Moldy Cheese, Please
If you are from the United States and travel, you may have noticed that food always tastes better in other countries. Have you had poutine in America and said, "meh" only to try it in Canada and have your mind blown? Have you traveled to Europe and realized you have never tasted real cheese before? I have, and I want to talk about it because, my fellow Americans, we are getting ripped off. World Travelers- if you want "blow your socks off" cheeses, the United States is not the place.
To be fair, we do have tasty cheeses that are great for snacking. I am a charcuterie-phile. If there is a cheese plate on the menu, I order it. I have had cheese from the East Coast to the West Coast and from Wisconsin, south to Texas. I never touch cheese with cellulose or pre-shredded bagged cheese. I only eat real cheese. If I can find it raw, I buy it. This is the best. But in all of my cheesy adventures, American cheeses, although good, do not rise to the gastronomic pinnacle of what I would consider high caliber cheese. What we have is more akin to tangy cubed milk.
I didn't realize that I was missing out until we were welcomed into a home in the town of Tours, France, and given a most glorious traditional French feast where we ate so much I literally felt like I was going to vomit. But I couldn't stop eating because everything was so exquisite. We had the traditional Cassoulet with Canard Confit, beautiful wines from the Loire Valley, and cheese. Moldy ass, scary-looking cheese the likes of which I had never seen before. Soft cheese logs rolled in ash to give a greyish hue to the mold-covered rind.
I thought this cheese would surely send me into anaphylactic shock. I am a lover of Blue Cheese, Stilton, and Roquefort. We have all of these in the refrigerator section at the local market. But this cheese had been proudly molded on our host's countertop for weeks. I was afraid. We just don't do that in America. Mold is to be controlled, on the inside of cheeses that are shrink-wrapped in plastic. We are warned to throw away moldy food, for eating it will surely end in your demise.
If nothing else, I am polite. I kindly accepted the cheese plate, as did my husband and children, and we tentatively sampled our way around the dish in the recommended rotation so as not to overpower our taste buds with the strongest flavors first. Wow!!!! I had never tasted anything like it. The mold presented as a delicious nuttiness here and an earthy creaminess there. Amazing. I had goat's milk cheeses before, but never like this. Fast forward to cheese tasting in Portugal, and we are blown away by Queijo de Évora, a semi-hard cheese made from sheep's milk. What was going on here, and why had I not had the pleasure of excellent cheese before?
Well, many factors play into the United States' desolate cheese landscape, the number one being pasteurization. There are also constraints on cheese producers here that European farmers do not face. And finally, Americans, I believe, just don't know what they are missing and don't know
to look for the good stuff to support the quality producers here in the States. I am going to put on my cheese snob hat now. If you have yellow American Cheese in your refrigerator wrapped in excessive plastic that will end up in a landfill, you need to branch out. I used to be you. I would make my kids' grilled cheese with Velveeta or American prewrapped slices; I was lost. But slowly, I found my way to the land of cheese and honey. If this sounds like you, there is hope to attaining cheese nirvana. Start small and grate your own cheese instead of using bagged cheeses, tasteless and awash in cellulose. Steer clear of artificially colored cheeses dyed with annatto, which also, incidentally, is used to dye fabric. Reach for the local cheese in the deli section. Be adventurous and try strong cheeses and cut the bitterness with pepper jelly or nice, tart fruit. Or pair with sweet wines- like a luscious honey-colored Sauterne with a Bleu Cheese. Your mouth will sing! Then, adventure further out and reach for a variety of milk cheeses.
One of the reasons that we do not have some of the luxurious flavors of European cheeses is the high cost of alternative dairy farming. Sheep's milk has twice the fat and protein of cow's milk, making an exquisite and popular cheese base for cheesemakers. But, sheep are stingy milk producers, and meat and wool sheep are not ideal for dairy, producing less milk. When the mad cow scare happened, the US banned imports of sheep and sheep semen, which made it hard for sheep farmers to acquire higher yield breeds. Instead, they made do with domestic sheep, but the costs were high, and many farmers could not turn a profit (Fletcher, 2016). If you have never had a raw sheep's milk cheese, you are missing out. To get close, reach for the Roquefort or fresh grate some Pecorino Romano on your spaghetti instead of that cellulose laden cheese from a shaker cylinder. In fact. Please don't ever buy that again! The cost of the fresh cheese is higher but you will use less and taste more than with the pre-grated stuff.
The final and probably the most important reason your poutine lacks pizazz is the pasteurized milk used in the United States. Essentially, your cheese is dead. Europeans use different pasteurization techniques but they also allow for living cheeses. Cheeses where delicious molds can grow and flourish, imbibe the food with nuanced flavor notes not attainable in the United States. For instance, you are a brie lover. If you have only had brie in America, chances are that you have never really tasted the genuine article! The creamy, velvety, meltfully delicious brie in Europe is aged unpasteurized and aged 30-40 days. American raw cheeses must be aged a minimum of 60 days, meaning you have not eaten true brie (Björnson, 2018). We won't even get into the controversial use of the antifungal, natamycin, which is used as a mold inhibitor in many American cheese products (Khamsi, 2014). Whole Foods, the supermarket giant ban this additive. So what can we do when we are locked in a country and have uniform cheese blocks and bagged artificially colored cheeses crammed down our throats?
Look beyond the dairy fridge and buy quality from the deli section, visit and support cheese shoppes, make your own cheeses when possible, buy from local farmers who sell raw milk cheeses, and most of all travel and experience cheeses around the world whenever you can. There are also cheese of the month clubs that will send you a variety of cheeses from artisan craftsmen. The holidays are coming! Celebrate with cheese! Gift cheese! And remember, not all mold is bad mold, and sometimes, the moldier, the better!
Ashraf, S. (2019, May 31). Cheeses from around the world everyone needs to try. The Daily Meal. https://www.thedailymeal.com/travel/cheese-around-the-world-everyone-should-try
Björnson, Z. (2018, April 18). Everything you need to know about pasteurized vs. raw milk cheese. USA Today. https://www.10best.com/interests/food-culture/everything-you-need-to-know-about-pasteurized-vs-raw-milk-cheese/
Fletcher, J. (2016, Dec 27). Sheep’s Milk Cheeses in U.S. Earn Ribbons but Little Profit. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/27/dining/american-sheep-cheese.html#:~:text=Although%20consumers%20in%20the%20United,priced%20domestic%20alternatives%20remain%20scarce.
Khamsi, R. (2014, Dec 12). Fungal Bungle. Slate Magazine. https://slate.com/human-interest/2014/12/natamycin-safety-whole-foods-has-banned-it-but-what-does-the-science-say.html