Specialty food stores in the Sacramento region, such as Corti Brothers, David Berkley and the Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op, have a delectable array of international cheeses from which to choose. The following five cheeses represent the perfect launching pad for a full-blown cheese adventure, and they’re easy to find at just about any local grocery store. And, remember, if you’re presenting them on a cheese platter, pull them out of the refrigerator about one hour before you plan to serve them. This allows the cheeses come to their full flavor.
Named for the Swiss village that produces it, Gruyère is a semi-hard, smooth cheese, with a slightly tangy, seductively nutty flavor. Serve it at room temperature with thin water crackers and grapes, or grate it up and melt it atop your French onion soup. Gruyère is wonderful baked into quiches, made into flavorful fondues, and even sprinkled on pizzas.
Wine pairing recommendation: Viognier
Round wheels of Brie are always a popular component of a cheese platter. With its sumptuous, creamy texture and luxuriant flavor, it pairs beautifully with or fresh or dried fruit, fruit pastes such as membrillo, a traditional Spanish quince paste confection, and toasted nuts – especially hazelnuts. But brie can also be tucked into a fancy quesadilla (try it with roasted bell peppers) or wrapped in flaky phyllo dough and baked for a striking party appetizer. And, of course, it’s wonderful when simply smeared on crusty French bread.
Wine pairing recommendation: A red Côte-du-Rhône, Bordeaux or Burgundy
Ever seen the small white logs of soft chèvre, or goat cheese, in the refrigerated section of the supermarket? This crumbly cheese has a lively tang and can be used in place of cream cheese on bagels, slathered on pound cake, incorporated as a flavorful ingredient in calzones, or stuffed in (pounded) chicken breast or ravioli. Perhaps the best way to enjoy this cheese is to slice it in rounds, roll it in olive oil and breadcrumbs, and bake it until hot throughout—it can them be placed on toast, grilled peaches or atop a bitter greens salad.
Wine pairing recommendation: Pinot Blanc
Dry Monterey Jack
Many are familiar with traditional Monterey Jack cheese, but did you know there’s also an aged version of this cheese, known as Dry Jack? With its pale yellow color and sharper flavor, this firm-textured cheese can be grated like Parmesan and used in a wide range of dishes, from pasta and risotto to scrambled eggs and Caesar salads. Grate it on soup, add it to tacos or serve it plain on a cheese platter with dates, raisins or apple slices.
Wine pairing recommendation: A dry sparkling wine or Sauvignon Blanc
Think you don’t like blue cheese? You probably haven’t tried Stilton. Blue Stilton is one of a small handful of British cheeses granted the status of a “protected designation origin” (PDO) by the European Commission, and there are just six dairies licensed in the country to make the cheese. Full-flavored and extravagant without the sharpness we often associate with blue cheese, Stilton’s rich crumbliness can be paired with port-poached pears, on baked potatoes, with toasted nuts and prunes, and even incorporated into your favorite stuffed mushroom recipe. It’s also delicious melted on top of a just-cooked steak.
Wine pairing recommendation: Tawny Port. Sauterne, Shiraz