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Alimentary, My Dear

Just Say CHEESE!

By Tamia Nelson

November 15, 2005

Macaroni and cheese. Cheese pastries. Cheese omelets. Cheese pizza. Cheese crackers. Cheese and crackers. Toasted cheese sandwiches. Cheeseburgers. Fondue. Quesadillas.… There must be thousands of recipes for cheese dishes and desserts. That's no surprise. Milk's been a staple food since we humans domesticated sheep and goats. But fresh milk doesn't travel well, and cheese was one of the first ways we found to take milk on the road — or over the water. The idea certainly took off. Armies marched on cheese. Sailors fortified themselves against the gales of the Roaring Forties with it. Polar explorers cherished it. And why shouldn't paddlers join this illustrious company? Of course, many of us already have. I can't remember a time when I didn't carry a hunk of cheese in my pack, but then again, I've loved cheese since I was a little girl.

One benefit of growing up in a small town in dairy country was the general store just down the road from my parents' house. This was a real general store, mind you, a store where you could find milk in glass bottles (kept in an ice chest, no less), penny candy in glass jars, locally grown produce in season (as well as canned vegetables for widowers or farmers with lazy wives), and fresh-baked bread, not to mention tubs of nails and screws, shelves that sagged under the weight of canvas overalls and rubber barn boots, and bolts of cloth, along with sewing thread and ammunition for your deer rifle (provided it was a .30-30 or a .35 Remington, that is). Everything, in short, that a farm family might need. If you couldn't find what you were looking for behind one of the broad wooden counters that ran around the two big rooms, you could probably get along without it. The general store was also a temple to free enterprise, a sort of secular cathedral, and when you walked over the oak floorboards, your footfalls echoed just like they did in church. It was, to borrow one of Dylan Thomas' lines, a close and holy place, even if it smelled of fudge, fresh bread, and shoe polish, rather than stale incense or the sweaty wool of Sunday-best suits. But then Chet, the ageless clerk, would lift one of the heavy glass domes that covered the cheese wheels, and the atmosphere immediately changed.

Did I mention that the store also sold cheese? Chet always had two wheels of New York Cheddar on display: one was labeled "sharp" and the other "extra sharp." The labels meant what they said. And these weren't your everyday cheese wheels. Each was the size of the tire on a farm wagon. When Chet cut you a wedge of cheese, he didn't use a little cheese knife. No indeed. He used a long blade that was a cross between a machete and a cavalry saber. It was whispered by village gossips that one attempt to rob the general store ended abruptly when Chet waved his cheese cutter at the would-be thief. I believed it.

In any case, buying cheese at the general store involved a ritual every bit as formal as a church service. First, you'd place your order. Then Chet would solemnly lift the dome over one of the great wheels and slice off a wedge. If you had trouble making up your mind between sharp and extra sharp, he'd proffer a sliver from each wheel for you to sample. This was no time for joking or idle chit-chat. The tiny wafers of cheese were presented with all the dignity and reverence of Holy Communion, after which Chet waited silently while you tasted each in turn. (It wasn't an easy choice to make. Both cheeses were delicious, with a textured, almost gritty, crumb and a complex, nutty flavor. As a girl, I frequently feigned uncertainty in order to get a sample of each.) Once you'd made your decision and Chet had cut a wedge from the cheese of your choice, he'd weigh it on an ancient double-beam scale — it was never more than an ounce more or less than you'd ordered — wrap it in brown butcher's paper, and then make the package secure with twine pulled from an overhead reel in a single deft movement. All that now remained was for Chet to mark the price with grease pencil on the paper.

As good as this "store cheese" was, however, I'd developed a taste for cheese long before I first set foot on Chet's oak floorboards. Sunday dinner at home often meant Limburger slathered on slabs of pumpernickel from the local bakery, or a blend of blue cheese and cream cheese spread on rye. I guess you could say I learned to eat cheese at the deep end of the pool. Over the years, though, I was exposed to other, less — how can I put this? — forthright cheeses, and I soon came to enjoy these, too. By the time I first started traveling in the backcountry, I was a confirmed cheese lover. I'd no more think of leaving cheese behind than I'd plan to do without drinking water. And that hasn't changed.


All of which goes to prove that once you have a taste for cheese, it will probably stay with you for life. You certainly won't get bored. Connoisseurs liken cheese to wine, and for good reason. Cheeses are as diverse as the regions which produce them, with each variation in climate, grazing, and milk leaving its signature on the final product. Yet this variety conceals a common heritage. At its heart, all cheese is milk, whether the milk came from a cow, a buffalo, a goat, a sheep, or a horse. And it is from milk that cheese derives its complex architecture of fat and protein, along with essential vitamins and minerals.

Need help sorting out the options? OK. Cheeses can be "fresh" (cottage and cream cheeses, mozzarella, ricotta), "soft" (Brie, Camembert, goat, feta, Limburger), "semisoft" (Port du Salut, Muenster, Monterey jack), "blue" (Roquefort, Stilton, Gorgonzola), "firm" (Cheddar, Swiss, Edam, Gouda, provolone), or "hard" (Parmesan, pecorino romano, grana padano, asiago). And that's not all. There's also that limbo of the lost, the so-called "processed cheeses" and "cheese foods," categories that include many cheese spreads and the ubiquitous "American" cheese slices. While most of these have only a tenuous claim to a place on the family tree of true cheeses, that hasn't made them any less popular. Which brings me to the First Law of Cheese: Almost all cheeses are good, but…

Some Cheeses Are Better than Others

But better for what, exactly? That's the real question. Soft cheeses are fragile, better suited to picnics on the shore of Golden Pond than long expeditions, though if packed in a protective container and kept from excess heat, most will survive the rigors of a weekend adventure. In general, however, the less moisture a cheese has, the better it travels. Hard trips demand hard cheeses, in other words. I've had good luck with Cheddars and Parmesan on month-long expeditions, even in high summer, but I've learned that I can't simply chuck the cheese into a duffle and hope for the best. If you want your cheese to travel well, you'll have to…

Treat It Well

Cheese travels best when it's kept cool. Store it deep in a pack, out of the direct rays of the sun, and keep it away from the fire or stove in camp. (Don't allow cheese to freeze, however.) Preparation counts, too. Remove cheese from its store wrappings and repack in doubled Ziploc® bags (or their equivalent). Expel as much air as possible before closing the seal. Some people go further, rubbing the surface of the cheese with white vinegar first, or wrapping it in layers of vinegar-soaked cheesecloth before placing it in the plastic bags. This helps retard the growth of "alien" molds. A few brave souls even dip blocks of cheesecloth-shrouded cheese into melted paraffin and allow it to harden into a protective coating. (WARNING! If you want to experiment with this approach, always melt the paraffin in a double boiler. Don't melt paraffin directly over heat.) Me? I've never bothered to go to that much trouble. Instead, I simply pare off surface mold as it forms. I seldom have to discard an entire block of cheese. One reason for this is obvious: I eat the cheese before it has a chance to spoil. It's not hard to do, believe me. Let's explore just a few of…

The Many Uses of Cheese

Begin with eating it out of hand, with or without bread. But that's only the start. I grate or shave cheese and allow it to melt over rice and pasta. I add it to scrambled eggs (dried or fresh) and omelettes. (Do this at the very end of the cooking process.) If you have a reflector oven, you can even make toasted cheese sandwiches on flatbread. No reflector oven? Then make a stove-top pizza.

Or maybe you want something different. In that case, give cheese soup a try. At home, I make Cheddar soup with milk and fresh vegetables, but there's an easier way to do it in camp. I'm a fan of the instant Lipton® Cup-a-Soup® line. (Though I wish they'd cut back a bit on the salt.) They're readily available and not very costly. Moreover, they make great starting points for more elaborate meals — like my "Fusion Couscous," for example. Prepared according to package directions, they're good, hot pick-me-ups on a cold day. With a little freshly grated or shaved cheese, however, a cup of Cup-a-Soup® can become something more. Here's how.

Quick Cheddar Soup With Broccoli
Serves 2

2 cups water
2 0.85-ounce packages Broccoli Cheese Cup-a-Soup®
4 ounces sharp Cheddar, grated or shaved

Bring the water to a boil in a small pot, then turn off the flame or remove from the fire. Add the soup powder from both packets and stir the grated cheese into the liquid. Keep stirring until the soup is smooth and creamy. (WARNING! Do NOT add soup mix or cheese to the water when it's still on the fire. The soup powder will clump, and the cheese will coalesce into a sticky, unappetizing tangle. In fact, never boil cheese.) That's all there is to it. Soup's on!

Want a more substantial soup with only a little greater investment of time? It's easy to do if you have some fresh vegetables in your pack. Just pour enough corn or canola oil into a cold pot to form a thin film on the bottom, then heat the pot over a medium flame (or moderate fire), and sauté some chopped onion, carrots, and celery till they soften. This is also a good time to add fresh broccoli florets. Next, pour in 2 1/2 cups of water and bring to a boil. (If you've added broccoli, keep the water at a rolling boil till the florets are tender.) Now remove the pot from the heat, stir in both packets of soup mix, and add the cheese. For the final touch at the end of a hard day, add a dash of dry sherry. Enjoy!

No, it's not cordon bleu cookery. But Quick Cheddar Soup with Broccoli is a hearty warm-up to the main meal of the day, particularly if you have a few fresh vegetables. And the added cheese makes all the difference.

Almost everyone likes cheese. Even my vegan friends admit that the craving for cheese is probably the hardest thing for them to withstand. And unless you're a vegan, cheese is a worthy addition to the larder on any paddling trip. So the next time hunger gnaws at your vitals, or whenever a meal needs a little something extra to really satisfy, the remedy is easy: Just say cheese!

Copyright 2005 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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