by Rob Patronite & Robin Raisfeld
With so many wheels, wedges, tommes, and pyramids out there, in so many styles (from clothbound to washed-rind) and textures (from chalky to runny), exhibiting flavors and aromas that seemingly couldn’t derive from mere milk, there’s never been a better time to eat cheese. The biggest news has been the tremendous growth of American farmstead cheeses, a realm that no one could have predicted three decades ago. Like bread, wine, and coffee, cheese has captured the imagination of not only consumers but also passionate producers and retailers, who fill their cases with the varieties that most excite them, be they microbatch experiments from upstate or even a new artisanal Limburger. We polled many of these mongers, plus importers and plain old curd nerds, to learn about their latest obsessions. Then we tasted a whole lot of cheese and categorized the eclectic results. The following 14 picks represent that diversity, without attempting the impossible task of naming the world’s (or this city’s) best cheeses. You won’t find a rote recitation of classics, but instead the stinky, earthy, oozy, cave-aged, mixed-milk, and even process cheeses of the moment—and where to buy them.
Related: 50 Best Cheeses to Buy Now
American Traditional Cheeses: Tribute cheeses that pay homage to their old-world prototypes, from Stilton to Caerphilly.
Marieke Super-Aged Gouda
Holland’s Family Cheese (Wisconsin)
An 18-month-aged Gouda, made from raw cow’s milk, that you’d swear had been shipped over from the Netherlands. Like the best farmhouse Goudas, it possesses that umami-rich blend of sharp and sweet—like a Parmigiano-Reggiano that’s been infused with caramel—and a texture accented by the crystalline clusters of amino acids called tyrosine that pop in your mouth like Rice Krispies and are a sign of a well-aged cheese.$28 a pound at Saxelby Cheesemongers.
Pleasant Ridge Reserve Extra-Aged
Uplands Cheese Co. (Wisconsin)
Crafted in the Alpine style of French Beaufort, Pleasant Ridge is the most celebrated American cheese out there. It’s made only from May to October, when the dairy’s rotationally grazed cows are eating fresh pasture. A diet of various grasses, herbs, and wildflowers makes for a richer, more complexly flavored milk, which in turn leads to a super-nutty, deeply-flavored cheese. Weather is a factor, too: When the pasture conditions aren’t perfect, they sell the milk. $30 a pound at Murray’s Cheese.
Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese (California)
You know Point Reyes’s punchy, pungent, razor-sharp Original Blue. This is something like its polar opposite. It’s built along old-world Stilton lines, with a flavor that’s soft and round as opposed to sharp and peppery, and a texture that is crumbly-buttery. $25 a pound at Bedford Cheese Shop.
European New Wave Cheeses: By virtue of their rejection of tradition or their return to it, these imports have cheeseheads talking.
By tweaking the tightly regulated Swiss recipe for Appenzeller (changing the breed of cow, fat content, type of starter and rennet, size of wheel and aging time), second-generation producer Walter Rass invented a brand-new Alpine mountain cheese. Superlatively creamy and rather dense, the paste tastes of allium and butterscotch in equal measure. $30 a pound at Whole Foods.
Originally a Belgian cheese made by Trappist monks, Limburger became a punch line in America owing to its cartoonishly powerful aroma. Today, most Limburger is produced in Germany. This one is handcrafted from locally sourced, organic milk by the innovative cheesemaker Anton Holzinger. The orange-beige washed rind is unabashedly stinky, but the creamy pale paste is relatively mild and more nuanced than you’d think. $14 for a 7-ounce block atBedford Cheese Shop.
Stichelton (which happens to be the original name for the village of Stilton) was created in response to a certifying organization’s 1989 mandate that, due to health concerns, all Stilton producers must use pasteurized milk. Made with the raw milk of Holstein-Friesian cows, Stichelton is rich and mellow with a wonderfully long finish, and it’s not too much to say that Stichelton picks up where Stilton left off. $34 a pound at Bklyn Larder.
Contraband Cheeses: Hard to find, easy to love, illegal cheese will always be the fromage fiend’s holy grail.
Illustration: John Burgoyne
Of all the soft cheeses traditionally made from unpasteurized or “raw” milk and aged less than 60 days, and therefore banned from import, this is the one connoisseurs seek out most fervently. While you can increasingly find good pasteurized versions of cheeses like Vacherin Mont d’Or and Camembert, their Époisses equivalents are usually lacking.
Illustration: John Burgoyne
Ever since the FDA detained shipments of this spherical orange cheese last spring, its future as a French import has been in jeopardy. If you do happen to spot it on shelves, it will likely be very young and lacking its characteristic gray, craggy rind—a traditional hiding place for the microscopic mites that are said to contribute to its flavor.
Trashy Cheeses: It’s not only about the artisanal stuff.
Cheese guru Steven Jenkins calls Bel Paese a cheese for people who don’t like cheese. And, yes, the little foil-wrapped medallions you see in upscale sandwich shops like Soho’s Alidoro are the Italian equivalent of Laughing Cow. But that’s the point: The soft, bland, spreadable cheese adds just the right faintly tangy note to a hero without getting in the way of the cured meats. 45 cents a piece at Raffetto’s (144 W. Houston St., nr. Macdougal St.; 212-777-1261).
The highest compliment one can pay Kentucky’s contribution to the cheese-spread canon is that it is “snappy.” Proportions vary, but the building blocks are sharp Cheddar, beer, garlic, and secret spices; Brooklyn brand Floyd Beer Cheese, born in a bar and now stocked on shelves from Ann Arbor to Fort Worth, comes in Original, Spicy Jalapeño, and Smokey Bacon. $9 for a 7-ounce tub at Gourmet Garage.
These squeaky nuggets of cheese potential form as the whey is drawn off acidified, coagulating milk, and their all-American appeal has grown from a cult fan base in Wisconsin. But despite their seeming innocence, they often wind up in culinarily compromising positions—battered and deep-fried, or sprawled over a heap of French fries smothered with gravy in the beloved French-Canadian junk food known as poutine. $7 for about a half pound at Beecher’s Handmade Cheese.
Celebrity-Affineur Cheeses: Some cheese agers have become more famous than the cheesemakers.
Hervé Mons Camembert
One of the best Camemberts you’re likely to find—and it’s made from pasteurized milk. Produced in Normandy under the supervision of affineur Hervé Mons, it’s full of earthy, truffly, sweet buttery flavor, and the paste is properly sticky-soft as opposed to runny; according to aficionados, a loose texture equals less flavor. $11 for a wheel at Whole Foods.
Cabot Clothbound Cheddar
Cabot Creamery (Vermont)
The success of this muslin-wrapped, lard-coated collaboration between the supermarket stalwart and Jasper Hill Farm is what facilitated construction of the Cellars at Jasper Hill. After 12 to 14 months in the underground vaults, the wheels acquire the crystalline texture of a proper English Cheddar. $22 a pound at Saxelby Cheesemongers.
Dutch-cheese renegade Betty Koster buys Gouda young and ages it herself, at higher temperatures and humidity levels than usual, and sells it under the name of her cheese shop. After two years, the so-called cheese candy is hard but creamy, dotted with crunchy protein crystals, and as sweet as salted caramel. $28 a pound atBklyn Larder.
All photos: Bobby Doherty/New York Magazine