PRAISE CHEESES

I think that I shall never see a Gouda lovely as a Brie

Clifton Fadiman claims that there is no such thing as a bad cheese. “It may be dull, it may be naive, it may be oversophisticated,” he says, “yet it remains cheese, milk’s leap toward immortality.” Even Velveeta, milk’s plunge into insignificance, is defensible when broiled black on an English muffin and doused with Worcestershire sauce.

Few tastes are as catholic as Fadiman’s, but from Velveeta to Brie, there’s a cheese for every palate. A man who can’t find a cheese that speaks to him is a man who doesn’t know how to love.

My own favorite is Brie. The greatest New Year’s high I’ve ever had was last year when my hostess broke out a whole wheel of exquisitely ripe Brie. This generous lady also served gallons of champagne, hundreds of snails in garlic butter, dozens of French pastries. But who cares about champagne an escargots? Who wants Napoleons or eclairs? Think of it, a wheel of Brie – the tender white crust with its very, very slight reddish-brown tinge, the soft runny insides ready to spill!

Brie is one of the serious cheeses. A member of the soft-ripening cheese family, it tastes earthy, delicate, unique. Why anyone would want to mess it up with chives or parsley, as in the ignominious Herb Brie, 1 don’t know. Herb Brie is a cute idea that doesn’t work, like Siamese cats with velvet bows.

Supreme, another soft-ripening cheese, has more butterfat than Brie – 75 percent to Brie’s 45 or 60 – and a much milder flavor. Belletoile, made in Normandy, is a soft-ripening triple-crème cheese with the distinctive Brie flavor, but even richer.

The semi-soft cheeses are numerous. The best known is Port Salut, smooth and innocuous, light and bland. A bit more exotic are Rambol, with its walnut covering, and Reybrier, with its pistachio nuts; both cheeses are dull, but the nuts are a nice touch if you like that sort of thing. Then there’s Gourmandise with kirsch, walnut, or orange flavoring. The first two are excellent, expecially the kirsch, but the orange-flavored Gourmandise tastes exactly like orange Life Savers.

Havarti, a Danish Tilsit, has more body and pungency than many semi-soft cheeses, and leaves a decided aftertaste. Even more pungent is the buttery St.

Andre, with a taste veering toward blue, though it isn’t a blue cheese. Pré Clos, an aged St. Paulin, has a strong sweet flavor

A semi-soft cheese new to the States is Brüder Basil, a German smoked cheese. The smoke doesn’t overwhelm the cheese as it does in many domestic varieties; it’s unusual and pleasant.

Of the firm cheeses, the greatest are the Swiss Emmentaler and the English and American Cheddars. Emmentaler is the original Swiss cheese, an extremely firm cheese that grates well and has an aggressive nutty taste. Use it for flavor in fondues, sauces, and souffles, and add equal parts of Gruyère, another Swiss. Emmentaler supplies taste, while Gruyère lends a creamy texture.

English Cheddar is fine, but no better than American. The best American Cheddars are from New, York and Vermont. New York’s is bright yellow, and assertive in flavor. The texture is dry and crumbly when the cheese is properly aged, and Cheddar definitely improves with age – the last I had was more than three years old and it was wonderful. Vermont Cheddar is milder; a pretty pale yellow, almost white, with a dramatic black rind. Both the Cheddars, because of their strength and dryness, are terrific with cold beer or ale.

A less familiar hard cheese, in Texas anyway, is the Dutch Roomkaas, which is a very creamy (60 percent butterfat) variety of Gouda, strong-flavored and offbeat; it’ll stump even your gourmet friends.

I find blue-veined cheeses a little hard to eat, though I love them crumbled in salads or salad dressings. Roquefort is the aristocrat of the French blues, but all of the Roquefort I get in Dallas is far too salty. I prefer bonny Bleu de Bresse and Pipo Crème, though they’re harder to find. Danish Blue is very sharp and heavily blue-veined. English Stilton and Italian Gorgonzola are for hard-core blue lovers. I have come to take pleasure in smelling them, but that’s about it.

But the greatest test of my love of cheese is the Chèvres – goat cheeses. The thing about goat cheese is that it tastes like goat’s milk. I know human beings can acquire all sorts of odd affections – for blubber and liver, anchovies and caviar, chitterlings and chili peppers. So I’m willing to keep trying the Chèvres-they could be the goat’s leap toward immortality.

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