I was poking around Surdyk’s last week, not because I really needed any more cheese in my cheese drawer, but because I was in the neighborhood. (But do I really need an excuse to stop by? No.) I asked the cheesemonger what was new, and he pointed me toward Goodhue Grass-Fed Gouda, a cheese from Minnesota’s PastureLand Cooperative. Always eager to support local producers, I bought a wedge and have been immensely pleased with it ever since.

Made from the organic milk of 100-percent grass-fed cows, Goodhue is aged in the Pasture Pride cellars in Cashton, Wis. (Isn’t it nice when two rival states get along?) The result is a sweet cheese that reflects many of Gouda’s signature characteristics – a nutty, even grassy flavor that is perfect for snacking. The Goodhue hasn’t been aged long enough to form the crystals often found in aged Goudas, but I don’t find the cheese to be lacking in flavor or texture. If you can find it at a local cheese shop, it’s a great cheese to try, especially if you’ll be serving it to guests who aren’t very adventurous with cheese or if you don’t know their cheese preferences.

My allusion to the now-famous 15-year Cheddar produced by Wisconsin’s Hook’s Cheese Company a couple of weeks ago occurred before I got the notion to ask my friends Jim and Becca, who have spent the better part of November and December in our home state promoting their fabulous book, to pick up a chunk for me to taste. Alas, by the time they made it back to Wisconsin, it was hard to find this extra-special cheese anywhere in the state. But ever resourceful, Jim and Becca brought me back a tiny sample cup containing two chunks of the Cheddar from one of their book-tour stops, and it made its way safely back to Minnesota to my eager mouth. Was it worth the wait? Oh yes!

This is, quite simply, the best Cheddar I’ve ever tasted, and you know how many Cheddars we’ve tasted over the past year. It’s the epitome of what a Cheddar should be. It is rich, creamy and caramelly with a few tiny crystals thrown in for good measure. Definitely worth its $50/lb. price tag, the 15-year Cheddar should become an award-winning cheese this summer at the American Cheese Society Annual Conference in Seattle. If not, those judges don’t know cheese.

I’m guessing this Cheddar would make a fabulous mac and cheese or grilled-cheese sandwich, but I think it would be a crime to desecrate it by grating and melting. Just carve off little chunks and enjoy with a big red wine.

If you can still find it in your area (as of yesterday, Surdyk’s reported via Twitter that it had 5 lbs. remaining), Hook’s 15-year Cheddar is the perfect holiday gift for the cheese lover in your life. But if you can’t get your hands on it, here are some other last-minute gift ideas:

  • If you know the recipient is a big fan of soft-ripened cheeses, a whole wheel of Brie, Chaource or Camembert makes a great gift, especially when paired with fruit preserves or chutney.
  • Crowd-pleasers like Gouda or Cheddar are always a safe bet. If you’re still uncertain about your cheese choice, revisit our post from last year, with gift advice from Ken Liss, the owner of the recently departed Premier Cheese Market. Ken is also a wealth of information about unusual cheese pairings – my Heavy Table profile of him from last spring may give you some fun ideas.
  • We know y’all love cheese balls because we get a ton of traffic to this blog from people searching for recipes. If you haven’t already, try Colleen’s version with Old Bay seasoning.
  • The gift doesn’t have to be cheese itself. My husband gave me a beautiful marble cheese board for Chanukah this year, and fondue pots are always a hit. Every cheese lover needs a quality set of cheese knives, and babes will look fabulous in Murray’s “little cheese” bibs.
  • And if you still have space on your tree, get one of these adorable cheese ornaments from Sur La Table. They almost make a Jew wish she had a Chanukah bush!

Though the cheese world is all abuzz about the recent release of Hook’s Cheese Company’s 15-Year Cheddar, which the Wisconsin creamery is selling for $50/lb., this week our list takes us back to the birthplace of Cheddar – England. Currently made by the third-generation of Montgomery family cheesemakers in Somerset, this farmstead Cheddar is lovingly crafted seven days a week using milk from the family’s own cows. Y’all know how much I admire Wisconsin cheesemakers, but you’ve got to give props to the Montgomerys, too, who make their cheese on the land that some believe was the location of King Arthur’s Camelot!

Montgomery’s Cheddar is made with raw cow’s milk and been aged for 14-20 months, so it’s possible that your slab may feature crystals, though mine did not. Instead, my piece was smooth, pasty and an almost bewildering bouquet of flavors. It was hard at first to place the taste – was this cheese fruity, flowery, nutty or sugary? The answer is: all of the above. It’s not a Cheddar with which to cook – it’s definitely for savoring in slow bites with pieces of fruit or nuts. Your beverage should be a Claret or nutty lager.

Do you know how you can make a good cheese taste even better? Let it sit out on the counter overnight. That’s what ol’ preggo brain here did last night, and the outcome wasn’t bad like I had feared. Actually, it makes sense – if all cheese are supposed to left at room temperature an hour before serving to heighten their flavors, 10 hours at room temperature must make a cheese 10 times as good, right?

Anyway, the cheese we’re talking about today is Gruyère, the Swiss cow’s-milk cheese that, to me, is Swiss cheese. Though you won’t usually find holes in Gruyère like the commodity “Swiss cheese” features, this is the quintessential Swiss cheese – sweet, nutty and rustic. And while cave-aged versions, such as the 15-month one I bought, typically have a stronger flavor, I found my piece to be pleasingly light and creamy on the tongue. If I had a loaf of crusty bread around, I could have had the entire wedge of Gruyère and bread for breakfast and be totally satisfied. Alas, I’m eating oatmeal. Yawn.

Gruyère melts well, so you’ll find it in a range of dishes, like gratins, quiches and soups. But to me, Gruyère means one thing – fondue. I’m all for trying new cheese combinations when making fondue, but the classic version features Gruyère as a main ingredient, and you can’t argue with that kind of star power. No matter how you prepare it, though, enjoy Gruyère with a light wine wine such as Riesling or a sparkling apple cider.

Parmigiano-Reggiano

When I first saw Parmigiano-Reggiano on the Wine Spectator list, I admit the first thought that came to mind was, “Duh!” It’s a no-brainer to include the cheese that sits tabletop at every Italian restaurant in the country. But many Americans likely associate it with a green can, and if you think I’m referring to that shredded junk, honey, you’re reading the wrong blog.

The real Parmigiano-Reggiano comes from Italy’s Emilia-Romagna region and is D.O.P. (Protected Designation of Origin), which means that any wheel of Parm sold with that symbol is the real thing. Ask your cheesemonger to show it to you when he or she cuts you a wedge. Made from pasteurized cow’s milk, the cheese is shaped into 80-lb. wheels and aged for a minimum of one year and 20-24 months on average. The longer it’s aged, the grainier and crumblier the cheese becomes and different flavors come through more strongly. Younger wheels of Parm often have notes of vegetables or grass, while older wheels gain fruitier and spicier tones. Personal preference (and cheese shop availability) can determine which kind you buy.

Though Parmigiano-Reggiano is often grated onto pasta dishes or salads, it can also have a place of honor on your cheeseboard. Guests can tear off small hunks for snacking with fresh or dried fruit. Try thin slices with apple wedges – it’s a nice change from the traditional apples and cheddar combo. Wine pairings are all over the map. Wine Spectator recommends a sparkling wine, like Champagne or Prosecco, if you’re nibbling the cheese as an appetizer and Port for after dinner. The Consorzio del Formaggio Parmigiano-Reggiano suggests dry white wines for younger versions, building to full-bodied reds for the super-aged varieties.

Pont L'Eveque

Pont-l’Évêque is a true table cheese – a staple on the Normandy sideboard for hundreds of years along with other regional foods like apples, butter, cream and cider. Not showy or high-maintenance, this pasteurized cow’s-milk cheese would round out any hearty meal nicely. Its meaty paste and nutty flavor could stand up to a number of rich dishes, French or otherwise, and would ensure that you don’t leave the table hungry.

Like many washed-rind cheeses, Pont-l’Évêque is quite pungent. The wedge I bought at Surdyk‘s began stinking up my refrigerator as soon as I brought it home, and I actually finished the cheese in two sittings so the smell wouldn’t linger in the fridge any longer. However, with this cheese, its bark is worse than its bite – the paste itself is fairly mild and shouldn’t overwhelm those with delicate palates.

Pair Pont-l’Évêque with a fruity white from Bordeaux, as per Wine Spectator‘s suggestion, or go bubbly with Champagne. Of course, cider would make a stellar match as well.

I must be on a Dutch streak because my cheese this week is another aged Gouda hailing from the Netherlands, though it’s often confused for an Italian cheese similar to Parmigiano. Roomano, not Romano, offers a delightfully sweet, butterscotchy taste like L’Amuse, but unlike last week’s cheese, this one features crystals scattered throughout the paste. Personally, I’m a big fan of crystals because I love foods with texture, so I happily crunched my way through this cow’s-milk cheese. The Roomano you’ll find will vary by age, anywhere from two years up to six.

While all Goudas are suitable for snacking, I imagine Roomano would be an excellent cheese for grating and using in an autumn gratin, like with the squash pictured above. This recipe from Allrecipes.com calls for Gruyere and Cheddar, but I think the Roomano would make a fine substitute for one or both the cheeses. Pinch My Salt also has a recipe for a butternut squash and sweet potato gratin that sounds divine (and my 2-year-son might even eat it), and swapping out the Manchego for Roomano would be an interesting variation. If you get your hands on a piece of Roomano and use it in a recipe, share it with us!