Side Dish

Cheese, please

Cookery reflects a culture most strongly through ingredients that send outsiders run-ning for the exits, if not the toilet. There are beetle grubs, for example, a favorite of Australian aborigines; Southeast Asia's fermented fish; and maybe weirdest of all, the passion evinced by descendants of Central Asian herdspersons for semisolid, bacterium-infested residues of mammary fluid extracted from certain even-toed ungulates. As Indo-European influence wafted westward and southward, "cheese" came to mean many different things. In an industrial civilization like ours, this lack of standardization was intolerably inefficient, and until very recently, it seemed that Velveeta and its kind might soon rule the world. But globalization has a sunnier side. As the world becomes one big boutique, we've had a chance to learn that cheese is legion, and that its sheer variety of colors, textures, flavors, and aromas, brought together on the same table, can itself become a source of pleasure. And a problem. Unlike Velveeta, artisanal cheeses tend to come in small, anonymous portions. Finding one you've enjoyed again can be tough: "That gooey one with the gray stuff on the outside that's so good with bananas" usually doesn't help. The cheese team at the Queen Anne and Admiral Thriftways has come up with a solution to the identity problem, making "business cards" for each cheese they sell, issuing them at a rate of 10 or 12 a month. Each contains a brief description ("soft . . . with an earthy flavor and supple texture"), provenance ("the little brother of Brie de Meaux"), and recommendations for use, including wine pairings. You can carry your favorites in your wallet, so next time your choice will be easy: "Honey, on your way home pick up some Brie de Nangis [bree du naan jees]." Restaurateurs have not been oblivious to the rise of elaborate cheese counters at shops like Larry's and Whole Foods. But serving cheese at a restaurant presents challenges in itself: the necessity of proper storage, knowledgeable handling, and, most important, a well-trained waitstaff. Cheese is far more demanding than wine: Once they're in the bottle, reds, whites, and rosÚ│ácan be treated alike; but ripe Brie, aged Gouda, and port-soaked Stilton require custom care. That's why a number of Seattle's top culinary professionals are taking a day off from their restaurants this week to attend a cheese "seminar," presented by the California Milk Advisory Board, with cheese guru Clark Wolf discussing the problems and opportunities of a cheese "program." The opportunity is real; between 1993 and 1999, U.S. cheese consumption rose well over 10 percent. Sure, most of that is used to glue the pickles to the bun. But now that anti-globalization is the buzz-word of the moment, perhaps good cheese's time has come once more.

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