My Favorite Artisanal Cheeses

OK, OK, I’m a cheese snob. I admit it. But at the very least I’m good about sharing my love of cheese with anyone who’s interested.

Have a look at yesterday’s post about assorted cheese gift baskets and cheese-related gifts as well.

Beecher’s Flagship Smoked Cheddar

Beecher's Flagship Smoked Cheddar

One of my favorite places in America is Pike Place Market in Seattle. I’m sure there are other awesome and legitimately interesting places in Seattle (I’ve at least enjoyed SafeCo Field), but this area is the tourist trap and it does trap me every time. I love the Market Spice tea shop, the endless menagerie of bright fruits, veggies, and fresh fish, and the original Starbucks.

Just down the walk from Starbucks is Beecher’s. When you walk in, you see their huge gleaming stainless steel vats of milk, whey, and curds being made, and you can always get a sample of whatever fresh cheese curds they’re producing that day. The best “Seattle experience” I know as far as food is a Beecher’s Smoked Flagship Grilled Cheese with their soup of the day (it’s always incredible). Then you go and sit under the awning on the pier overlooking the sound, listen to buskers, and watch the passersby, or you just stroll the rest of the Pike Place shops while you enjoy such an exquisite sandwich. The rich, smoky, lightly salted cheese on buttery, savory artisan bread tastes even better in the rain.

Spanish Manchego
Spanish Manchego

Almost a year ago I decided to try a dairy-free diet to see what the benefits would be. After living in Rwanda I knew that I had developed a pretty sensitive GI tract and wanted to see if dairy was part of the culprit. So that meant that I actually had to give up my favorite cheeses, milk, potato soup, etc.

Having to totally avoid cheese was a bummer for a while, until I discovered the wonders of Spanish Manchego. Made from sheep’s milk and 100% lactose free, Manchego is a hard cheese, with a texture more similar to a fresh Parmesan or Romano, but with a mild, buttery, and tangy flavor profile. The more it ages, the better it is – I recommend six months minimum. It makes an incredible quesadilla, a grilled cheese that definitely competes with Beecher’s, and it will liven up baked potatoes or Irish Sundaes. It also appears commonly as an hors d’oeuvre with rice crackers and quince paste (incredible), or with bruschetta tapas.

Barely Buzzed

Barely Buzzed

I have to admit that I wouldn’t know about these next two if not for GiftTree. That said, there’s nothing like a job that helps you discover amazing foods! Barely Buzzed is hands-down the most interesting and memorable cheese I have ever tasted. While Manchego and Beecher’s are excellent “workhorse” cheeses to always keep around the house for a quick lunch or to serve with dinner, Barely Buzzed stands alone, perfect for cocktail soirees or upscale hors d’oeuvres.

It starts with a smooth, creamy white cheese similar to Provolone, but sweeter, and is then infused with lavender oil, and rubbed with espresso grounds.

That’s right: a creamy gourmet white cheese with a lavender and espresso infusion. What you get on the palette is like culinary fireworks: so much “color” and depth, and a lasting intensity. After the aging process, it ends up with a nutty, toasted caramel flavor with huge, surprising bursts of coffee and a whisper of lavender laced in throughout. For everyone I’ve shared the Barely Buzzed with, the response is immediately “Wow!” or “Whoa, what is that??” It’s so unique, and wonderful. The signature version comes from Beehive Cheese Company, and Trader Joe’s also has a version.

Dutch Beemster Vlaskaas Gouda

Dutch Beemster Vlaskaas Gouda

This is my other splurge even though I’m technically avoiding dairy these days. When we lived in Rwanda, the only cheese that was produced locally was traditional Gouda. You could get a whole wheel of it for the equivalent of $5, and it was what we used on pizza, sandwiches, pasta, everything. Yes, we got tired of it, but the only other option was to go to the one import store and buy mozzarella for $15 a pound. So we learned to appreciate Rwandan Gouda. It was all we had.

Now that we’re back in the States, we have all the food choices in front of us that we missed for 4 years. So we don’t go for Gouda that much anymore, but when a recipe calls for it or we just get a craving, we go for the Dutch Beemster Vlaskaas. I think its main appeal is that it’s only on the second or third layer of flavor that you realize it’s Gouda. At first nibble it tastes like white cheddar, then goes quite a bit more creamy and sweet, before rounding out the palette with deep, pungent Gouda flavor. The Beemster Gouda is also lactose free, though it contains cow’s milk instead of sheep’s and I haven’t seen the same GI benefits as with Manchego. But I still I find that it’s worth it to “cheat” with this one, just because the complexity and duration of flavor is so enjoyable.

I could go on, but these are the four cheeses I would take with my anywhere in the world.

What’s your favorite cheese?

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