Fortunate is the community that can number among its resources a proper cheese shop, or more usually, a proper cheese counter in a shop of more general character. Such a utility speaks well for the community’s way of living, also for the shopkeeper’s interest in his customers and their happiness.
Cheese fanciers tend to be chauvinists, according to their national origins, but for a family living in the United States, where cheese is more often for the cuisine than for the table, the touchstone of a good assortment would be whether or not it included a supply of Parmesan cheese from Parma, in its natural and not pre-grated form. Only a devoted merchant will manhandle and carve a heavy wheel of Parmesan, and only a loyal clientele of considerable size and appetite can make it worth his while to stock the stuff.
Parmesan is perhaps more for topping and tossing and finishing than a cooking ingredient; the inept chef can convert Parmesan into a rubbery sheath, something to be stripped off and discarded; and Romano — or even a creamy Cheddar, chauvinists notwithstanding and with all respect to the Swiss — is preferable in the cooking stage. But freshly grated (easily enough by the inexpensive little turn-the-crank device called a Mouli) Parmesan brings to some very simple dishes indeed a delicate distinction that scarcely any other substance can supply.
An example of Parmesan at its best could well be its addition to ordinary filets of sole, or flounder, or whatever passes for the word in one place or another. Usually heavily breaded and overcooked in deep fat in the restaurant version, the filets can become a dish of remarkable excellence, yet are prepared from start to finish in a few minutes and well within the power of a child of ten to accomplish.
Four filets — about right for two persons — laid out in a shallow baking dish and brushed generously with soft butter, are sprinkled with perhaps a half or three fourths cup of freshly grated Parmesan. A small amount of medium cream — a quarter of a cup or so — is dribbled over the cheese, and the dish goes under a hot flame in a broiler until the first signs of heat, no more than a few spots of a beginning-to-brown condition, appear on the top. At this point the dish is whisked to the table, and should be served immediately. Another easy use of Parmesan is simply tossing it with plain spaghetti or noodles and a little butter or olive oil. Even the faint wheaten whiff of the pasta survives with these light flavors, which combine in an agreeable contrast to the sauces dominated by tomatoes and strong spices.
Insistence that the Parmesan must come from Parma could raise the question of cheese snobbery, the concept that the importation is necessarily better than the domestic. The issue can be settled offhand by a comparison of the freshly grated import with what emerges from the cylinder of crumbs or dust or whatever was supposed to have been domestic “Parmesan” before the grating process — whenever in the dim past that might have taken place. Any simple kitchen test will make clear the difference, but like the wine snob, the cheese snob is always with us — haughty, incurable, and uninformed
Brie, from the district of that name in France, is of course celebrated; the best of it, at the right point in its existence, is good enough for anyone, but the cheese snob would never admit the possibility that a similarly constituted cheese, from a small Illinois town called Lena, is far superior to the run of the imported variety.
The St. Regis Hotel, in its heyday under the proprietorship of the late Vincent Astor, served the “Brie” from Lena, and it has been the choice for many years of a New York club, long distinguished for its cellar and cookery. “We buy it from a New York wholesaler on a standing order — two hundred pounds every two months,” the club manager reports. “It is delivered weekly. There is a week in the late spring, when the cattle are turned out to pasture, and another in the fall, when they come inside to be fed during the winter, that the cheese is a little slower to mature. In these two short periods, while the cows are getting used to the change, the cheese is not quite as soft in the center as it should be. For the rest of the year we believe it is better than anything else on the market, and, naturally, we try to sample everything.”
The cheese counter expert in a Cambridge shop — a real snob — declares reprovingly, meanwhile, that only his crumbling Brie from overseas can meet a civilized standard. As for the producer in Lena, he has — loftily — never heard of the place . . .
Nothing much is gained by trying to settle questions of taste according to nationality and place of origin. The effort has made for absurdities in wines as well as cheese, and unhappily, in politics and industry. The “Brie” from Lena is fully capable of earning a proud name of its own, as good in its own right as the best of the French product, but necessarily not identical with it. The cheese snob is certain the English have no worthwhile candidate, yet experience could teach him otherwise. Our blue cheese from Iowa is a wonderful accomplishment for any nationality, but it isn’t Roquefort and doesn’t pretend to be, and it took that first taste of Roquefort after its years of absence from the market — its seemingly pronounced qualities which nevertheless leave intact and fully perceptible the subtle secondary flavor which sets it apart from everything else — to make us realize what we had been missing. There is really no need to lose the fun of all this in a battle of nomenclature.