Cheese is one of the oldest traditional pre-prepared foods you can buy , but when it comes to selecting the best you need patience, intuition and a little experience. There are no strict rules on how to get it right but here are a few tips that should help.
Where to shop:
For a start you are unlikely to find great examples of delicious artisan and farmhouse cheese amongst the pre cut plastic wrapped wedges at your local supermarket. Making any meaningful cheese selection requires a visit to a reliable specialist retailer, or alternatively a cheese maker that sells directly through a cellar door. A guide to the best is the display which should include a range of whole natural rinded cheeses rather than row upon row of waxed or rectangular vacuum packed blocks.
Be prepared for a complete sensory experience when you walk though the door and remember that buying great cheese is not something that can be hurried.
What to buy:
Every hand made cheese varies from day to day and season to season and has a story of where and when it was made. The opportunity to learn about its origins and taste before you buy is an important element in making any selection. Good cheese begins with the quality milk it is made from, and the seasons have a significant influence on this. Few great cheeses are ever made in the middle of winter, or in the hottest months of the summer when green feed is sometimes in short supply. Hand made cheeses vary for many other reasons, these include the skill of the cheese maker and the age and conditions under which the cheese is matured.
How much to buy:
If you love good cheese its very hard not to get carried away when surrounded by a large temping range, but buying any natural ripening cheese is something that should be done as close as possible to when you want to use it. My advice is to keep your selection simple, at least limited to three or four cheeses. Choosing a single cheese in great condition is often a far better option than serving a few mediocre types, and has the added advantage of being easy to match with a wine.
Where to store at home:
Temperature and humidity play a crucial role in both maturation and storage of natural cheese, and the ideal conditions are difficult to replicate at home. Unless you have a cool damp cellar with a constant temperature the best place to keep any cheese after you have purchased it is in the vegetable compartment of your fridge.
How to wrap:
Never suffocate natural rind cheeses in layers of plastic film wrap. Instead keep them in the original box or packaging, and keep any cuts from whole wheels wrapped in a wax paper similar to that used by all professional retailers. This will allow the cheese to breathe and avoid it sweating. The exception is blue cheese which can be wrapped in foil.
There is no point in spending a lot of time selecting great tasting cheese if you then serve it at the wrong temperature.
The golden rule is to never serve cold cheese straight from the fridge. Avoid ‘shocking’ your cheese by frequent temperature changes. If cheese is kept too warm it will ooze and sweat, and feel mushy and soft. It will usually also smell too strong, if it is kept too cold the signs are less obvious but it can taste bland and boring.
Cheese can be brought to the optimum serving temperature after it has been removed from the fridge, simply by placing it wrapped in wax paper or its original wrap under a damp clean linen tea towel for 2 - 3 hours.