The Cheese Primer
by Steven Jenkins

1996. 548 pages, 12 recipes.

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"When it comes to buying cheese, the biggest favor you can do yourself is to find a reliable, impassioned cheesemonger and benefit from his or her knowledge each time you go shopping for cheese. Profit in a practical way from your passion- take your time, linger over the signs and descriptions, ponder the overview of the selection. Each visit should expose your palate to a new taste, suggest new way of serving cheese, and inspire your quest of the best."

Our Favorite Pasta with Spinach and Fromage Blanc

Crispy Frico


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For me, learning about cheese is like learning to speak Portuguese. Both endeavors have been on my to-do list for a long time, but they always get superceded by more important items, or - I'll admit it - my own inertia

Recently (finally!) I've begun my course of cheese study with Steve Jenkins' Cheese Primer. Jenkins knows a thing or two about cheese. He has created the cheese counters at such food temples as Dean and DeLuca and Balducci's. He is the first American to be awarded France's prestigious Chevaliar du Taste-Fromage (loose translation: The Big Cheese of Cheese). So he's certainly earned the right to be a ponderous cheese snob. But he isn't. He looks like a regular guy in his cover photo. And he writes like a regular guy…who just happens to know more about cheese than most of us ever will. Here he is summing up Gorgonzola: "Awesome; I am constantly grateful a cheese this good exists". See? He's unintimidating, smart, and friendly: the perfect person to have by your side at the cheese counter.

In the introduction, Jenkins writes, "The heart and soul of the book is a country-by-country and region-by-region description of the really worthwhile cheeses…accompanied by information on selecting and serving each cheese." (Not surprisingly, France gets the highest page-count in this 500-page opus.) There are also historic tidbits about noteworthy cheeses. But before Jenkins plunges into his world cheese tour, he offers a brief tutorial. He tells us how cheese is made, how cheese is classified, how to pair cheese with food and wine (he says a great cheese will flatter a mediocre wine; a mediocre cheese will diminish a great wine). He gives us some insider tips on handling cheese (I won't be putting cheese in the freezer anymore).

Jenkins freely admits to being opinionated. Which is fine with me. As a cheese novice I want to be guided by someone else's opinions. His chapter "Great Cheeses", in which he gives a thumbnail sketch of his favorites, is the section I turn to most often. What I've been doing recently is trying one or two of his recommended cheeses each week. I feel like a promising pupil when I thrill to the same cheeses Jenkins does. (I will be forever grateful to him for introducing me to the regal Comte.) Sometimes I just don't get what his rhapsodizing is all about. Take the Cabrales (please). Jenkins declares it to be "one of the world's most remarkable cheeses" and says, "You must try this". So, of course, I did. I took a dainty nibble and suddenly it was as if the full force of all blue cheeses on earth detonated in my mouth. My reaction was not to sit back and savor it, but to run upstairs and brush my teeth. (This may be an indication of my limited aptitude as a cheese connoisseur.)

Scattered throughout the book is a small collection of recipes showcasing various types of cheese. The Pasta with Spinach and Fromage Blanc was a big hit at my house. It was done in the time it took for me to cook the pasta and was absolutely delicious. (I should say here that I used only half the amount of cheese called for. A pound of fromage blanc for four people seemed like an awful lot.) I had never had fromage blanc before. After my first taste of bliss I felt like, "Where has this cheese been all my life?"

The Cheese Primer has also raised my cheese awareness level in general. I've started my own list of favorites, which I keep on a Post-It tucked in the back of the book. I never used to pay much attention to cheese platters at parties. Now I can't leave a party without trying every kind of cheese and asking the names of the ones that catch my fancy. Then I rush home and look them up in The Cheese Primer to find out more about them. And speaking of parties, The Cheese Primer is filled with fun facts you might use as conversational gambits at the cheese platter. Who wouldn't be glad to finally learn why Swiss cheese has holes in it? (It has to do with CO2 and harmless bacteria.) And you're sure to draw a crowd as you explain the correlation between the Netherlands' large pig population and its enormous cheese output. And how many people at that party, other than you, are going to know the origins of the expression, "The Big Cheese"? (Sorry, I'm not telling. You're going to have to look in the book yourself.)

While The Cheese Primer is excellent for greenhorns like me, it's also invaluable resource for those further along the learning curve who might want to expand their knowledge to include, say, how German cheeses are texturally different from Austrian cheeses. Personally, I don't care about the differences between German and Austrian cheese. But if I ever do, I'll know where to find the answer. In the meantime, I'm going to find a beginning Portuguese class.