Saturday, February 13, 2010

Cheese 101

Last semester, the preceptorial gods decided to throw me a bone. It has been nearly four years of being slighted, after all, so I assumed it was about time. They granted me access to no, not the Wine Tasting preceptorial (I wasn't nearly favored enough for that) but the less famed Cheese Tasting preceptorial. And to hold the class the week before finals was so kind of them! I procrastinated studying finals by attending this preceptorial and this is what I learned:

Cheese: A Penn/Tria Rundown

The Fromager, Jenny Harris, from Tria came. The room smelled rank. She apologized.

She distinguished between styles of cheeses -- the first being fresh. To be classified as fresh, the cheese has to have no rind and be less than 60 days old. Examples include feta, mozzarella, and goat. They are often acidic and pair beautifully with beets. Goat cheese pairs well with white wine and wheat beers.

Then she further differentiated cheeses by their rinds. They can be bloomy (white on the outside). Camembert would be an example. These pair well with sparkling wines. The rind is formed by washing the outside of the cheese with penicillin. And yes, the rind is edible. This question was asked multiple times. And every time she said yes.

You can also have a rind washed with fortified wine, which would be termed an epoisse. They are often pungent. They pair well with honey and dessert wine. She also informed us that you could wash your own cheeses at home with beer! Cool! She recommended washing a Camembert with a Porter. Apparently the results are phenomenal. I might give this a go and report back.

Uncooked and pressed cheeses often have a nutty, olive oil flavor and are not nearly as pungent as those with a bloomy rind.
A cooked press cheese, on the other hand, is aged longer and tends to be more dense and sweeter. They pair well with bold red wines. Examples include Gouda, Parmesan and Cheddar. (Side note: the only thing that makes cheddar orange is dye. There is no difference in taste between white and orange cheddar.)
(Side note 2: "to cheddar" refers to the process of cutting curds into blocks and stacking them).

Then we got to the good ol' Bleu cheeses. These are fantastic paired with honey. It brought out a whole new flavor when the two were combined. To get the bleu in bleu cheese, the cheese is punctured with needles so air is introduced throughout the cheese which produces mold -- the bleu. She noted that you can tell a commercialized bleu cheese because the bleu/mold will be in perfect rows throughout the cheese. Rather than let the mold grow naturally, manufacturers inject the mold directly into the cheese. Sick, I know.
Bleu cheeses should be paired with something sweet (I highly recommend honey) and with dessert wines or a chocolate stout.

She was very adamant that cheese should always be tasted at room temperature.

Inspired by this knowledge, my roommates and I threw an informal cheese tasting party with cheeses from Winter Harvest. We had a grand time but couldn't say our palates were refined enough to speak knowingly about the flavor complexities. See the picture above for an idea of the cheeses we tried. We tried Birchrun Hills Farm "Fat Cat" -- a raw milk cheese aged a mininmum of sixty days. The "Birchrun Bleu" we all agreed was our favorite. It was peppery with hints of floral. Paired with honey and apples, it was a true delight. The final cheese was a "Highland Alpine" that none of us cared for. That's still sitting in our fridge. It tasted little better than store bought Swiss. But overall, the cheese tasting was a huge success. Next time, we hope to accompany the cheeses with wine pairings.

-Marianne O'Brien


  1. Winter harvest is an incredible service!!!!

  2. I know!!! My roommate started it up at Penn. It brightens up my Thursdays. The apples and goat cheese are mah favs.

  3. Wow -- who knew cheese was so interesting!!
    Question for you, Marianne: Are Brie and Blue cheese in the same "family"? (My mother and I were recently told this by a waiter.) Given your descriptions, this seems unlikely, but perhaps not...



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