Calaveras Enterprise

Great tastes combine on fine plates

Stilton (PDO) has been made since the 1700s, a flavorful addition to any cheese selection.

Stilton (PDO) has been made since the 1700s, a flavorful addition to any cheese selection.

It’s time to celebrate food. Finding that something extra special that makes your taste buds zing and your guests compliment your choices is a good thing during the holidays. For cheese lovers, nothing is finer than presenting a beautiful selection of cheeses to pair with favorite wines. It’s the simplest of all pleasures and it’s not so difficult to do.

During the holidays, cheese cases are abundantly stocked with old classics and many new and interesting cheeses to taste and try. I like to search out an extra-special cheese that is only available during this season, or one that is a rare find. The hunt is the fun.

Here are some guidelines for making those selections. After all, when faced with 100 cheeses, how do you go about narrowing them down to your perfect choice? Here’s some help.

Pick four cheeses for your plate and plan on serving 3 ounces of cheese total for each person. That means that for eight people, you’ll buy 24 ounces (1.5 pounds) of flavorful fun. This means buying 6 to 8 ounces of each cheese. If you have a wee bit too much, enjoy the leftovers. I always do.



To narrow down the choices at your local cheese case, first of all, read the label to make sure you’re buying all natural cheese and not processed cheese. While it may melt well, processed cheese is full of salts and other preservatives, emulsifiers and gums. They are low on flavors since the milk is cooked, flavored and can’t be aged.

Labels on real cheeses will include much fewer ingredients like milk, culture, enzymes and salt. Those four ingredients are the basis of natural cheese-making. Other ingredients may include vinegar, lemon, natural herbs and spices; basically, items you could eat with a spoon.

Then be like Sherlock Holmes at the cheese case and search. Scour the case to see what’s there. Read labels and the signage. Cheese labels are usually quite attractive and feature valuable descriptions. It’s good to shop where the cheeses are well-organized and grouped together to give you some direction. However, it’s still a challenge, so I’ve paraphrased an old bride’s mantra to help you collect the perfect variety on your plate: “Something old, something new; something creamy and something blue.”

Selecting one cheese from each of those categories should give you quite a lovely selection. Keep the labels to remember the names, too; your guests may want to know where that fantastic new cheddar is made.

  • Something old: Look for an ancient cheese that has been made for centuries. If it’s been around so long it has staying power, it’s probably magnificent. The Alpines (mountain cheeses) are safe bets. My choice would be Ossau Iraty (oh-so ear-ahty) from the French Pyrenees in Basque country. This is a nutty, deep-flavored raw sheep’s milk cheese that has been made by the ancient Basque people for millennia. If you like Le Gruyere or Comte, then you’ll love this treasure.
  • Something new: Yulekase from Beecher’s Handmade Cheese in Seattle means “Christmas cheese,” and has been made for holiday release over the past three years. It uses award-winning Flagship Cheddar, which is so special because it’s made with gruyere and cheddar cultures. During aging it is rubbed with local honey and red wine to give it a savory, sweet flavor that pairs beautifully with Ports, rich red wines and oaked Chardonnays. It could become your next holiday food tradition.
  • Something creamy: Mt. Tam from Cowgirl Creamery in Point Reyes bests them all in thick, creamy richness. It’s a triple-cream, soft-ripened butterball, which means it’s got 70 percent butterfat in the dry matter. Triple yum! These buttery cheeses have a hint of mushroom and pleasant saltiness. Look around to find others like Brillat Savarin, Delice de Bourgogne or St. Angel. Buy them when they’re fluffy and white, with no hint of an ammonia scent. Take two to three hours to bring them to room temperature before you serve them and you’ll have a divine experience.
  • Something blue: Of course, at this time of year, I must choose the one and only Stilton PDO made in England since the 1700s in only three counties: Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire and Leicestershire. It’s made with extra cream added and has a rich and savory flavor that goes with big thick Ports, full-bodied reds and late-harvest, higher-alcohol wines. Made from aromatic summer milk, then aged five months, Stilton is at peak flavor at this time of year. Its venerable taste is as impressive as the history of the British Empire. You’ll be choosing royalty with this cheese, so relax and savor the lovely, mouthwatering crumbles of Stilton and pass the Port, please.

With this advice in mind, go happily search for fine specialty and artisan cheeses for you and your guests. Happy cheese year to all.

Judy Creighton conducts Second Sunday Cheese and Wine Tastings from 2 to 3 p.m. at the Lavender Ridge Vineyard Tasting Room in Murphys, seated tastings with four cheeses and wines for $20. Reserve at 728-2441.

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