December 4, 2013

Soup to Nuts: Say cheese for the holidays

From mild to bold, gooey to hard, the ever-growing number of varieties available locally boggles the mind. Here’s a primer.

By Meredith Goad
Staff Writer

Cheese has become a much more popular addition to the holiday table, but standing in front of a cheese counter these days is like standing in the cereal aisle at the grocery store – so many choices, the head starts to spin.

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At The Cheese Iron in Scarborough, truffled cheeses, far left, and cave-aged taleggio from the Lombardy region of Italy are served with oven-roasted tomatoes.

Photos by Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

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Colston Bassett English Stilton at The Cheese Iron.The Colston Bassett dairy has had only four cheesemakers in its 100 years of existence.

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If you’re unsure about what kind of cheese to buy, how to serve it, and whether to pair it with crackers or fruit (or leave it naked), don’t be afraid to ask questions of the cheesemaker or cheesemonger. That’s what they’re there for, and a little knowledge goes a long way. If there’s a cheese you’re interested in, be bold and ask for a small taste; that’s standard procedure these days.

This year I’ve done some advance work for you. I’d like to pretend that this was a terrible hardship and bask in the glow of your admiration, but I’d be lying, of course. Good cheese is one of my favorite things, and the main reason I could never be a vegan. When my time comes, I’m sure they’ll find me clutching some sort of moldy French stinky cheese.

I asked a couple of local experts to offer some suggestions for cheeses to serve your guests.

The first expert is known by cheese junkies everywhere in southern Maine: Vince Maniaci, proprietor (along with his wife, Jill Dutton) of The Cheese Iron in Scarborough.

The second is Shannon Tallman, cheese buyer at Whole Foods, who recently became a certified cheese professional. That’s kind of like becoming a cheese sommelier, and to do it she had to pass a written test with 150 questions and sample more than 100 cheeses in four days. (Where do I sign up?)

All of their suggestions can be found in their own stores, of course, but many of them are also available at any well-stocked local cheese shop. Both of these stores also carry lots of local cheeses, but if Maine cheeses are mainly what you want, K. Horton Specialty Foods in the Public Market House has a large selection.

Let’s jump right in and start off with some simple suggestions for your holiday table. I’ll follow that up with some advice on pairing cheese with crackers and fruit; suggestions for expanding your cheese horizons; and end by telling the story of some cheeses that will give you something to talk about at your holiday party:

Maniaci’s first recommendation is easy and affordable. Take an almond-flavored Ricciarelli (a gluten-free Italian cookie), top it with a dollop of mascarpone (a creamy Italian cheese you can find at any grocery store) and maybe a little raspberry preserves. Delicious.

Or try toasting some Pannetone, a traditional Italian sweetbread loaf available everywhere during the holidays, and smear it with some mascarpone or fresh, creamy sheep’s milk cheese.

Sheep’s milk cheese is “better for your heart, too, because it’s high in alpha linolenic acids,” Maniaci said. “A lot of dietitians in Europe will recommend 50 grams of sheep’s milk and/or alpine cheese because of its lanolin properties. That’s good for the arterial lining of your heart.”

From good-for-you to good golly: Take some Camembert out of the fridge and, while it’s still cold, cut it in half and add some slivered almonds and Adriatic fig jam. Then put it back together, double dredge it in egg wash and panko bread crumbs, and deep fry about four minutes or until golden brown. The oil should be at 375 degrees.

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Additional Photos

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Truffled cheeses at The Cheese Iron in Scarborough

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Ricciarelli with mascarpone cheese and cranberry chutney at The Cheese Iron


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