Chapter 3: Foreign Greats
In 1953 the United States Department of Agriculture published Handbook No. 54, entitled Cheese Varieties and Descriptions, with this comment: "There probably are only about eighteen distinct types or kinds of natural cheese." All the rest (more than 400 names) are of local origin, usually named after towns or communities.
May we nominate another dozen to form our own Cheese Hall of Fame? We begin our list with a partial roll call of the big Blues family and end it with members of the monastic order of Port-Salut Trappist that includes Canadian Oka and our own Kentucky thoroughbred.
The Blues that Are Green
Stilton, Roquefort and Gorgonzola form the triumvirate that rules a world of lesser Blues. They are actually green, as green as the mythical cheese the moon is made of.
In almost every, land where cheese is made you can sample a handful of lesser Blues and imitations of the invincible three and try to classify them, until you're blue in the face. The best we can do in this slight summary is to mention a few of the most notable, aside from our own Blues of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Oregon and other states that major in cheese.
Danish Blues are popular and splendidly made, such as "Flower of Denmark." The Argentine competes with a pampas-grass Blue all its own. But France and England are the leaders in this line, France first with a sort of triple triumvirate within a triumvirate—Septmoncel, Gex, and Sassenage, all three made with three milks mixed together: cow, goat and sheep. Septmoncel is the leader of these, made in the Jura mountains and considered by many French caseophiles to outrank Roquefort.
This class of Blue or marbled cheese is called fromage persillé, as well as fromage bleu and pate bleue. Similar mountain cheeses are made in Auvergne and Aubrac and have distinct qualities that have brought them fame, such as Cantal, bleu d'Auvergne Guiole or Laguiole, bleu de Salers, and St. Flour. Olivet and Queville come within the color scheme, and sundry others such as Champoléon, Journiac, Queyras and Sarraz.
Of English Blues there are several celebrities beside Stilton and Cheshire Stilton. Wensleydale was one in the early days, and still is, together with Blue Dorset, the deepest green of them all, and esoteric Blue Vinny, a choosey cheese not liked by everybody, the favorite of Thomas Hardy.
Sheila Hibben once wrote in The New Yorker:
I can't imagine any difference of opinion about Brie's being the queen of all cheeses, and if there is any such difference, I shall certainly ignore it. The very shape of Brie—so uncheese-like and so charmingly fragile—is exciting. Nine times out of ten a Brie will let you down—will be all caked into layers, which shows it is too young, or at the over-runny stage, which means it is too old—but when you come on the tenth Brie, coulant to just the right, delicate creaminess, and the color of fresh, sweet butter, no other cheese can compare with it.
The season of Brie, like that of oysters, is simple to remember: only months with an "R," beginning with September, which is the best, bar none.
Camembert is called "mold-matured" and all that is genuine is labeled Syndicat du Vrai Camembert. The name in full is Syndicat des Fabricants du Veritable Camembert de Normandie and we agree that this is "a most useful association for the defense of one of the best cheeses of France." Its extremely delicate piquance cannot be matched, except perhaps by Brie.
Napoleon is said to have named it and to have kissed the waitress who first served it to him in the tiny town of Camembert. And there a statue stands today in the market place to honor Marie Harel who made the first Camembert.
Camembert is equally good on thin slices of apple, pineapple, pear, French "flute" or pumpernickel. As-with Brie and with oysters, Camembert should be eaten only in the "R" months, and of these September is the best.
Since Camembert rhymes with beware, if you can't get the véritable don't fall for a domestic imitation or any West German abomination such as one dressed like a valentine in a heart-shaped box and labeled "Camembert—Cheese Exquisite." They are equally tasteless, chalky with youth, or choking with ammoniacal gas when old and decrepit.
The English Encyclopedia of Practical Cookery says:
Cheddar cheese is one of the kings of cheese; it is pale coloured, mellow, salvy, and, when good, resembling a hazelnut in flavour. The Cheddar principle pervades the whole cheesemaking districts of America, Canada and New Zealand, but no cheese imported into England can equal the Cheddars of Somerset and the West of Scotland.
Named for a village near Bristol where farmer Joseph Harding first manufactured it, the best is still called Farmhouse Cheddar, but in America we have practically none of this. Farmhouse Cheddar must be ripened at least nine months to a mellowness, and little of our American cheese gets as much as that. Back in 1695 John Houghton wrote that it "contended in goodness (if kept from two to five years, according to magnitude) with any cheese in England."
Today it is called "England's second-best cheese," second after Stilton, of course.
In early days a large cheese sufficed for a year or two of family feeding, according to this old note: "A big Cheddar can be kept for two years in excellent condition if kept in a cool room and turned over every other day."
But in old England some were harder to preserve: "In Bath... I asked one lady of the larder how she kept Cheddar cheese. Her eyes twinkled: 'We don't keep cheese; we eats it.'"