Winter cheese, Spring cheese. Do "seasons" matter? How do you know when a cheese is great?
I'm relatively new to cheese mania, and kind of obsessed with finding good artisanal, farmhouse cheeses.
Usually I go to the store, try some, and get a kind I never got before.
I am generally quite happy with that, but I am still very mystified by some of the things I've read or heard about cheese.
My biggest puzzle is about the "seasons" stuff. How important is it to know if a cheese is in the "right" season? How do you find out, other than taking a university course, or do you just have to trust the cheese seller?
How long does it take to learn when a cheese is really ripe or not?
re: Fred and Wilma
As the above poster suggests, what the cow or goat eats changes flavor. To know that though you have to buy from a really good cheese store. If you have access to a cheesmaker talk to them.
Even with fresh cheeses, seasonality isn't a big consideration, IMO. Some cheeses are traditionally served at certain times of years. Stilton, for example, is served at Christmas time paired port. While you can buy Stilton year round, when demand is down it's harder to find. Also, the quality may not be as good since it sits on the shelf longer.
Also there is the pairing with certain foods that makes a cheese seasonal. While you certainly can pair fresh mozzarella with a number of dishes, it is best served with the best of summer totatoes.
Blue cheese is best with pears and walnuts - Autumn.
Sure you can buy tomatoes and pears out of season, but why pair a great cheese with an inferior fruit or veggie.
If there is one in your area, find a good cheese shop. The people should be knowledgable about what they are selling and you should be able to sample EVERYTHING. If you establish a relationship with the shop they will clue you in on what is new and interesting.
Farmer's markets can be a good source as the cheesemakers may sell directly and you can chat with them and get clued in on what is best that week. We have one cheesemaker in SF, Andante, that is just amazing. The cheesemaker puts a star next to the cheese that is best that week. They basically have less than a dozen cheeses, but you can taste the change depending on what the cows or goats are eating that week or if, for some reason, the cheesemaking process went particularily well.
If there are any cheesemakers near you, see if you can visit. It makes a pleasant ride on a vacation or weekend.
Read the food section of your newspaper and be lookout on articles about cheese.
If you like a certain type of cheese, say Stilton or Roquefort, do a goggle search and read up on it.
Buy some good books about cheese. I like the following three:
1. The Cheese Lover's Cookbook & Guide by Paula Lambert
Great book about how to buy, store, pair, cook and even make your own cheese. Coveres both domestic and international cheeses. Some really good recipes as well. Most comprehensive book that I own about cheese.
2. The New American Cheese by Laura Werlin
This book focuses on American cheesemakers. It discusses the best cheesemakers, what they make, how to contact them if you want to buy, plus recipes. It also has a general section about cheeese, how to put together cheese plates. Some good recipes and beautiful pictures.
3. The Cheese Course by Janet Fketcher
Not as detailed as the above two, a good quick read with some nice recipes.
Probably the worst place to buy cheese is at the supermarket. The selection isn't that good, you never know how long the cheese has been hanging around, and that clerk that was hired last week probably didn't wrap the stuff correctly. I mean you see frozen dinners sitting in the aisles forever, how careful are they with cheese. I also love to see them cleaning the cheese display with ammonia-based sprays. That does a lot for the flavor.
I also have read a number of bad comments about Trader Joe's and cheese on the board, so, I'd skip them. If you want to really enjoy fine cheese, splurge and spend a few bucks and get some better quality, well handled and cared for cheese.
Ask on your local board for good cheese shops.