Liz Thorpe on Maligned Cheeses, Haven and the Houston Dairymaids

Yesterday, we took a look at the new Murray's Cheese kiosks that are springing up in Kroger stores across Houston (well, in three stores...so far). Liz Thorpe is the vice president of Murray's Cheese Shop and a noted expert in the field, author of The Cheese Chronicles and consultant for restaurants like The French Laundry and Per Se on their cheese programs. In her down time, she travels the world learning about cheese, cheesemaking, cheese history and pretty much anything at all that pertains to moldy milk.

The class, offered to media who had turned out to check out the new Murray's Cheese kiosk at the River Oaks Kroger, was a microcosm of the 25-person tasting classes that are offered at the flagship Murray's in New York City's Greenwich Village every night of the week. In front of the half dozen of us were plates with five bites of cheese, pairings for some of the cheeses lined up along the way.

"This is Brie's sexier cousin," quipped Thorpe as we started out with a pudgy blob of Fromager d'Affinois at twelve o'clock. "It's 60 percent butterfat, so it should taste just like a salted pat of butter." As she drew out those last four words, Thorpe's face broke into an enormous smile. It was apparent to everyone in the room that the woman loves what she does.

Paired with a very inexpensive bottle of Domaine Ste. Michelle Brut sparkling wine, the Fromager d'Affinois tasted creamy and exceptionally decadent (that's thanks to the ultra filtration process that breaks down fat molecules in the milk to achieve an almost whipped consistency, according to Thorpe). I began considering eating this combination on a daily basis, rationalizing it by telling myself that the sparkling wine was almost cheaper than water.

It was easy to see why the sexy, fatty cousin to the more pedestrian Brie is one of Murray's top 10 sellers year after year. The d'Affinois consumed in two bites, we moved on clockwise to the next cheese on the plate: a Manchego with that most classic of pairings, quince paste.

Following the adage of "like goes with like," the nutty Spanish cheese and quince paste were paired with Campo Viejo Rioja, a Spanish Garnacha. Thorpe was quick to point out the layer of "sweat" that had formed on top of the slice of Manchego: "That's how you know it's a sheep's milk cheese," she noted. "Sheep's milk cheese contains far more fat than cow's milk cheese." The sweat is that fat beginning to separate out from the rest of the cheese; keep in mind, though, that extra fat also comes with far more calcium and Vitamin C than cow's milk cheese.

The Cabot Clothbound Cheddar was next on our plate. The latest darling of the food world, the cheese is about 180 degrees of difference away from Cabot's traditional offerings of plastic-wrapped cheese blocks seen next to the milky and Sunny-D at the grocery store. Cabot decided to create a true, English, cloth-bound cheddar that is cave-aged for 10 months, the milk coming from a single farmer's herd of cows and worked solely by hand. The result is a cheese that won Best of Class at the 2010 World Championship Cheese Contest and has sprung up in specialty cheese cases across America.

The Cabot Clothbound Cheddar is flaky and dry but nevertheless coats your mouth with a salty, almost caramel-tinged richness. And what pairs best with Vermont cheddar? Apple pie, of course: We nibbled on the cheese amidst sips of a Sonoma Cutrer Chardonnay that tasted like a slightly lemony slice of apple pie, marveling at how well it captured the sensation of a slice of cheddar melting atop a fresh slice of pie.

Parmigiano-Reggiano was next, Murray's number one-selling cheese for years. At $13.99 a pound, it's one of the least expensive prices for the Italian cheese that I've seen around town.

From there, it was on to the last cheese of the evening: a gorgonzola dolce paired with Bee Raw Star Thistle Honey. True to its "dolce" nomenclature, the Northern Italian blue cheese was sweeter (and creamier) than your standard blue, and not nearly as pungent. I ate it with my fingers, dipped into the little pot of hazy honey, enjoying the raw honey's finely grained texture against the smooth cheese. Thorpe recommends pairing it with honeyed pears for dessert and, she says, "you'll never look back."

At the end of the class, Thorpe fielded questions like "What's the oldest type of cheese?" and "How much cheese per person would you put on a dessert plate?" (Answers: feta-style salty cheese and half an ounce per person, with a minimum of three and a maximum of five cheeses.) But I wanted to know if Thorpe, in her nine years as a master of the cheese universe, had tried our Texas cheeses.

"Yes!" she answered brightly. "In fact, I just had a fabulous plate of local cheeses last night at Haven." Impressed with our local cheese programs like that of the Houston Dairymaids, Murray's is talking with local distributors about stocking local cheeses.

And a final question for the cheesemistress: What is the next category of cheeses we should watch for on the culinary horizon? Thorpe's answer: "Washed-rind cheese are horribly maligned." That means you should keep an eye out for more stinky (*ahem* pungent) cheeses on menus in the coming months in years: Taleggio, Epoisses, Raclette and -- yes -- Limburger.

This stinky cheese fan is elated. I wonder if patrons dining at the table next to me will feel the same way?

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