In all honesty, I could only scratch the surface with the few questions I put to Max McCalman.
His recently published Mastering Cheese (Clarkson Potter, November 09) in collaboration with David Gibbons is more like a bible for the cheese lover.
Even if I extended my chat with Max to 59 questions there would still be plenty to cover.
I hope that at least my quick glance at his book will wet your appetite for more.
So here it is.
Q: Max, do you think there is a big difference in the way American and European cheese eaters and lovers approach the subject of cheese?
A: There certainly has been a difference between how Americans and Europeans approach cheese, however, those differences are gradually narrowing as Americans are eating more cheese, eating better cheese, and producing better cheeses than ever before. We have a ways to go before we catch up with the rates of consumption in France, Italy and Greece, but the per capita consumption is increasing rapidly along with the quality.
There remains a lot of misunderstanding and misinformation regarding cheese here, and this seems to be a problem in Europe as well. This is one of the fundamental reasons why we are designing a Fromager certification program that is being endorsed by the American Cheese Society.
Q: Could the US approach to cheese be more cerebral as for people like myself who grew up in France, it is part of our DNA, was always on the table. Maybe I and others with similar backgrounds take it for granted?
A: Could be more cerebral certainly but we must keep in mind that the types of cheeses you had available growing up in France were not available here, and still to this day a large part of them still are not. Missing out on the young unpasteurized varieties has limited us to producing and importing the more aged varieties (60 days or older) if we want our cheeses to be made with "uncompromised" (as in unpasteurized) milk. Missing out on those young cheeses has limited our appreciation efforts, as well as many of the heat-sensitive nutrients.
Q: In the last city where I lived prior to moving to the US, I used to buy most if not all of my cheese from 2 fellows at a local market. They always asked customers when their purchase would be served/ consumed so it would be 'ripe' so to speak. Can you name for everyone's benefit a few shops across the US who have the same approach?
A: For the best advice available as to when your cheese will be at its peak, you would expect to get it directly from the cheese maker, either at a Farmer's Market or at the Creamery itself. More and more retailers are paying attention to this matter here, especially those whose primary focus is on cheese. All of them generally assume that you will be buying cheese for immediate consumption and wouldn't expect that you would be attempting to complete the ripening yourself. There are too
many to name here; I would probably be leaving some exceptional establishments. However a few that come immediately to mind include Pastoral in Chicago; Cowgirl Creamery locations in D.C and California, Di Palo's, Artisanal and Murray's in Manhattan; and Steve's in Portland, Oregon.
Q: My grandparents used to store the daily cheese in a cabinet whose door was really a frame with a screen to protect from visitors. Do you think that the tendency we have as Americans to refrigerate everything leaves some of the flavors out? How long prior to serving cheese should you take them out of the fridge? Could you give a few examples as all cheeses are not equal in that sense?
A: The biggest problem with refrigeration is that the humidity levels are inadequate in most types. The advantage in keeping cheese in a cooler environment is that it tends to maintain cheese at a more "static" state, slowing down the degradation of cheese. There are times when this may be advised - to help dry or mature a cheese - but that is rarely the case.
I recommend leaving cheese out of refrigeration at least an hour before consumption to bring it to room temperature. A larger, harder cheese may take longer.
A small goat cheese such as a Wabash Cannonball, while a two-pound hunk of an aged Gouda would take longer.
Q: I remember bringing a Roucoulons to a party and I had to assure a couple of people that it was edible, not poison. One of the chapters in the book is 'Stunning Stinkers'. Do stinky cheeses tend to scare some people? Can you share with us the most pungent cheese you ever ate?
A: The aroma that some cheeses exude can be alarming to some, even though the cheese may be perfectly "at peak" the aroma is one thing, but the flavor can be much different, in terms of intensity.
Probably the most pungent cheese I've encountered is the Schaf Reblochon produced by Barmettler in Switzerland, The taste is delicious, the aroma can be a bit challenging to some.
Q: I noticed that two cheeses, Stanser Chua Flada and Vacherin Mont d'Or get repeated mentions in the book. I guess they are both favorites of yours. Can you tell us why?
A: The Flada is a very special cheese. It has a peak stage of ripeness when most anyone should love it. On the "ripe" side it can be too much for the uninitiated, though still yummy. Personally, the rind of this one is not what it's about; it is the glorious milk underneath.
The "real" Vacherin Mont d'Or is delightful, worth seeking out when it is available. There are some imitations that are fine but they don't quite hold a candle to the voluptuous quality that a true Mont d'Or can offer -rich creamy milk, a little sour and sweet at the same time, with a little resinous note.
Q: Which is your current favorite cheese region?
A: I've got more than one favorite region: Oregon, Vermont, a few other choice producers around the country, Portugal (most), Switzerland (some), Spain (various), the Pyrenees; there are so many places!
Q: Name 5 under the radar Cheeses or Cheesemakers on your late 2009, early 2010 list?
Q: Which are the most welcoming producers you ever met?
A: Gianaclis Caldwell,
David Gremmels & Cary Bryant,
Flavio de Castillos,
John & Janine Putnam,
Q: Do some of them offer accommodations for culinary tourists?
A: Yes, but I don't want to force any of them into that; they work hard enough.
Q: Last, if you were to serve a cheese selection at an informal New Year's Eve party what would you pick?
A: Queijo Serpa (Alentejo, Portugal) or Serra Classico
Covered Bridge Winter Wimer (from Pholia Farm)
Rogue River Blue (Rogue Creamery)
Dorset (Consider Bardwell)
Amarelo da Beira Baixa (from Portugal's Beira Baixa region)
Rolf Beeler Gruyere (from Switzerland)
A: A couple of first cuts is helpful, mark them so they know what they're enjoying.
Offer a range of wines and beers. That way you have a better chance of satisfying all parties.
I wanted to thank Max for finding time to take part in this chat in the middle of the holiday season.
Let me also give a grand merci to Allison Malec at Clarkson Potter who made it happen.
There will be more cheese on my infrequent interview menu in the future.
I don't know.
It will be a surprise.
Wishing you a wonderful cheese year in 2010.