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Say Cheese: Between the covers

One side benefit to our growing cheese obsession in this country has been the growing crop of cheese books that have accompanied it. Here is a roundup of some of the notable cheese books that have come across my desk in recent months.

The new crop of cheese books I've been reading. (Domenica Marchetti)

Immortal Milk: Adventures in Cheese, by Eric LeMay (Free Press, 2010; $22)
“Humboldt Fog may be the most beautiful cheese I’ve ever seen,” writes LeMay. “Its outer rim has the texture of a frozen sea. Rough, foam-colored wavelets crest from it, and beneath them lies a greenish gray ash that hints of ocean before a storm. Its top has a hatched, perky pattern and could pass for frosted pastry. If you were thumb-sized, you’d want to throw yourself onto it and make snow angels.” Clearly, this is someone who not only celebrates cheese, but also the written word, which is what makes Immortal Milk such a great read. LeMay, who teaches writing at Columbia University (he is joining the creative writing faculty at Ohio University come fall), and his wife, Chuck, are both serious cheese enthusiasts, and we follow them as they seek out illegal raw-milk Vacherin, try to “figure out” the appeal of Wisconsin cheeses and get caught up in a heated discussion with an Italian artisan cheesemaker at the Slow Food International Cheese Festival in Bra, Italy. The latter part of the book, called Chuck’s Picks, offers thoughtful advice and descriptions on pairing cheese with beer, chocolate, coffee, fruit preserves, honey, meat, whiskey and wine (and Chuck appears to be as good — and funny — a writer as husband Eric).

Cheesemonger: A Life on the Wedge, by Gordon Edgar (Chelsea Green, 2010; $17.95)
At times it’s hard to tell whether Edgar is more proud of the career he has successfully crafted as a cheese retailer in spite of (initially) not knowing much about the subject, or his background in anarchist politics. He ties the two worlds together cleverly (if somewhat absurdly), comparing customers to the various properties of milk or cheese, and his own work as an “agent of change” to the role that rennet plays in transforming milk into cheese. There are thoughtful musings on the name origins of cheese and the controversy surrounding raw milk cheeses. The book’s most appealing feature is Edgar’s own voice, which is often funny and always devoid of pretension. The voyeur in me especially enjoyed the day-in-the-life anecdotes of his dealings with untrustworthy reps and insufferable customers in his job as the cheese buyer for Rainbow Grocery Cooperative, in San Francisco. Although this is not a guidebook, a section at the end does provide useful tips on cheese buying for beginners. Primarily, though, it’s an engaging account of one man’s foray into the wild world of cheese, retail.

The Cheese Chronicles: A Journey Through the Making and Selling of Cheese in America, From Field to Farm to Table, by Liz Thorpe (HarperCollins, 2009; $15.99)
Unlike Gordon Edgar, Liz Thorpe did know early on that she loved cheese, although she passed up an opportunity, straight out of college, to work an entry-level job for famed New York cheesemonger Steve Jenkins. Instead, she went to work for “a machine that builds Web sites for television and movie studios,” where she soon began to regret her choice and began once more to look for “a job in cheese.” When she got an offer for an entry-level job at Murray’s Cheese, she knew better than to turn it down. Obviously, Thorpe made the right choice. In less than a decade she has worked her way up to vice president at Murray’s. The book is, in part, a personal account of how she got into the business and the milestones in her career (giving a cheese class to the employees of Thomas Keller’s French Laundry). But a large part of the book is devoted to Thorpe’s visits to cheese producers across the country, from small farmstead operations to giant conglomerates that happen to make some worthy cheeses. She delves into each producer’s background, the challenges, common and unique, that they face, and the characters that populate the world of U.S. cheesemakers.

Mastering Cheese: Lessons for Connoisseurship From a Maitre Formager, by Max McCalman and David Gibbons (Clarkson Potter, 2009; $40)
McCalman, who established the cheese programs at Picholine and Artisanal Brasserie & Fromagerie restaurants, in New York, has already written two acclaimed books on the subject: “The Cheese Plate,” and “Cheese: A Connoisseur’s Guide to the World’s Best.” “Mastering Cheese” is for those who want to delve more deeply — much more deeply — into the subject. The book is divided into three parts: Understanding Real Cheese, Becoming a Connoisseur, and Great Artisan Cheeses of the World. Each chapter within the various sections is constructed as a lesson, with major points highlighted in an end-of-chapter review. There are chapters on animal breeds and on flavor; on buying cheese at the store and on ordering cheese at a restaurant; on “champion cheddars” and “stunning stinkers.” In spite of its depth and range, McCalman — and writer Gibbons — manage to make the book engaging and accessible, and they are helped along in their mission by the dozens of stunning photos interspersed throughout.

World Cheese Book, editor-in-chief Juliet Harbutt (DK Publishing, 2009; $25)
New Zealand native Juliet Harbutt has lived in Britain since 1984, where she founded Jeroboams the Wine & Cheese Shop and went on to create the British Cheese Awards. At once comprehensive and concise, book is a guide to more than 750 cheeses from around the world, with photos of every cheese included, as well as compact descriptions, tasting notes, and tips on “how to enjoy” them. The information comes not only from Harbutt but also from 18 contributors, recognized experts from around the globe. The most celebrated cheeses (Epoisses de Bourgogne and Taleggio among them) are given more in-depth treatment, with two-page spreads of information and photos.

The Great Big Cheese Cookbook, Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board (Running Press, 2009; $22.95)
This is a book for cheese lovers who love to cook. Compiled by the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board, and featuring more than 300 recipes — including some from such big-name chefs as Roberto Donna and Michael Symon — it covers every meal from breakfast to dessert, and includes a chapter on pairing cheese with wine and beer. Recipes include simple, downscale Layered Taco Dip and sophisticated Camembert Beignets With Red Wine Reduction. Lots of photographs add to the appeal of the book. My one big complaint is that, with the exception of a short list of “Wisconsin original” cheeses mentioned in the beginning of the book, nowhere in the 480 pages is there any information about specific cheeses of Wisconsin or the dairy farmers or cheese makers that supposedly inspired the project. That’s an odd omission from a book that, in its foreword, touts a “Wisconsin renaissance in cheesemaking” and claims it will “help you discover the very wide world of Wisconsin cheese.”

-- Domenica Marchetti (Follow me on Twitter.)

By The Food Section  |  May 18, 2010; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Books , Say Cheese  | Tags: Domenica Marchetti, Say Cheese, books  
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Putting "Immortal Milk" on my list, hadn't seen that one!

"The Master Cheesemakers of Wisconsin" will give you the up close look at Wisconsin's cheesemakers. It's a gorgeous book. (Disclosure: my cheese+champagne coblogger works with the authors.)

Posted by: ColleenFoodieTots | May 19, 2010 12:51 PM | Report abuse

Really enjoyed Immortal Milk, Colleen. Thanks for the tip on The Master Cheesemakers of Wisconsin. Will look for it.

Posted by: Domenica1 | May 21, 2010 1:19 PM | Report abuse

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