food.
This information goes against the grain because of the way Americans typically employ cheese in our cuisine. All too often we relegate it to a supporting role. We slap it on burgers, put it on pizza, melt it over corn chips and of course, grate it into pasta in several delicious ways.
The cheeses we most often do this with are hard cheeses like cheddar, gruyere and parmesan. What's worse, most of theses cheeses are industrially produced. Thus, cheese has acquired a reputation for being a high fat food, and even a contributing factor to the obesity epidemic in America.
Brothers and sisters, there's a better way!
Hand-crafted cheeses are full of broader, richer flavors than their industrially-made counterparts. Softer cheeses actually have less fat than their harder counterparts. And lastly, summer is the very best time for eating these cheeses, and they deserve to be the leading character in a meal, not a peripheral one.
First of all we need to get away from industrial cheeses that are sold at supermarkets from familiar brand names like Kraft and Boar's Head. These are cheeses that have one dimension to their flavor.
Hand crafted cheeses, which are typically sold at large retailers like Whole Foods and Dean Deluca or small boutiques like the Cowgirl Creamery shops have a breadth of flavor that can sometimes transport you back to the rolling hills and blue skies of the land where it was made. They cost more, but they are well worth it.
Yes, a few sentences ago, I did say that soft cheeses tend to be lower in fat than hard cheeses. What makes soft cheeses so soft is a higher percentage of moisture—water, if you will—in their total volume. Last time I checked, water has no fat, no cholesterol and no calories. So if you take two cheeses, the one that has a higher percentage of moisture will usually be the lower of the two in fat.
This might seem entirely logical, but cheesemakers and marketers obscure this fact with the use of relatively meaningless percentages. Pierre Robert, for instance, is a luxuriously soft and creamy cheese and its label proudly boasts that it has 75 percent butterfat. A cheese like that couldn't be lower in fat than one with 45 percent could it?
Well, as Mark Twain once said, there are "lies, damned lies and statistics." These percentages are not stated against common denominators. They are ratios of butterfat to dry matter. How much dry matter is in each cheese? Only your cheesemaker knows for sure. Seventy-five percent of six is a lot lower than 45 percent of 17; and that is what's going on when cheese fat is stated in percentages. Just remember one simple rule: the softer the cheese, the more it is comprised of moisture and therefore the lower it is in fat.
This is all important to know because summer is the peak period for softer cheeses. Soft cheeses are best made from the spring milking of the animals. What's spring got to do with it? The first growths of the spring are higher in nutrients than any other time of the year. These nutrient rich grasses are the diet of the cows, goats and sheep on dairy farms all over the world. The animals are later milked, and that milk is used to make cheese.
Soft cheeses come in three principal categories, fresh, bloomy and washed rind. The most popular fresh cheese is fresh chevre, or what's commonly known as goat's milk cheese (though goat's milk cheeses come in a variety of textures and styles). These cheeses are fairly easygoing in flavor but are often seasoned with pepper, lavender or the near ubiquitous combination of garlic and herbs.
Bloomy refers to the white rind, and brie is its best known style, but there are several new and absolutely delicious cheeses like Kunik, a wonderfully creamy, bloomy rind cheese made from a mix of goat and cow's milk at the Nettle Meadow creamery in Warmsburg, N.Y. Others of note include Red Hawk and Mount Tam from Cowgirl Creamery in Point Reyes Station, Calif., and Green Hill from the Sweet Grass Dairy in Georgia.
The third category, washed rind cheeses, are better known as "stinky" cheese, and yes, they are an acquired taste. Several delightful cheeses made in this manner are now coming from County Cork, Ireland. Look for Durrus, Gubeen and Ardrahan, each has a distinctive aroma and a complex flavor, a mix of grassiness and herbal flavors with a sweet finish.
Now that you're a certified cheese expert, know this: Cheeses should tell your palate a story with a beginning, middle and end. Not just leave a sound bite.
Ready to mix it up a little? Here are a few great ways to try a few new summer cheeses, with a little food, a glass of wine and your favorite summer sounds:
Pairing is one of the most divisive issues in the food world. Wine people don't want certain flavors interfering with the sublime nuances of their vino. Cheese people don't like the follow through of their cheeses obscured by certain meats, and charcuteriers are probably upset with both cheese and wine folk for the same reasons. With that caveat, here are a few suggestions for pairing soft, summery cheeses with meats, wines and music, yes music.
Humboldt Fog is the leading new American classic in the cheese world. Made by the Cypress Grove Creamery in Arcata California, this bloomy rind goat's milk cheese has two textures, creamy around the perimeter and flaky in middle. It's very well distributed, and to my mind (your vintner may disagree) it pairs with a variety of sparkling wines and the vastly underrated genre of white wines from the Rhone. The lightness of the cheese and balance of the wine lend them to themselves to coarsely ground Italian style salamis like Sopresatta. I like the futuristic jazzy grooves of Meshell Ndegeocello's recent recordings and that might set a good atmosphere for this trio of culinary delights.
Constant Bliss from the Jasper Hill Farms in Vermont is one of the most inventively named of the great new American cheeses, and with a creamy texture and distinctive tang at the finish, it delivers on the promise. A cheese with an aggressive finish demands a sweet, sparkling wine like a Cava or Proseco. These beverages go very nicely with Proscuitto from Parma Italy. These diverse and aggressive flavors meld so well that it reminded me of the sprawling scope of Lauryn Hill's great debut solo recording, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill.
Kunik is another great new American softy. This bloomy rind mix of goat and cow's milk hails from the Nettle Meadow Creamery in Warmsburg, N.Y. Its texture makes it perfect for nearly every sparkling wine, champagne and well structured, drier Rosés. If you have access to an old school Italian deli, ask for Copa, a dried ham with a denser flavor than proscuitto; it's a good companion to this combination. Then for sonic, add the soulful jazz of Cannonball Adderley.
I take a certain amount of pride in the fact that I've written more than 15,000 words for this site without mentioning a certain presidential candidate, but that streak is going to end in the next sentence.
The leading new American washed rind cheese is from the Lazy Lady creamery in Vermont and it's called, "Barick Obama" (the farm deliberately spells the name differently to avoid any copyright issues). It has creamy and earthy flavor with a barnyard-ey aroma and a sweet finish. It's big hit with political junkies from both sides of the aisle.
A washed rind cheese needs a sweet white wine like a Riesling, as companion, but a few fruit enthused reds will also match. For music, I thought of the irresistibly propulsive sound of Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers.
But great soft cheeses on the market don't just hail from this country.
Robiola Due Latti is one of most popular creamy Italian cheeses, and it's easy to taste. These distinctive squares made from a mix of cow and sheep's milk have a buttery texture with a densely sweet berry-like finish. The cheese pairs well with well structured Italian whites or finesse oriented Piedmont reds, like Nebbiolo.
Wherever your cheese is from remember to explore your dining options and, more importantly, enjoy!
Martin Johnson is a New York writer.