Here's one of those "what to take with you on a deserted island" questions. Supposing you could fish, hunt, and pick fruit, what one staple would you otherwise bring with you? Wine? Chocolate? Bread?
How about cheese? Think about it: there's hardly a country today that doesn't have a cheese making industry of some sort, and most of the product is darn good stuff.
Even the Brits, the butt of more culinary jokes than you can squirt a can of Cheez Whiz at, nonetheless produce some of the world's all-time great cheeses. And who'd have thought that here in humidity-challenged New Mexico, a handful of small producers could work so sublimely with goat's milk?
Cheese-making is an industry that could very well rival the depth and breadth of wine-making-and a few savvy vendors here in Albuquerque are educating their customers on the merits of what may be a near-perfect food.
"You can slice it, cube it or spread it," says Jocelyn Chao, manager and cheese buyer for Talin Market in Albuquerque. "Cook with it and it instantly bolsters any recipe. And it's perfect as a snack because you don't need much to fill up."
That's particularly important in the summertime, when the thought of turning on the oven or stove is as stultifying as the heat. But cheese is perfect for no-fuss party trays, quick snacks and no-cook meals.
"Cheese pairs well with anything salty and sweet," Jocelyn advises. So to put together a flavorful cheese tray, include a balance between textures and flavors. Match strong for strong, both in fruits and in meats.
For summer, try Brie with soft bread, pears, and a mild cold cut, like one of Talin's pre-sliced, low salt proscuittos. Goudas go well with any number of textured and flavored crackers (or a small round East Indian puri, prepackaged and also sold at Talin), topped with fruit spread and accompanied by a peppery salami. And don't be afraid to try new flavors. Talin's director of operations, Victor Limary, is a big fan of the Brazilian cheese Requeijao. While expensive (Talin gets it in a couple times a year), the combination of this creamy-textured, skim milk cheese on crackers with guava paste is what he calls, "One of the most amazing flavor combinations."
Lotti Abraham, lead cheese clerk for La Monta-ita Co-op in Nob Hill, says summer is a great time to eat cheese because seasonal offerings pair so beautifully with fresh vegetables, beans, and fruits.
"Fresh mozzarella is a staple summer cheese, because it coincides with the availability of fresh tomatoes and herbs," she says. As part of her job advising customers on cheese purchases, Abraham likes to feature a simple recipe or two, which she jots down on a dry erase board next to the cheese case. This week, her featured "Satisfyingly Summer" recipe includes Queso Fresco from Mexico, mixed with sliced tomatoes, cilantro, and onions.
With one of the widest selections of cheese in Albuquerque-over seventy varieties, including artisanal, organic, and rBGH-free-the Co-Op gives its customers lots of other options to choose from as well. For fruit and cheese combinations, Abraham suggests Tomme de Savoie, with plums and ham, Feta with cantaloupe and watermelon, and raw milk Manchego with crackers and quince paste.
The possibilities are endless.
Which is why Carey Smoot, owner of the newly opened Downtown Gourmet on Central near Ninth Street devotes a third of her gourmet grocery and take-out deli to cheese, effectively making her the city's only fromagerie.
Her passion started years ago while working at the famed Hampton specialty food shop, Barefoot Contessa. Before Ina Garten purchased it, the shop focused primarily on cheese. And while Smoot has worked both in and out of the food industry since then, her passion for cheese stuck. "I've never met a cheese I didn't like," she says.
"It's versatile, tastes good, and it's good for you." It's also interesting. Take her favorite cheese, Nokkelost, made at a cooperative in the town of the same name in Norway. "The cheese is still made the same way it's been made for hundreds of years. Everyone brings milk from their one cow, everyone takes turns at the cooperative, everyone makes their share of the milk money, so to speak."
It's important to Smoot to know where her food comes from. And that's easy to do with cheese. "Talking to individual cheese makers about their product is an experience on par with talking to individual wine makers." It's no accident, then, that Smoot encourages people to organize tastings with cheese much as they would with wine. Certainly, no one leaves her shop without sampling some of her own fare, which includes upwards of fifty cheeses from around the world.
The secret to a successful cheese tasting is to stick to like cheeses. "If you're interested in blues, eat four blues, but don't drift off into semi-softs." Make sure your cheese is warmed to room temperature before serving, and have something to cleanse the palate. Any fruit will work, but Smoot particularly likes the fruit bars made by Maya. Just a small nip instantly prepares your mouth for the next flavor.
And when you finally come down to choosing your cheeses for a party, stick by this simple rule: the fewer the guests, the fewer your cheeses. "Unless you've got a large crowd, any more than three cheeses and the palate gets confused."
So what goes best with cheese? "Fruit, chocolate, and nuts," she says without hesitation. Some of her favorite combinations include lavender-infused apricot jam with Grana Padano Parmesan and peppered cashews with English Blacksticks blue. She's also been experimenting with vinegars, which pair well with the magnificent Spanish blues from Valdeon or Cabrales.
Most importantly, she says, is to relax. Especially when it comes to serving wine. While many people feel that cheese and wine are difficult to pair, Smoot doesn't adhere to any hard and fast rule.
"Of course, there is the school of thought that says drink the wine, eat the fruit and eat the cheese that is all made in one particular region," she says. And while it would seem whites are the first choice-a Riesling and Brie for instance are a natural-don't discount reds. "Personally, I think a red with Humboldt Fog (a salty ash-veined goat cheese made in California) with salty crackers is just about as perfect as can be."
And don't buy into the notion that cheese is lactose-laden. In fact, as a recent article in Specialty Food magazine points out, nearly 95% of lactose is removed in the cheese manufacturing process. Most ripened cheeses therefore contain less than half a gram of lactose per serving.
But what about fat content? "It's the processed stuff that I think is unhealthy," says Abraham. "But a good raw milk cheese, with some fruit and vegetables? In moderation, I can't imagine how that could possibly be harmful."
Thankfully, she continues, Americans seem to be catching on to the joys of cheese, both in the way small American artisanal makers are "Giving the Europeans a run for their money," and in the enthusiasm she sees in her own customers. "I think Americans (and most especially, Albuquerqueans) are getting reacquainted with cheese," she says. "We're starting a whole new relationship and that's exciting."
The Talin International Market is located at 88 Louisiana SE (505.268.0206), Albuquerque.
La Monta-ita Co-op Natural Foods is located at 3500 Central Avenue SE (505.265.4631) and 2400 Rio Grand Boulevard NW (505.242.8800), Albuquerque.
The Downtown Gourmet is located at 900 Central SW (505.877.2262), Albuquerque.