Janet Fletcher is an award-winning food writer living and working in the Napa Valley. The author of Cheese and Wine and Cheese and Beer, as well as the SF Chronicle’s “Cheese Course” column, she is an authority on both domestic and international cheeses. Read on for her tips on how to serve, store and select cheese, as well as an ingenious idea on how to use those leftover, mismatched bits of cheese in your fridge.
How did you become a food writer, and particularly, how did you become interested in cheese?
I came from California to go to college—I have a degree in economics from Stanford—but then I went to cooking school at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. I came back to California and started working in restaurant, and it became clear pretty quickly that I had more of a writer’s temperament than a kitchen temperament.
As a sophomore, I spent a semester in France, and that’s where my passion for food turned on! I fell in love with the way the French eat, the rituals around the table, and with the cheese course. In France, you take the time to enjoy the cheese platter; it’s also a reason to have another glass of wine and spend more time at the table. I loved it when the cheese cart came to the table. (When I came back to the States, married, and started a household, I adopted this ritual. We always have a cheese course, sometimes just a single piece of cheese and use it to stretch out the meal or replace dessert; or as an excuse to have more wine!)
I transitioned into food writing really just by doing it. I parlayed one assignment after another from the Oakland Tribune and The San Francisco Chronicle into a cheese column for the Chronicle. This really grew out of my life long interest in cheese. I wrote the Cheese Course column for more than 10 years; when it ended, I launched an email newsletter, Planet Cheese, in its place. It has become a passion and it’s a fun way to dive more into science, culture, and geography. It’s also an excuse for travel; I’m on my way to Sardinia and am writing a story for Culture magazine.
Cheese is made from goat, cow and sheep’s milk—can you describe the distinctions between and characteristics of each?
The more you experience them, the more you can discern their flavors. To a cheese maker there is a big difference—they vary a lot in fat composition, acids, and protein levels—this effects what the cheese maker can do with them. From a consumer perspective what people notice about goat is that it is goaty because of its acids, and its also a lot whiter because they don’t have keratin in their fat. The curd is also more fragile, so you can make a large goat cheese. Sheep’s milk is twice as high in fat as cow or goat, and it makes for a higher yield from a cheese maker’s perspective. They have a lanolin scent, like wool or like the fat on a lamb chop, but more buttery and lemony. Cow’s milk cheeses are very versatile; you can make anything with cow’s milk. It has more buttery notes, and often a golden hue from beta carotene.
What should you look for when you buy cheese?
Be alert to the fact that it can be in good and bad condition in a store. Develop a relationship with the merchant; stray from your original choice if its not good—if the rind is breaking down, or if its ammoniated or overly pungent, or if its wet or mushy. I try to buy from stores that allow me to taste before I buy. Seasonality is something to look for, you should always ask your cheesemonger what’s in season now. Goat cheese is best spring and summer, washed-rind cheeses are fall cheeses (like Taleggio and Red Hawk).
What are your favorite cheeses to cook with?
I don’t cook a lot with cheese, I prefer to just eat it. I make a lot of pasta, and I have actually come to prefer pecorino romano instead of Parmegiano Reggiano as the grating cheese.
What should you do with leftover cheese? Are there any unexpected ways you’ve found to use it?
One of my favorite ways is this. Once you start to become a cheese enthusiast you have a lot of little bits in your fridge. I take the hard ones, remove the rind, and grate them, and put them, along with any soft cheeses, into the food processor with a clove of garlic, and enough white wine or a little brandy to make a spread. It makes a delicious cheese spread; I wouldn’t do too much blue because the spread will be a little gray. It works with most cheeses, and makes a great crostini or bruschetta. I didn’t make it up; it’s called fromage fort and it’s a little French trick.
What is the proper way to store cheese?
It’s so important to store properly; if you store it right you don’t waste it. I take it out of plastic immediately and rewrap it in cheese paper or wax paper. I wrap it loosely and then I put it in something with a lid in it. What this does is allows the cheese to breath inside the wrapping paper, protecting it inside the fridge which is a drying environment. It needs a humid environment. I’ll give it a fresh wrap every time it goes back in the fridge and I try to minimize the number of times it goes in the fridge.
Always serve cheese at room temperature except super fresh cheeses like ricotta or cottage cheese. They easily go off.
What is your favorite way to serve cheese?
I serve it on a cheeseboard at the end of the meal, almost never at the start of the meal. I love the end-of-meal cheese course and that’s how I serve it. Iuse feta a lot and crumble into salads; I like ricotta salata in green bean salads. Mostly, though, I eat it at the end of the meal.
Describe how to build a great and balanced cheese platter. Should one have variety (between goat, sheep and cow milk, or hard, creamy, fresh?) How many ounces per person? What are good accompaniments?
Young cheeses to old, soft to hard…I like to represent a variety of different styles. From bloomy rinds to blue, different milk types, different rinds, visual varieties with different shapes. It’s also lovely just to do one perfect cheese, a big beautiful wedge of something that’s in season and serve it as the star of the show.
Or you could do cheeses from different countries or states. Like serve Cheddars from different states or countries, or do a French camembert and a California camembert. Ounces per person really depends on what comes after or before. People don’t need a lot of cheese, not more than an ounce per person. When I’m having a dinner party, I try to moderate the portions so my guests will still have an appetite when the cheese course comes.
I often eat cheese without bread, but I prefer bread to crackers, as they have fat and you don’t need more fat. I like a baguette or rustic country loaf. You can add condiments; they’re not necessary but they do dress it up. Lots of people do jams, honey, and sugared nuts, but to me, they make it difficult to serve a dry wine. If I do a sweet accompaniment, I am going to serve a dessert wine. Most people aren’t that finicky, and if I’m at someone’s house, it doesn’t ruin the wine for me.
What are some of your favorite wine/cheese/accompaniment pairings?
Blue cheese with honey and toasted nuts (a variety of walnuts, hazelnuts, and almonds). I’ll warm up honey, fold in toasted nuts, and serve with a dessert wine such as Oloroso sherry or tawny port. They are great cheese wines, as is Madeira.
There are also wonderful beers that I think of as dessert beers, like the Belgian Dubbel. These have high alcohol and some residual sugars with notes of toffee and fruitcake. They are wonderful with aged Alpine cheeses like Gouda. A lot of brewers come out with holiday ales, and they are also great with these cheeses.
I live in Napa where Cabernet is king. I like Cab with aged sheep’s milk like manchego and the French Ossau-Iraty. America is starting to make some wonderful sheep’s milk cheeses, like Tarentaise from Vermont and Pleasant Ridge Reserve from Wisconsin.
Are there any cheeses in your fridge right now? If so, which kinds?
There is never not cheese in my fridge! There is always pecorino romano, Parmigiano Reggiano, feta, and often ricotta salata, especially in summer. I always have the leftover bits I’ve been sampling for my writing.
What are some of your favorite California cheeses and producers?
Point Reyes Toma is such a solid taste experience, it’s very well-priced and it’s dependable; it suits any moment. I’m not surprised it’s been a hit, and it goes with every beer I’ve ever thrown at it.
Have you ever met a cheese you didn’t like?
Oh yeah, sure. Many! If they’re not well made, if they’re too salty, if they’re in bad condition. But there’s no category of cheese I don’t like, and if were talking artisan cheese, there’s no style of cheese that I don’t like. My favorites are hard cheeses, and I prefer aged cheese because they are more aromatic and complex.
Can you recommend any resources for learning more about cheese and how to pair and serve?
Cheese and Beer is a fun reference book and a good way to learn about craft beers. The Cheese Primer by Steve Jenkins was my guide but it’s somewhat out of date. I tend to use more technical books to understand how cheese is made these days. I read Culture magazine religiously, and I also write for them. There is a lot of misinformation out there. The American Cheese Society is a great resource for people interested in cheese, and they welcome serious amateurs.
Have you ever tried to make your own cheese?
Very simple ones, like ricotta and fromage blanc. I leave that to the pros, it’s pretty hard to make great cheese.