Gift-giving is supposed to be fun, but if you’re an adult, by now you’ve learned that choosing gifts is one of the more stress-inducing aspects of the holiday. Luckily, here at The Culinary Institute of America, we’ve learned a no-fail strategy for gifts that keeps us on the “nice” list.
Food is almost always the answer, and your holiday gift list is no exception. Edible gifts are always a huge hit, especially at busy times of the year. We can enjoy them in our pajamas at the end of a long day and they are usually something that you don’t get to eat every day.
The best presents are ones that we wouldn’t get for ourselves (we’re all set on socks this year, Mom), and for food, that usually translates to something a little bit decadent, unusual, or hard-to-find. And decadent, unusual, and hard-to-find just happen to be three of the defining characteristics of a good cheese.
Sure, most of us eat cheese every day. But most of us don’t eat amazing cheese every day. It’s expensive, it’s not a health food, and it’s not readily available at everyone’s local grocery store. Luckily, in today’s global marketplace, mind-blowing cheese is one click away, with high-end sellers offering delivery of the aged stuff, the grated stuff, and even the smelly stuff, right to your doorstep.
Cheese preference is personal, but unless you know your loved-one’s favorites, you can never go wrong with a nice assortment. Cheeses, like wines, are hard to narrow down into a few categories, but in very general terms, you can classify them as hard, soft, and semi-soft/semi-firm. For a nice gift, if you choose one from each of those categories, you have a well-rounded selection.
CIA instructor and cheese guru John Fischer says, “I like to have both a theme and variety at the same time. For instance, the basket could be all French items, but there should be a range of cheese from soft to aged, mild to stinky.” Themes that relate to a friend’s interest are also a fun way to explore new flavors. If they spend a week skiing in Vermont every year, give them a sampling from the state’s abundant creameries.
If you just don’t know where to start, we’ve put together a collection of our favorites. Use it as a cheat sheet for a gift basket that anyone will love.
For cheeses, we started with Garrotxa, a Catalan goat’s milk cheese that is semi-firm (so, not dry like an aged Manchego, but not soft and runny). It has a touch of sweetness to contrast its peppery flavor that makes it an ideal dessert cheese, though it’s no slouch at a cocktail party.
Next, we chose a Camembert. This one is more familiar to even indifferent cheese-eaters. It is soft and creamy, with an edible, bloomy rind (yes, it’s mold. No, it is not gross).
Though Camembert comes from the same-named region in France, true Camemberts are becoming harder to find, due to increased regulations on raw milk cheeses. Luckily, several American dairies are producing Camembert-style cheeses that hold up to the classic iteration.
Finally, the little Bijou from Vermont Creamery is made in the style of a traditional French Crottin de Chavignol. This soft-ripened goat cheese is velvety in its creaminess, slightly tart, and relatively mild. You might think goat cheese isn’t your thing, but this is not like the dollops of chevre you’ve picked out of your salad.
Man cannot live on cheese alone (we’ve tried), so a good cheese basket will include some companions. Charcuterie items, like dried salamis, cured meats, and pates, are all good friends of a flavorful cheese.
And don’t forget the crusty bread or good crackers and accompaniments like quince paste, stone-ground mustard, or even homemade apple butter. If you really like the person, you could include a bottle of wine, but then you’re really setting a high bar for next year.