Lucy Corry: How to say cheese and mean it
October is New Zealand Cheese Month. Lucy Corry gets some tips on how to make the most of it.
There’s a large block of cheddar cheese in my fridge that resembles a cliff eaten away by the sea, or a tree stump hewn by Lego people wielding tiny axes. Try as I might, I cannot convince the other members of my household to cut cheese in a sensible fashion, though I have tried to instil in them the importance of using a clean knife (at least when I’m watching).
I feel a bit silly confessing this to Jason Tarrant, master judge for the NZ Champions of Cheese Awards, but it turns out he can relate. After nearly 30 years up-close-and-personal with every facet of Aotearoa’s cheese industry, he’s seen it all. He doesn’t even flinch when I tell him about my favourite afternoon snack: a slice of salty cheddar on a sweet wine biscuit.
“There’s no handbook or golden set of rules — we make our own rules,” he says.
Apart from admitting that he’s vexed by people using the same knife to cut different cheeses, Jason has a surprisingly relaxed attitude to cheese eating. His ride-or-die favourite isn’t something obscure that you’ve never heard of, but a humble Galaxy Creamy Blue found in most New Zealand supermarkets.
“I’ve seen it made, I’ve made it myself, it’s a good all-rounder of a cheese. It’s always available and never offensive,” he says.
He doesn’t even mind when people serve cheese as a precursor to a meal (in contrast to the French style, which sees cheese venerated as a separate course — after the main and before, or instead of, dessert).
“I think eating specialty cheese and all the accompaniments before a meal has become like posh chips and dip. I love it!
“I’m done with food by the time I’ve had the second or third course, so cheese for dessert is usually wasted on me. It’s a fantastic way to sit and graze after a meal though.”
Timing is everything in life, even with cheese. If you eat cheese straight from the fridge, you’re denying yourself the full sensory experience, Jason says. “It’s like eating a tomato cold out of the fridge. How terrible is that? But if you bring it up to room temperature or eat it from the vine, you get all those beautiful volatiles. Cheese is the same.”
He suggests allowing cheese 30 minutes at room temperature (around 15-20 degrees) before serving or sampling, depending on the cheese’s ripeness — a very ripe cheese will require less time out of the fridge.
However, temperature cycling (taking a cheese from one temperature to another and then back again) should be avoided where possible, Jason says. “It’s not good for the flora in the cheese (neither is for any spoilage bacteria that may have been inadvertently introduced) to be warmed up and then cooled down or up repeatedly. Selecting or cutting portion sizes that will be all consumed in one sitting is best rather than waste or return warmed cheese to the fridge.”
A need for cheese is a good thing, but don’t be in such a hurry to get to your cheese experience that you destroy the packaging in the process, Jason says. If you’re not going to eat it all in one go, using the original wrapper helps keep your cheese in good form.
“I feel the manufacturer should have selected the best material to store their quality produce in,” he says.
If the original packaging is already in the bin, wrap the cheese in baking paper or tin foil (or, worst case scenario, in plastic wrap) before putting it in a resealable plastic container in the fridge. Don’t leave half-wrapped cheese in the door of the fridge as it will dry out over time, or worse, he says.
“Leaving a partially opened specialty cheese in the fridge not only becomes a seeding ground for contaminating your fridge with cheese flora but also risks any undesirable yeasts, moulds and other spoilage microbes contaminating the cheese itself.”
So perhaps I should be grateful that the hacked-into cheese in my fridge is at least in a tightly sealed container. And when I saw off a piece myself to balance on a biscuit, all is nearly forgiven.
“A good cheese takes you somewhere,” Jason says. “Have at it.”