Updated: Sep 17, 2021
When I started to delve into the world of cheese, I realized how vast it is and how little I knew, apart from affirming that it is delicious, varied and at times, smelly!
Mostly, when I shop for cheese, I tend to gravitate towards the tried and familiar. I have a few favorites that I can rely on and often don't look beyond those styles. Last year, I attended a cheese and wine pairing and my senses lit up in a whole new way; So did my curiosity to give cheese a more serious consideration next time I needed to replenish my stock. The cheese at this particular event was sourced from Houston Dairymaids so I wasted no time to visit this Houston landmark and explore their wide offering.
photo credit: Hadia Mawlawi- A peak into the store's fridge with large wheels of cheeses on display.That's my shadow reflected in the glass! I was not allowed inside!
Houston Dairymaids is a woman-owned, local landmark in operation since 2006, offering over 150 cheeses from Texas, USA and Europe.
photo credit: Hadia Mawlawi- A variety of blue cheese, sheep-milk cheese and hard cheese
For this blog, I will start with an introduction to cheese, how to judge it, the types of milk used to make it, a brief overview of how it is made, ripeness, how to buy and store it, and how to pair it with wine. I will then describe the cheese-tasting I had at Houston Dairymaids, sharing the characteristics of each cheese and suggestions for wine pairing. I end with an interview with Lindsey Schechter, owner of Houston Dairymaids.
How to judge a cheese
Smell: do you notice if aromas are vegetal, floral, nutty or earthy- a cheese's aroma and its flavor do not necessarily coincide; a stinky cheese can taste mellow and mild.
Feel: tap it, press it, give it a poke. Is it brittle? meaty? springy? cut it. How soft or firm is it? roll it between your fingers and note its consistency: some may crumble, others may form a nice creamy ball
Taste: Is it sweet, salt, bitter, sour, or umami - what about the texture in the mouth? is it moist? dry? buttery? crumbly?
Judgement: how long does the flavor extend?
For more on how to describe cheese click here.
Types of milk used to make cheese
Cow: buttery, yellow- most common
Goat: citrus, white, more acidic-less common than sheep
Sheep: sweet, pale yellow, nuttiness when young, savory notes with age
Main styles of cheese
Fresh: no rind: Ricotta, Mozarella, Feta
Soft white: white, velvety rind: Brie, Camembert, Chevre
Semi-soft: with brown/orange washed-rind: Taleggio, Epoisse, Reblochon, Vacherin, among others
Hard: aged longer and therefore lower in moisture content- dense, dry, crumbly, often waxed with an oily rind: Parmiggiano Reggiano, Cheddar, Asiago, Pecorino, among many others
Blue: made with cultures of the mold Penicillium giving it its spots of mold- smelly, damp rind
Alpine: Refers to a style of cheese making rather than a variety- the name applies to Swiss, Italian, French and Austrian cheeses made in the Alps with unpasteurized cow's milk. Alpine cheese is also found in the U.S. : Comte, Gruyere, Emmental, Fontina, Taleggio...
How cheese is made
It all starts with collecting milk from dairy farms.
The cheese-making process comes down to 10 essential steps. Here's a quick overview of the process as described by S. Clyde Weaver
Preparing the milk: Before it can be turned into cheese, the milk may need to be processed.
Acidifying the milk: Adding cultures to the milk allows it to begin to ferment and makes it more acidic.
Curdling the milk: Adding rennet causes a reaction that curdles the milk, creating curds.
Cutting the curd: Next, the cheesemaker cuts the curd with knives and heats it, further separating the curds and whey.
Processing the curd: Processing the curd through stirring, cooking and washing continue to acidify and dry the curds.
Draining the whey: Next, the whey is drained, leaving only a mat of cheese curds.
Cheddaring the cheese: The cheesemaker next cuts the curd mat into sections and repeatedly flips the sections before milling the mat.
Salting the cheese: For some cheeses, the next is dry salting, and for others, it is brining.
Shaping the cheese: Next, cheesemakers shape the cheese, often using molds to assist.
Aging the cheese: Some cheeses are aged for anywhere from a number of days to a number of years.
For a more in-depth understanding of this process, I highly recommend Mastering Cheese- Lessons for Connoisseurship from A Maitre Fromager, by Max McCalman & David Gibbons.
Every real cheese is in a constant state of change; it continues to ripen and evolve due to the effects of many different bacteria and enzymes (McCalman). However, there is a window of time when each cheese is at its peak, when it represents itself in the best way possible. A given cheese may pass through as many as six or seven stages of ripeness. The softer, fresher, more moist cheeses have narrower windows, usually about a week. The harder, drier, longer-aged cheeses undergo a more gradual ripening process and have broader windows. The common denominator of aging is that the aromas and flavors of any cheese become more concentrated.
When is cheese overripe? The first telltale sign is loss of balance. One particular trait takes over and the cheese becomes too sharp or rancid, too hard, too soft, too salty or runny. Other signs include excess dryness or graininess (except in the Parmesan or Grana types), lack of uniform flavor or texture and black external molds and green internal molds in cheese other than blue.
Buying and Storing Cheese
Buying cheese from a farmer's market directly from the maker or from your local cheesemonger ensures it is more likely to be fresh or artisanal , meaning the cheese is handmade, using traditional methods and employing no short cuts. The goal is quality and individuality rather than quantity. The classic artisanal cheese is made with unpasteurized milk from a single source, preferably a local herd. It comes from a farm or a small dairy and its rind is not made out of plastic or wax.
Ideally, fine cheese should be cut upon purchase and consumed on the same day. If you need to store your cheese make sure you don't wrap it tightly in plastic wrap. The best is to loosely wrap it in parchment or wax paper and store it in the deli drawer of your refrigerator. Cheese needs to be stored at 80% humidity and removed from the fridge one hour before consumption so it is served at room temperature. Otherwise you risk missing out on all the intricate flavors.
photo credit: https://www.artisanalcheese.com/
There are no hard and strict rules about which wine should be selected to accompany a particular cheese as the best selections are almost always based on individual tastes. However, here are some principles that can guide your choice:
A smooth, fatty cheese may go very well with a similarly smooth, slightly oily wine.
Sweet wine contrasts very well with a cheese with high acidity.
White wines go better with many cheeses than reds.
Not all red wines match with cheese. The most recommended are the fruity, light red wines.
Dry, fresh red wines are ideally suited to soft cheeses, especially goat ones.
A wine with good acidity may be complemented by very salted cheeses.
Dry champagnes are brilliant combination with bloomy white rinds.
The cheeses can be matched with beer or cider.
Try regional combination, the cheese and wine from the same region.
Max McCalman, in "Mastering Cheese", suggests that great pairings ought to have a balance of sugar and salt, tastes that correspond to fruity and savory flavors, respectively. The saltier the cheese, the sweeter the wine needs to be "which is an oversimplification because often what we're really looking for is a wine with well-integrated sugars." Even without residual sugars, a "dry" wine can balance the saltiness and savory qualities of a cheese via its inherent fruit flavors.
Another consideration is the level of acidity or sourness of the wine and the cheese. A more acidic cheese will generally demand a more acidic wine (think goat/ soft cheese paired with Sauvignon Blanc/ Sancerre). The next consideration is tannins. Tannins offer astringency and leaves the mouth with a feeling of dryness and a residual bitterness throughout. The butterfats in some cheeses can soften the mouth-puckering effects of some of the more astringent, tannic wines. Make sure to serve both the cheese and the wine at their optimal temperatures: Cheese at room temperature, reds at around 65 degrees Fahrenheit and whites between 45-60 degrees Fahrenheit (the sweeter wines cooler, the drier ones a bit warmer).
Here are some other pairing suggestions-
Lindsey Schechter, Certified Cheese Professional and owner of Houston Dairymaids, welcomed me into her charming store on Airline Drive and had two separate plates of five samples ready for my tasting. She began by mentioning that tastings always favor odd numbers, 3 or 5, and occasionally 7, for no other reason than aesthetic appeal on the plate, as taught to her during her years in the fine food profession.
The classic progression of any tasting is from milder to stronger, simpler to more complex, younger to older, lighter to heavier ending with blue cheese. There should be a variety of milk types: sheep, goat, cow, and buffalo (where available), as well as intensities and consistencies: soft, semi-hard, hard, blue.
When tasting cheese, take your time, keep a clear palate and an open mind; note its attack (the initial impression), development and finish.
We started, clockwise, with Baby Caprino, from CKC Farms in Blanco, TX. It is a soft-ripened cheese created to resemble the soft-ripened goat cheeses the farm owner tasted during her time in Italy.
photo credit: Hadia Mawlawi- The tasting sheet with the selection of cheeses on a plate, starting clockwise at 12 o'clock.
It melted in the mouth. The texture was smooth, fresh with a bright acidity and delicate herbal notes. Pair it with a Sauvignon Blanc.
Next on the plate was the Reginella D'Abruzzo, from the Reginella Farm in Abruzzo, Italy. This is a semi-firm cheese made from the pasteurized milk of sheep, aged for six months. The initial flavor is buttery and grassy yet sweet on the finish, with a distinctive sheep's milk flavor. It has a waxy rind and pairs well with a Chardonnay, a rose or a light red wine.
photo credit: https://forevercheese.com/product/reginella-dabruzzo/
The third cheese was Flory's Truckle. Truckle is an Old English term that refers to the wheel's cylindrical shape. Traditionally, old world cheddars are formed in truckles.
This is a signature clothbound cheddar (the cloth, as opposed to wax, allows air exchange with the cheese which gives the cheese added complexity) with drier, crumblier texture due to the permeable cloth. It is aged for twelve months and has a peppery aroma and rich grassy flavors. It is delicious! Pairs well with a full bodied red or white.
Our fourth cheese was the Gruyere 1655 from Le Cret cheese farm in Fribourg, Switzerland.
This is an authentic Gruyere AOP, meaning it falls under the protected designated system common with European cheeses. In Europe, the AOC rules specify manufacturing region, breeds, animal husbandry, cheesemaking and affinage (the method of ripening cheese to perfection).
For information on the origin and history of this cheese and region click here-
Lindsey gave me this interesting fun-fact: with alpine style cheeses, cows graze on elevated mountain pasture during the spring & summer giving the cheese its grassy, floral notes. The elevated pastures also give the cheese it's yellow color. When the cows descend to lower elevations in late summer and early fall, the color of their cheese is whiter because cheese is a product of terroir (place) and grass at lower altitude will have different nutrients for the cows, and no beta carotene, which gives the cheese this yellowish hue. This phenomenon is known as transhumance: The practice of moving livestock from one grazing ground to another in a seasonal cycle, typically the lowlands in winter and the highlands in summer.
Gruyere 1655 has an earthy flavor, well balanced between salty and sweet, with a nutty, caramel taste. It has a firm, dense and slightly flaky texture, and pairs well with a more minerally structured rose or light bodied red like Pinot Noir or Gamay.
To finish off we tasted the Bleu Des Causses AOP (Appelation d'Origin Protege)
photo credit: https://www.cheese.com/bleu-des-causses/
This is a rindless (more on rinds below), cow's milk blue often called "poor man's Roquefort", granted AOC name protection in 1979. Made in a similar style, it has a smooth texture with balanced salty, sweet and blue flavors. It is aged for 3-6 months in the natural limestone caves of affineur (the person whose sole job is ripening the cheese) Herve Mons, in the Languedoc region of southern France.
It is a creamy, semi-soft cow's milk, with unique grassy, spicy and clover notes, and pairs well with sweet white wine and desert wines like Sauternes.
As if all this delicious tasting wasn't enough, Lindsey brought out a second set of five cheeses, all from Texas. I was thrilled and curious. Now that I had tasted cheese from different regions of America and Europe, how would Texas compare? Well, if you can find it at Houston Dairymaids, you know you won't be disappointed. And I wasn't. I was left wanting to take it all home.
June's Joy goat cheese was first. This is the product of a farmstead cheesemaker located just west of Austin. It is a fresh cheese meaning it doesn't need to be aged, nor does it get better with time. It is ready to be eaten now. The cheese oozes with flavors of honey, black pepper and thyme which are infused in the cheesemaking process, creating a well-balanced spreadable cheese.
photo credit: http://www.purelucktexas.com/cheeses/
C'Mon Berto from Lira Rossa farm in Moulton TX. Handcrafted by Italian cheesemaker Andrea Cudin, this is a French-style semi-soft cross between a Camembert and Robiola, aged for four weeks. Its thin rind encloses a luxurious, creamy interior. Pair it with a sparkling white wine or a Chardonnay.
Paragon, from famed Texan cheesemaker Veldhuizen Family Farm is made from raw milk (In America raw milk needs to be aged for 60 days at a temperature of no less than 35 degrees Fahrenheit ) in Dublin TX. It is a semi-firm cheese and subtly sharp, aged for about three months. You can tell this is a grass-fed cow because of the dark yellow color of the cheese from the beta carotene present in the grass. Pair it with a light bodied red like a Rioja or a Pinot Noir.
photo credit: https://www.veldhuizencheese.com/shop/paragon/
Saint David's Raclette from Eagle Mountain Cheese dairy farm in Lipan TX. This is perfect for both melting or eating fresh. It is made from raw cow's milk and tastes of sweet cream with a hint of pungency and nuttiness. This is a Texan take on Alpine style cheese, made from the milk of Swiss brown cows (that yield fattier, thicker milk than the black & white Holstein cow) earthy, bold and high in acidity. Pair it with a big red or a Chardonnay.
photo credit: Houston Dairymaids
Lastly, Whey Blue from the River Whey Dairy in Shertz, TX is a smooth double-cream, raw milk blue cheese, an homage to creamy French Blue cheeses. It is aged for 60-90 days during which it develops aromas of toasted biscuits and a subtle mottling of blue, a rare treat to find in Texas.
Try it with local Texas honey and pair it with a sweet wine or Moscato.
photo credit: https://www.riverwheycreamery.com/shop/p/whey-blue
Before leaving this cheese haven, I asked Lindsey the following questions:
1- Why did you start Houston Dairymaids? Was there a gap in the Houston market for fine cheeses?
I knew I wanted to start a cheese business and decided to move back to Houston to do so. This was in 2006 – we are turning 15 next month! I did find that many of the Texas cheesemakers were not yet distributed in Houston at that time.
2- How would you describe the Houston cheese market? Is there a surge of interest in artisanal cheese? in local cheese?
Houstonians love cheese! Interest continues to increase and customers are eager to try new varieties. Customers are also showing more interest in creating their own beautiful cheese boards.
3- How does Texas compare to other states as far as cheese-making goes? Are there a lot of dairies that produce good quality cheese?
Texas has great producers making cheese by hand in the traditional manner. Farmstead dairies such as Pure Luck Dairy and the Veldhuizen Family Farm create stellar cheeses using the high quality milk from their own animals.
4- Are there particular types of cheese that Texas is best known for?
Our most popular Texas cheeses are the June’s Joy from Pure Luck Dairy, Redneck Cheddar from Veldhuizen Family Farm, and the fresh Mozzarella from the Mozzarella Co. in Dallas. Each Texas dairy makes a unique array of cheeses.
5- How do you make your selection for your store? Any particular criteria?
We are always tasting new cheeses, talking to our cheese counterparts, and (when there isn’t a pandemic) we attend cheese conferences. We look for unique, delicious cheeses and have a particular interest in those from farmstead dairies, preferably made with raw milk when possible.
6- Anything else you would like to share with our readers?
We offer free cheese tastings in our shop every day we are open. It’s a great way to explore new cheeses!
Thank you Lindsey for your time and patience walking me through this marvelous tasting of fine cheese. And thank you to your mother, Crispin Schechter whose passion for wine is palpable and who handles all the wine buying at Houston Dairymaids so that shoppers need not wonder where to find the perfect pairing for their cheese. It's all there, including specialty crackers, jams, nuts, honey and all things to make your cheese tasting experience memorable.
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