There are two ways to buy cheese: Talk to someone about it or go solo. Having a cheesemonger as your fromage wingman is rewarding but can be intimidating. Staring into the supermarket's vast dairy selection is low risk, but you may end up buying the same cheeses over and over. Whichever route you choose, it's easy to get a little bolder and have a better cheese experience if you keep the following tips in mind.
When speaking to an expert like a cheesemonger, we may feel we lack proper terminology to convey what we want. Remember that even a simple request for something "bold" or "mild" narrows the playing field. The word "buttery" will open a world of creamy options. You say "salty," they offer Parmigiano-Reggiano or feta, you say "stinky" and they pull out époisses or taleggio. Think practically: Will you be grating, melting, slicing or entertaining? If you have a specific mission just describe the goal, as in "I need to kick grilled-cheese butt" or "It's English and orange but not cheddar."
Remember that anyone with a passion loves to talk about it, and good cheesemongers will always have a list of peak cheeses on the tips of their tongues. A simple "what's ripe today?" might be all you have to say to get five minutes of instant cheese education and a lifelong addiction to reblochon.
Otherwise, your only job is to ask for a taste. You've done it a million times when buying an ice cream cone, so don't get shy when buying cheese. Even your favourite cheddar can taste different from one wheel to the next, and soft cheeses will vary in ripeness from week to week (or day to day). Product turnover and care can vary significantly from shop to shop, so don't assume your favourite cheese tastes the same everywhere.
If you do most of your shopping in a grocery store, you'll probably be choosing from a shelf of plastic-wrapped cheese pieces, not knowing how long ago they were packaged. The good news is that you can gain a fair amount of information by doing a simple visual assessment.
First of all, read the label. It seems obvious but sometimes we just look at the name and the price. The label and ingredient list can tell you the producer, country of origin, whether the milk is organic, raw or pasteurized, and whether it came from a cow, sheep or goat. At the very least, look for "milk" as the first ingredient, as opposed to modified milk ingredients (MMI). You can also determine the type of rennet used.
Firm and hard cheeses will stand up best to being packaged in advance. If there is a rind, it might be rustic and mottled, but should not be warped or cracked. The interior of the cheese should be an even tone and texture. Being slightly darker at the rind is okay but overall discoloration is a sign of poor quality.
For soft cheeses with bloomy rinds (brie style) or washed rinds (like Oka), the exterior should be intact and bright with no cracks or dryness. The exterior of a washed rind might be slightly moist or damp, but should not be slimy. The paste of a cheese should never be coming away from the rind.
Finally, with softer cheeses, look for a "best before" date close to when you want to eat it (be it today or next week). You want it ripe.
Once home, release the cheese from the plastic and wrap in wax paper or parchment, allowing the rind to breathe and keep longer. If the cheese has a slight ammonia smell, let it sit open before eating. If the smell is strong and does not go away (even on a blue cheese), return it as it has spoiled.
You can't beat the rewards of building a relationship with a cheesemonger, but last week I got a perfectly ripe, oozing piece of Champfleury at Wal-Mart. The goal is good quality cheese, wherever you get it.
Sue Riedl blogs about cheese and other edibles at cheeseandtoast.com.