"How can anyone govern a nation that has 246 different kinds of cheese?" — Charles de Gaulle
Strolling through the produce aisle the other day, as I was oohing and ahhing over the bounty of summer's freshly arrived beauties from luscious peaches and glistening cherries to plump figs and Technicolor heirloom tomatoes, a fellow shopper commented that it would be lovely if there were seasonal cheeses to pair with these seasonal fruits and vegetables.
I did recall, from my globetrotting days, that Parmesan Reggiano cheese is most complex and expressive in the cooler months, a little off its game during the summer season as cows in Parma, Italy tend to be sweaty and sluggish that time of year, affecting the quality of their milk. But in other regions of the world certain spring and summer nuances like fresh and fragrant seasonal grasses, herbs, flowers and foliage that milk-producing mammals graze on create mouth-watering cheeses. After consulting with my trusty cheese monger, here's an A-list of summer's best choices for laid back brunches, elegant soirees and scrumptious snacks.
'Tis the season to indulge in fresh goat and sheep cheeses, especially between March and October when they're good and plenty during breeding and lactating months. A creamy log of chevre (French meaning "goat's cheese") with tart and savory notes is a portable treat in a picnic basket or at a barbecue. Chevre spreads nicely on crackers, raw fruits and vegetables, while dials up sandwiches and burgers of all manners.
Humboldt Fog, a favorite of top chefs across the land is a silky wheel of snow white, mold-ripened goat cheese with a lemony earthiness, and a silvery ribbon of vegetable ash running through the center. This creamy paste is so named for the thick fog that lumbers in from Humboldt Bay in northern Cal where the artisanal cheese is crafted. For a sweet and savory presentation slice wedges on a cheese board drizzled with acacia honey accompanied by fresh figs, poached pears, tart dried cherries and Marcona almonds. Top flatbreads, bruschettas, or a plate of sautéed wild mushrooms with a chunk of Humboldt Fog, and down it with a crisp California Chardonnay.
For a Mediterranean tang try the semi-firm Garrotxa goat from the Catalonia region of Spain. Smooth and creamy, this densely-packed beauty reminiscent of herbs and hazelnuts, enlivens everything from appetizers to desserts. Serve with a heap of fresh berries and a chunk of bittersweet chocolate for some sweet endings. As an added boon, low-fat goat cheese is more easily digestible than cow's cheese, and packed with Vitamin A to boost bone and eye health, along with potassium for fluid balance.
For an interesting change-up check out cheeses from sheep's milk endowed with nearly twice the fat and protein load as goat and cow. Please your palate with tart, sweet, acidic, musky, caramelly or tangy nuances. Pecorino Romano is a hard and salty Italian sheep's milk cheese best used for grating over pastas, risottos, pizzas, frittatas and peppery greens. Brebisrousse d'Argental from France has sweet and briny flavors like the ocean, while its thick and buttery texture make this Brie a spreader's paradise. Queso Manchego from Spain has candied hints of butterscotch, equally divine in warm wilted salads as mac and cheese, and summer stone fruit quick breads.
If your taste buds are too faint-hearted for the bold gaminess of goat and sheep cheeses, try some fresh water buffalo cheeses to brighten your summer table. Burrata (Italian for "buttery") is like the Tootsie pop of the cheese world — an outer shell of stringy mozzarella filled with a soft center of sweet cream and curd. This ooey, gooey cheese must be eaten within a day or two before it's past its prime. Serve at room temperature with crusty bread, prosciutto, vine-ripened tomatoes, and a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil, or this Burrata and roasted beet salad — a seasonal match made in heaven.
Recipe: Summer Burrata and Beet Salad
• Ingredients: 2 bunches beets (one golden, one red), trimmed; 1 8-ounce round Burrata cheese, cut in chunks; 1/3 cup roasted hazelnuts, chopped; 1 handful fresh Italian parsley, chopped; 3 tablespoons virgin olive oil; 1 cup peppery greens (watercress, endive)
• For the vinaigrette: 1/4 cup sherry vinegar; 1/3 cup hazelnut or walnut oil; juice from one Meyer lemon; 1 teaspoon honey; 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
• Method: Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Place beets on parchment-lined cookie sheet. Drizzle with olive oil, season with salt and pepper. Bake until tender, 30 minutes. Peel, cut in quarters, chill.
In a bowl, whisk together vinaigrette ingredients. On a serving platter scatter greens, then top with cheese. Toss beets in dressing, and add to platter. Sprinkle nuts and parsley. Drizzle with additional dressing.
— Catharine Kaufman can be reached at email@example.com