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Be Real

Saying cheese and meaning it.

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"In Europe, a restaurant without cheese on the menu is like a restaurant without wine," says Jose Gutierrez, chef/owner of Encore restaurant. "Now even in Europe, there are restaurants that don't offer cheese, but why would you want to do that?"

Encore, of course, has a cheese course. Dish, Wally Joe, and Bari are among the other restaurants in Memphis that have cheese on the menu. At Mantia's International Market, there's even a cheese-of-the-month club called Friends of Fromage.

But let's face it: Most of us don't feel that an essential part of the dining experience is missing if a restaurant doesn't offer cheese. When we think of cheese, we think of something bright-orange and individually wrapped.

Much of what we consider cheese -- be it a log, sauce, dip, or slice -- is "processed" cheese. The Food and Drug Administration ruled that it can't be sold as cheese. Instead it has to be labeled "cheese product," "cheese spread," or "cheese food," because it is made from one or more real cheeses, other unfermented dairy products such as cream, emulsifiers, and additional ingredients such as water, salt, spices, and artificial color and flavorings. The good thing about processed cheese is that it melts wonderfully, doesn't separate when heated, and has a mild, unobtrusive flavor. Its shelf life is nearly indefinite, and scraps that accumulate during the cheese-making process can be reused for the next batch.

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"Real" cheese, by comparison, is made from the curdled milk of cows, goats, sheep, and other animals. Differences in the levels of milk fat, bacteria, molds, aging time, processing method, and even the animal's diet will produce separate types of cheese. Most of these cheeses lack all the benefits of processed cheese but are far superior in flavor and quality. Connoisseurs may wince, but some people think of processed cheese as a variety just like Camembert, Cheddar, or Parmesan. However, comparing real and processed cheese is like saying that a Shirley Temple and a martini are the same thing.

"People here are slowly beginning to realize that cheese can be more than that yellow slice you put on a burger or sandwich," says Jason Severs, chef/owner of Bari Ristorante, which offers a menu with more than 30 Italian cheeses.

But old habits die hard, and people like what they grew up with. Real cheese can be intense and runny and not very pretty to look at or smell. "We have a customer who just loves the stinky cheeses," says Alyce Mantia, owner of Mantia's. "One day, he stood at the register waiting to check out when a girl came in the store and thought we had some rotten food somewhere."

Like picking a good wine, finding the right cheese can be intimidating. "When we opened Mantia's nine years ago, we started with 12 cheeses," says Mantia. "Now we have about 150 on our permanent list. That can be overwhelming. When people come in and look at the board with cheeses that they've probably never heard of, they often end up ordering some Brie."

So, how do you choose? If you are at a restaurant that offers a cheese course or a store with a cheese selection, don't be afraid to ask questions. You don't want to go home with four ounces of cheese for which you've paid $7 only to discover that it's not what you wanted. The $15 a month that members pay to belong to Mantia's Friends of Fromage gets them a selection of three cheeses.

"If we get a new cheese, I usually include that," Mantia says. "Or, if we decide to pick a well-known cheese like Manchego, we'll add some quince paste because that's the traditional accompaniment in Spain. We try to keep it interesting, because we want the customers to be able to explore."

Once you're ready to enjoy some of the better cheeses, don't be disappointed at the sight of a one- or two-ounce portion at restaurants. "Cheese can be a very intense experience for your taste buds, and you usually can only take so much of it," says Scott Lenhart, chef at Dish. "Sure, if you have a flavorless, boring cheese you can keep on eating it like butter, but good cheese is something that should be savored like a piece of rich quality chocolate."

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