It’s the middle of the week, and you’re already looking forward to having a picnic this weekend. Well, aren’t you the little bonnet-wearing summer-enjoyer? But hey, it’s a nice way to enjoy the outdoors and such, so good on you.
Fast-forward 24 hours and your picnic basket is almost ready. It’s missing just one thing: cheese. But then comes the all-important, life-transforming decision: What kind of cheese?
This is a frightening question for the newbie, because cheese has officially become A Fancy Thing. Back in the day, your mustachioed dad would offer you two types of cheese: orange or white. Now, even the second-rate grocery store down the street has a cheese section the size of the Louvre. Standing in front of that cornucopia of dairy goodness can fill you with the same paralyzing dread as when you’re at the wine store trying to decide between syrah, shiraz, and petite sirah. (Hint: Get the middle one.)
But that, my trepidatious friend, is why I’m here. I sold cheese at farmer’s markets for more than 20 years, so I know my camembert from my Cambozola. And I can confidently advise you on the five cheeses that will make the perfect picnic basket. You can probably find these at your local grocery store, but definitely at a Whole Foods or similar high-end grocer. With that in mind, I’ve added a more specific (and better) option for some.
But before we get into it, some all-important info:
- Temperature: Let your cheese get warm before you serve it, so it’s just about room temperature (but be careful—too-warm cheese gets sweaty and yucky). It’s like letting a wine open; the warmer temperature lets the flavors come out and reveal themselves.
- Cracker (and you use a cracker because you are not a savage): Skip the cracked pepper or sesame-rosemary whatever and go for the plain, unflavored option—the better to use as a canvas when you paint your dairy masterpiece. My go-to is a skinny box of Carr’s table wafer crackers—they’ve got a nice crunch and don’t break too easily. Some people opt for a crusty French bread, but you have to cut it and tote around a knife and that’s work and who wants that?
- Mold: If your cheese has some mold, here’s what you do: Trim it off, then eat the cheese that remains. The end. If you throw a good piece of cheese away because it has a spot of mold, you are immediately banished to an eternity of watching Two And A Half Men reruns (the Charlie Sheen ones) and eating sweaty slices of processed American cheese. Hey, I don’t make the rules.
Okay, now onto the splendiferous cheese combo for your basket.
Fun fact about this cheese: “Official” gruyère must be aged in a cave-like environment to get that cherished designation. That aging process gives the full-bodied cow’s milk cheese a mineraly, nutty taste that’s almost Swiss-like but with a slightly harder mouthfeel. It’s not sharp, but it has a long finish with a little more bite than you’d think. Also: It melts perfectly. A little off the beaten path, but totally worth it.
2. Goat cheese
You know, the stuff you occasionally get in salads when you’re trying to be healthy? This one scratches all the right picnic/cheese itches: It’s spreadable, salty, and has a strong flavor that’s not so overwhelming that it wrecks the palate (I’m looking your way, bleu cheese). And goat cheese is typically sold in four-inch logs, which means it’s already the perfect diameter for a cracker. What more do you want? My favorite kind is Humboldt Fog, recognizable by the distinctive ash in the rind and in the middle of the cheese. As it ripens, the cheese gets soft and smear-able around the rind. It’s fantastic.
3. A solid medium-sharp cheddar
Yes, it’s kind of pedestrian. It’s safe. But here’s the thing—you’ll want a safety cheese, a home-base fromage, if you will. Think of it this way: When you get sushi, you get the fancy roll with the seared white tuna and the chili-tinged escolar and such, but you get also California roll to act as a palate cleanser. That’s the role this cheese plays. You might think you don’t want it, but after you’ve had your fill of the fancier fromages, you’ll be glad it’s around.
Also, it’s also a helpful cheese to have if you have kids with you—they’ll be busy eating this and won’t put their nose-picking fingers on the brie. Speaking of which…
Brie is an acquired taste, like dark chocolate, full-bodied red wine, or five-minute Michael Schenker guitar solos. But really, you should acquire this taste. There’s nothing not to like about the soft inside of brie—it’s slightly sweet, buttery, and salty, and those are qualities we can all agree are awesome.
The rind can be problematic for people (and yes, you do eat the rind, a culture of mold and yeasts growing on the outside of the cheese). It can be a little sour, but the rind adds a slight tang to the sweetness inside. Some Hall to the Oates, if you will.
Most people prefer brie when it’s ripe, which means soft. So it’s tempting to look for brie that’s all gooey and mushy, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. But personally, I prefer a little hardness left in the middle. There’s a fine line between super-soft and overripe, and overripe brie is ammonia-y and no bueno.
Lastly, get a triple-crème brie, if you can. “Triple crème” basically means what it sounds like—extra cream is added before the curd is formed, making it at least 75 percent butterfat. This may sound somewhat, shall we say, un-healthful. Get over it. Cheese is made of milk and has a lot of fat. If you’re worried about that, do some damn jumping jacks or vow to eat a kale salad tomorrow.
My favorite brie is Delice de ourgogne. Years back, I was at a party and having a lovely conversation with Doug Sohn, a.k.a., “Hot Doug,” a Chicago culinary legend whose gourmet hot dog stand used to draw lines a quarter-mile long. Then I discovered this cheese on the snack table and I immediately abandoned him to shove this creamy delicacy in my face without abandon. I have priorities.
5. Cotswold (a.k.a. pub cheese)
This semi-soft English cheese adds a little panache to your selection—it’s like a softer, creamier cheddar, with onions and chives. Some people say it tastes like sour cream and onion potato chips, which… sure, I guess so. The herbs add a welcome zing of flavor to the buttery, sweet cheese, and it contrasts nicely with the milder cheeses in your picnic cornucopia.
This five-cheese palette is sure to wow whoever is lucky enough to tag along with you on your picnic to that black-and-white movie in the park or revamped, bedraggled ’80s rock band in the square. It would also make an impressive spread at a backyard party where you can wow your friends and neighbors with your dairy acumen. Add some fruit (apples and cheese are a great pair), maybe a few carrot sticks for “nutrition,” and some squares of fine chocolate, and you may not see the point of turning your stove on all summer.