Understanding Cheese: Fresh, Funky, and Fancy

Life is too short for fake cheese and fake people. While you’re on your own with that last one, I can help you out with the first by calling on my cheese-enthusiast girlfriend and Mike – cheesemonger extraordinaire and owner of Bowers Fancy Dairy Products in Washington, D.C. Read on to gain knowledge that will inspire you to explore beyond that Tillamook cheddar.

We asked Mike, what’s the biggest mistake people make when purchasing cheese? His answer? Not trying it! Don’t be shy. Ask to try before you buy. PRO TIP: Seek out raw milk cheeses. You’ll notice the difference compared to pasteurized, and thank me later.

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Beautiful cheese deserves a beautiful stage, like this board from Blue Ridge Cutting Board Company who sells their woodwork steps away from Mike’s shop at Eastern Market.
Holy Cow! That’s Sheep?

Surprisingly basic, realizing the differences between cow, sheep, and goat milk cheeses will rock your world.

Cow’s milk – The magician. Cow’s milk cheeses can put on many masks of flavors without revealing its intrinsic taste. They’re the most common and a happy medium when it comes to fat content. Brie, most blues, colby jack, Gouda, havarti, mozzarella, cheddar.

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26-month aged Gouda. Those crunchy crystals? Explosions of salty goodness with each creamy, caramelized bite.
Sheep’s milk – The Elizabeth Taylor. Luscious, rich, and alluring. Once you go sheep, you never go back (in my opinion). Sheep’s milk cheeses have the highest fat content, making them extra melt-in-your-mouth rich ‘n’ creamy. Unlike cow’s milk, these have a distinguishable, delicious “sheep-y” taste noticeable in all its variations.

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The Money Shot. “Moliterno al tartufo” – Italian raw sheep’s milk cheese with black truffles.
Goat’s milk – If you’re like most of the population, what instantly comes to mind is the soft tangy chèvre spread on mini toasts or crumbled on salads. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Firmer goat’s milk cheeses with some more aging and/or funky rinds are a treasure. Lower in fat, they also tend to be lighter. And they contain less lactose. (Score.)

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No, this aged goat cheese does not have schmutz on it. That’s a rind of ash and Penicillium (the same mold that gives blue cheese its color). Dirt with a purpose.
What’s Your Style?

All cheeses fall into one or two of these styles/textures. Starting from basic to funky…

Fresh – Unaged, without a rind, high moisture content. Think fresh goat cheese, mozzarella, feta, etc.

Semi-Soft – Range from mild to very pungent. These are best for grilled cheeses because they melt in a gooey sexy way. Think havarti, Gouda, fontina.

Semi-Hard – These have less moisture than the above semi-soft cheeses, because the curds are physically pressed into molds and aged longer. Think super sharp cheddars and aged Goudas.

Hard– The older, the wiser. Aged anywhere from months to years, these are generally the most complex. They can have a more elastic texture like Gruyere or can be more suitable for grating such as Parmigiano-Reggiano.

Soft-Ripened – Here is where things start getting funky. These cheeses have white or gray, dusty-looking rinds and creamy insides. Think brie and camembert, even some goat cheeses treated in a similar manor.

Washed-Rind – Bathed in some sort of salty brine, this is probably not your first date cheese (more like a How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days kind of cheese). You can smell these from a mile away (like our van after tour). But, their bark is worse than their bite – they actually taste more mild than their pungent aroma. Examples include Epoisses and Taleggio.

Blue – Not afraid to show its true colors and punch you in the face with a bold tang. The Miley Cyrus of cheese. Examples include Gorgonzola (Italy), Roquefort (France), and Stilton (England). Those crazy blue spots and veins? You can thank added cultures of a mold called Penicillium.

WARNING: These cheese photos will seduce you. Viewer discretion is advised.

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Majorero Pimenton reminds me of mezcal. Semi-soft pasteurized goat’s milk cheese coated in smoky paprika, traditionally used to protect the rind against bacteria.

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An edible geode. 4-year aged manchego (Spanish, sheep’s milk). Salty.

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Not your average chevre. “Leonora” – Pasteurized goat’s milk cheese from Spain

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Taleggio – semi-soft, washed-rind Italian cheese. Your answer to an upgraded risotto or polenta…on the third date.

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“Danablu” – Danish blue. Crumble on top of roasted brussels sprouts. Or pair with fig preserves on crackers. Or melt on a burger. I’m hungry now…
BETTER TOGETHER

Wine and cheese parties are fancy and fun, but the guys in SWMRS more often opt for casual, beer-centric hangs. Mike’s response for pairing cheese with cheap beer? “You’d logically want something that enhances the beer but that’s not out of its league.” Here’s what he’d go for:

PBR? Either a German Tilsit or Limburger

Budweiser, Busch, or Miller Light? Widmer’s Cheese Spread

Corona? Iberico cheese.

No matter what type of beer, a good 5 or 7 year aged Canadian cheddar or Parrano are excellent choices. And if you want to put a little more effort in for your homies, make pinwheels by wrapping some good deli meat around provolone or whip together some pimento spread. Cheers, pal. 

TIME TO WAKE UP

Cold cheese is sleeping cheese. Those microbes need to wake up and put their flavor face on. Always allow cheese to come to room temperature before eating. And if it’s okay for cheese shops and grocery stores to keep their cheeses out in the open all day, don’t worry about hurrying to refrigerate yours. Relax.

BEDTIME

When it’s time to put your cheese back to sleep in the fridge, think of Buddy the Elf asking his dad to tuck him in at night. Use plastic wrap or tin foil and wrap TIGHTLY. Air is the enemy, and mold’s best friend.

If your cheese gets a bit moldy, you don’t need to get all “you can’t sit with us” right away. Excluding soft/fresh or shredded/sliced cheeses which should be discarded, surface mold on a rind isn’t the worst thing, Mike explains. It can indicate that the cheese inside is becoming unpalatable, but this doesn’t mean it’s harmful. What’s worse for you, raw milk cheese rich in probiotics with a little mold you scrape off, or a shelf-stable cheese that’s been sitting for two years? Touché.

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Mike Bowers with his son, Ryan, holding Grayson – a washed-rind cheese from Virginia Mike discovered in the early 2000’s. It continues to have a cult-following. Proof that supporting local producers and offering customers award-winning cheeses is not mutually exclusive.
Inspired? Overwhelmed? Salivating? All three? Whether your budget is $5 or $30, you can learn by eating if you follow these ten cheese commandments….

  1. Try before you buy! There’s no renting a half pound of Emmental.
  2. Try different milk types (maybe a cow’s milk and a sheep’s milk?).
  3. Try different ages (maybe fresh goat and aged Gouda?).
  4. Embrace the funk. Try a cheese with a washed rind or an ash rind.
  5. Treat your cheese like you’d want to be treated, let it get to a comfortable room temperature.
  6. Store with as little exposure to air as possible.
  7. Don’t be afraid of a little harmless mold on the rind…”Tis but a flesh wound.”
  8. Make friends with your local cheesemonger, and support local food businesses.
  9. Exercise.
  10. Go back for more cheese.

Happy eating. Cheese be with you. – M&M

Outside of historic Eastern Market, where Bowers Fancy Dairy Products has been serving the Capitol Hill community since 1964.
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