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Navigate the Cheese Aisle with This Simple Tip

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Oh, cheese. Ooey, gooey, tangy, sharp, smoky, smelly cheese. It’s my ultimate comfort, a supportive friend at the end of a long week. But, when I wander down my grocery store’s cheese aisle, or glance at a dessert menu’s cheese list, butterflies in my chest accelerate to hummingbird speeds. I know I like Brie. Havarti is my preferred night cheese. Cheddar tastes like childhood. But I’m not fluent in cheese, and fancy names and labels utterly confound me.

James Ransom
James Ransom Photo by James Ransom
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Which is why I’m grateful for food stylist and writer Suzanne Lenzer, whose new book Graze guides readers from dish to dish without committing to a single one, and brings me one step closer to cheese competence. In order to navigate the American and European cheese divide, Lenzer shares a lesson from a cheesemonger friend (Where can I get one of those??).

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“European cheese names encompass a broad array of eating experiences, while American cheeses have one name for each cheese,” she writes. “Meaning, you may like Manchego, but what you've enjoyed could have been a young, aged, or even an oil-cured version—ostensibly three very different cheeses.”

While American cheeses are individually identified by the maker and a unique name, European cheeses may have the same name, origin, and look, but taste and feel entirely different. When sampling European cheeses, it’s best keep in mind that the rind (fresh, bloomy, washed, etc.) and milk (cow, goat, sheep) are just two of the flavor components. The rest is a fun experiment.

Photo by James Ransom

If you like predictability (hey, we all have those days), you can stick to your American brand until the cows come home. Everything should remain the same, with the exception of seasonal or processing changes.

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Empowered with this knowledge, I’m going to brave the cheese counter, explore the funky and fresh, and learn to speak cheese.

Will you join me in #fearlessfromage? If you have any gouda recommendations, let us know in the comments!

Tags: picking cheese, american cheese, european cheese