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A Classic McCalman Cheese Progression

The question arises, what is a cheese “progression”? What is it exactly and why does it matter?

The fundamental principle of a cheese progression refers to tasting cheeses in a particular order, from mild to strong. It does not refer to the progress of a cheese itself: from the time that is made to the point when it is consumed, with all that transpires along that path – the influences of the rennets and cultures, the influences of the curing environments, the various treatments the ripener (affineur) can apply to the cheese, and the influences in the milk components themselves. All those factors certainly affect the strength of a cheese; the commonly accepted understanding of cheese “progression” refers to the order in which cheeses are tasted, after the cheese has reached its optimal level of ripeness.

Quite simply, tasting a mild cheese before a strongly flavored cheese should make more sense than vice versa. To fully detect the nuances in a mildly flavored cheese it would be better not to taste a stronger cheese before it. What makes one cheese stronger than another may be a little subjective, yet there are some empirical qualities to consider. One of the easiest to detect is the salt intensity. The saltier the cheese, the more assertive it would be, all else being equal. A smoked cheese would be stronger than a non-smoked version. A highly aromatic cheese might be considered stronger than one that is less so.

When I looked at the cheese selections for this Friday’s Cheese & Wine 101 class (sorry, it’s sold out!) I thought: this is a classic progression. We will begin with a mild goat cheese – Vermont Butter & Cheese Creamery’s Bonne Bouche. This multiple award-winning cheese is made with pasteurized milk, which helps keep it mellow. The Bonne Bouche has plenty of flavor but it is milder than the next cheese in the lineup, Pierre Robert – a triple-crème cow cheese that is also young and pasteurized. The cow milk cheeses generally follow the goat cheeses better than they precede them. The extra butterfats in Pierre Robert melt into the palate so that the fresh flavors of the Bonne Bouche would go unnoticed if it was tasted after the Pierre Robert.

A good follow-up to a triple crème is a firm pressed sheep milk cheese, and this time of year the Idiazábal is in great form. A couple of things this old-world cheese can boast of enables it to follow the decadent Pierre Robert, besides the fact that it is a type with a much more ancient history. The pressed sheep milk cheeses usually have a nice “bite” to them which closes down the lingering butterfats of a triple-crème cow cheese. The more aged, firm texture helps, and oily butterfats in the sheep milk hold their own just fine; their delightful nutty olive oil aromas linger. The Idiazábal is also gently smoked, not so much for the sake of the smoked flavor as it is for the traditional methods of curing the cheese.

A good follow-up to the pressed sheep milk cheeses is one of the “stinky” cheeses, and at this time the Taleggio is looking better than ever. Full aroma for a pasteurized version, with a very buttery flavor, resplendent, a bit salty, savory and chock full of umami.

A medium aged Comté makes a good successor, not especially “stinky” but with plenty of aroma and layers of flavor. Back to this firm cheese, after the unctuous Taleggio; this makes a nice break. In a sense, the Comté is related to Taleggio, with similar surface washings, cow’s milk, produced not too far from one another. The Comté is made with uncompromised milk however, as is mandated by law.

If this were a well-aged Comté, and the next cheese – Parmigiano Reggiano – were a younger version, these two could be flip-flopped in the progression. As with most Parmigiani Reggiano there is that little bitter note, which gives them a little more depth compared to the brighter flavored Comté.

Then you have Shaker Blue. Once you have a blue cheese it is much more difficult to detect the subtleties in most other cheese types. There are the occasional “blue” cheeses where the blue is applied externally instead of veined in the paste. These can be relatively mild. In most cases the blue is a dominant note for a cheese. They are generally a little saltier than other cheeses, the extra salt is required to keep competing bacteria and molds from thwarting the blue.

So there you have it – a classic cheese progression. Now, to choose the corresponding wines; they have their progressions too. With four contrasting wines we hope to find some unexpected marriages-made-in-heaven.

Max McCalman

Spread the curd!
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