Cheese please: Local cheesemongers share their favorite offerings

Nadjeeb Chouaf, cheesemonger at Flora Artisanal Cheese at Timbercreek Market, says Comté is his favorite cheese because it’s as close to a “complete” cheese as he can find. Photo: Ryan Jones Nadjeeb Chouaf, cheesemonger at Flora Artisanal Cheese at Timbercreek Market, says Comté is his favorite cheese because it’s as close to a “complete” cheese as he can find. Photo: Ryan Jones

While many of us delight in accompanying a glass of wine with the perfectly paired artisanal cheese, how often do we think about the complex process that went into making that cheese? Furthermore, how often are we stricken with a sense gratitude, not only for the fact that the cheese was made in the first place, but also locally available?

To get some straight-from-the-horse’s-mouth info regarding the cheesemaking process as well as what to buy, C-VILLE spoke with three area cheesemongers and connoisseurs—Sarah Adduci of Feast!, Nicholas Frantz of Whole Foods and Nadjeeb Chouaf of Flora Artisanal Cheese at Timbercreek Market.

C-VILLE: What’s the No. 1 factor that goes into making a great cheese?

Sarah Adduci: Good, quality milk is the end-all-be-all. If you don’t have good milk you won’t have good cheese.

Nicholas Frantz: A good cheesemaker recognizes their animals are their greatest asset. The milk can’t be high quality if the land the animal grazes and the animal itself isn’t well taken care of.

Nadjeeb Chouaf: Obsession. The best cheeses I’ve ever tried are made by wonderful men and women who have a driving need to make the cheese better, batch after batch. Cheesemaking is a long and tedious process with countless factors during every step of manufacturing. Great cheese comes from producers who put the time and the effort into both controlling those variables and using them as an opportunity to make the cheese better.

What’s your favorite cheese and why?

S.A.: What got me into cheese was an extra-aged Gouda—that was my first true “cheese addiction.” So I’m partial. It has these crunchy bits and caramel overtones that’re just wonderful.

N.F.: If I had to pick just one, I think it would be Bayley Hazen Blue from the Cellars at Jasper Hill. Not only did this blue take top rankings at the world cheese awards (Best Raw Cheese 2015), but it never fails to satisfy me. It’s rich and buttery as well as slightly sour, and the mold has such a perfect balance.

N.C.: Comté. I will often describe an aged Comté as “the cheese that all other cheeses want to be when they grow up.” It’s the closest thing to a complete cheese that I can find—there’s a perfect intersection between nutty, fruity and lactic flavors, a firm texture that cleaves perfectly between your teeth and an intoxicating aroma.

What are your top five best-selling cheeses?

S.A.: French triple-crème Brillat-Savarin—a soft white crusted cow’s milk that’s luscious and faintly sour. Simply Cheddar balls that are made locally. Challerhocker—which is a Swiss, Alpine-style cheese made with cow’s milk that’s really nutty and melty. Colston Bassett Stilton—a traditional English blue. And anything from Caromont Farm.

N.F.: Fromage d’Affinois—a well-known double-crème, Brie-style cheese that’s rich, silky and buttery. Emmi Roth’s Le Gruyère Special Reserve—highly sought after for its sharp, creamy and nutty flavor profile. Ford Farms’ Seaside Cheddar—a sharp white cheddar from England, notable because the cows graze on coastal grass and as a result ingest extra salts, making their cheese more complex and flavorful. Pecorino Romano—made in a similar way to Parmigiano-Reggiano, this cheese comes from sheep and has a wonderful spicy and tangy bite to it.

N.C.: The Cellars at Jasper Hill’s Clothbound Cabot. Stichelton, from Neal’s Yard Dairy in London. The Essex St. Comté, Marcel Petite. The two-year Signature Gouda from Fromagerie l’Amuse. And the Chällerhocker from Käserei Tufertschwil.

With the exception of the Comté and the Chällerhocker, I think the others are popular because they are recognizable cheeses (cheddar, blue, aged Gouda). Customers taste them and notice that these selections taste very different than what they expect. The cheeses have a richness, complexity and dynamic that a taster may not have experienced before, and this keeps them coming back over and over.

What’s your best high-end offering and what makes it so amazing?

S.A.: This year we got a specially-made-to-order brie by the Maison de la Truffe in Paris. They take a whole wheel of brie and stuff it super-full with crème fraiche and black truffles. This cheese is rich, creamy, truffle-ly magical.

N.F.: When I can get my hands on it, it’s the Harbison from the Cellars at Jasper Hill. This is a soft-ripened cow’s milk cheese that is wrapped in spice bark then cellar-aged until peak ripeness. When it gets to that perfect point, it’s pretty much liquid butter, with strong notes of mustard, pairing amazingly with charcuterie and cornichons. If you haven’t had this one, add it to your bucket list of cheese.

N.C.: Winnimere is probably my most delectable offering. Hailing from Jasper Hill Farm in Greensboro, Vermont, Winnimere is a very limited seasonal release. With the season spanning from December through the first couple months of the year, it can be tricky to find, but it is totally worth it. What makes it so special? It’s a raw cow’s milk cheese that is wrapped in spruce bark and then given a brine wash to help it develop. If you get your hands on one, you remove the top rind exposing this gorgeously unctuous cheese full of bacon and woodsy flavors that spoons perfectly atop a crusty baguette. They can’t be cut, and weigh in at over a pound, so this is definitely a cheese for sharing. Pair it with some Potter’s Craft Cider or a can of Champion Black Me Stout and you can’t go wrong.

–Eric J. Wallace