For a while there, it seemed like every blockbuster movie that came out was The Biggest Opening of All Time! Well, not the biggest, but the biggest non-summer opening, the biggest non-sequel opening, or the biggest non-holiday-weekend opening ever. But what Variety breathlessly reports is not quite as exciting to the lay movie watcher. I understand that there are a lot of circumstances that affect the comparisons being made, but every once in a while you want to hear a simple truth, without all those qualifiers. You just want to hear that something’s The Biggest...! and leave it at that.
For those of you who desire that certainty, I come to inform you taleggio is the best cheese. It’s not the best washed-rind cheese, or the best Italian cheese, or the best semi-soft cheese. It’s the best cheese.
There are cheeses for all occasions: runny Époisses, crystallized Beemster, and creamy La Tur. There are convenient Kraft singles* and piquant gorgonzola, and what’s good in one situation is not necessarily good in another. And though I hope my affection for the aforementioned cheeses comes through in my curt descriptions, that acknowledgement of diversity and those warm feelings do not change my opinion that, of all cheeses, taleggio is the best.
Taleggio is an Italian cheese made from cow’s milk. While it used to be produced solely in the Val Taleggio, it now comes from greater Lombardy. Its rind is washed with a saltwater solution, and undergoes a process known (unappetizingly) as "smear-ripening." The resulting panels of cheese look like something you would use as stepping stones in an overgrown garden: square, sturdy, and rusty orange.
Buying taleggio is usually not as simple as grabbing an individually-wrapped piece from the counter, as you have to tell the cheesemonger how much of the brick you want to take home. Here in Nashville, where we recently have seen a blossoming of cheese availability, the price-per-pound is +/- $16.
Each brick is wrapped with paper, which sometimes comes right off and sometimes becomes excessively chummy with the rind and has to be scraped away with a knife. The rind itself is edible and, like most cheese rinds, is not that pleasant in and of itself, but as a thin part of a larger slice adds complexity and structure. Sometimes it is thin and demure, and sometimes it is stout and gritty. Of course, you could excise the entire rind and just eat the creamy pâte, but anyone persnickety enough to do that is probably not the kind of person who would enjoy taleggio.
Because it reeks. My first experience with taleggio was at Craft, where we offered taleggio, prosciutto, and hen of the woods mushroom panini. The pressing and heating released the full aroma of the cheese, and its olfactory aura announced the sandwich before it had even rounded the corner coming out of the kitchen. Although at the time I considered myself to be decently versed in cheeses, that one did not make a positive first impression. Only once I had tried the sandwich – earthy, salty, and gooey – was the cheese vindicated.
It is well known to those in the culinary world that the nose is a much better detective than the tongue. That is why it is easier to smell flaws in wine than to taste them, and that is why funky wines and funky cheeses – including our taleggio – often surprise with how mouth-friendly they turn out to be after a prickly first encounter with the nose. It's like when a friend goes on and on about what a dick his co-worker is, and then when you run into him at a bar, you think he actually seems kind of cool.
Just because taleggio is the best cheese does not mean that it is for everyone. It's not hard to love, but it's not for novice cheese tastes, in the same way that Leonard Cohen is not for tweens. If you want the best, try taleggio, and if you get it – good. If you don’t, there’s plenty else out there for you. But may I gently suggest the remote possibility that, if you do not like taleggio, it is not the cheese's fault, and perhaps it is you who is in need of some schooling.
My research led me to a bizarre secret agent-themed promotional campaign for taleggio, which shows surveilled beautiful people slapping slices of taleggio into their mouths as if the cheese were as crucial to nightclub culture as bottle service and shiny shirts. The cheese is excellent this way, as it has enough structure to hold together for the journey from table to mouth. Taleggio shines, though, after the slight application of heat causes the cheese to reveal its full glory. Out of the fridge, it is muffled and dull. Kept in a warm room, the “roof” of the cheese sags a bit, the pâte starts to ooze, and flavors are liberated. At this temperature, the cheese is ripe for spreading – on anything, really, but especially on bread, freshly toasted and hot enough to cause the cheese to give even more and fill the bread’s nooks.
It can be put on the bread before it goes into the toaster oven, but don’t walk away like a moron. There is an extremely fine line between using heat to coax the optimal texture, flavor, and aroma out of your cheese – the temperature at which it drips and smears yet maintains it charms – and blasting it into a milky, oily mess. The first you want, the second you don’t. Taleggio can also hang with sweet and savory, and it's cool sharing a crêpe with some apricot jam or sharing a baguette with prosciutto.
Yeah, but... What about... What if you're... Look- there are a million cheeses out there; specialized cheeses, shocking cheeses, and crowd-pleasing cheeses. For whatever you're doing, whatever you're drinking, there will always be a cheese that's the best for that particular moment. But sometimes you don't want to bother with the particulars of what's the best when, and what's the best with what. Sometimes you just want the best.
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