Underrated Cheese

One of the questions I’m most frequently asked is “What cheese do you have at home?” The honest answer is that it’s rarely the newest, weirdest offering. Most of the time, what I eat regularly is my greatest hits list. These are the cheeses I’m most likely to recommend when cheese explorers ask for an upgrade on their old reliables. In short, this is the list no one should do without:


Italy/USA Cow Pasteurized

Recommended Brands include: Bel Gioioso, DiBruno Bros., DiStefano, Lioni Latticini, Maplebrook

I’ve never been to the Italian region of Puglia. Honestly, I’ve been told it’s sort of a food wasteland as far as Italy goes, with one powerfully seductive exception: burrata. This bulging, bursting bomb of lactic decadence is like mozzarella’s souped-up and much sexier cousin. Essentially a hollowed-out ball of mozzarella, filled with scraps and shreds of mozzarella which are sometimes soaked in cream. It’s the most perishable cheese you can import; in Italy it’s eaten on the morning of its production. You can push its life to 2 weeks, enough time to get it here on a plane and sell it in a few days before it sours, but this is challenging under the best circumstances. Accordingly, I look to several American producers who are making respectable and sometimes deliriously good approximations. The best burrata are so tender and moist, with such a thin exterior skin, that handling the baseball-sized round is risky as it’s likely to burst milky rivers of insides down your arm. This cheese is about impeccable freshness: sweet, clean milk and a slight briny finish. Nothing more, nothing less, nothing to hide behind.

Aroma: A glass of cold, fresh milk 

Texture: Tender, creamy; never chewy

Flavor: Lush milk, grassy, briny

Character: The cheese to bathe in

Greek Feta

Greece Sheep/Goat Pasteurized

Recommended brand: Mt. Vikos

In most instances, I am a big advocate for American-made cheeses. Feta is one area where I’m not. While Greek Feta is a PDO (protected designation of origin) cheese, made of a blend of sheep and goat milk, the name “feta” has been co-opted by producers in the U.S. for brined white cheese, typically pre-crumbled in cups. Most of the time, this cheese is 100% cows’ milk and bears no resemblance to the savory, sea-salty chunks of fatty, tangy feta commonly eaten throughout the day in Greece. The difference is remarkable; the original is so far superior to cheap imitators that no comparison is warranted. There are also 100% goat milk versions, but again, the fat and heft of sheep milk is part of the delicate balance that makes this cheese great. 

Aroma: Clean, deep sea

Texture: Moist and crumbly, but creamy under tooth

Flavor: Tangy, lemony, milky-rich

Character: Emminently snackable

Brie de Meaux Style Brie

France Cow Pasteurized

Recommended brands: Ferme de Jouvence Brie Fermier Jouvence; Rouzaire’s Brie de Nangis or Fromage de Meaux

Maybe the unavailability and illegality of Brie de Meaux AOC and Camembert de Normandie AOC are the reasons cheese geeks covet them and worthy imitators. They also happen to set an extreme flavor benchmark far more intense than most Brie on the market: one that smells like very slowly, lovingly, overcooked broccoli. Simmered in well-salted water. And then, a cheese that tastes savory, the finished swallow of broccoli cheese soup, but mainly fat and sweet cream. Garlicky, with rich, condensed flavor; on the exhalation a pleasantly moldy, damp hay-y whiff. Do note that actual Brie de Meaux AOC is, by French law, a raw milk cheese aged less than sixty days and is therefore not available in the States. Shops claiming to sell Brie de Meaux are not actually doing so. 

Pyrénées Sheep

Recommended Brands: Ossau Iraty PDO; Abbaye de Belloc

France Sheep (Un)pasteurized

Sheep cheeses are hardly everyday, and insofar as there is common reference cheese, Spanish Manchego or Italian pecorinos are it.  Lesser known but easily sexier and more approachable are the aged sheep cheeses of the French Pyrénées. Firm, smooth and supple, these cheeses strike a balance between fatty chew, impressions of grass and hay (without actually tasting like grass and hay), and a sweet nuttiness like NYC nut vendors in winter. Some might call them boring. I’d argue that they’re subtle and quite complex, but quietly so. 

Aroma: Hay, nutskin

Texture: Dense, moist chew

Flavor: Essentially cheese-y

Character: Delicate

 (Gruyère de) Comté

Recommended Brands: Fort St. Antoine (aging facility); Marcel Petite (the affineur at Fort St. Antoine, so essentially the same thing); Alpage (made when cows are eating summer grass, mandated for all Comté in summer). The best Comté to be found is Essex Street Comté, an American importer working with Fort St. Antoine to select to a specific flavor profile

France Cow     Raw

Comté’s production history and cycle have much in common with Gruyère. Produced in the Jura Massif region of Eastern France, Comté is both an AOC and AOP regulated cheese resulting for a careful partnership between 3,000 family farms, roughly 170 fruitieres (village dairies) and a few select affineurs. The breeds of cow whose exclusively raw milk may be used are limited to Montbéliarde and French Simmental. A strict grass diet is enforced and silage feed is not allowed. Unlike Gruyère, Comté milk is partially skimmed before heating in copper vats. The cheeses are similarly graded (top scorers get a green band, lower scorers a brown band, lowest don’t receive the Comté name) but Comté wheels may age for as long as 18 months, and sometimes more. I attribute to this massive potential age range a challenge Comté faces in the U.S. Market. It is, essentially, five cheeses in one. Younger wheels are mild to the point of timidity (worsened if you’re talking brown label young wheels), with pleasant but forgettable notes of butter and caramel. In France its intended use is for cooking but in the States the price point on Comté renders it a “special occasion eating cheese.” But even more so, is the way in which the best Comté might be described (as one monger friend puts it) as a “Saturday afternoon cheese.” You could eat it all damn day. It’s subtle, complex, unbelievably moist. The flavor is smoother and less salty than Gruyère, I find more stone fruit tendencies than beefy tendencies. Sounds great, but I believe Comté’s subtlety is lost on folks raised on “big,” “sharp” and “butt-kicking” flavor. It’s none of those things, and that’s what makes it so ephemerally delicious (it also dies quickly in plastic wrap so have it cut in front of you whenever possible).

Aroma: Warm croissants

Texture: So moist, firm yet barely knitted together

Flavor: Truly an extraordinary range, from sweet and gentle to coffee and cacao

Character: Mercurial and fascinating

Clothbound Cheddar

US/England Cow (Un)pasteurized

Recommended Brands: (American): Beecher’s Flagship Reserve, Cabot Clothbound, Flory’s Truckle. (British): Montgomery’s, Isle of Mull, Quicke’s

As compared with block Cheddar, clothbound Cheddar has flavors that are less about “sharpness” and more about complexity: earthy, caramel, brothy or fruity flavors prevail. It’s made in a wheel typically ranging from 20-60 pounds; this wheel is wrapped in muslin or similar fabric and sealed with a semi-permable fat layer, usually lard. As a result, clothbound Cheddar loses more moisture as it ages, resulting in a drier, flakier texture than block Cheddar. Accordingly, it will cost more money. Its aging (typically 9-18 months) requires flipping, brushing and hands-on maintenance that’s quite extensive. American clothbound cheddars tend toward a brown butter flavor, often with a lingering toffee or caramel finish. British clothbound cheddars, on the other hand, are often far earthier, with celery root and soil impressions. 

Aged (Goat) Gouda

Netherlands Goat Pasteurized

Recommended brand: Brabander

Aged Goudas in general are a revelation for their crunchy, crystalline texture, like some delectable crayon. That plus butterscotch and bourbon flavors makes them practical no-brainers. Aged goat gouda offers a twist on this and defies expectations for those who claim goat cheese is pissy and terrible. When made for aging, goat cheeses sweeten and mellow. Add to this the particularities of Gouda recipes and aged goat gouda offers up smooth, bone white paste that feels velvety on the tongue. It’s luxurious dulche de leche in cheese form.

Aroma: Juicy fruit gum. Butter pecan ice cream.

Texture: Firm yet velvety

Taste: Nearly burnt caramel

     Character: Pineapple upside down cake

Bleu d’Auvergne AOC/PDO

Recommended Brands: Herve Mons (Whole Foods exclusive); La Mémée (made by Société laitèrie du Laqueuille)

France Cow (Un)Pasteurized

Why is Bleu d’Auvergne better than most foil-wrapped blues? Like them, it has a white perimeter of un-blued cheese, usually covered with white surface mold. It’s about a six pound wheel. Its PDO regulations require only four weeks of aging (Roquefort by comparison sees a minimum of four months’ aging). It looks like nothing special. Perhaps, then, the limited pool of 10 producers (4 of whom are farm producers) has something to do with it. The volcanic soil of the Puy-de-Dôme and Cantal departments of Auvergne? Every PDO has its geographic specializations, but Bleu d’Auvergne never fails to impress me as being eminently better than I think it’s going to be. The salt is there, but it’s held in perfect balance. It’s moist and smeary, so if you tried to crumble it atop bitter greens you’d happily wind up with big, irregular chunks. It manages to have a griddled hamburger essence while reminding me of carefully pan-roasted mushrooms. Mild enough to eat straight, but ballsy enough to balance meat or Sherry. You can’t lose.

Aroma: Quite a lot: horsey, leathery

Texture: Belly fat, like that last five pounds you’re trying to lose

Flavor: Salt/sweet perfect balance

Character: Seriously underrated