10 cheeses to try before you die

10 cheeses to try before you die

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For the past 20 years, I’ve been writing about cheeses, so I’m not surprised when people ask me when I’m going to run out of them. Not yet, thank goodness.

Almost every time I visit a Napa Valley cheese counter, I discover cheeses I haven’t tried. American cheesemakers keep creating them and importers keep scouring little-known corners of Europe. I’m now encountering delicious selections from Germany, Croatia, Belgian, Sweden—countries that never sent us much cheese before.

If you want a short course in cheese appreciation, here are 10 awesome selections to try. Not only are they exceptionally tasty, but all of them represent, for me, something unique or notable in the cheese galaxy. All are regularly available in Napa Valley. Check Oxbow Cheese Merchant and Whole Foods in Napa, Atelier by JCB in Yountville and Sunshine Foods in St. Helena.

Alp Blossom (Germany)

One of the most popular introductions of recent years, this cow’s milk gem is a terrific turnaround story. Consumers ignored the cheese when it first arrived in the U.S. under another name. Then the importer hatched the idea to coat the outside in dried herbs and flowers and relaunch it as Alp Blossom. Sales skyrocketed. The cheese is satiny and supple, with aromas of brown butter and walnuts, and now it’s the most beautiful cheese in the cheese case.

Cabot Clothbound (Vermont)

Is this America’s finest Cheddar? Many would say so. A collaborative effort between Cabot Creamery (which makes the cheese) and Jasper Hill Farm (which matures it), this award-winning wheel proves that America can make traditional Cheddar to rival the finest from England. It has the crumbly, waxy yet creamy texture I expect from great Cheddar and nutty, grassy aromas.

Camembert Hervé Mons (France)

We all know Camembert, but I include the Hervé Mons version because it is a remarkable example of a luscious, aromatic Camembert made with pasteurized milk. It’s really hard to get that big garlic/barnyard/mushroom aroma without raw milk but Mons has done it by careful choice of cultures. This cheese was years in development, and until I found it, I never bought Camembert because it was always disappointing. It is exclusive to Whole Foods.

Meredith Dairy Fresh Sheep and Goat Cheese (Australia)

People go crazy in my classes for this marinated cheese, for good reason. Steeped in oil with peppercorns and thyme, it is light on the tongue, lemony and impossibly creamy. You’ll want to slather it on everything but start with dark bread and top with sliced avocado and radishes.

OG Kristal (Belgium)

If you like those aged Dutch Goudas that taste like butterscotch candy, you will flip for OG Kristal. It is Gouda in all but name, a 20-pound cow’s milk cheese aged long enough to develop lots of crunchy protein crystals. Dense, creamy and burnished gold, it reminds me of eating a salted caramel. Serve it for dessert with a nutty sherry or a dark, spicy Belgian-style beer like North Coast Brewing’s Brother Thelonious.

Point Reyes Farmstead Toma (California)

This well-priced cow’s milk cheese is the go-everywhere, do-everything cheese. It is semi-firm and smooth, with an aroma of warm melted butter and a sour cream tang. It melts beautifully. It goes with hoppy beers and malty ones, white wines and red. It’s mellow enough to please picky youngsters, but with enough personality for connoisseurs. I find myself shaving another slice off the wedge long after I’m no longer hungry.

Quadrello di Bufala (Italy)

For years, the only water-buffalo cheese we saw in this country was mozzarella. Then came the groundbreaking Quattro Portoni, a creamery in northern Italy with its own herd of water buffalo and repertoire of innovative cheeses. I love them all but especially Quadrello, a Taleggio-style cheese that smells of damp cave and mushrooms and finishes with a lively tang.

Secret de Compostelle (France)

I’ve rarely met a sheep cheese I didn’t like, but the aged Basque sheep’s milk wheels are my favorite. This newcomer is aged longer than most — about eight months— and that extra time in the cellar makes it nuttier and more silky. I love its sour-cream scent and the way the flavors unfold in wave after wave of sweetness and savory depth.

Soffice di Capra (Italy)

Maybe this is a momentary crush, but I have fallen hard for this young, moist goat cheese with its thin bloomy rind. The delicate, milky aroma is nothing special, but the texture — tender, open, a little squishy — captivates me. Put it on a cheese board with salumi and olives.

Vella Dry Jack (California)

This Golden State original has been around for 70 years, but many Californians still don’t know it. I can’t think of any other cheese, imported or domestic, that resembles it. A hard cow’s milk wheel shaped by hand and coated outside with cocoa and black pepper, Vella Dry Jack is nutty, sweet and mellow; I could snack on it all day long. Look for the Special Select, which is aged at least one year. Dry Jack is indisputably one of the best values in the cheese case.

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