The Best Cheeses for Communing with Nature

It comes as maybe no surprise that a question frequently asked of Northwest cheesemongers is, “I’m going backpacking; what would be a good cheese to take with me?” (or the other common variant, “what are some good cheeses to take camping?”).

The root of the question is really, “what cheese will not kill me if I keep it out of refrigeration for three days while I commune with nature?”

The answer is generally pretty simple: any aged cheese—which is inherently a cheese with low water activity. The older the cheese, the harder and less moist it is—and therefore, more suitable to hanging out at room temperature or thereabouts in your backpack.

The most ideal temperature for cheese will always be a little cooler than ambient temperature, so keeping cheese in your ice chest is an obvious choice if you will have one. But not all journeys into the woods are accompanied by a 75-quart cooler filled with ice.

For those journeys, you need the aged goudas and cheddars of the world. The harder, the better.

Now, I am often in the business of giving this advice, and rarely in the position of taking it (for the same reason I am in the business of anything—because I’m not independently wealthy with loads of time on my hands to go wander off into the forest whenever I want to eat cheese).

But last week I had the rare opportunity to take some of my advice with me on a family camping trip.

The mission was relatively simple: select some hardy cheeses that could double for being successfully draped over a hot burger patty as easily as they could be consumed without crackers (because I forgot them). The camping selection also needed to appease a group of mouths that were not particularly cheese-adventurous.

For the typical backpacker, I will recommend something along the lines of Beemster XO, a 26-month aged Gouda that is bright orange, riddled with crunchy tyrosine crystals, and has a piquant butterscotchiness. I will also recommend Waag 18-month gouda, which is a bit younger, softer, less orange, and less crunchy, as well as being not as strong as the XO and generally very smooth on the tongue. To avoid there being too many goudas, I’ll also throw in an earthy, aged English cheddar along the lines of Montgomery’s or Quicke’s, or the milder, more honeyed Beecher’s Flagship Reserve.

Alpine cheeses in the Emmental-Comté-Gruyère vein are also on the list. Slap some on a piece of bread with a slab of country-style pâté, and wham! Plenty of protein to keep you trekking.

Beemster XO and Flaship Reserve were two of the cheeses I selected for the family camp-a-thon. I also picked up some of Hervé Mons’ sweet and nutty French Emmental, another backpacker favorite in my arsenal. And then, because I can’t help myself, I also took some Beemster Smoked Gouda and Beemster Hatch Pepper Gouda. And some pimento cheese spread.

Now, the latter three choices are not going to be super happy as ambient cheeses—which is fine, because my boyfriend was quite proud to drag his brand new, giant ice chest along for the three days of our campout. But the selling point of these cheeses for me was both their crowd-friendliness and their melt-factor, both of which were strong deciders for this camping trip.

If we wouldn’t have had the cooler, I probably would have instead brought the XO, Flagship Reserve, Aged Mahón, and likely something along the lines of Grand Ewe or Sapore del Piave: hard cheeses that enjoy the cold but are just as comfortable at the gentle “room temperature” of a Pacific Northwest forest.

 

In case you’re interested, I dressed my burger with shavings of Emmental and Flagship Reserve, and once those had melted, topped the whole thing with Beemster Smoked. Because I’m a glutton.

The verdict among the campers was strongly in favor of the Hatch Pepper Gouda being the big favorite, with Beemster Smoked falling in snugly at second place. The pimento cheese spread, which was scarfed down with some Grissini breadsticks, was the third-place favorite.

What can I say? People love flavored cheeses.

You may be wondering what we did with the cheese we didn’t finish. Responsible cheesemonger that I am, I actually brought some Formaticum cheese bags with me.

When we were done feasting, I just tossed each cheese into a bag and rolled it up, piled all of the bag-rolls into a ziploc, and tossed the shebang into the cooler. If you’re short on (relatively expensive) cheese bags or cheese paper, wrapping your cheese in parchment paper is fine, or even putting it all into a ziploc or Tupperware for the remainder of the trip. Or you could just eat all of your cheese and spend less time eating Red Vines, chocolate-covered almonds and tortilla chips like us fools.

 

But we did have the cooler, so the softer goudas came with, and they did just fine. We killed most of the cheese in one evening, and the softies barely made it onto any of the burgers (but luckily, they did).

At the end of the day, if you have some ice, you can take whatever cheese camping with you that you like. But if you’re being rugged and ice-less, then you’ll want to take the harder, older, stronger cheeses with you. Ask your cheesemonger for good ambient-approved cheeses, and see what she or he drums up.

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