It was in the dining car of a train hurtling across the English countryside from Reading to Bristol that I discovered a treat that became a lifelong obsession.
Instead of "pudding," some sweet dessert, I opted for a cheese plate. The year was 1971, but I can still remember those first tastes of Cheshire and Stilton: salty, buttery, creamy, sharp and utterly distinctive. I was completely captivated and have since sought out cheeses from all over the world.
These days, fortunately, you don't have to leave home to experience the delights of good cheese. And when friends stop by this holiday season, instead of those old stand-bys, onion dip and beer, introduce them to the pleasures of Stilton with walnuts and port, or perhaps true, fresh mozzarella with prosciutto and roasted peppers, drizzled with a little olive oil and served with good crusty bread and a hearty Italian red wine. It's easy and the choices are nearly unlimited.
It's also terribly trendy, as restaurants around the country begin to introduce the cheese course to American audiences. Scott Hoyland, restaurant chef at Hampton's in the Harbor Court Hotel, likes to include a cheese course on his banquet menus, to charm some diners who might not order it separately.
"It's a way to make the public more aware, a way of opening their sights a little" to a new culinary delight, he said.
According to a recent article in Restaurants USA, a trade publication, cheese is "the new hot thing," especially among well-traveled consumers who've already sampled some of the more unusual cheeses and are anxious to try others.
Overall, cheese consumption in the United States rose nearly 30 percent from 1994 to 1995, from 26.8 pounds per person to 27.4. An increase in the number of specialty shops and gourmet food outlets, and in the number of cheeses available, especially from France, are helping drive the trend.
"I find people are more adventuresome," said Graham Vinzant, proprietor, with his wife Beverly, of Cross Street Cheese in the Cross Street Market. "It's fun. People who like to try different beers or wines are saying, 'I'd like to try these things.' " These experimental tasters aren't coming from one rarefied stratum of society, he said. "It's a range, from architects to blue-collar workers, black and white."
It's true that cheese took a hit in recent years, when it was grouped, along with whole milk and eggs, as Big Fat. Although some lower-fat cheeses -- notably cottage cheese, ricotta and Neufchatel -- have proven acceptable, in general the lack of flavor in no-fat cheese is a deterrent.
"If you take all the fat out of it, it's not cheese anymore," Vinzant said. His customers do worry about the amount of fat in cheese, he said, but if they ask for low-fat varieties, he makes sure they taste them first, to see if they'll really like them. "We encourage a lot of tasting," he said, so customers can sample a wide variety of things and find out which cheeses are most appealing to them.
However, unlike some snacks that have lots of calories and little nutritive value, cheese is high in protein, calcium, and the vitamins A and folic acid. After years of depriving themselves of dairy products, desserts and other items vilified by the food police, people are learning that they can eat anything they want, as long as they don't eat too much of any one thing. And, people who are virtuous about their diets in other areas are learning to reward themselves with occasional indulgences.
Cheese has been part of the human diet for a very long time. According to "French Cheeses," by Kozuko Masui and Tomoko Yamada (eyewitness handbooks, DK Publishing, $17.95) the domestication of goats and sheep about 10,000 B.C. probably ** led to the development of cheese. The wide variety of cheeses developed early as well: The Sumerians were writing about soft cheeses in 3000 B.C., and the British were making their beloved Cheshire before the Romans began arriving in the first century B.C. Today there are estimated to be more than 500 cheeses in France alone.
Like wine and bread, cheese is the product of fermentation. Cheese-making begins when a starter, or bacterial agent, is added to the collected milk of cows, sheep or goats. Gentle heat, lactic acid or the addition of rennet (a curdling agent) cause proteins in the milk to clump together, forming curds. The curds are then concentrated, which includes separating the whey, a milky liquid that is trapped in the jellied casein. Some cheeses, such as ricotta or petit Suisse, are ready at this "unfinished" stage. Other cheeses go through a third stage, ripening.
Although the processes that give each cheese its distinctive character are arcane, making cheese is not rocket science, and you don't have to be a "nose," or connoisseur, to enjoy them.
In fact, the very opposite is true, according to Steven Jenkins, former cheese buyer for such noted purveyors as Dean & DeLuca and Fairway in New York and author of the new "Cheese Primer" (Workman, $16.95).
Good cheese is not a "gourmet" item, Jenkins maintains. "These are peasant foods," he said emphatically during a recent visit to promote his book and the "artisan" cheeses he loves, such as Tuscan sheep cheese from Italy and cow's milk Cheshire from England.
He loves to watch people's faces when they are presented with a good Pecorino Toscano with a twist of black pepper, drizzled with honey and served with chunks of walnut bread.
"It's an epiphany," he said.
Pub Date: 12/11/96