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If you've ever wandered into a popular cheese shop on a Saturday afternoon, you have likely witnessed cheese-buying at fever pitch. It is part entertainment, part intimidation, for while it's usually fun to listen to the cheesemongers attempt to wade through their customers, it's also intimidating for the customers who are trying to wade through the cheeses. They're under pressure to make a decision that isn't easy when looking at two or three hundred cheeses. What to do?
First, if that customer is you, don't panic. After all, the very worst that can happen is that you end up with cheese you don't much like. While not a great outcome, it isn't disastrous. Second, realize that while there are many, many different cheeses, all of them fall into one of eight main categories: fresh, semi-soft, soft ripened, surface-ripened, semi-hard, aged, washed rind, and blue. If you just think about what each of these implies, you will be able to navigate the cheese counter without knowing a single thing about the specific cheeses.
For example, if you are told that a cheese is a washed-rind variety, you know that it is likely to be a strong, aromatic cheese. Sometimes, we refer to washed-rind cheeses pejoratively as "stinky," and for many, that's exactly what they're looking for. For others, of course, it's not. But the point is that if you know the very basics about a washed-rind cheese, mainly that it tends to be a stronger cheese, you will know the general flavors to expect from it. Some retailers organize their cheese counters by region, others do it by texture, and others arrange the cheeses according to the milk source. Because it differs from place to place, understanding what category the cheeses fall into makes it much easier to decide which cheeses you want.
Equally important is to know what type of milk the cheese has been made with. If you're not a sheep's milk fan, then you'll obviously want to stay away from sheep's milk cheeses. Or, if you don't know whether or not you like sheep's milk cheeses, the only way to find out is to taste one.
At a cheese shop, you're very likely to be offered a taste of each cheese you're contemplating buying. If you are not, then don't be shy about asking. If you don't have time to stand around and taste cheeses, or if you can't get the cheesemonger's attention, then buy a small amount and try it at home. Make sure to write down the name of the cheese or you'll almost certainly forget by the time you return to the cheese shop.
If you like cheeses made from all types of milks - cow, sheep, and goat - then your mood will dictate what cheeses you buy. If you don't know what milk the cheese is made from then, by all means, ask!