The first sign of summer’s field-ripened tomatoes calls for fresh mozzarella, and there’s no finer specimen than the original buffalo mozzarella of Italy, Mozzarella di Bufala Campana.  From the milk of water buffalo (not to be confused with American bison) comes this fresh, spongey cheese with a milky, slightly sour flavor that distinguishes from the readily-available cows’ milk mozzarellas. It is also a more tender cheese than American variations, the curds breaking down until it becomes a puddle of mush. (At which point it’s definitely past its prime — fresh bufala mozzarella should be eaten quickly after purchase.) It is produced in the Campania region, around Naples, and DOC-protected.

There are various legends to explain how water buffalo found their way to Italy, but history is clear that they have produced fresh cheese from said buffalo since at least the 12th century. Mozzarella is often overlooked by serious cheese lovers, but few cheeses are as perfectly refreshing on a hot summer’s day. And the mild flavor makes pairing a breeze, as it would be hard to find a wine or beer that wouldn’t work.  Of course you can eat it as is, or sliced and layered with heirloom tomatoes, basil, and drizzled with olive oil. Tonight we had an impromptu picnic at the playground, where a salami, Mediterranean salad and crackers rounded out the meal.

Read more about Italy’s most popular cheese in this travelogue from LA Times writer Susan Spano, who describes pulling her car to the side of the road to tear into a bag: “With the cheese slithering in my hands, I took a bite, breaking through the thin, shiny rind into dissolving layers of musky-tasting paradise, juice streaming down my chin.”

P.S. The crackers? One of my favorite finds at the recent National Harbor Food & Wine Festival in DC. Locally made right here in Maryland, Little Ragghi’s crisp flatbread are seasoned with olive oil and parmesan cheese for a perfectly satisfying crunch. Their tagline is “quite possibly the world’s most addicting crackers,” and I have to say, they may be right!

(You can find both Little Ragghi’s crackers and the pictured mozzarella di bufala at Cheesetique in Va.)

When Americans hear “the Colonel,” KFC’s Col. Sanders is probably the first figure to come to mind, but the French think Livarot. This soft cow’s-milk cheese gets its nickname from the five strands of red raffia that are always tied around the cheese before packaging. The resulting stripes mirror the markings on the clothing of a French colonel, and Livarot has been sporting its military-inspired moniker for the past 200 years.

Livarot’s washed rind gives it the yeasty smell cheese lovers come to crave, though upon tasting it doesn’t have a strong stinky mouthfeel like other washed-rind cheeses. Its paste often sports tiny holes, and its exterior will have a crumbly, brownish-orange appearance that develops during its two-month aging process. I can’t say it’s among the top 10 cheeses I’ve tasted to date, but I appreciated its beefy flavor and smooth texture. With some crusty bread and apples or grapes, Livarot would make a hearty snack or light lunch.

Livarot comes from Normandy, a part of northern France known for its apple orchards, which produce many ciders and the apple brandy known as Calvados. It’s no surprise then that both are fine matches for Livarot. Wine suggestions seem to run the gamut from big reds to fruity wines. Artisanal Cheese recommends a Viognier, while Steven Jenkins points his readers toward Burgundy, Bordeaux and Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Beer lovers can pair Livarot with English ale or Irish stout.

I wasn’t sure how I was going to like this week’s cheese, Brie de Nangis. Though I don’t dislike Brie, it’s not one of my go-to cheeses. Cheap grocery-store versions offer very little flavor, and the Brie de Meaux I’ve bought in the past has an odd aftertaste. I was pleasantly surprised, then, to find that Brie de Nangis’ taste and texture mimicked a French triple-creme cheese more than its similarly named cousin.

A pasteurized cow’s-milk cheese, Brie de Nangis almost disappeared from cheeseboards for a while, but luckily for those of us who like its mild, buttery flavor, it is readily available today. You’ll find it in smaller rounds than Brie de Meaux, and its texture is firmer, too. Even after sitting on the counter for an hour, my wedge of Brie de Nangis didn’t get runny, though it probably would have if it stayed for another hour or two.

Surdyk’s recommends pairing Brie de Nangis with a Beaujolais, while Artisanal Cheese suggests a Merlot. Personally, all I need is some crusty French bread upon which to schmear it.

I understand the FDA has a purpose, and a very important one at that, but it does stand in the cheese lover’s way sometimes. It prohibits those delectable, young raw-milk cheeses from entering our fair country, so Americans have to travel abroad to taste some of the very finest cheeses, like France’s Reblochon. I have no plans to travel to France anytime soon, so instead I’ll make do with Fleur des Alpes, a pasteurized version of the French classic, and then dream of the time Colleen and I can spend two weeks in France gorging on forbidden cheeses. (If anyone would like to fund said trip, please contact us immediately.)

Hailing from the lush Savoie region of France, Fleur des Alpes is a nutty cow’s-milk cheese that’s easy to enjoy. Yes, it has that earthy, funky smell most washed-rind cheeses emanate, but that’s partly what makes it so good. That stinky-cheese smell usually signals to me that this cheese means business. After sitting at room temperature for an hour or two, Fleur des Alpes doesn’t develop a runny interior, but the toothy, even rubbery texture is still pleasing in the mouth. Paired with a hearty bread and some fruit, the cheese would be a satisfying snack before a hike – or a serious day of shopping.

As for wine pairings, Wine Spectator recommends a dry Riesling from Alsace or Austria. Steven Jenkins suggests a fruity red for its counterpart, Reblochon, so I assume one would also be suitable with Fleur des Alpes. The butteriness of the cheese might be too much when paired with a sweet wine. If you want to add a sweet note to your snack, choose fresh berries as an accompaniment.

Since early March is definitely still winter here in Minnesota, an Alpine cheese is still in season. And when you’re sick of snow and slush, a cozy cheese like Vacherin Fribourgeois is just the thing to remind you that there are benefits to the cold. You probably wouldn’t have a bowl of French onion soup in July, which means you’d be unlikely to melt a thick slice of Vacherin Fribourgeois on top of such a bowl in that month, either.

This semi-firm, raw cow’s-milk cheese, another winner from Rolf Beeler, is a superb melter, as many Swiss cheeses are. (Go to town, fondue lovers!) Steven Jenkins compares it to Fontina, and I can definitely see some similarities. Though it has a washed rind, it doesn’t really have a big stink factor. Rather, the buttery, meaty flavor pleasantly coats the mouth and makes you want just one more taste. Pair it with some crusty bread (my favorite is the rustic loaf from Rustica Bakery) and snack away. A nice hunk with bread and a green salad would make a very satisfying lunch or light dinner.

Jenkins recommends enjoying Vacherin Fribourgeois with a big red wine from Burgundy, Bordeaux, the Rhône Valley or the Piedmont. I tasted mine the other night with my unfinished can of diet ginger ale, and wouldn’t you know, that match wasn’t bad, either!

My cheese of the week also hails from the mountains, but from the range on the opposite side of France – the Pyrenees. Ossau-Iraty is an raw, AOC sheep’s-milk cheese made in French Basque country, and its mellow, slighty oily flavor has become one of my favorites. Aged for 8-9 months, the cheese has a moldy rind that some eat, though I prefer to trim it away. I’d rather concentrate on the beige-colored paste inside the rind, which has a pleasing texture and firm bite.

My friend Ariela and I once included Ossau-Iraty as one of three cheeses in our picnic lunch, and it’s really the ideal picnic cheese because it can be paired with so many foods – fruit (especially apples), olives, cured meats, nuts and crusty bread. Bring along a bottle of a big red wine, like a Bordeaux or Zinfandel, and you’re all set for a lovely meal.

New Year’s Eve was always a particularly fun evening for me, Colleen and our spouses. It typically involved a lot of food and wine and us yelling at whichever teeny-bopper of the moment was featured on “Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve” that year. For our first New Year’s Eve together (2002), the food highlight was the top layer of Colleen and Lou’s wedding cake. The next year is significant for the debut of my (a.k.a. Ina Garten‘s) smoked salmon dip, which was a hit with our guests and my cat. But by the time we got to New Year’s Eve 2004, we found our true calling – fondue. I think it was the idea of our friend Jo, who had lived in Switzerland, and Colleen and I jumped at the chance to make cheese the focus of the festivities. We made two cheese fondues and one chocolate fondue and I think I remember all of them being delicious, but since we went through more bottles of wine that night than we had people at the party, all of our memories are a bit fuzzy.

If you don’t have a menu set for Wednesday night yet, consider fondue. It’s easy to make, everyone gets a kick out of dipping, and you could even make it part of a theme party if your theme is the Swingin’ Sixties. Here’s a step-by-step guide to having a successful fondue:

  1. Ask your cheesemonger for suggestions. Traditional fondue is made with the Swiss cheeses Gruyere and Emmental, which are fantastic, but it’s always fun to mix it up a bit. I went to the Premier Cheese Market yesterday, and the friendly cheesemonger advised me to consider adding Red Dragon or Black Mountain Cheddar. We went with the Black Mountain since its blend of garlic, herbs and white wine was appealing to my garlic fiend of a husband.
  2. Get your proportions right. Your cheesemonger should be able to tell you how much of each cheese to get based on the number of guests. For four people having our Black Mountain fondue, purchase 1/2 lb. each of the Gruyere and Emmental and a 1/4 lb. of the Black Mountain.

    Black Mountain Cheddar with yummy bits of garlic and herbs

    Black Mountain Cheddar with yummy bits of garlic and herbs

  3. Gather your non-cheese ingredients. You’ll want to make sure you have fresh lemons, garlic, cornstarch and white wine (we used a cheap Pinot Grigio from Trader Joe’s) on hand – all four are essential to a great fondue. Traditional fondue recipes often call for Kirsch, a German cherry brandy. I’ve never used it in fondue because I don’t keep any in my liquor cabinet, but if you have some, by all means pour some in. For dippers, you’ll definitely want some crusty bread, preferably cut into cubes ahead of time so they can dry out a bit. Other ideas include boiled new potatoes, baby carrots, broccoli or asparagus.
  4. Start shredding and stirring. Shred all the cheese with a box grater. Heat up your fondue pot (mine is electric, so I just plug it in). Rub the inside of the pot with a cut garlic clove. Add the cheese, the juice of one lemon, three heaping teaspoons of cornstarch and 3/4 cup of white wine (eyeball it). Stir until melted and smooth. Adjust heat as necessary to keep it from boiling.
  5. Enjoy! I made this fondue for my parents, sister and husband last night, and none of them could be considered cheese aficionados. But all of them loved it, so hopefully your group will, too!

For more fondue ideas, check out or Happy New Year!