My recent class on “Best Buys at the Cheese Counter” reminded me—and my students—that a superb dinner-party cheese platter doesn’t have to set you back more than the lamb chops. You can spend $35 to $40 a pound on cheese today, or you can spend half that if you know where the values are. I assembled the seven selections for this class without shopping at a big-box store or chain. I was a little surprised by the class favorite but almost all the cheeses got some votes.
Expect to pay in the neighborhood of $20 a pound for all these cheeses except the Cabot Cheddar, which will be closer to $15 a pound. Clockwise on the plate from 11 o’clock.:
Ferme de la Tremblaye Brie Fermier (France): From an eco-friendly farm near Paris that also makes one of my favorite blues, this farmstead Brie is supple and aromatic, typically filling the room with mushroom, garlic and truffle scent. This wheel was more subdued than I’ve come to expect but it still had a fragrance and personality missing in most pasteurized-milk Brie.
Cabra al Gofio (Spain): Think of this goat’s-milk newcomer from the Canary Islands as the kid sister to Majorero. It’s smaller (two pounds), younger (two months), moister and sweeter, with a subtle dulce de leche scent. Irresistible. The exterior is rubbed with corn flour (gofio), a traditional ingredient in the islands’ cooking.
Vella Mezzo Secco (California): The class favorite, Mezzo Secco (“half dry”) is essentially a younger version of this creamery’s beloved Dry Jack. Unlike Dry Jack, Mezzo Secco is made with raw milk; the late owner, Ig Vella, told me he made that choice so the cheese would have more character at four months, when it’s released. Nutty and milky in scent, with a smooth, melting texture, Mezzo Secco is so mellow and balanced that it’s hard to stop eating. It’s not flashy in any respect so I was surprised it prevailed, but it’s a cheese I could happily snack on every day.
Los Cameros (Spain): From a blend of cow’s, goat’s and sheep’s milk, this six-month-old wheel comes from a family-run creamery in the Rioja region. It won a gold medal at the World Cheese Awards in 2018. It is firm, with a natural rind and aromas of brown butter, warm cream and roasted nuts. On the palate, it starts off sweet but finishes tangy. Made with 60 percent cow’s milk, which helps bring the cost down, it has more goat’s and sheep’s milk character than you would expect. It got my vote for best cheese of the night.
Cabot Creamery Vintage Choice Cheddar (Vermont): This rindless block Cheddar from pasteurized milk is matured at least 24 months. It’s a crowd pleaser, creamy and mellow, yet with that signature Cheddar tang. I wouldn’t call it sharp or complex, but it’s balanced, rich in flavor and easy to like.
Stompetoren (The Netherlands): This 18-month-old Gouda comes from the CONO co-op, source of L’Amuse, Reypenaer and Beemster. All are much-admired Goudas matured by different methods. Stompetoren offers the butterscotch aroma, caramel sweetness and creamy-yet-crunchy texture that characterize the best aged Goudas, the cheese-world equivalent of candy.
Fourme d’Ambert (France): Always one of the best values among blue cheeses, this cow’s milk wheel with its distinctive cylinder form is reliably mellow, creamy and luscious. Except when it isn’t. The piece I ordered (sight unseen, alas) was not in good shape. The interior had a pinkish cast, the rind was slimy and the flavor strong. I’ve never been disappointed by Fourme d’Ambert before but this wheel experienced some trauma somewhere. The producer said the pinking has to do with a reaction between the salt and moisture in transit, but that would not explain the other issues. It’s a good reminder that cheese has an unpredictable lifespan, especially when it’s high in moisture and travels far.