By Laura Reiley
Times Food Critic
A little wine, a little cheese and you have yourself the makings of a New Year's Eve party. Max McCalman, America's first restaurant-based maitre fromager (master of cheese), has just released his fourth book on the subject, Mastering Cheese: Lessons for True Connoisseurship From a Maitre Fromager (Clarkson Potter, $40). We spoke with him by phone from his New York City home to glean some of the finer points of cheese service.
What are the misconceptions about cheese that you've been battling since you started the cheese program with Terrance Brennan at Picholine in New York in 1994?
Most people have this idea that cheese is fattening and that unpasteurized cheese is dangerous. Cheese is not fattening, and in fact it can lower bad cholesterol and elevate good cholesterol levels. Unpasteurized cheese is perfectly safe — and perfectly legal — if it is aged at a cool temperature for 60 days. Also, people are concerned when they see mold. Cheese is a living food and the mold is extracting excess moisture while adding flavor. And I hear from lots of people that they can't eat cheese because they are lactose intolerant. There is almost no lactose in cheese. It's drained off with the whey, and remaining lactose is converted to lactic acid in the souring of the milk.
What are the major categories or "families" of cheese?
You can categorize cheese by animal type (goat, sheep, cow), but another way to group them is by rind type: There are bloomy rind cheeses like Brie, Camembert and triple creams; then the washed rind or stinky cheeses (these are also called the blush-rind cheeses or monastery-style cheeses); and then there are natural rinded or waxed rinded cheeses. From a cheesemaker's point of view, cheese is a fresh cheese, a pressed cheese (like Manchego) or a cooked pressed cheese (like a Gruyere), a flavored cheese (not my favorite, but they have a large following) or blue cheese. It's less helpful to categorize cheese by texture, because a cheese can be hard one day and soft the next.
When putting together a wine and cheese party, what are the things to bear in mind when selecting cheeses?
Variety is important. Perhaps have one goat, one sheep and one blue. Have one that's soft and one that's very hard. If you serve different types you have a better chance of keeping everyone excited. Serve the cheeses in a progression from mild to strong — if you start with a blue it coats your mouth and you won't taste anything else. Start with the softer cheese. Don't buy too much soft cheese — cutting into them and saving them is like trying to put toothpaste back in the tube. Harder cheese has a longer shelf life. And anytime you're serving cheese, serve it at room temperature.
What are some unusual foods that pair nicely with cheese?
Nutritionally, cheese gives you most of what you need except for vitamin C and fiber, so pair it with fruits or things high in fiber — almonds, walnuts, dried fruits like Medjool dates. Another great accompaniment is honey — it has been for centuries. Because cheese has a little salt, honey is a nice counterpoint, as is quince paste or, this time of year, fresh apples. For me, grapes seem cliched. I'd rather have my grapes in the form of wine. Olives and even vegetables like fava beans or roasted beets (again, it's a sweet foil) are nice.
How do you suggest arranging cheese for maximum drama?
Arrange the taller cheeses in the back, and cluster them by group. Think of yourself as the conductor of an orchestra. Put the sheep's milk cheeses over here, the goat over there. Be sure to allow enough space between cheeses, especially with soft ones that might run, and array them like a cityscape. A dark marble surface can flatter the cheeses and also serves to keep the cheeses cooler. I try not to gussy it up too much. Remember, the cheese stands alone.
Laura Reiley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2293. Her blog is at blogs.tampabay.com/dining.