Miami doesn't boast a cheese store in the mold of the grand Old World type, where wheels, loaves, and slabs are stacked high on marble countertops and an intense, swoon-inducing stink is pervasive.
What it does have is a smattering of specialty markets whose selections are ample enough to keep any cheese enthusiast deliriously, malodorously gleeful throughout the year. With holiday season heading toward us as quickly and inexorably as penicillin-laced needles plummeting into a round of Roquefort rennet, now is an opportune time to contemplate a cheese board for potential house guests.
I visited The Cheese Market in Coconut Grove, Laurenzo's Italian Supermarket in North Miami, and Epicure Market in South Beach and have conceptualized three prospective platters --- French, Italian, and global.
The Cheese Market
The Cheese Market
This European-style cafe opened in Coconut Grove just more than a year ago. On the right side of the rustic room are three illuminated cases, the first one filled with soft and blue cheeses, the second displaying semifirm, and the last featuring hard varieties. Proprietor Massimo Cannavo is the big cheese here (a term that originally referred to those wealthy enough to purchase a whole wheel), but he was out of town during my visit. The sole worker in the shop knew nothing about cheese and didn't speak English; some of the goat's cheeses were unlabeled, so I never did discover what they were.
I was able to find five worthy selections for a French board, beginning with Saint Maure Caprefeuille ($20/log), an aged goat's cheese with a subtle earthy flavor. The semisoft Pont l'vque ($11.50/disc) from Calvados in Normandy is a rich, slightly acidic, pale yellow cow's milk cheese distinguishable by an aromatic, orange-yellow rind and a faintly sweet flavor; its finish slaps the tongue like a shot of cider.
The next pick hails from the French Alps, where Comté Gruyre ($13.99/lb.) is produced. Aged longer than the Swiss variety, Comte has holes the size of peas and boasts a potent nutty flavor with a toffeelike aftertaste. The cantaloupe-colored Mimolette ($19.99/lb. ) from northern France has the same texture and spherical shape as Edam but with a natural rind as it ages, it becomes as cratered and craggy as the moon's surface. The rusty orange interior is dense, smooth, sweetly caramelized, and very hard (it can be grated) but dissolves in the mouth like fudge.
The Cheese Market carries only one French blue, but it's a classic -- the creamy cow's milk paste of Losse Noir Roquefort ($22.99/lb.) posting sharp, sweet, peppery notes on the palate. The store manager suggests two wines that complement these cheeses: a 2001 Carte Pinot Noir from California ($41) and a Matua Valley Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand ($19).
Laurenzo's Italian Supermarket
My aim was to avoid overworked varieties, but Laurenzo's has downsized its cheese selection to the point where I couldn't really conjure a plate of five distinctly unique Italian choices. Still, a common cheese is no less tasty. We begin with the mildest imaginable: milky, neutral, made-on-premises mozzarella ($6.99/lb.) -- for the cheese wimps in your crowd. Wine-cured Pecorino Toscano ($17.99/lb.) packs more flavor -- a smooth, semisoft sheep's milk cheese imbued with hints of Tuscany's wildflowers and herbs.
Aged Fontina Val d'Aosta ($13.99/lb.), milked from cows that graze at the foot of the Italian Alps, is a creamy, mild, semifirm cheese characterized by a grassy aroma and rich, nutty, almost trufflelike flavor. The cheese's burnished rind is obtained through brushing and oiling, and its pale-golden interior is dotted with tiny holes.
Parmigiano-Reggiano ($24.99/lb.) might seem a bit pedestrian as our pick for a hard cheese, but Laurenzo's carries the red cow variety. Until the post-World War II era, the red-coated Reggiano cow provided the main source of this cheese, but by the late Eighties, the breed had diminished to such an extent this was no longer possible. In recent years the Reggiano population has regained its numbers and once again has begun producing a richer, more complex-flavored cheese -- salty, sweet, fruity, nutty, and grassy with a caramel finish. We complete the plate with Galbani Gorgonzola from the Lombard region a rich, pungent, semihard cow's cheese with an ivory-colored interior veined in bluish-green ($12.99/lb.).
Visit Laurenzo's superior wine section and pluck a lighter-style white, such as a 2004 Villa Antinori Toscana ($10.99) or Ruffino's 2001 Chianti Classico Riserva ($19.99).
Fans of Wallace and Gromit know that the plasticene inventor loves his Wensleydale cheese. Epicure Market doesn't carry this particularly tangy product, but it's stocked with almost everything else you could desire, making it the perfect place to plot a multinational tray, with a little help from cheese clerk Joyce Maingi.
First, Humboldt Fog Chvre ($24.99/lb.) from California -- or, more specifically, from cheese-maker extraordinaire Mary Keehn's farms in Cyprus Grove: A Morbier-like layer of vegetable ash runs through the center, giving a wedge of this thick, bloomy, white goat's cheese the look of a slice of layer cake. The crumbly smooth texture soft and creamy near the rind, firmer inside and its full, tart flavor make it a cheese board favorite at many of the nation's finest restaurants. Brescianella Stagionata ($29.99/lb.), a cylindrical, straw-yellow cow's milk cheese from Lombardy, is a relative of Taleggio soft, smelly, buttery, a little piquant, with melt-in-the-mouth richness and a mushroomy/nutty aftertaste that lingers. Contrast this flavor with the semihard Ubriaco al Prosecco ($19.99/lb.). Soaked with the must of the sweet Prosecco grape skins of northern Italy, this particular Ubriaco exudes a fresh, fragrant bouquet.
Zamorano ($23.99/lb.), a hard, pale yellow, raw sheep's milk cheese from Spain, features a complex blend of sweet, salty, tangy, and buttery notes with a cavelike aroma. Tough choice on the blue: I love the German Cambozola, a mix of Camembert and Gorgonzola, and Epicure also stocks a fine Bingham Blue from Colorado. Still, nothing beats an artisanal Stilton like Colston Bassett ($19.95/lb.), an earthy, semifirm English cheese with slightly less of a salty tang than other Stiltons.
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Dante, Epicure's resident wine expert, favors more than one type of grape to match the breadth of this cheese board, but when pressed, he admitted that a full-bodied Argentine Malbec such as a 2000 Cinco Tierras ($28.99) or a crisp, acidic 2003 Bucci Verdicchio ($18.99) might do the trick.
3409 Main Hwy, Coconut Grove; 305-446-8800. Open Monday through Thursday 11:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m., Friday and Saturday 11:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m., Sunday 10:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m.
16385 W Dixie Hwy, North Miami Beach; 305-945-6381. Open Monday through Friday 8:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m., Saturday 8:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m., Sunday 8:30 a.m. to 6:00 p.m.
Epicure Market, 1656 Alton Rd, Miami Beach; 305-672-1861. Open daily 9:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m.