I’ve always liked cheese, well most cheese. I like cheese in solid form and in liquid — you can’t beat a good chili con queso — but I’ve never been fond of that in-between stuff that stretches in gooey strings off of cheap pizza. It’s a texture thing.
I once spent almost an entire summer eating nothing but Dr Pepper and those packets of cheese and crackers from vending machines. But I’m not sure that was real cheese.
And then there were endless art receptions of wine and cheese cubes, so I admit I really didn’t know a lot about good cheese until fairly recently. Oh, I knew enough not to serve that stuff from a can with cocktails, but when it came to buying cheese I relied on others. Chefs, gourmet shop keepers and then those local cheesemongers the Houston Dairymaids.
But no more.
I wouldn’t say I’m a cheese expert today, but after a tasting with Juliet Harbutt I now know more about soured milk than I thought possible. Harbutt was in town at Central Market to introduce her British cheese selection, 15 cheeses that represent her favorite traditional and modern cheeses from Scotland, England and Wales. Originally from New Zealand, Harbutt is the queen of cheese, so to speak, creator of the British Cheese Awards and author of the World Cheese Book (also available at Central Market).
And she is one funny lady. How the Food Network hasn’t snapped her up for a show is a mystery.
At a media tasting she served us nine of her cheese selections along with two tasty California wines, a Grayson Cellars merlot and a Skin & Bones dry Riesling.
Her thoughts on wine pairing with cheese: “Just keep doing it!” Now that’s my kind of woman, although she did offer a little more a little more detailed advice. “The lighter and whiter the cheese, the lighter the wine,” she said.
We tasted modern and traditional British hard cheeses, soft cheeses, flavor added cheeses, and blues. I fell in love with the creamy, gooey and aromatic Blue Monday, a cube-shaped cow’s milk cheese she created herself in partnership with Alex James, the bassist for the 90’s alt rock band Blur. Harbutt describes the wonderful flavor as akin to “an aging rock star.” I have no idea what that means, but it’s mellow and zesty at the same time. The cheese, not James, at least as far as I know.
There’s also the oddly named Snodsbury, a soft white goat cheese, but as Harbutt told us, cheese can be made from any milk.
“You can make it from goat’s milk, or buffalo or camel,” she said. “Though I wouldn’t recommend camel Camembert, had it once and that was enough.”
Harbutt talks about cheeses as though they are people, mostly friends and loved ones except for that camel Camembert.
“This is my Creamy Lancashire,” she explained. “When he’s young he’s creamy, when he grows up he’ll dry out and become a hard Lancashire.” Don’t we all?
After working our way through several cheeses and several glasses of wine she explained why there was nothing else to eat. “I haven’t given you any crusty bread because I’m a heartless person,” she said. “And because if I see you making cheese sandwiches I would have to kill you.” But she did relent towards the end and allow us bread and salad, probably as a way to sober up before we left.
But I did leave with some good advice for my next wine and cheese party. Harbutt’s rules for a perfect cheeseboard are simple. Choose a variety of shapes and colors in your cheeses, buy them just before you plan to eat them, take them out of the fridge an hour before you serve and place them on a basic wood or marble board. Or, just do whatever the heck you want.
“The voyage is what’s fun,” Harbutt said. Oh, and don’t forget the wine.