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December 06, 2006

Between The Covers


If you carry this book around, chances are that the next time you say cheese you'll know what you're talking about. One of the neatest features of this lively, good-looking thumbnail guide to "300 of the World's Best Cheeses" is its appearance. Slim enough to slip into most pocketbooks or a back pocket, it invites on-the-spot consultation, though its authors promise to deliver in-person sweetness and light if you stop into Murray's and engage them in chatter and sampling.

Rob Kaufelt, 59, who owns the 66-year-old Greenwich Village cheese shop, the oldest in the city, and who comes from a long line of supermarket entrepreneurs, confesses that he knew little about cheese when he bought the store in 1991.

His young "colleague and collaborator," Liz Thorpe, a dual BA in American Studies and Art History from Yale, who runs the wholesale department, didn't know much about cheese either when she joined Kaufelt. But intuitively smart and as passionate about cheese as her boss, she acted on his confidence that they could discriminate among complex varieties and communicate that information simply and directly, not to mention with humor.

Their timing could not be better. Holiday time advances, and media emphasis on low-fat gives the handbook special advantage in correcting myths about calories in relation to the numerous fresh, bloomy, washed rind, semi-soft, firm, hard and blue cheeses out there for the buying. Nothing's off limits, they say, if you eat quality and eat in moderation. Did you know that "soft, rich, gooey cheeses are mainly water" and that eating them "you're eating less fat then if you ate hard cheese"?

The major portion of The Murray's Cheese Handbook is a red-text on white-page alphabetical listing of 300 cheeses — from Abbaye de Cieauxc, a raw, washed rind cheese made from the "milk of a herd of fewer than a hundred Montbellarde cows" in Burgandy, to Zamorano, a dry, sharp, firm, thick sheep's milk cheese made in northwestern Castilla y León. All cheeses, they point out, have three ingredients: milk, rennet and salt, but then, vive la difference!

There are thousands of cheeses, from all over the world, with Murray's alone carrying up to 600 different kinds, depending on season. Wisely, the authors have limited themselves to covering 300, including 14 Pecorinos, alone. For each cheese paragraph, where they discuss origin, composition, texture and taste, they provide helpful suggestions about what kinds of wine would go best in enhancing distinctive flavors.

The shorter chapters, however, may prove at first the main attraction. Among a Ten Most FAQs, for example, readers learn the difference between raw and pasteurized cheeses and about vegetarian substitutes for the enzyme, "animal rennet." Should you eat the rind? Why not, if you like strong flavors. As to storing in the fridge — though all cheeses should be brought to room temperature before serving — cheeses need to breathe, so wax paper is OK, but tight plastic is not.

Semi-soft cheeses have the longest shelf life (14 days), fresh, the shortest (7) but in all cases, wrapping should be changed every couple of days. Old cheeses won't hurt you, they just won't taste as good. Scrape, if you're bothered by mold.

Other short chapters are devoted to cutting up, combining and arranging cheeses on a plate before and after meals (from 3-5 varieties); what to put in a salad (crunchy endive and gruyère, arugula, watercress with aged Gouda, Boston lettuce and goat cheese) and what to use for grilled cheese sandwiches.

The authors also unapologetically offer their own favorites. Keep it fresh and light before dinner, stinky, if you want, only after, and arrange from mild to strong, starting at 12 o' clock. Figure on an ounce per person.

List-addicted folks will especially enjoy Kaufelt and Thorpe's Most Intimidating Cheeses (#9 is Stinking Bishop); Sexiest (#6 is Jasper Hill Constant Bliss); Cheeses to Eat Before You Die (including Boerenkaas); and Fail-safe Cheese and Wine Pairings. Neither a how-to-make-your-own or a recipe book, the fit-in-your-hand Murray's Cheese Handbook answers practical need in a down-to-earth, engaging tone.

The Murray's Cheese Handbook by Rob Kaufelt and Liz Thorpe, Broadway Books, 220 pp., inc. glossary, biblio., 7 indexes, $12.95.,

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