“It’s all about coming in and going, what do you feel like, what will you be serving it with, what wine do you have?” Simon Johnson says of his walk-in cheese displays and the personalised shopping service that accompanies them. The concept came to him in Paris after noticing an air-conditioned cabinet at one cheesemonger, inspiring the first of seven cheese rooms at his Pyrmont shop in 1992.
At his Woollahra providore, the refrigerated glass cabinet is flanked by shelves stocked with cloth-bound cheddars, soft ripened rounds encased in fine wooden boxes, and towering wedges of Roquefort laced with blue mould, each lending their scent to the cool air. “We’ve basically replicated the environment of being in a cheese cellar,” Johnson says of the low temperature and high humidity typical in traditional fromageries, which allows the cheeses to mature without drying out.
The curated selection brings together artisanal cheeses from overseas and Australia. “We just want the best of the best here,” says Johnson, emphasising his intention to enhance visitors’ knowledge of the different types of cheeses, how to best enjoy them and the importance of their provenance. Among his favourites is the La Luna soft goat’s curd from Holy Goat in Castlemaine, Victoria. “They’ve got their own goat herd, their own farm, and they make the cheese there. It’s a traditional approach using a sophisticated type of mould,” says Johnson. “It’s without a doubt the best cheese in Australia at the moment.” From France, the 40-kilo wheels of hard Beaufort d’Alpage receive his top recommendation, made using milk from cows that graze high in the Alps during springtime on blossoming flowers. “That gives this unique flavour to the milk they make the cheese with, an incredible length of flavour and wonderful complexity.”
While his range is vast, Johnson says to keep it simple when building your own cheese platter. “You’re wanting the cheese to shine,” he says. Opt for two or three cheeses including one hard and one soft – say, a sweet, nutty Gruyère and a St Marcellin, a soft, silky white mould cheese – paired with one type of cracker and a choice of sliced or dried fruit. “It’s not a fruit salad bowl. At the moment, you’ve got amazing cherries and stone fruit,” says Johnson of selecting seasonal ingredients, noting the typical apple accompaniment is not ideal during summer and grapes will should soon come into ripeness.
When looking to match cheese to your wine of choice, there are some general rules to follow. White mould cheeses are best with white wines, like Chardonnay and Champagne; hard cheeses like cheddar pair with red wines; while blue cheese marries with stickies like port and Botrytis Semillon. “The thing that’s exciting about it is remembering what works and doesn’t work. Thinking, ‘next time, I won’t serve a Shiraz with a Stilton’!” says Johnson, explaining how the strong flavour profiles of red wine and blue cheese clash. For your final course, be sure to go for a cheese that balances the dishes before it. “If you’re having a rich meal, then I’d go for a hard cheese. The last thing you want is cream on cream on cream.”
Johnson has a slew of tips for recreating your own prime cheese storage set-up at home. Firstly, plastic cling wrap is not your friend. “They’re living, breathing cultures. The moment you wrap cheese in plastic, you’re suffocating it.” Keep the waxed paper wrap from your cheesemonger, which is porous and gives the cheese oxygen to keep it fresh. The air in the fridge is a little dry, so store cheeses in your vegetable crisper. “Take a tea towel and run it under cold water, and put it along the base of the crisper to create a bit of extra moisture,” he says. Cheeses should be served at room temperature – between 16 and 20 degrees Celsius – so best to remove them from the fridge when you start your meal, kept wrapped until served. Fear not returning your oozy cheeses to the fridge, just trim any melted parts off and wrap them up again. If in need of summer entertaining advice, Johnson’s knowledgeable staff is on hand. “We’re all about the education around cheese. It’s about embracing that, coming into the room and learning all about it.”