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Conversation with a cheese whiz


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Juliana Uruburu, Oakland’s internationally recognized cheese expert, educator, and Market Hall’s cheese program director, dishes about rubbing elbows with the big-cheese cheese-makers and what to put on your cheese plate.

You’ve been working with cheese at Market Hall since the shop opened nearly 20 years ago. What’s the biggest change you’ve seen in the industry?

Producers have become so much more specialized, so we know a lot more about each cheese. In California, I know who’s milking the animals and who’s making the cheeses by name. There is a lot more pride in the artisanal quality of products.

If I told you that 12 people were dropping by your house tonight for wine and cheese, what would you pick up?

I might get a Brillat-Savarin, which is a French triple-crème cheese, some Sevruga or Osetra caviar, and a sparkling rosé. And maybe I’d put some smoked trout on a little plate with some fresh chèvre and hazelnuts. One of my favorite desserts is a broken-up chocolate bar, a little candied orange peel, a crottin, which is a goat’s milk cheese, and a bottle of port. There’s no cooking, and it’s absolutely delicious.

What are some basic principles to keep in mind when pairing wine with cheese?

Well, for one thing, I like to keep the intensities of everything the same.

White wines have more acidity, and they pair well with most cheeses. Red wines are bigger, more full bodied, so you want to choose cheeses with fuller, broader flavors, although you want to avoid pairing red wines with cheeses that are particularly moldy. And you can drink sparkling wines with almost anything.

Are there guidelines for how much cheese you should buy for a party?

If you’re serving a lot of other food, you’ll want one ounce total per person. If cheese is a starter, or if you’re having [only] some other food, you want two ounces per person. And if you’re just serving wine and cheese, you should plan for three to four ounces per person.

What belongs on a cheese plate? What doesn’t?

A piece of honeycomb looks beautiful on a plate, and it goes superbly with cheese. Dried fruits and nuts are both spectacular with cheese; dried fruits really bring out the sweetness of the milk. Fresh fruits are tart and acidic and can bring out the harsher properties in cheese.

What is the biggest perk of your job?

Traveling the world looking for amazing foods to share. That, and having a close relationship with cheese-makers. Believe it or not, I still get starstruck by them. They’re like celebrities to me.

You were recently inducted into a very exclusive French cheese society, the Guilde des Fromagers Confrérie de Saint Uguzon. How does one become a member, and what are the meetings like?

To become a member, you need to be nominated by two current members. I was nominated by two French friends whom I have known for many years. The meetings are usually in France—even the invitations come in French and I have to get out my dictionary to read them. The most recent meeting was in Normandy on October 2, but I was getting married in San Francisco, so I couldn’t go. Maybe the next one!

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