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The Cheese Primer
by Steven Jenkins

Reviewed by Elliot Essman

Steven Jenkins has strong opinions when it comes to cheese. His Cheese Primer is a paean to hand-crafted, high-quality cheeses from all over the world. Though Jenkins begins his search for cheese nirvana in France (with Italy an unsurprising second), it is worth noting at the outset that he also enthuses over American artisanal cheesemakers from every region of the country. When Jenkins began in the cheese business back in the 1970s, fine cheeses from Europe or anywhere else were hard to come by. Tastes, and consumer demands, have changed, of course. Many Americans continue to treat cheese as a commodity—smooth stuff we melt onto or mix into other foods. More and more, the snobs among us aside, we are developing our own opinions. I, for one, believe that yummy cheese-drenched comfort foods can co-exist with “cheese for cheese’s sake.” I am a gourmet, but when I want a bacon cheeseburger, I want a bacon cheeseburger. Jenkins may not agree, but I say the two worlds can coexist.

Be forewarned; the study of cheese is a bottomless pit. You can never master cheese, unless you make it your profession (and only then if you’ve chosen your ancestors with sufficient care so that you have inherited certain sensory abilities). Cheese can also become very expensive. I’m not talking about spending $15.99 per pound for sublime Parmigiano-Reggiano; that cheese travels well, and besides, a few ounces can enthrall you for quite some time. The first poignant fact any cheese explorer learns is that many of the finest European cheeses are made from un-pasteurized milk. Cheeses made from raw milk that are aged less than 60 days may not legally be imported into the United States. Many other fine European cheeses are produced in such small quantities that they never reach our shores, or are available only in the largest cities. To make matters worse, Jenkins tells us, “for every perfect, farm-made or small producer cheese, there is a factory knockoff backed by marketing efforts that may well push the really delicious original cheese into obscurity. For every authentic, artisanal cheese made with unpasteurized milk, another less flavorful one made with pasteurized milk waits in the wings.” The labels, mind you, will be evocatively French in both cases. Your travel agent is waiting for your call.

Since his book is a primer, before he even gives the cheese basics, such as his précis of the cheesemaking process, Jenkins serves up his “Cheese Precepts,” sixteen in all. Get to know your cheesemonger. Have your cheese cut fresh for you. Store it in the bottom of the refrigerator. Never freeze the stuff. Serve it at room temperature. Serve it with great bread and a sensible wine, preferably from the same region of origin. Jenkins takes the trouble to explain the difference between different classes of cheese: washed-rind vs. natural-rind, for example. He gives us a full page on “The Basics of Butterfat,” another area where misconceptions abound. A “50% butterfat” cheese, we learn, might actually contain less than 25% fat overall, since most cheeses are between 50% and 70% water. Because they are less dense, soft cheeses like Brie may in fact be lower in butterfat than semi-soft cheeses like Gouda or hard cheeses like Cheddar.

It’s all in there, and fortunately Jenkins has put in some great detail about American cheese sources. New York State’s Coach Farm, with “their own enormous herd of around 800 Alpine goats, have set an almost unattainable standard for America’s cheesemakers,” he tells us. He extols operations as diverse as California’s Sonoma Cheese Factory (with its distinct Sonoma Jack), Dietrich’s Dairy in Illinois (Danish-style blue), North Carolina’s Yellow Branch Farm, Oregon’s huge Tillamook County Creamery Association, Larsen Farms in the hill country of Texas, and many more. As with any writer who expresses opinions (this writer being no exception) the opinions are of value precisely insofar as they make one think. My personal opinion, with which Jenkins would undoubtedly concur, is that a fine U.S. cheese enjoyed at the source will always be preferable to a European masterpiece you can’t even find in the first place. Top -- Culinary Reviews Home

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