The Book of Cheese, By Liz Thorpe

Eight or nine years ago, when I was plunging heart-first into cheese, I read The Cheese Chronicles, by Liz Thorpe. In fact, her book was published in 2009 — the same year I meandered into blogging — and I still have a sticky-note inside the front cover, where I wrote to myself: Try sheep’s milk cheeses from Vermont Shepherd. Every few pages or so, there are scribbles in the margins (Must try! ) and phrases I underlined (hand-ladled). I still love Liz’s description of tasting Cabot Clothbound cheddar: “Now the sweetness just hangs there, and the first bite is like baked potatoes, tight in their paper jackets, with melted lumps of sweet butter….”

Is there anything more lovely to imagine?

When I think of great line-by-line writing, I think of Liz Thorpe. Her sentences and flavor descriptions once propelled me to Di Bruno Bros. to buy half-a-dozen cheddars at a time so I could conduct my own studious tastings. I’d unwrap them at my kitchen table and nibble them, eyes closed, looking for the “trademark burnt toast-pineapple prickle that assaults many of America’s aged cheddars.” Yess, yesssssss, there it was! Through Liz Thorpe and others (Patricia Michelson, Steven Jenkins, Janet Fletcher), I learned to speak in tongues.

So, what a joy to peel open a padded yellow envelope in my kitchen several weeks ago and find Liz Thorpe’s latest, The Book of Cheese: The Essential Guide to Discovering Cheeses You’ll Love (Flatiron, 2017). It’s heavy as a doorstop and designed as a gateway to 10 kinds of cheese, from Mozzarella and Brie to Swiss, Parmesan, and Blue. Each chapter focuses on a familiar type you’d find at the grocery (Thorpe told me in an interview that she spent countless hours walking through stores to develop her system), then offers a spectrum of cheeses to explore in each category.

If you like Swiss, you’ll like…Grandcru, Comté, Rupert, Emmentaler, etc. Thorpe’s book is like one big Amazon algorithm applied to cheese.

As an organizing principle, Thorpe’s “gateway approach” works beautifully for today’s consumer, ‘cuz Lord knows Americans don’t have a clear sense of technical categories, like “Lactic Curd” or “Smear-Ripened.” And why should they? I ran up against the same challenge when I sat down with the owners of Di Bruno Bros. to dream up the the table of contents for House of Cheese back in 2012.

Here are some of my favorite things about this book:

Thoughtful Organization

The Book of Cheese is very explicit about what terms mean (like rind and paste) making it a great book for novices. However, it’s not a basic book. It’s incredibly detailed, which will make it useful to professionals in the industry, particularly cheesemongers who work at grocery retail counters.

Each chapter opens with a two-page spread, illustrated with watercolor, that functions as a flavor chart and a guide to which cheeses are accessible in a supermarket vs. a specialty shop. At first, I struggled to make sense of how this info was organized, but once I spent a little time with it, I found it to be really novel.

Flavor Wheels

A “Flavor & Aroma Wheel” accompanies each chapter, offering a broader range of vocab than I have ever seen in a cheese book. Here are a few flavor/aroma notes I would never have though to connect to cheese: burnt wood, petrol. Other words, such as seawater and shiitake mushroom require less of a stretch and feel like exactly the flavor associations I would like to keep in mind when I’m tasting cheeses.

Thorpe credits the wine industry with inspiring her to develop cheese flavor wheels. She also studied the flavor lexicons for beer, wine, chocolate, and olive oil to help refine terms, along with the well-distributed aroma wheel for Comté cheese — one of the few cheeses with a clearly defined flavor spectrum.

Textural Terms & Pairings

“Liquescent” is a new term I will be using the next time I serve a runny Brie. I will also be sprinkling in terms like “bulging,” “elastic,” and “scoopable.” Suggested pairings within each chapter range from classic pairings — sparkling wine and triple cremes — to unusual combos, such as Brie Types with Mexican chocolate to create “snappy contrast.” The only thing that surprised me? Thorpe’s beverage pairing suggestions steer mostly toward vino. Why not beer? Or non-alcoholic pairings, like tea?

A Sense of Humor

There is a feverish textbook-like intensity to The Book of Cheese, especially at the beginning of the book. But once I jumped into Thorpe’s juicy prose, I found all kinds of amusing phrases that I adored. (On page 172, for example, she describes the smell of Epoisses as “farty.” Yassss!)

Whether you work at a cheese counter or dream of expanding your cheese literacy at home, The Book of Cheese is a terrific guide to deepening your dairy appreciation.

~

Want to learn more? Check out what Liz Thorpe is up to, especially on Youtube.

Instagram: @LizThorpeCheese

Facebook: @CheeseLiz

YouTube channel: The People’s Cheese

 

 

 

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