Cheese Guy Q & A

After all the interest surrounding a post last week on storing cheese, something had to give. Fortunately for us, that something was cheese expert and restaurateur Matt Jennings agreeing to lend his wisdom.

Matt and Kate Jennings. Photo courtesy of Wyatt CountsAfter having the misfortune of attending elementary school with me in suburban Boston, Matt has risen to prominence in the culinary world. He is co-owner and Master Cheese monger at Farmstead, an extraordinary cheese shop in Providence, R.I., with an accompanying bistro La Laiterie.

Do you have any general advice for storing cheese?

Absolutely. Cheese is a living thing–literally–there are enzymes and bacteria that continue to thrive within the chemical makeup of the cheese even as it sits on the store’s shelves or in your fridge. Consumers must be conscious of this and treat all artisan cheeses with careful attention and they might actually be required to do a little ‘cheese maintenance’ from time to time.

What basic rules should we follow?

1. Allow the cheese to breathe. In other words, do not wrap it in plastic wrap, place it in Tupperware containers, Ziplock bags or anything that might inhibit the opportunity for the cheese to take in some fresh air.

The best wrapping for cheese is either butcher paper, fancy imported cheese paper, waxed paper or parchment. Even aluminum foil is a better way to wrap your cheeses than plastic wrap. Air circulation is crucial with regards to the life of the cheese.

2. You should store your cheeses either in the crisper drawer of your
fridge or, ideally, in a wooden wine box, somewhere in the fridge. Inside the crisper drawer or box, place a small square of basic, clean, kitchen sponge, lightly dampened, to provide a slight bit of humidity. Fruits and vegetables work well, too. That is why the crisper drawer is suitable to cheese storage- often these items provide enough natural moisture in the air, to keep the cheese happy and just moist enough.

3. Lastly, never freeze cheese. The problem with freezing cheese is that when it is defrosted, the water molecules within the milk actually swell and then burst-so you are left with a watery, bland, and “washed out” cheese.

Any tips on buying cheese?
The above reasoning is the perfect example why it is best to purchase cheese in small amounts. Only buy (from a reputable cheese monger, no less), the right amount of cheese for you to consume within the week. Holding onto large amounts of cheese, for long periods of time will not do justice to the cheese, its texture or flavor, nor your guests’ palette. Buy just what you need, when you need it. Keep it fresh.

Talk to me about mold and cheese. If you trim off the moldy bits, will the interior remain good? How much mold is too much?

Mold is kind of like your best college friend coming to couch surf at your place. It can be great, but not forever. Usually if a cheese begins its life with some type of mold on the ‘rind’ (exterior) or ‘paste’ (interior), this particular mold will not affect the cheeses longevity or flavor. It was introduced by the cheese maker for a reason, and it is seen as something that will enhance the desirable qualities of the cheese.

Keep an eye out for ‘rogue’ molds- those that either seem to take over a cheese from inside out, hereby creating great rifts and moldy cracks within the paste,or those which seem to engulf the cheese from the outside: big fuzzy mold all over cheese can sometimes be bad depending on the cheese style.

The rule of thumb is that it is not going to kill you- so if you are uncomfortable with the sight of mold, trim it away and continue to nibble on the ‘good’ area, of unaffected paste.

The big aspect of cheese mold acceptability is that you stay away from any black, orange, or pink molds. These are no good and can be a true detriment to your cheese…and potentially your sensitive stomach if eaten in large doses.

Don’t some cheeses incorporate mold? Are all blues “moldy?” Others?

Yes–some cheeses are designed to have mold be an intimate and necessary part of that cheese’s particular make up. Technically speaking, all blue cheeses have ‘mold’. They are, what is called, ‘inoculated’ with different strains of blue mold- either Penicillium Roqueforti or Penicillium Glaucum. These molds are beneficial to the overall flavor characteristics of the cheese, and contribute greatly to the textures, smells, and nuances of the product.

Additionally, some soft ripened cheeses rely heavily on various strains of mold. Cheeses like Camembert, Brie, and Charouce all benefit from a mold strain recognized as “Penicillium Candida” or also known as “P.Camemberti.” Sounds familiar, right? For good reason. Additionally, many cheeses are the carriers and couriers of various strains of bacteria.

Many washed rind cheeses such as Raclette, Epoisses, Taleggio or even Limburger benefit from a bacteria called “Brevibacterium Linens”, or “B. Linens.” This particular bacteria is the one responsible for the orange or reddish mold on these ‘washed rind’ cheeses, and promotes the funky, musty, farm qualities- as well as a defined vegetative pronunciation in cheeses of this variety.

In layman’s terms: the more orange and sticky the rind, typically, the funkier and ‘gamier’ the flavor and smell. What do I mean by that? Well, how about old wet gym socks on a dirty sheep in the rain? Get the picture now?

OK, I have to ask: What’s your favorite cheese?

Right now? That is the question I have to answer because few people know it, but artisan cheese is such a seasonal item.

Any given Spring, we are blessed with fresh, un-ripened cheeses: chevre, brebis frais, ricotta, feta and mascarpone. Then in the Summer we get hit with local buffalo mozzarella, aged sheep’s milk cheeses like young pecorinos and slightly bloomy goat’s milk cheeses–those with ashed exteriors and wrinkly, moist rinds.

In the Fall, it’s time to move towards the heartier table cheeses–those with more pressed and condensed paste such as Gruyere, Marechal, Roth Kase Reserve, Pleasant Ridge. The nutty, sweet and caramelized cheeses reign in this season. Lastly, Winter brings the dense, fatty and creamy cheeses of Northern Europe as some of my favorites: Vacherin, a dense & creamy Stilton from the UK, spicy Cabrales from Spain or triple crèmes are a good bet this time of year too–Delice, Brillat-Savarin, ‘Kunik’ from Warrensburg, New York…

In other words, the best I can answer this question is to tell you that you should be enjoying cheeses in a seasonal manner. Do what makes sense, is practical and ‘relevant’– enjoy lighter more mild cheeses in warmer weather with a glass of Rose or Sparkling Wine, and indulge with some heavy, high-fat cheeses in the Fall or Winter, when it is cold outside. Listen to your primal cheese urges!

How did you get so into cheese?

Well, I suppose it is a pretty long story. The short of the long of it is that I was employed as a dishwasher and then prep cook as my first summer job, when I was 16.The first time I picked up a cook’s knife and was shown how to slice an onion was a transformative moment in my life, and ever since then I’ve been in the pursuit of creating delicious, exciting and thoughtfully sourced food. After a tempestuous and fruitless year at ‘regular’ liberal arts college (Which was anything but at Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass.!), I decided to take a year off from academia and work in professional kitchens.

This proved for me to be the best decision ever. I honed my skills on someone else’s time, and I was really able to focus on the craft of cooking without outside distractions (ahem, like school). This year off fed my interest and to my parents delight, I enrolled at school again the following Fall–only this time it was culinary school at The New England Culinary Institute.

In Vermont, I was surrounded by all sorts of hand-crafted, artisan foods-from beer to cheese, hearth baked breads- you name it. It was inspiring. My years at culinary school flew by as I completed my associates degree with honors and then my bachelor’s degree in Food & Beverage Management. For one of my final projects, I wrote a dissertation on the marriage of Vermont Craft Beers and Vermont Artisan Cheeses. For the project, I traveled to local farms, tasted amazing local cheeses and before I knew it, I was bitten by “the bug.”

Later, after a few years of cooking professionally for some pretty amazing restaurants in and around the Boston area, Portland, Ore., and Phoenix, Ariz., I took a job as the Cheese Buyer at Formaggio Kitchen, in Cambridge, Mass: the hallowed and infamous gourmet food boutique and cheese shop.

From here, my boss and mentor Ihsan Gurdal sent me all over Europe to source and study cheese for the store. I forged relationships with cheese makers and developed my life long devotion to petrified milk. As I began bringing in more and more American artisan cheeses to my boss’ dismay, I felt a disconnect between the direction of my passions and the direction of the store. So in 2001 (Post 9/11), my girlfriend and Catering Manager of Formaggio–Kate, and I headed out to California so that she could attend The Culinary Institute Of America in Napa, for the accelerated Baking and Pastry program.

While in Napa, I worked for Cowgirl Creamery and Tomales Bay Foods–famed Bay Area cheesemaker, importer, distributor and retailer, as their Bay Area Assistant Wholesale Manager. One year later, missing New England seasons, our close friends and family, Kate and I moved back to the East Coast and opened our little artisan cheese shop, and gourmet store, Farmstead, in the Fall of 2003.

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Thanks, Matt, for sharing your advice and life story culinary background. Also, I appreciate the use of “bloomy” as an adjective/shout out. Did anyone else catch that?

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