Saturday, September 11, 2010

Wallowing in Cheese

I've never had a sweet tooth.  I suppose you could say I have a fat tooth; I'll choose fried food over sugar every time.  My favorite fatty food, though, is cheese.

By cheese, I don't mean that gluey, anonymous, bright yellow stuff you find draped over fast-food burgers or shredded in a cheap taco.  Nor do I mean the pallid, grainy, fat-free versions of cheese meant to assuage worries about our cholesterol.  Real cheese is not pre-sliced, canned under pressure, or dehydrated.  Real cheese looks and smells like food.  It's labeled with information about the country and type of animal it came from.  Real cheese needs only a little fruit or wine or top-quality bread to qualify as as ambrosia, and real cheese with fruit AND wine AND top-quality bread is even better.

When I used to live in New York, my favorite cheese (available at my local market) was triple-creme brie with cranberry chutney wrapped in puff pastry.  A few minutes in the oven and the puff pastry was brown and flaky and dissolved in the mouth, while the ripe, succulent brie and the tart, ginger-spiced chutney were melting together inside.  I think I was supposed to cut dainty little slices and smear them on bread or a cracker, but I usually just dived in with a knife and fork.  Cheese - it's what's for dinner!

Now that I no longer have access to tarted-up brie, I've turned to cheese plates.  My vision of heaven is a white-tablecloth restaurant where the dessert selection includes a cheese cart, complete with a waiter who explains that this cheese over here comes from happy cows and goats who only graze on the south side of a hill in France, and that it's sweeter than usual because the milk was taken in the springtime when the grass was particularly fresh and sprinkled with wild herbs.

Making a cheese plate for myself is a thoroughly sensual experience, too.  I use a plain but attractive plate.  I choose three or four different cheeses - maybe a savory Manchego, a soft creamy goat cheese, and a slightly smelly bleu - and crisp apple slices or dried figs and apricots or grapes or cherries if they're in season.  Sometimes I use bread, sometimes crackers, sometimes neither.  Maybe I'll add dried mango chutney or ripe olives, green olives stuffed with garlic or odd smokey little Japanese pickles.  I try to pick flavors that will enhance each other instead of fighting.  For instance, Barry is fond of Rondele soft cheese with garlic and herbs.  It's OK, in my opinion, but nothing special - UNLESS it's served with Carr's Whole Wheat Crackers.  On their own, they taste like a less-sweet version of American graham crackers, but together they and the Rondele are much more than the sum of the parts.  Try them and see!

After assembling the ingredients for my cheese plate, I arrange them in beautiful patterns with contrasting colors and textures next to each other.  Yes, I could just heap them on the plate and dig in, but I find that making food look as attractive as possible is a pleasant and calming activity that increases my ultimate enjoyment of the meal.  Maybe it's a little like Christmas - deferred gratification followed by an orgy of satisfaction.

And now, if you'll excuse me, I think I hear a piece of gruyere calling my name.

I could never be a vegan.

"Cheese is milk's leap towards immortality."  - Clifton Fadiman

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