Some years ago, when I set out to train as a pastry chef, I knew little about cheese beyond the fact that I loved it. In some restaurants - especially smaller ones - the pastry chef is tasked with managing the cheese plate and I quickly realized that this was an area where my knowledge was sorely deficient. I also knew that it was a subject that would not be covered as part of my coursework.
At the time, I was based in New York City and had taken a great intro class at Murray’s Cheese, so I decided to take a chance. I walked into the shop one morning and was in luck, the cheesemonger who had taught my class happened to be there and he also happened to be a store manager. I re-introduced myself, gave him my résumé, and told him that I was training as a pastry chef, but would really like to get a job where I could learn more about cheese.
I wasn’t sure if it would lead to anything - they weren’t hiring at that moment - but a couple of weeks later, I got an e-mail: would I still be interested? That’s where my cheese learning began. I had such a fantastic time working at Murray’s that when I relocated to Boston, I was on the lookout for a job where I might still be able to nurture my love for the pastry arts but also keep in touch with the cheese world. This led me to Formaggio Kitchen. I had visited the South End location during a visit to Boston some months before and both the level of customer service and range of cheeses on offer had made a strong impression.
Again, I was lucky. I went in for an informational meeting at Formaggio Kitchen in Cambridge. It was a good meeting, but I was told that no positions were currently available. The next day, I got a call. Someone had given their notice and a position on the cheese counter had opened up. A week later I joined the team and, over time, my role expanded from the cheese counter, into the bakery, and down into the office. At Formaggio Kitchen, most folks wear several hats which I really loved - it made every day different and, if you took the initiative, there was a lot of scope to try new things and to keep learning. Cheese happens to be one of those things where there’s always bound to be something new you can learn and I did a lot of that while working at FK.
From my days as a novice cheesemonger, to my time at Formaggio, to the present, I have gradually been accumulating a small library themed around cheese. Today, I thought I would share nine of my favorite books from this collection. If you’re looking to give a gift to a curious queso-phile, I venture to suggest that one or more of these books may be just the ticket.
Cheese Primer by Steven Jenkins - When I first started working at Murray’s Cheese, I knew I had to get up to speed pretty quickly on at least the basics. I asked a couple of the more experienced mongers what books they might recommend reading and their unanimous response was Jenkins’ Cheese Primer. Even though this book is now a couple of decades old (originally published in 1996), if a new monger were to ask me the same question today, I would similarly recommend this book. Organized by country and region, It is superbly comprehensive for a beginner cheese student, providing pithy but valuable introductions to the major groups and styles of cheese around the world. If someone you know is on a quest to work their way through all the cheeses on offer at their local cheese shop, this would be an excellent companion!
The World Cheese Book edited by Juliet Harbutt - I discovered this book after I had worked with cheese for several years and would highlight it as another superb survey book. The Cheese Primer (with the exception of the cover) was published entirely in black and white and has some illustrations/photos, but not as many as The World Cheese Book which is brimful with color snapshots - for each cheese there is a snapshot showing the rind and a close-up image of the paste (the center part of the cheese). Another plus about this book? It was a group effort, undertaken with Juliet Harbutt, founder of London-based Jeroboams, as the editor-in-chief. I have listened in on many a ‘Cheese 101’ class in my day. Why would I do that, you ask? Well, at first it was to try to absorb as much as I could, as quickly as I could. But then, I stuck around because each monger has their own, unique relationship with cheese. Some go bonkers for the science of it all, some have developed deep friendships with local cheesemakers, and others love the lore, history and tradition of the cheesemaking process. For this reason, each ‘Cheese 101’ will be a different class and you’re bound to learn something new, no matter how long you’ve been mongering. I would argue that the same is true in terms of books too - for, although the ostensible mission of The World Cheese Book is the same as for the Cheese Primer, each gets there in a slightly different way, with different anecdotes and factoids. One’s knowledge-base can only be enriched by consulting both!
Cheese: A Connoisseur’s Guide to the World’s Best by Max McCalman - One of the most memorable meals I have ever enjoyed was a special dinner out at Picholine restaurant in New York. Now closed, in its heyday, Picholine was arguably the premier place to go for cheese service in that city - and, one could even argue, in the United States. This was well before I began working as a cheesemonger though, so I had no idea what I was in for when I went, but it was with great delight that I was presented with my first cheese plate that evening. To this day, I still have the cheese cheat sheet I was given - with each cheese I had on my plate ticked off on the list. Why do I mention this? Because the maître fromager who had given me such a wonderful introduction to restaurant-based cheese service was none other than Max McCalman. I did not know his name that evening and only made the connection a couple of years later, once I had started working at Murray’s, and after I had purchased his book. As you might already have determined from its title, this volume does not aspire to be quite as comprehensive as the Cheese Primer or The World Cheese Book. Rather, McCalman focuses on roughly 200 cheeses. For each, he gives a bit of historical and/or cultural context and then shares milk type, provenance, the producers who were/are making the cheese, how it is produced, its distinguishing features appearance-wise, cheeses that are similar, any notes about seasonality and, lastly, wine pairing recommendations. A number of cheeses in this book are well covered in Jenkins’ and Harbutt’s books (Roquefort, Taleggio, etc.), but there are also a goodly number of less well known (but delicious cheeses) that get more focused treatment - for example, Taupinière, a stunning French goat cheese - or, Red Hawk, Cowgirl Creamery’s gorgeous washed rind round. For that reason, it is another excellent addition to any cheese lover’s lactic library.
Mastering Cheese by Max McCalman - Published in 2009, four years after his book Cheese: A Connoisseur’s Guide, I include this second book by McCalman because it is actually quite different from the first, both in terms of information and in the way that it’s structured. What I particularly like about it is that it’s organized almost like a cheese class - a section on cheese nutrition, a mini history lesson (bringing things right up to the American cheese renaissance), an introduction to how cheese is made (including the part an affineur plays), a discussion of how a particular cheese acquires its unique flavors, and what to consider when you’re buying cheese. He also treats on different breeds of ruminants (and their impact on the cheeses made from their milk) and has a whole chapter on raw milk cheeses, a hot topic for cheese lovers around the globe. He goes on to discuss identifying quality cheese shops and restaurants with strong cheese programs and lays out possible tastings (or flights) themed around a given beverage (wine or beer), country or style of cheese. Last but not least, he includes a quick cheese reference at the back of the book, along with an index especially for the farmer-producers and a host of other resources, including websites, festivals and periodicals if one is interested in continuing one’s cheese studies. I must say, as a US-based cheesemonger, I really appreciated the attention McCalman paid to American cheesemakers in this book. As well, whereas the first three books I have listed touch on some of the above-mentioned subjects in their introduction sections, or in special boxes interpolated into the text, their primary focus is on the cheeses themselves. This book offers a bit less of a focused introduction to the cheeses (although there’s definitely a goodly helping of that too!), but its strength is the wealth of information it gives folks to be savvier cheese consumers and, hopefully, as a result, enjoy cheese even more!
French Cheeses: The Visual Guide to More Than 350 Cheeses from Every Region of France by Kazuko Masui and Tomoko Yamada - The first four books on this list are all eminently suitable for a cheese newbie - surveys of one sort or another. And, I guess this is a survey too - but its focus is much narrower, specifically categorizing and classifying French cheeses. Most folks would, I think, agree that France is the most famous cheese country in the world, so it’s not surprising this book exists. It is extremely accessible, with a lot of great pictures, illustrating rinds, pastes and, in some instances, the impact of age. You could absolutely buy this for a beginning cheese enthusiast but, honestly, I would be more inclined to recommend one (or two) of the first four books on this list instead. This book is one I would get for someone who already has a solid familiarity with cheese, so they can dig deeper into some of the lesser known French varieties. That said, if your cheese loving friend or family member is about to set off on a trip to France then, no matter their knowledge-level, this is a great book to have along!
Italian Cheese: A Guide To Its Discovery and Appreciation, 293 Traditional Types edited by Roberto Rubino, Piero Sardo and Angelo Surrusca - I acquired this volume, focusing solely on Italian cheeses, several years after I had been a cheesemonger. And, as is true for the above-mentioned book on French fromages, it would especially shine as a gift for someone who already has the most well known cheeses under their belt. If your recipient is already familiar with the likes of Gorgonzola, Taleggio, mozzarella di bufala, Robiola di Roccaverano, Parmigiano Reggiano (as opposed to Parmesan) and Pecorino Romano, this is an excellent aid to expanding their formaggio horizons! Produced by the Slow Food organization, I was really pleased when I discovered this book as, despite the country’s rich cheesemaking traditions, there seems to be a lot less information readily available for the English-speaker than there is, for example, on French cheeses.
Atlas of American Artisan Cheese by Jeffrey P. Roberts - This book is especially grand for US-based cheese consumers. In fact, I am not currently aware of any other work that documents the artisan American cheese scene as comprehensively. It’s written in such a way that one could use it to plan a cross country cheese-tasting road trip, including not just a description of each dairy and cheesemaking operation, but its address, phone number, website, and information about if/when folks can visit. Published in 2007, it’s probably due for a bit of an update as some stellar makers have cropped up since publication (Meadowood Farms! Ruggles Hill Creamery!), but it remains a solid resource for learning about some of the amazing artisan cheesemakers in this country (Twig Farm! Jasper Hill Farm! Cato Corner Farm!). In my opinion, this book would be an ideal gift for US-based cheese lovers who enjoy weekend excursions into the countryside and/or who are farmers’ market regulars.
In Spain: Cheese & Landscape by Enric Canut - First up, I’m going to be honest, it’s not that easy to get your hands on a copy of this book. If I remember rightly, I was finally successful at tracking down a copy with a little help from eBay. It wasn’t crazy expensive, but it just took a bit of time to find a copy available for sale. It is a bilingual book with the text appearing in both Spanish and English and is a collection of mini-essays, touching on the history, traditions and current state of Spanish cheeses, as well as the regions where they are made, and the companies and cheesemakers producing them. The reason I bought this book? Because I wanted to learn more about Spanish cheeses - in particular, tortas. I still remember the first time I had a torta from Extremadura - and it blew my mind. I had never before tasted anything like it. The main reason? I had never had a cheese coagulated with thistle before. Thistle, in my experience, tends to impart a gorgeously pickle-y taste to queso - moreover, a ripe torta has a marvelously silky, pudding-y texture to it, perfect for dolloping on crusty bread. So, learning a bit more about tortas was the main reason I got this book and it did not disappoint. Information about other Spanish cheeses (and the regions of the country where they are made) was a bonus! Information for the English-speaker who wishes to learn more about Spanish cheesemaking is not readily available and this book is a welcome exception. A final note - this book was produced with cheese professionals in mind so, as with the French and Italian cheese-focused books, I would recommend getting this book for a cheese aficionado for whom Manchego, Cabrales and Garrotxa are already familiar words.
Got Cheese? by Gregoire Michaud - Last but not least, the pastry chef in me required that this book be added to the list. Michaud originally hails from the Vallais canton in Switzerland which borders both France and Italy. There, he started apprenticing in the pastry arts at the age of fifteen. Now, he is based in Hong Kong where, for several years, he led a 21-strong pastry team at the Four Seasons hotel. Today, he has his own bakery called Bread Elements. What is great about this cookbook is that it provides not just the usual suspects in terms of cheese recipes, but a host of the unexpected too. There are definitely recipes that call for a bit more expertise and assume a familiarity with certain preparation techniques - but others are marvelously accessible for folks who have basic baking skills under their belts, such as roasted peaches with fresh ricotta and honey. If you are gifting to someone who feels comfortable in the kitchen and who, like me, invariably struggles to choose between getting dessert or the cheese plate, this book may well be right up their alley too! Do check it out.
I hope that this little round-up proves helpful. Please don’t hesitate to let me know if you have any questions - or, if you have a favorite cheese book of your own that you’d recommend!
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