Is there more to a cheese board than a bit of cheddar and camembert? Want to expand your cheese-tasting repertoire but are put off by the smell of old socks? Here is everything you ever wanted to know about cheese!
For a dairy nation we’re surprisingly conservative in our cheese eating. Ari Acton, the “big cheese” for Nosh food stores, has some tips for broadening our horizons.
What is there to be afraid of?
There’s a world of cheese out there and now much more of it is available in New Zealand. Restrictions on importing unpasteurised or raw milk cheese were relaxed two years ago. That allowed the “hero” French blue cheese roquefort on to our shelves and that is now being followed by an increasing stream of other traditionally made and tasty European cheeses.
Cheese here is generally made from pasteurised milk, to reduce the risk of salmonella or listeria. But, Acton says, raw milk cheese now imported has been subject to rigorous testing and is perfectly safe for eating. He adds that unpasteurised cheese has to be made from extremely high quality milk, usually much better than that used in pasteurised cheese.
The taste of a raw milk cheese will not wildly vary from a pasteurised version of the same cheese, Acton says. The raw version should have subtle, more complex flavours, and, he says, you will be able to taste the seasonal differences in the milk. “If the grass is greener and wetter, that will come through in the cheese.”
Where do we start?
Easy. Roquefort, says Acton. He puts it in the “must try before you die” category of foods, even if you’re not a blue cheese fan. “It has a romance to it,” says Acton. “From the famous caves in which it is aged [like champagne, roquefort can only be called so if it’s from a specific geographical area], to the raw sheep’s milk it is made from, it has such a story to it.” And let’s not forget the taste: subtly salty, sweet and smoky all at once. But if that doesn’t “roque” your world there are other legendary raw milk cheeses coming into the country now, such as brie de meaux.
At present what is available is generally from large-scale producers but that will change as demand increases.
Do we make unpasteurised cheese here?
Some Kiwi artisan producers are starting to, in very small quantities, says Acton, but the problem is access to raw milk in sufficient quantities. But again, he predicts that could change as demand grows.
But isn’t cheese bad for us?
The thing to remember is a little of a really good cheese goes a long way. And mix it up a little. Sheep’s milk cheese is high in fat but low in cholesterol. And it’s a good option for those who are lactose intolerant, as is goat cheese. Don’t waste your time with the low-fat versions.
So how do I eat it?
Unpasteurised or not, the same rule applies: “Don’t complicate it,” says Acton.
“You want to be able to taste the specific flavours of the cheese.”
He thinks plain French bread makes the best accompaniment if you must have something as it won’t overpower the cheese. And when you’re putting together a cheese board, think about contrasts rather than complements.
“Maybe go for something sharp like provolone picante, with a creamy brie. Think about contrasts in texture as well as flavour.”
And most cheeses pair well with fruit like crisp white pear or grapes.
How do I pick a wine match for my new favourite cheese?
Like any food and wine it’s more about personal preference than rules, so experiment but, as a rough guide, Acton suggests port and heavier wines with nuttier, harder cheeses and a lighter red or white wine with softer, creamier cheeses so the acidity cuts through the fat.