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When Cheese Goes Bad

There are times of the year I associate with bad cheese. Usually it is after a holiday, when a distributor has bought too much of something perishable that didn’t sell. Buyers are alerted to these deals with flyers titled things like “Hot Sheet”, “Killer Deals”, and “Margin Builders.” This is definitely risky buying for the most part. You can make good money and still put things out cheap, but when these go bad, they go bad in a hurry. The week after Thanksgiving can be one of those weeks. So, I was quite surprised when I had a week of bad cheese, and none of it from those kinds of sales. I don’t want to go into detail here (sorry), partially because I am still negotiating credit on some of this stuff. But instead of a “Gordon’s purely arbitrary cheese obsession of the week” entry, I was inundated with cheese that made my tongue hurt. The first thing that was killer was about 200lbs of cheese that a distributor ordered and then – because of their own corporate machinations – sat on for two months without attempting to sell. The cheesemaker asked me, as a favor, if I would take it all and sell anything I could at whatever price I could. I was excited because I love this person’s cheese, and I figured anything salvageable could be amazing. Sadly, not of it was. When I think of awful blue cheeses I think of bad Spanish Cabrales. Not good Cabrales, mind you. I love that. But when Cabrales gets too old it turns dark, even nearly black at times. The paste gets as hard and shardy as shale and it is too intense to even swallow. And of course I’ve tasted this. The difference between a cheese professional and a well informed cheese enthusiast is this: I have tasted almost every cheese at its best and at its worst. This salvage blue: probably the worst blue I’ve ever tasted. Partly that’s because it started out strong but nice. When I first put it in my mouth I was thinking about calling the maker, encouraging them to age their cheese longer, even special ordering extra aged wheels and selling them as something like, I don’t know, Gordonzola Extra-Aged, Select Reserve Aged for Extra Time. The cheese trap was sprung. A moment after this fleeting thought, the cheese turned on me. What was strong became bitter. What was fruity became excess fermentation. What was butterfat became rancid. This was up their with bad Cabrales in intensity. This was a cheese I couldn’t spit out fast enough. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the only bad cheese of the day. Another cheese, one of my favorites actually, came in like it was trying to trick us. Out of 24 wheels, only 3 were sellable. The three that were sellable were awesome and, unfortunately the one we tasted upon arrival was one of the few good ones so it wasn’t until we sold a few that we realized that there was something very, very wrong. Unlike the good examples, which were complex, rich, earthy, and awesome, the bad ones were diaper-smelly, bitter, cloying and intense. This cheese – a department favorite – cast a pall over the rest of the day. We almost cried at the disappointment of its badness. This is a cheese that we all love to recommend when we have it. Its great potential turned to evil was a metaphor we didn’t want – or have time — to contemplate on the retail floor.
cheesemonger Gordon Edgar is the author of Cheesemonger: A Life on the Wedge.


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