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Say Cheese!

By Amy Lively Jensen

I admit to being a cheese head; a certified cheese-a-holic. I believe that cheese enhances everything.

There are three things I’m great at:
1.Sipping wine
2. Savoring cheese
3. Drinking wine while eating cheese
For those of you who match my skills, or will consider the possibility, read on…

Do you feel guilty when indulging in wine and cheese? In moderation, we don’t have to, according to reputable research. As you probably know, many respected studies trumpet the benefits of limited daily red wine consumption, including boosting brain function. Now we’ve got ammunition against regretting our cheese pairing. Last year a UK-based study published its findings which concluded that cheese was found to thwart cognitive decline as participants got older. This was based on four years of testing nearly 1800 people. Also, according to a 2015 Danish study, cheese (and dairy products in general) could work to protect your teeth from cavities. The worrisome fat content can be offset by controlling the size of your portions. I don’t mean to minimize the possible risks of consuming large quantities of cheese, but at least there are some benefits that may counterbalance the negatives a bit.

The actual time and place of the origin of cheese and cheesemaking is unknown, according to the National Historic Cheesemaking Center. However, the art of cheesemaking is referred to in ancient Greek mythology, and evidence of cheesemaking has been found on Egyptian tomb murals dating back over 4,000 years. By the time of the Roman Empire, hundreds of varieties of cheese were being produced and traded in Europe and the Middle East. North and South America had no cheese or cheesemaking until much later when it was introduced by European immigrants in the 17th century.

In my quest to discover the finer points about cheese, I interviewed Randall Felts, owner of Beautiful Rind Specialty Cheese Shop in Chicago. This knowledgeable, engaging cheese monger shared his passion and expertise about cheese. ‘I find it endlessly fascinating,” he said. “There’s not a week that goes by that I don’t learn something. Our idea is to pair people and cheese.” In addition to being a retail cheese shop, Beautiful Rind has a restaurant, wines, and classrooms. They opened in April of 2019; he got his license the day before the shelter in place order was issued. Determined to make his new business stay afloat, they pivoted their marketing plan to focus on pick up and delivery; their classrooms became broadcast studios. He offered a cheese monger virtual series where customers got cheeses and wines in advance, and he and other experts gave classes and tastings. Randall created creative cheese and charcuterie boards, paired with fun, interesting varietals of unique wines. In house, they made special accompaniments like pineapple coconut curd, sweet potato ginger jam, bourbon orange marmalade, rhubarb lavender jam and salted chocolate stout ganache. They also started a Cheese Nerd Club providing a monger curated selection of cheeses, garnishes and wine with a theme and education. Now that Beautiful Rind is open to the public, Randall says: “Nothing brings me more joy than to see people sitting at the counter or table, with cheese lighting up a smile on their faces.”

Randall explained their name, Beautiful Rind. “Cheesemakers take great care to nurture a rind that flavors and matures the milky alchemy lying just below the surface. This obsession showcases the life of the cheese and all the love that went into its delicious creation.” How do you know when to eat the rind? “When rinds are white and fluffy, eat them; if they are orange, don’t eat them,” When selecting cheese, make sure its texture is smooth; it should not have cracks or mold, and not be hardened or discolored. To know when your cheese has reached the end of its life, look for smell, appearance.

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and taste. Depending on the type of cheese, one sign of spoiled cheese is an “off” smell; this scent can be of spoiled milk or ammonia. If you are unfamiliar with cheese, you may get worried that there are small amounts of surface mold, and think it needs to be discarded. Try trimming ¼ inch off the side that is growing mold. If the cheese under that is clean, then it should be OK. However, if the entire piece is covered in thick mold, it just may not be worth keeping. Other indicators that your cheese is not fresh are sliminess, oil, or puffed-up packaging. As a last resort, you may have to eat a piece of the cheese to tell if it is over the hill. Only try a tiny bite, large enough to get the flavor. If it tastes sour or has an unpleasant aftertaste, you’ll know to toss it. If you eat your cheese by the date on the label, or within a few days of buying it, it will be at its best. Making friends with your cheese monger and asking their opinion is the most reliable, advises Randall.

Randall had recommendations about the best way to taste a cheese and wine pairing. First, take the cheese out of the fridge an hour before serving. Leave the cheese in the wrapper and then unwrap it when you’re ready to eat it. Your next step, according to Randall is to taste the wine. Then chew the cheese and hold it on your tongue and the roof of your mouth. This will bring more flavors alive and turn on your taste receptors. Finally, sip the wine again to see what the cheese’s taste does to the wine’s taste.

For many of us, pairing wine and cheese can be quite challenging. Laura Werlin, a James Beard Award-winning author of six books on cheese, says that pairing them together “is really about having fun. Don’t let your head get in the way.” She says that one simple rule is to be aware of a wine’s acidity. “The least successful pairings are most likely to happen with super oaky, low-acid wines. Cheese tends to bring out the tannins in oak. What you’re looking for in the wine is some degree of acidity to cut through the richness of the cheese.”

Food and Wine magazine compiled some tips that can get us started off right. Bold red wines pair best with aged cheeses. The fat content in the cheese counteracts the high tannins in the wine. Try a Cabernet Sauvignon with an aged Cheddar so their flavors will match, instead of one drowning out the other. Light crisp white wines often call for fresher cheeses; you can easily pair zesty, citrusy Sauvignon Blanc with tangy goat’s milk cheeses like chevre or feta. Sparkling wines are incredible with soft, creamy cheeses. Sparkling wines have high acidity and carbonation, which offer a palate-cleansing effect. Try bubbles and Brie or Cava and Camembert. The crisp, red fruit in a Provence Rose’ is a favorite of many. As it is delicate, pair it with the mellow flavor you find in a Havarti cheese. You can also try a Pinot Noir Rose’ with Fontina cheese. For your grand finale, try a blue cheese with tawny port. The sweeter the wine, the saltier the cheese needs to be.

Cheese is a magical ingredient that a lot of people consider to be one of life’s greatest pleasures. It’s delicious whether eaten alone or paired with wine. For me, cheese is the ultimate comfort food. Admittedly, I was probably a mouse in a previous life!

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