Laura Werlin ##Photo provided

Q&A: Laura Werlin

Cheese expert un-rinds with OWP

San Francisco-based cheese expert Laura Werlin describes herself as an “edu-tainer,” combining her expertise and sense of humor to create educational and interactive cheese-and-wine pairing sessions. She’s a speaker, presenting cheesy tidbits at food and wine festivals around the nation, most prominently the Food & Wine Classic at Aspen and Santa Fe Wine & Chile Fiesta. Additionally, as well as a regular instructor at the Cheese School of San Francisco. Just as with her speaking style, her award-winning cheese books focus on making cheese easy to understand and fun for everyone. Werlin’s primary focus and passion involves bringing an awareness of American artisan cheese, which — along with wine — was the subject of her James Beard award-winning book, “The All American Cheese and Wine Book.” For more about Werlin, please visit

What are the best cheeses for wine?

LW: Even though I always put cheese before wine because, after all, I’m a cheese gal first — except when it comes to tasting the two together, in which case the wine should be tasted first — the fact is when it comes to finding good cheeses for wines, I actually look at it the other way around. I look at a couple of things in wine that are automatic deal-killers when it comes to pairing with the majority of cheeses. Wines that are high in tannins and/or oak are not a cheese’s friend. The cheese will almost always accentuate those features in a wine while at the same time strip the wine of its fruit. Needless to say, exaggerating tannins and minimizing fruit in a wine is not a good thing.

The cheeses I’ve found that are most wine-friendly include Cypress Grove’s Humboldt Fog; it loves most whites and also most reds as long as those reds aren’t too big and bold — think Pinot Noir. Also, the French mountain cheese Comté likes a lot of different wines. Just as they do in the Jura Mountains, where the cheese is made, Comté is best paired with medium-bodied, minerally white wines and lighter-bodied reds. Aged Manchego, that is about six months or older, and Pecorino Toscana both find companionship with earthier, somewhat mellow reds, English-style cheddars — read: earthy and savory —  are surprisingly nice with Chardonnay; while Brie and other cheeses in that same creamy, buttery family also go nicely with Chardonnay and sparkling wine. Actually, I find sparkling wine the overall most cheese-friendly wine. But if sweet-salty pairings are your jam, then you can’t do better than a blue cheese with a late-harvest dessert wine or Port.

What are the latest cheeses to wow you?

LW: Such a tough question! I’m a big fan of FireFly Farms in Accident, Maryland, and particularly their newest cheese called Merry Goat Round Spruce Reserve. All you need for that cheese is a spoon. I’m totally in love with the nutty, toasty and slightly caramel-y cheese called Roth’s Private Reserve made by Roth Cheese in Wisconsin; and from Switzerland and Germany, there are a number of small producers’ cheeses coming our way. From Switzerland, I love Challerhocker, and from Bavaria, a new-to-me cheese called Alex. All I can say is make a beeline to your nearest cheese shop to look for those. Good stuff!

Have any favorite Oregon cheeses?

LW: That’s a tough one, too. There are so many great cheeses being made in Oregon these days! I love everything Sarah Marcus makes at her Briar Rose Creamery in Dundee; though at the moment, I’m partial to her sweet, butter-like cheese called Maia. I’m also a huge fan of Rogue Creamery’s natural rind blue cheese called Caveman as well as Sunset Bay from River’s Edge Chevré, and Face Rock Creamery’s Face Rock cheddar. Oh! And anything from Goldin Artisan is spectacular, too!

How should cheese be stored at home?

LW: Depending on the type of cheese you’re storing, most cheeses should be allowed to breathe and yet be protected from the dry air of the refrigerator. The way to have it both ways is to wrap firmer cheeses in parchment or waxed paper followed by a layer of plastic wrap. The parchment prevents the cheese from picking up any plastic flavor and also gives it a little breathing room. Softer, creamier cheeses do well unwrapped and put in airtight containers. Just leave the lid open a crack so that the cheese can continue to breathe.

For those of us who tend to have cheese around most of the time, the best solution is cheese paper or beeswax wrappers, both of which are becoming increasingly available at specialty cheese shops and even larger specialty grocery stores. The characteristics that make cheese paper so useful are the two layers that comprise it: the inner liner is kind of waxy yet breathable and the outside is a special cheese-friendly paper. Beeswax not only provides that protective yet breathable layer, maybe its best feature is that it can be reused. Rinse and repeat.

No matter what they’re wrapped in, all cheeses should be kept in the drawer of the refrigerator where the humidity is higher. That’s because humidity is a cheese’s friend.

Can you eat the rind of the cheese?

LW: The answer is yes and no, and that’s because not all cheese rinds are alike. Eating the rind of a soft-ripened cheese — the kind that has what is known as a bloomy rind; Brie is the best-known example — depends on two things: the overall health of the cheese and personal taste. What I mean by overall health is that Brie-like cheeses start to become ammoniated as they get to the end of their edible life. That is, they literally smell like ammonia and, when they’ve gone completely over the hill, leave a bit of a burning sensation on the palate. Let me be clear — it is NOT ammonia and it will not harm you. It’s just that it tastes pretty terrible at that point. Because the rind is the first part of a soft-ripened cheese to deteriorate, it might ruin the overall taste of the cheese. How can you know? Taste it! Again, it won’t hurt you. If you don’t like the taste, just wash it down with a little wine! Even for healthy rinds, some people simply don’t like them when it comes to a soft-ripened cheese. If that’s the case for you, then it’s simple: Don’t eat it.

As for other cheeses, generally speaking the longer the cheese has been aged, the less likely the rind is going to be edible, assuming the rind is a so called natural rind. A natural rind is usually a dark tan color or maybe tan with a pinkish hue, and it has a fairly rough surface. Think Comté or Gruyère. The rind is there to protect the cheese as much as anything, so when it’s been aging for a few months or longer, it starts to pick up musty, cellar-like characteristics. Those taste just like they sound — kind of like a subterranean storage room or cave. Good for aging the cheese, not for tasting.

Bottom line: I recommend trying almost all edible rinds — do NOT try wax rinds! — and see whether or not they appeal to you. The rind is part of the cheese, not separate, so give it a try.

How do you know when a blue cheese is really past its prime?

LW: Like many high-moisture cheeses, a lot of blue cheeses can start to develop a slimy film over them. That’s a cue that the cheese is likely past its prime. Also, if the cheese starts to develop colors in addition to the blue veining — perhaps pink or orange — chances are it’s becoming something the cheesemaker did not intend. Also, like soft-ripened cheeses, some blue cheeses can become ammoniated as well. Smell that? Toss it.

Your absolute favorite grilled cheese combo?

LW: Having written two books on grilled cheese, narrowing it down to my favorite combo is almost impossible. I do have a recipe in my book “Grilled Cheese, Please!” in which I make tomato jam — a cinch to make. I then mix softened butter with finely grated cheddar and slather that on one side of each slice of bread. On the other side, I put a few generous dabs of the jam and then pile on more grated cheddar. I put the bread slices together to form a sandwich — cheesy butter on the outside — put it in a pan, cover the pan, cook one side, wait until that’s golden brown, turn the sandwich, and cook until the second side of the cheesy bread is golden. Altogether, it’s an uber-cheesy grilled cheese sandwich and tomato soup all in one bite. Sublime!

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