Alex Josef of Wheel House Cheese Store on how to perfect a cheese platter

By Richard Foss  (Richard@RichardFoss.com)

Alex Josef recommends combining cheeses made  from three kinds of milk

Alex Josef recommends combining cheeses made
from three kinds of milk

One of the major culinary trends of the last decade has been the reemergence of specialty food shops.

The growth of supermarkets — pioneered in Los Angeles in 1927 by a chain called Hattem’s — made specialty meat markets, produce stores and cheese shops an endangered species. It took most of a century for a newly sophisticated clientele to demand the return of places where people who really know their products provide personal service.

As an example, consider the recently opened Wheel House Cheese Store on Washington Boulevard. The shop isn’t much larger than the cheese section at most chain stores, but instead
of a vast array of prepackaged items like shredded feta and “Mexi-Cheese Blend” there are wheels and blocks of cheese with exotic names and provenances. A few shelves of crackers, jams and honeys, and a cold case of sausages and charcuterie round out the selection.

I asked owner Alex Josef a few questions about how to select and serve cheese to maximize your enjoyment.

Say you’re preparing a cheese tray for a party — at what temperature should you serve it?  

Are different cheeses tastier at different temperatures?  

If you’re serving good cheese, you want all of it to be as close to room temperature as possible. Right out of the refrigerator it’s not going to have the same depth of flavor. If you take all of your cheeses out of the refrigerator half an hour before you serve them, the softer cheeses, like brie, will be warmer than the firm cheeses; it takes a longer time for the room temperature to penetrate the center.

How many cheeses should be on the tray and how do you choose them?  

A rule of thumb is to have three different milks — usually cow, sheep and goat, but there are cheeses made from other animals’ milk. Water buffalo mozzarella is popular, but we also have buffalo milk blues and harder cheeses. There are also cheeses made from milk of yaks, horses, camels, even reindeer. There’s not a ton of that available. Stick with cow, goat and sheep, and have one of them be a soft cheese with a bloomy rind and maybe one be a firmer, harder sheep cheese — a common one would be manchego. Most people think of goat cheeses as being a soft chevre, but there are excellent goat Goudas and other variations.

Should you eat the rind?  

That’s usually a personal preference, but not always. Some cheese rinds are delicious, others are bitter, and some were designed to protect the cheese from dirt — you don’t want to eat those. Try a nibble before you serve it, and if you don’t like it, feel free to cut it off. Some cheeses, like  Gouda, are protected in wax or plastic, and you certainly shouldn’t eat that!

How far in advance of a party can you make a cheese tray?  

Cheese is like a living, breathing thing — from the day it’s produced, it’s dying. Get good quality cheese that is cut to order, not stuff that has been pre-cut. That way you start out with a better product that will last longer. Keep it wrapped until the moment you’re ready to serve it. As soon as you cut it, it has more surface area to dry out.

What do you like to serve with cheese?  

It’s hard to beat crusty bread or crackers. I’m a cracker guy. We sell some cranberry-nut crackers that I particularly like. You might want to stay away from very strong crackers like the ones with lots of sesame — having flavor is fine, but not something that’s going to overpower the cheese. It’s nice to have something else, like quince paste or fruit jam, some honey or honeycomb, maybe some sausage with a little bit of spice. Fruit is good, either dried or fresh. Thinly sliced pear or apple is a great gluten-free cracker.

Do you like grilled cheese sandwiches?  

Yes! I like to try cheeses that might not be usually recommended, just to see what happens. Sometimes it’s great, sometimes it’s awful. Recently
I took a few pieces of alpine cheese — Red Witch and Challerhocker — and I cut open a piece of a baguette and laid them out, added a tiny bit of grape mostarda and put it in the panini press. I ate half of it like that and it was delicious, then pried open the other half and added some buffalo mozzarella. The mixture of hot and cold, the freshness of the mozzarella, the richness of the alpine cheese, the little kick from the mustard… it wasn’t something you’d do for company, because it’s not easy
to pry open a grilled cheese sandwich, but the taste was amazing.

What’s the advantage of buying cheese from a specialty store?

You can talk with someone who is passionate and will take you on a bit of a journey. You’re also treating yourself well and you get a better quality product, cut to order. You get to taste things, so you go home with something you’re going to love.

Wheel House Cheese Store , 12954 W. Washington Blvd., Mar Vista  (424) 289-9167  wheelhousecheese.com

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