A dinner without cheese is like a beautiful woman with only one eye.


-Brillat-Savarin, early 19th century

Does this sound European? I love how these guys are always comparing things to beautiful women. I would bet that when most of us Americans think of cheese, it is either in connection with the words burger, whiz, or wine-and, as in wine-and-cheese before dinner.

As with wine, coffee and just about everything else these days, cheese is getting more origin-specific and more widely available. Walk into Whole Foods--lovingly referred to as Whole Paycheck by more than one friend of mine--and check out the spectacular cheese display. Front and center is usually a big, ripe wheel of Humboldt Fog. Go ahead, take a whiff. But don''t say I didn''t warn you. If Cheez Whiz on Ritz crackers is your idea of heaven, Humboldt Fog may just knock you down and take you out. This is a very characterful cheese. By that I mean it really stinks to some, while it sends others into fits of ecstasy. This cheese is made in small batches and usually has a minuscule production. This is what is known today as artisanal cheese, or cheese made by artisans.

Artisanal cheeses range in style from, say, a soft, creamy, mild Brie to a strong, pungent, heady Limburger. This category also includes farmstead cheese, made with milk from animals on the farm. These cheese producers have control over the milk production as well as the cheese making. What you feed the animals affects the taste of the cheese. Vella of Sonoma uses one dairy farm, and purchases only evening milk for its product line. Just as in wine making, the quality of the raw material--milk--is the key to success.

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The best places to find artisanal cheeses are the farmers'' markets. Many cheese makers start out there, and then move into the specialty retail segment. Unless I know exactly what I want, in which case I shop for the lowest price, I like to shop in places that have personality and character. Friendly, attentive, knowledgeable service means the world to me (and also helps to loosen the purse strings). A few of my favorites are The Cheese Shop, Carmel (200-plus cheeses, about 40 artisanal style); Whole Foods Market, Monterey (450-plus cheeses, 200-250 artisanal style) and Trader Joe''s, Pacific Grove (occasional inventory of private label artisanal cheese).

Whole Foods cheese specialist Michael Corbett says when shopping for artisanal cheeses you should consider its two components, taste and texture, as well as your taste or the taste of your guests. If you are entertaining, you are safer choosing selections from the middle range. As for wine and cheese, local wine expert Kent Torrey recommends experimenting. Purchase an assortment of cheeses and try them with a few different wines, maybe a sparkling, a white and a red.

Cheese should be served at room temperature with good ventilation for those whose noses may not appreciate the stronger aromas. Everyone has a different threshold. What you love may be causing your guests great physical discomfort. Some clues include scrunched up noses and comments like, "Whew, what died in here?"

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