December 4, 2013

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Are you stuck in a cheese rut? Do you want to break out of your boring cheddar routine and explore the landscape of great cheeses, but don’t know how to start?

Here are some suggestions for getting started. Most of these are baby steps; they won’t take you from yawn to wow, but they’ll help you get on your way to expanding your cheese horizons.

If you like cheddar, you may also like …

Fromage de L’Abbaye de Belloc, a semi-hard cheese made from unpasteurized Pyrénées sheep’s milk by Benedictine monks.

There’s a hint of butterscotch on the nose, and the flavor is buttery and smooth. “What I like about this is its silkiness,” said Vince Maniaci of The Cheese Iron. “It’s a rock solid, medium-bodied cheese. If this were a wine, it would be a Burgundian pinot noir. It just has a lot of elegance. There’s this earthiness, which is great. It pairs well with so many different wines.”

Sartori BellaVitano Rum Runner, a Wisconsin cheese that’s washed in rum. It’s similar to cheddar but a little different, with a sweet-and-salty flavor.

“A lot of people will ask for crunchy cheese,” said Whole Foods’ Shannon Tallman, “and there’s these little enzyme bits, these little protein deposits that form as the cheese ages.”

This line, which is exclusive to Whole Foods, also includes a “regular” version and versions flavored with espresso and balsamic.

If you like Brie, you may also like …

Brillat-Savarin. If you’re used to a single creme Brie, try a double creme or a triple creme like Brillat-Savarin, which has been around since the 1930s. The cheese is named after the 18th-century food writer Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, who wrote “The Physiology of Taste” (translated by M.F.K. Fisher).

“On its own, it’s too much for me,” Maniaci said. “It’s buttery, it’s salty. But on a cracker, on a baguette, or something like a toasted nut bread, it transforms it.”

Or you could pair it with champagne, which cuts the fattiness and fits in nicely at a holiday party.

Harbison by Jasper Hill Farm in Vermont is a bloomy-rind cheese wrapped in a piece of spruce. Tallman thinks it tastes like a cheese sandwich with French’s yellow mustard. It’s one of her favorites.

If you like manchego, you may also like …

Idiazabal, a distant cousin of Manchego, which is an aged sheep’s milk cheese made in the La Mancha region of Spain. Manchego is very popular now, Tallman notes, which means it can overshadow other smoked cheeses made from sheep’s milk. Idiazabal is a lightly smoked sheep’s cheese that’s produced in the Basque region of Spain.

“It’s probably the hardest thing to pronounce outside of Gruyere,” Tallman joked.

Traditionally, this cheese was made by nomadic shepherds. During summer, the sheep grazed on new grass way up on the mountainsides. The shepherds would milk them, then make and store the cheese in their huts. The Idiazabal stayed there all summer, so the wood fires in the huts imparted a mild, smoky flavor to the cheese.

If you like plain American goat cheese, you may also like…

Bonne Bouche (which means “good mouthful”), an odd-looking, ash-ripened goat cheese from Vermont Creamery that’s reminiscent of Loire Valley goat cheeses in France. The cheese is sprinkled with tree ash, and the rind forms naturally over it. It’s packaged in its own wooden box, where it can be left to age for a while.

This cheese may look like something you forgot about in the back of the refrigerator, but it has won a lot of awards and is one of the most popular of its kind on the market. It is bright, not goaty, and develops more robust flavor with age.

Pantaleo, a versatile, nutty, aged goat cheese recommended by Maniaci. “This is a Sardinian goat’s milk cheese, and the flavor is out of this world,” he said. “It has this beautiful pistachio sweetness to it.”

If you like Gruyere, you may also like…

Appenzeller, a smooth, alpine-style cheese available only in winter. The affineur, Tallman says, is Rolf Beeler, also known as “the cheese pope.”

Tallman recommends cutting Appenzeller in long slices so that each piece has a little rind. “There are some cheeses where you can’t let any piece go to waste,” she said.

– Meredith Goad

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