Standing in front of a gourmet cheese counter is quite the adventure. The array can be daunting, with its convoluted names and variable shapes - and sometimes its noxious fumes - but these unfamiliarities merely add to the fun. No where else can you (liberally) taste a product with so extensive a biography -- culled from the milk of a billy grazing on a verdant hillside in a tiny Italian province; or one being as much a product of nature as one crafted (coaxed is more like it) by man. Those specimen splayed out on the cheesemonger's counter have as much character as anything you'll likely ever consume, unless you're a cannibal.
Maybe you don't think about the affineur, who lovingly watches each cheeses' progression until its ready to be packaged. And maybe you don't concern yourself with how many hands your cheese passed through to land within your grasp, finally ready for consumption. If you don't care, I don't blame you (who has the time to dawdle with such things?). But for me, I will always admire the plight of the cheese sitting in the glass case before me -- for its distinctiveness, its artisan birthing, and, most of all, for its pleasurable taste. [Fade to black. Que American Cheese Society catch-phrase...Ah, the Power of Cheese...]
Can you tell that I just returned home from a trip to Downtown Cheese, my purveyor of choice? Today I arrived home with some firsts: a Crottin de Champignou, a wedge of P'tit Basque and Manchego. Going global, to France for the first two and Spain for the latter, I've departed from my recent yen to find the best America has to offer (in part, because the Ardmore-based Downtown Cheese carries few American varietals). Finding a masterful cheese from our once overlooked continent always brings me great satisfaction. Saveur's lastest issue, April 2005, is host to an American Cheese top 50, among other wonderful articles about the issue's feature ingredient (you guessed it!). I'm such a list sucker, I just had to buy it.
The Champignou is better than nearly every soft young goat cheese I've tasted; even better than its Pascal Jacquin-made brethren, the Crottin de Champcol. Although neither of these cheese are A.O.C. like the renowned Crottin de Chavignol, they are far from slouches (actually, both are examples of "Americanized," or pasteurized, versions of the French one; some complain that the pasteurization kills the flavor of the Crottins, but I enjoy them for their own merits). From the first piquant sensation to the pleasant lasting finish, I couldn't ask for much more, in terms of flavor, from the Champignou. I am hesitant to call the first rush of flavor sweet, but it definitely get the buds on the sides of my mouth tingling. A brochure I took from Dibruno bluntly states "hazelnutty" as a descriptor. Although I have a difficult time with picking out the nutty flavors of certain cheeses, I strongly disagree with such a tag. I find the flavor to be much more earthy -- which is what I like to call a cheese with a refreshing lactic (milky), grassy, or mushroomy taste -- typically my descriptor of soft goats. Final note on the goat: My tastings of young goat's milk cheeses is limited, so maybe the raw milk versions I've yet to encounter are far superior, but I wouldn't pass up a chance to enjoy the Champignou.
The P'tit Basque is another quality sheep's milk cheese by the company that makes Istara (which is an excellent unpasteurized Ossau-Iraty, a cheese that I've previously posted about). Although the similar Etorki (also spelled Etorky) is an excellent and supple snacking cheese, the P'tit Basque has a more profound flavor and is a bit thicker on the tongue. My tongue was surprised by the full fruity flavor of the cheese. Wonderful, and like the goat's milk mentioned above, non A.O.C.
Finally, my feelings on the Manchego -- overrated. This seemingly super-popular Spanish cheese gave me little excitement. My ability to properly taste cheeses may have been altered by my recent allergies, but you'd think I'd get some response from the 'chego. Nothing. I may give it another whirl, but I am thoroughly sceptically about an opinion reversal. (The picture at top is the Manchego with some Spanish olives.)