Once when my father was stowing away his Lim-burger on the back porch because my mother refused to have its strident aroma permeating her kitchen, he told me the apocryphal story of the Arab who invented cheese: A traveler named Kanana, crossing the desert, had one morning put milk in his primitive canteen made from the stomach of a sheep. At nightfall he turned to it to restore himself. In the desert heat the contents of Kanana's canteen had been transformed into an unfamiliar solid substance. Sun-struck and famished, the traveler assayed the risk. His hunger got the better of him, and Kanana became the first man to sample cheese.
The fact, of course, is that nobody knows when or by whom the first cheese was made. But the unrecorded discovery of fermented curd in some prehistoric time has resulted in cheeses so various they are sold today under more than 500 different names.
Cheeses appear in a dazzling profusion of shapes, sizes, textures, colors and flavors. Sometimes made from the milk of cows, sometimes from the milk of ewes, goats or even mares, asses, reindeer, buffaloes, yaks and camels, cheeses differ in so many details that generations of scholars have found them to be a bewildering problem in classification. There are four primary groups—grating cheeses, firm cheeses, semisoft and soft cheeses. But the number of distinct varieties is generally considered to be 18—brick, Caciocavallo, Camembert, Cheddar, cottage, cream, Edam, Emmentaler, Gorgonzola, Gouda, hand, Limburger, Neufchatel, Parmesan, Pecorino, Roquefort, sapsago and Trappist.
Today all of these varieties—even Limburger—find their ways in and out of our refrigerator, and the only one my wife and I have summarily evicted is gjetost, that indiscreetly barnlike confection from Norway. (Even our Scandinavian cheeseseller admits one has to be brought up on gjetost to appreciate it.) At our house we like to keep our palates sharp by experimentation. We may add zest to spaghetti sauce with gentle Parmesan or shift to the tangier excitement of freshly grated Romano. The other day we topped a Spanish omelet with grated sapsago, the hard green cone of mildly Gorgonzola-flavored cheese that comes from the canton of Glarus in Switzerland. In its infinite variety cheese is an accent to make old dishes new.
Still, my favorite cheeses are those that stand alone. For me there is no finer way to finish a meal than with sheep's-milk Roquefort creamed with butter, or a Gruy√®re de montagne and a red Arbois wine, or a bien fait Camembert, a cheese so good that Normandy dairymen have erected a statue to the woman they say invented it. I have other favorites too numerous to mention, for a menu without at least one cheese is incomplete when the cooking is being done by either Judith or me.
In buying a cheese, the important thing to remember is that it should be perfectly aged before it is cut. If it is soft or semisoft—like Brie, Bel Paese, Port du Salut or Taleggio, to name just a few—it should be carefully wrapped in aluminum foil and kept in a cool place or in the refrigerator. But never serve it cold; remove it from its cool berth at least an hour before serving. Hard cheeses, like Parmesan, Romano and provolone, do not require refrigeration, but they too should be kept in foil wrappings to keep them from losing flavor. Even Limburger is easy to manage; if you feel like the members of a Wisconsin village council who not long ago tried to deny it transportation in the public streets, you can keep Limburger in a screw-top jar without contaminating the rest of the refrigerator. But don't relegate it to the back porch or that ineffable aroma may vanish.
I'm convinced there is no closer affinity among foods than good cheese and good wine. Yet there are other cheese-fanciers who make it a practice to serve cheese with cocktails. Whether you belong to the latter school or not, there is a zestful treat awaiting in the recipe below. It is an adaptation of a fine cheese pot served in rural Germany to wedding guests who linger to drink beer and sing The Schnitzelbank Song.
SCHNITZELBANK CHEESE POT
Remove outer skin from two Camembert cheeses and one Liederkranz (or Limburger), and put in a pan with ¼ pound of Roquefort, ½ pound of butter, ¼ pound of cottage cheese, 2 tablespoons of flour and 1 pint of rich cream. Cook until melted, stirring constantly. Chop 1½ cups of pimiento-stuffed green olives and mix with melted cheese. Season with ¼ teaspoon of cayenne, and pour into decorative pot of about 1½-quart capacity. Chill overnight. Remove from refrigerator one hour or more before guests arrive. Serve from the pot with Swedish-style rye crackers, brown bread or toast points.