If I had only known in 1981 that Steven Jenkins was already legally importing the cheese that I got caught smuggling home from France. It would have saved me from having to throw my hand-picked, small-production, drippy Brillat-Savarin into the JFK airport garbage. (The customs inspector wouldn't touch it.)
I didn't realize then that a few passionate Europhiles were revolutionizing the cheese scene in the United States. Almost two decades later, the changes are unmistakable. I can go to cheese shops, flip through specialty-food mail-order catalogs or order off a cheese-laden trolley in a restaurant and feel like I'm in France. Every category of cheese is now available here: young (most chèvres), blue-veined (English Stilton), cooked and pressed (Italian Parmigiano-Reggiano), bloomy-rind (unpressed and uncooked, with a soft white rind--for example, French Brie), washed-rind (mild and smelly, as in French Époisses), uncooked and pressed (English Cheddar) and more. What's different here is that while the French sell mainly their own cheeses, in the States French cheeses are only part of a vast array of high-caliber offerings. Many of them are American-made, by talented cheesemakers who are turning out world-class artisanal goat cheeses, Cheddars, Jacks and blues from New England to the Midwest, from the deep South to California.
In the following pages, F&W profiles six of the most influential--and fanatical--cheese experts in the U.S. Follow their lead and you are sure to form some strong opinions yourself. --Jane Sigal
murray's cheese shop, new york city
Background"I once ran 40 giant supermarkets, but I'm through with that."
Greatest achievementEstablishing his tiny (900-square-foot) Greenwich Village shop, crammed with some 260 cheeses, many expertly aged, and staffed with young enthusiasts who urge customers to taste, taste, taste.
Point of view"Cheese is primarily a peasant food, not considered a luxury in its country of origin. I want to demystify it and make it accessible to people."
Weirdest feat"A few years ago, I tasted 125 artisanal cheeses at a food show in Barcelona. I felt disgusting later."
Favorite domestics Major Farm's Vermont Shepherd (semihard sheep's-milk cheese) from Vermont and Cyprus Grove's Humboldt Fog (aged chèvre) from California, to name two.
Best beginner's cheese A French triple-crème (70 percent butterfat, bloomy-rind soft cheese) such as a Saint-André or Explorateur: "Everybody likes them."
On choosing a cheese "You shouldn't buy without tasting; 90 percent of our cheeses can be sampled."
On storing Plastic wrap is the most practical option, but it tends to make cheese sweat. Change it frequently.
Details 257 Bleecker St.; 212-243-3289.
fairway market, new york city
BackgroundEstablished the first great cheese counter in America. Created or revamped the cheese counters at such mythic New York City food stores as Dean & DeLuca, Balducci's and Fairway Market. Wrote Steven Jenkins Cheese Primer (Workman).
Biggest ego boost Becoming the only American member of the Cheva- liers du Taste-Fromage, an ancient honorary French knighthood of cheese experts. The Chevaliers gather in Paris once a year, costumed in medieval-style robes, hats ("hideous velvet appurtenances with plumes") and medals.
Pride and joy His cheese-aging space at the original Fairway Market on the Upper West Side, a spectacular wall of some 100 ripening cheeses in back of the counter.
Pet peeve Cheesemongers who continue to age--a process that can include rubbing, brining and washing--hard imported cheeses. "Hard cheeses come with that done already. These people are gilding the lily." That's not to say that other cheeses don't benefit from careful aging.
Pairing tip Choose a wine that's from the same region as the cheese--for example, from Tuscany: Chianti with Pecorino Tuscano (firm sheep's-milk cheese with a nutty flavor).
Best pairing of cheese and beer "The cheeses made by Chimay, an ancient Trappist order based in Belgium, are excruciatingly delicious--truffly, fried-eggy. The same order makes delicious beer; the beer and cheese together are an epiphany."
Cheese course tip Try several cheeses from one region, for instance Saint-Nectaire (semisoft washed-rind cow's-milk cheese), Gaperon (soft-ripened cow's-milk with chunks of garlic and broken peppercorns) and Fourme d'Ambert (cow's-milk blue)--all from the Auvergne.
Details 2127 Broadway; 212-595-1888.
zingerman's, ann arbor, michigan
Background Co-founded Zingerman's, a specialty-foods emporium and mail-order source. First to import from Neal's Yard Dairy in London, the world's foremost ripener of British and Irish cheeses. A pioneer in scouring France for the "real thing." Served as president of the American Cheese Society from 1988 to 1991.
Pride and joy His walk-in cooler, now managed by cheesemaker John Loomis, which houses about 100 wheels of cheese, most of which need regular turning, washing and brushing.
Point of view"Great cheese is nothing new. All we're doing is educating the customer about it."
Cheese 101 "The first thing you need to understand is that raw-milk cheese is an agricultural product. It's alive--full of the active bacteria that give it character as it ages. Too many people don't understand this yet; they don't perceive it to be a whole lot different from a box of cereal or crackers."
On educating yourself Go by type--for instance, taste four French or Swiss Gruyères (cooked pressed cow's-milk cheese) together. Or sample an English Stilton, a French Roquefort and an Italian Gorgonzola to learn just how different blue cheeses can be.
Great imports L'Etivaz, a Gruyère-like artisanal cheese from Switzerland. ("How could such an amazing cheese remain almost unheard of?") Two-year-old Dutch farmhouse Gouda, a complex cheese made from whole cow's milk. ("The difference between it and the mass-produced stuff is like the difference between American singles and the best English Cheddar.") Really good French Roquefort such as Carles or the black-foil-wrapped Papillon.
Amazing matches "Drizzle some chestnut honey over great Parmigiano-Reggiano, or Spanish lavender honey over blue Spanish Valdeon. I also like these cheeses with a Spanish cake of compressed dried figs, nuts and anise seeds."
Details 422 Detroit St.; 734-663-3354.
formaggio kitchen, cambridge, massachusetts
BackgroundLearned his craft from the French cheese exporter François Roger and the experts at the cheese shop Barthélémy in Paris and at Neal's Yard Dairy in London.
Greatest achievementDesigning his cheese-aging cellar for the 40 to 100 different cheeses resting there on spruce and redwood shelves (250 to 400 are sold upstairs). "I've re-created the conditions of an Italian mountainside in an urban setting." Each cheese is fastidiously flipped three times a week to prevent uneven ripening, and many are periodically washed or rubbed with brine, Calvados, grappa or brandy to continue the affinage (aging) begun at the point of origin. "Italians taste our Italian imports and marvel, How did you do that?"
Best recent import Emmi, a Swiss Emmentaler that's been bathed in a brine of mineral-rich sea salt and aged in a cool, humid environment. "People love it--a 250-pound wheel disappears within 10 days."
How to tell if a shop is a loser "You don't want to see bloomy-rind cheeses like Brie or Camembert with orange or red specks on them. Washed-rind cheeses shouldn't smell ammoniated. There shouldn't be furry mold on anything--it's bitter and should have been scraped off."
Cheese with dinner "Start with lighter flavors--for instance, fresh goat cheese with salad. Full-flavored cheeses can be eaten as dessert, with fruit or membrillo--sweet quince paste from Spain--and sweet grappa, port or a botrytis wine, such as a Sauternes."
Cheese for lunch English cheeses make the finest grilled cheese sandwiches ever; try Keen's Farm Cheddar, Montgomery's Cheddar or Montgomery's Gruyère, with tomatoes.
Eating the rind All natural rinds are harmless and many are good to eat. The best way to find out if you like one is to taste it, preferably with a bit of the cheese.
Details 244 Huron Ave.; 617-354-4750.
picholine, new york city
BackgroundOnce a sommelier, now a restaurant maître-fromager (cheese steward).
Special talent Arranging wine and cheese marriages.
Pairing wine and cheese On his cheese cart, there's something for virtually every wine. "If someone is finishing a glass of Bordeaux, I might suggest an English Cheshire [slightly salty, crumbly, firm], a French Bethmale [very mild, semisoft, from raw cow's milk] or a French Mimolette [firm, orange, similar to Gouda]. I seek to balance acidity--that is, match or contrast the acid level in the wine with that in the cheese."
Favorite import Torta del Casar, a powerful sheep's-milk cheese from Extremadura, Spain, with a custard-like center that's eaten with a spoon.
Cheese as main course "Start with a soup or salad or some sort of raw fish appetizer such as a tuna tartare. Order a white wine first, drink half, then switch to a red. As an experiment, try both wines with the cheese."
Most common request "Brie or Camembert, but I don't carry either. We can't import the best because of the regulations regarding unpasteurized milk cheeses. To taste the real thing, you have to go to France."
On cheese braggadocio "A lot of men want to try the macho cheeses--they'll say they want the strongest, smelliest cheese we have."
Details 35 W. 64th St.; 212-724-8585.
campton place restaurant, san francisco
BackgroundAs a child, Zepos spent summers on the Greek island of Sifnos, where some of her best friends were the highland goats.
How she got into cheese Started on the line at Campton Place Restaurant, then followed her cheese passion into the dining room, where she counsels cheese mavens and prods neophytes into trying some of the 9 to 12 cheeses on her small trolley.
Cheese passion "I'm riveted by mountain cheeses, particularly those made during the warm weather when cows, sheep and goats graze in highland pastures, since their flavor reflects changes in the seasons."
Pet peeve "People who tell me cheese is too fattening when they're about to attack a chocolate cake."
Favorite import "Americans are missing out on fantastic, very robust stuff from Greece. Take the Manouri from the island of Sifnos, made of both sheep's and goat's milk. It's allowed to dry, then it's submerged and further matured in wine lees." It's soon to be imported to the United States.
Favorite domestics Trade Lake Cedar (washed-rind sheep's-milk cheese, and this year's top winner at the American Cheese Society conference) from Wisconsin and Yerba Santa Shepherd (hard, mild aged goat cheese) from California.
Cooking with cheese "Use the best. A simple pasta with Parmesan and cracked pepper is transformed into the most glorious thing if you grate Parmigiano-Reggiano of the highest quality on it. I also love quality fresh cheeses in scrambled eggs or a sandwich, particularly Peluso Teleme [soft cow's-milk cheese], Ig Vella's young Jack [semisoft cow's-milk cheese] and Cowgirl Creamery clabbered cottage cheese." They're all from California.
Aging tip "Try aging crottins de chèvre about a week in your cold-cuts drawer, in wax paper--loose but sealed--until the layer just below the rind becomes runny, salty and pungent, like Brie, with the heart still tangy and acidic."
Details 340 Stockton St.; 415-781-5555.