In my family, cheese came in two types: orange and sharp, (supposedly Cheddar) and white and bland (supposedly Swiss). Both were unpleasant, and mostly for sandwiches – although, very occasionally, on weekends, it would be placed in a grilled sandwich, which was the only way it was palatable. Considering this beginning, I am bemused to find that cheese now takes up a large chunk of my monthly grocery bill.
To tell the truth, the fact that I eat cheese at all is surprising. I remember choking down those sandwiches with cheese in the bleachers of my high school. Each bite was an act of will, and, more often than not, a good third of a sandwich would end in the garbage. I had no idea that cheese came in anything except slices. And to me, an aged cheese was one past its best-by date and probably turning moldy.
My ignorance might have remained at this stage, except that, shortly after I moved out on my own, the university Medieval Club held a potluck party. Although I was not buying cheese to eat regularly, I had a vague idea that bread and cheese would be appropriate to the Middle Ages, and, in my new independence, I was in the mood for experimentation. I bought a pepper cheese spread for the party, and, to my surprise, I liked it. In fact, I found it utterly delicious, and a culinary epiphany.
Before long, I was buying cheese and cooking with it several times a week. Since I started with a spread, I continued with soft cheeses like Brie and Camenbert. Then I found that Jarlsberg, Havarti, and Gouda made good workaday cheeses. I discovered the versatility of Feta in various incarnations, and started using it in salads and casseroles, and inside potatoes or on meat.
Cheese, I discovered with some of the wild surmise of stout Cortez, was an ideal way of spicing up otherwise bland meals with minimal effort. Fast-forward a few years, and I was known among friends for a killer lasagna made with as many as five different cheeses – usually, with at least one goat cheese, which for me has a flavor that cow and sheep cheese usually lacks.
Another major discovery for me was saganaki, Kefaloteri cheese breaded and fried, then served with lemon juice on top. Mouth-wateringly tangy, it goes well with a cold bottle of retsina, and is firmly imprinted on my mind as a fixture of celebration and general good times.
However, remembering the alleged cheese of my childhood, I generally avoided Cheddar and Swiss. Those, I assumed without investigating the matter, were cheezes for those who didn’t like cheeses. The best you could say about them was that they were better than Mozzarella, which to this day I suspect is a product of the petroleum industry.
Then, a couple of years ago, I discovered aged Cheddar. I especially discovered Red Dragon, a Cheddar aged in port and mustard seed. Branching out into other Cheddars, some merely aged, and others aged in Guinness, were discoveries that, to my taste bud, were as significant as splitting the atom was to physics.
Having recently discovered a specialty cheese shop, I am now happily sampling dozens of cheeses that are new to me, including a Derby Sage that is my current favorite.
Clearly, I have come a long way from the boy who used to shudder at the thought of his lunch. I now consider cheese one of the basics of civilized dining, and I look forward to eating my way through the cheese shop over the next few years.