Google “Caseus” (“cheese” in Latin) and all but two of your first 10 results refer to the New Haven fromagerie on the corner of Whitney Avenue and Trumbull Street. For those who have never gone cheese tasting in a store (I hadn’t), entering Caseus’s shop is quite intimidating. The selection is numerous, each cheese with a little marker digging deep, with names like “Des“pear”ado” and “Midnight Moon.” You can even find Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Professor Maria Trumpler’s cheese, “Vermont Ayr.”
There is cheese everywhere. In the little refrigerator to the right, sprawling within the counter refrigerator, all over the counter to the right: everywhere.
Where to begin?
That’s where the smiling lady working the store steps in. The general rule is to go from mild to strong so a prior cheese’s taste doesn’t obstruct your experience of the next. She starts me off with a new double cream cheese from Vermont’s Butter and Cheese Creamery, “Cremont.” It’s not even on the market yet, she says. It’s oh-so-soft and you can eat the rind, too. In consistency, shape and appearance, it may as well be Brie, but it’s not mild and fatty. Rather, it is very, very salty as you near the rind.
My favorite cheese was the second one I tasted. Made in Holland, but commissioned for a Californian company called Cypress Grove, “Midnight Moon” is an earthy (yet light) goat Gouda sheathed in a luxurious black wax (with a seductive woman on the cover of the wheel) that excites your taste buds in all the right spots. It’s a firm cheese (al dente) that is aged for at least six months and exhibits just the right amount of crystallization that lets you know it’s biting back. At $24/lb, it’s pricey but worth it — a quarter pound of cheese goes a long way. If I were Goldilocks, this would be my cheese.
While I was in the Gouda section, “Pradera” caught my eye — not only because of its mild orange interior and wax but also because of its name. This must be designer, I thought, and at $18.50/lb, it is definitely in the mid- to higher-end range of cheeses. Aged for seven years, Pradera’s orange color comes from achiote (also known as annatto), a natural food color derived from the pulp of a tropical fruit. For those who can’t get enough of “Midnight Moon,” Pradera is a cow Gouda that has more crystallization, an even earthier tenor and quite possibly one of the most unique flavor profiles I’ve ever tasted. Nothing comes close, except for other Dutch cheese masterpieces.
One caveat: you cannot taste the softer cheeses such as chevre and Brie that come in prepackaged rounds. I gave Vermont’s Butter and Cheese Creamery another shot with its smooth and creamy Fresh Crottin ($5.99 for a 2” round). This was the mildest of the four, and the most snackable. Lighter than cream cheese, with a lemony twang, Crottin is a perfect topper for those little crackers at the next classy suite party.
The best part about Caseus is that you can buy cheeses according to your own budget. The cheapest can be $8.99/lb; the most expensive hovers around $34/lb. Renowned cheese superstar Rolf Beeler’s “Gruyere” ($31.75/lb) from Switzerland is one such luxury. Beeler supports Swiss artisanal cheese making by personally selecting cheeses to be exported internationally.
I couldn’t leave without trying the Bleus. The first one I tried is from England, “Colston Basset Stilton” ($24/lb). I’m usually not a fan of Bleus and I was left wanting something else. I asked for another, and got “Queso Azul de Valdeon” ($15.95/lb), a mixture of cow and goat from Spain. Significantly cheaper than its English brother, the Queso Azul is mellower and fuller. Impressively, within the cheaper cheese categories, it’s often possible to get more bang for your buck.
Perhaps the most the eccentric cheese at Caseus, the 100-day aged, truffle-oil-washed “Sottocenere al Tartufo” ($30/lb) is covered with ash and doesn’t even taste like cheese. “Des“pear”ado “($32/lb) has been washed down with fermented pear leading to a wash rind that tastes alcohol-y without much pear flavor. Barely Buzzed ($22.50/lb) has won the American Cheese Society’s “Best Flavored Cheddar (cow’s milk)” three years in a row (2007-’09). The cheese is hand-rubbed with a Turkish coffee blend ground with lavender and diluted in oil. The flavor is quite unexpected and strong. Blindfolded, I wouldn’t be able to guess this was cheddar.
If there were any thought I walked away with, it was this: the Dutch make really good cheese. Vermonters are a close second. But I also realized there is never enough time to taste all the cheese.