Where to Find the Best Specialty Cheese

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These are fine days indeed for those who love cheese.

While aficionados once had to look overseas for the new and exciting in fromage, the homegrown cheese scene is now also providing excitement of its own. There are hundreds of small-batch cheese makers in the U.S. alone -- so many, in fact that the first-of-its-kind Atlas of American Artisan Cheese, highlighting 350 of the best artisan cheese makers, was recently published.

All the cheese options can get confusing, though. So how can you best find your way through the ever-expanding cheese arena?

Trial and error is always a fine strategy, if time-consuming. You could rely on the advice of a cheesemonger, if you happen to know one. You could turn to the world of the cheese-obsessed online, where blogs like CurdNerds and Cheese by Hand lovingly track the cheese scene.

Or, you could tap the knowledge of chefs who carefully create cheeseboards for their clientele, by noting their picks, and then hitting your favorite gourmet shop or online retailer with your new shopping list.

This works especially well when you're dining in one of the nation's artisan cheese centers. So for example, if you had dinner at L'Etoile, across the street from the capitol in Madison, Wis., you'd learn about the pungent stylings of Bleu Mont Dairy, Roth Käse and others -- which you can then track down to purchase at your favorite cheese shop or via the state's portal.

Another restaurant for artisan cheese sleuthing is Willi's Wine Bar in Santa Rosa, Calif., where the cheese menu changes monthly.

Tracey Shepos, executive chef de cuisine at Stark Reality Restaurants, which includes Willi's, says one of her current favorites is Andante Dairy in Petaluma, Calif. Try the Picolo, a triple crème cow's milk cheese that's made with crème fraiche.

"It's a really nice smooth and soft cheese, and really balanced flavor, and melt-in-your mouth texture," says Shepos. She enjoys serving cheese with truffle-infused honey. "It pairs well with most cheeses. What I like about it is, it's drippable, it's spreadable and it doesn't take away from the texture of the cheese," she says.

Of course, with distribution being what it is, geography is not really an obstacle: The best chefs have the best cheese brought to them. There's not a lot of cheese made in New York City, for example, but Artisanal Bistro in Manhattan is hard to beat for its selection.

Colorado is also not known for its cheese-producing prowess, but Chef Bertrand Bouquin, who runs the kitchen at the Penrose Room at the Broadmoor in Colorado Springs, Colo. -- the state's only AAA five-diamond restaurant -- sources artisan cheeses from all over the world.

He personally adores Epoisse, a cheese from his native France that is "very, very stinky, but when you remove the rind it is the creamiest cheese of all."

He's also a fan of Humboldt Fog, the premier offering of Cypress Grove Chevre, in Arcata, Calif. It's a goat cheese that tastes nothing like the chevres you've had -- it's got a deeper flavor and delivers a bit of a punch.

Chef Bouquin likes to serve his cheese plate with a paste made of dried fruit, port and chopped hazelnuts.

Up in Vermont, Chef Curtiss Hemm, head of the culinary arts program at the New England Culinary Institute, is a huge fan of Greensboro, Vt.'s Jasper Hill's Constant Bliss cheese -- a "bloomy" cheese which has a fluffy rind and is soft and creamy inside -- along the lines of a brie or a camembert. It is Jasper Hill's take on a traditional French cheese called "charouce," made in France.

Of course, when you think Vermont, you think cheddar. "If you had those commercial cheddars -- the kind that come in a square log -- you know that they last a long time on your tongue, so that you're afraid to talk to anyone," says Hemm. The cheddar that he's excited about now is Shelburne Farms, in Shelburne, Vt. "It's sharp, pungent, but short-lived on your palate," he says. Shelburne ages its cheddar anywhere from six months to three years. Chef Hemm enjoys the two-year aged variety.

Chef Hemm's favorite cheeseboard accompaniment? Prunes, stewed in wine.

"Prunes bring out the character of the cheese. They can cut through the fat in the cheese, and they offer such an earthy, well-rounded flavor," he says.

Here's his recipe:

  • 1 pound pitted prunes
  • 2 cups pinot noir
  • 1 stick cinnamon
  • 2 cloves
  • 1 tsp black pepper
  • 1 tsp mustard seed
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 2 tbsp honey

Add all ingredients in a stainless steel pot.
Cook over low heat until the liquid thickens and the prunes plump up (roughly an hour).
Remove from heat and cool to room temperature. This can last in a cooler for up to 14 days.

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