NCheeseAA: Grocery Round Of 64
April 9, 2008

Oh, yes! This is the round so many have been waiting for! We got your Baby Bel, your EZ-Cheez, your curds, and that pink and orange stuff that Hickory Farms swears has something to do with port. It's the Grocery store round and it's going to get ugly! VOTE!

9 Port Wine spread vs. 15 Government cheese. The Velveetoid brick of government-issue "cheese food" does have its (somewhat embarrassed) adherents, who, since it's an anonymous internet poll, will no doubt rally to its defense, but in the end, I predict that the orange-and-maroon tox-in-a-Parkay-cup Port Wine spread wins this budget face-off without much trouble.

16 Cheese curds vs. 5 Boursin. Ah, the Midwesterners out there will rally hard for the orange and squeaky State Fair food that is the curd. Peeps north of Minnesota will also cheer on the necessary ingredient to that odd and awesome fries-and-gravy dish known as poutine, but is it enough? I don't know. French-invented Boursin has been a cheese-plate staple since the '60s and probably has seen quite a few glasses of Lancers in its herbed heyday. Moreover, Boursin is highly addictive, stuffs mushrooms fantastically, and is a picnic necessity. Cheese curds might be enjoying a boost due to retro appeal, but Boursin is the tortoise that will steadily bring this win home.

4 Bon Bel/Baby Bel vs. 13 EZ Cheez. Novelty cheeses: ffffight! Heh. Looking at this pair now, we might have mis-ranked them -- the outcome really depends on how kitschy voters feel once we've rolled out the polls, but EZ Cheez could have a better chance than we thought. What EZ Cheez does not have is a wax shell, which can be reshaped and stuck to various surfaces in the home (preferably ceilings) for exasperated parents to discover hours later. It's not a bad cheese, either. Bon/Baby Bel, by a good margin.

14 Kraft Parmesan vs. 8 Cream cheese. Hmm: powdered "cheese" versus cream? Wow, toughie. Back in the day when it's all we had, that green can dumped on everything -- from mom's spaghetti to Beck's pizza, there it sat, dry, unmelting, grainy, and did I mention dry? Given the options out there today, it's hard to fathom voluntarily choosing to go the powdered-cheese route. It's even harder to comprehend how the dry could ever beat out the creamy versatility that is a silver block of cream cheese. Whether you cheesecake it, bagel it, or drag Day-Glo Doritos over it, cream cheese has this one in the hopper.

11 Kraft Singles vs. 6 Polly-O String Cheese. Grilled-cheese purists could plant an unexpected flag for Kraft here. Both cheeses are overprocessed and overpackaged, but Polly-O is the superior snack…and is an actual cheese. I think it's Polly-O for the win, but a Singles victory wouldn't surprise me.

12 Soy cheese vs. 2 Gouda. Soy-based "dairy" products have made gigantic strides in the last ten years, and the gritty, soil-y quality once typical of dairy substitutes is no longer a problem. The fact that soy cheese is not a full-fat dairy product, and therefore does not have much of a taste, remains an issue, however, and besides, Gouda is the Leno of the draw. It's predictable, it's unthreatening, it's middle-of-the-road, it wins its time slot every night. Gouda is a final-four threat for sure; soy cheese is cannon fodder regardless of the match-up. Unless we see an influx of vegan contrarians, it's Gouda in a landslide.

7 Chèvre vs. 1 Vermont Cheddar. We'll just skip over the debate about whether the wetter, wax-wrapped, American cousin to my beloved bandaged-wrapped is even cheddar, and jump right into the match-up, 'kay? Like good ol' Parm, chèvre is a kitchen staple. It dresses up beets, peaches, tomatoes, and nearly any salad. Bubbling and baked crusty with a tomato sauce, the fresh and tangy goat cheese is creamy comfort food. But compared to the puritanical Vt. Cheddar, it's new and upstarty, and once again, it's got the baa-baa factor working against it for the goataphobes out there. Loath as I am to admit it, Vermont Cheddar has it in the bring-from-home-to-save-the-universe canvas bag.

10 Edam vs. 3 Monterey Jack. Ah, Edam: "the other Dutch cheese." Much more forgettable than its sharp sister, Edam can't hold a popularity candle to the smooth cheese that Monterey, CA monks were busy making in the 1800s. More points in Monty Jack's favor: it comes in a zesty range of flavors, and melts with supreme ease over Triscuits and quesadillas alike. Hopped up on jalapeño, Monty tells Edam to "eat it with relish!" all the way to the finish line.

Yesterday was all about Whole Foods' groaning (if underwrapped) cheese counters, but today is Belly Up to the Deli day. We've got an intense Provolone/Havarti match-up that is certain to curdle some blood, but only until Fontina and Ricotta muscle their way onto first court and just stand around being boring. Personally, I'm curious whether Mascarpone can school Double Gloucester in the art of "nannie-nannie-buche-buche."

You still have time to Raclette the vote in both the Whole Foods and Deli challenge!

3 Gruyère vs. 15 Taleggio. Managing to be both sharp and fruity -- that rare whiff of pineapple is classic -- cave-aged Gruyère is top of its game when melted. Of course, if you leave it raw, you get to crunch through those awesome protein (not salt) crystals. Butting heads with the Swiss miss, we have Taleggio, one of the stickiest, beefiest, and most unctuous cheeses out there. Not only that, Taleggio has what I like to call "stank cred." Nutshelled, people like to show how hardcore they are by professing to eat only the stenchiest of cheeses. Taleggio is macho cheese and will beat Gruyère's fruity ass.

5 Muenster vs. 12 Swiss/Emmenthaler. Swiss/Emmenthaler is the classic cartoon cheese; it's all big and yellow with those huge holes -- "eyes," to the Ph.cheesed -- and it's Gruyère's sour partner in classic fondue. For some reason, it also seems to attract the weight-conscious, so that could either make it a heavy contender for the win or handicap it as "diet cheese." Creamy and non-threatening, American Muenster melts on hot sandwiches a fair treat, snacks well with dill pickles, and is pretty much the cheese next door. Plus, it's fun to say, "Moooonster!" Muenster takes this one home and lays it on some mustard-slathered toast.

2 Provolone vs. 6 Havarti. Havarti is a fine cheese; the dill kind, you'll notice, is always the first type of cube to disappear from the pyramid o' cheese at a wedding's cocktail hour. That said, provolone is the sandwich gold standard: salty, dense, the Astaire to the Jersey tomato's Rogers. Pretty peppy opponent for it here in the first round, but The 'Lone is going to trample most of its opposition, starting now.

1 Mozzarella vs. 9 Manchego. It's ranked numero uno for a reason, but good old mootzadell' has its work cut out for it against The Cheese Of La Mancha, because, although mozzarella is a staple, the same blank-slate quality that makes it so cookable and popular may work against it in a desert-island-cheese situation. One cheese for the rest of your sandy-swimsuited life: the reliable cross-platform performer, or the strong personality? My vote sort of depends on whether my desert island serves dry Riesling. Your votes will probably pass El Mozzo through to the next round.

7 Fontina vs. 10 Ricotta. People, we got a bland-off here. As far as I'm concerned, the only time the Piedmontese Fontina is rendered tasty is when it's melted down and covered in white truffle oil for a cardoon dip. On the other hand, ricotta is one of those wet, mushy cheeses that scores only when used as an ingredient among a bunch of other things. It doesn't bring flavor so much as it does texture. This isn't a match-up, it's a mehtch-up -- but ricotta gets my shrug.

14 Limburger vs. 4 Asiago. A more lopsided contest than the rankings might indicate, unless staunch defenders of Limburger's stanky honor join the battle big-time -- each cheese is familiar even to non-foodies, but to say Limburger has an image problem is to understate the case rather dramatically (and with nostrils pointedly held closed, pinky aloft). Asiago is a multi-use workhorse and a good bet to go far in its draw, and some folks really can't tolerate what my sister-in-law calls "cat-pee cheese," but I hope Limburger puts up at least a nominal fight against a rival I'm starting to find overused and unimaginative.

13 Double Gloucester vs. 16 Mascarpone. It's hard to fathom how the cheese that gets rolled down an English hillside in an annual cheese-rolling festival could ever lose out tiramisu filling. And yet, when you snack on a fingerful of pure white, non-gritty mascarpone, it's hard to imagine ever eating anything else. These are two vastly different cheeses from two totally different countries, but I'm going to say that mascarpone's 9 1/2 Weeks potential will outstrip Double Gloucester's mellow crumble.

11 Pecorino Romano vs. 8 Port Salut. I can't wait to see how this one plays out, because it's like comparing apples and oranges. Or, really, apples and dictionaries. Port Salut has the rare distinction of pairing perfectly, in my opinion, with every cracker you can throw at it; the combination of creaminess and sharpness makes it one of my favorites. But then you've got a plate of linguine al dente with P.R. and fresh black pepper: simple and perfect. Too close to call.

Whole Foods Match-Ups

4 Humboldt Fog vs. 12 Roaring 40s Blue. This could be a bloodbath, actually. Those who stick a snowy wedge of HumFog in their crisper drawer for a little amateur affinage until the sticky grey "fog" ages in toward the ash-striped center are also the ones who will go nuts for the spicy edge of the wax-wrapped Tasmanian devil. There are goat-haters and blue-haters aplenty, but they aren't always one and the same. One thing is for certain: neither choice is for the bland of palate. However, people tend to be more afraid of going blue than goat, so Humboldt Fog will win by a nose-hair.

3 Brie vs. 13 Chabichou de Poitou. The Chabichou is an elegant cheese -- charming presentation, sweet/salty harmonies -- that doesn't stand a great chance against one of the best-known cheeses in the Whole Foods draw. In the States, Brie used to symbolize academic/key-party pretension back in the seventies; nowadays, it's downright mainstream, but heated with a spoonful of apricot preserves on top, it's almost impossible to beat. Tough break for the Chab going out early, but that's what'll happen.

4 Gorgonzola vs. 14 Mimolette. Mimolette is all flash and no flavor. The damn thing looks like a big ol' cantaloupe and is harder to crack than the Gordian Knot. Of course, once you do split open the mite-ridden rind, you're rewarded with an insipid flavor and a waxy, tooth-sticking texture. Gorgonzola, on the other hand, smears a fat, luscious track across black bread slapped with chestnut honey and features in some of the best pasta dishes known. Mimolette has her devoted minions, but Gorgonzola is a cheese of the people and will sweep this one handily.

1 Parmigiano-Reggiano vs. 8 Morbier. Many happy chefs stock a burnished wedge of dot-matrix-rinded Parm and use it like a condiment. As important and flavor-pumping as salt or pepper, Parm is a kitchen staple and often taken for granted. That would seem to give the stinky, ash-slashed Morbier an edge, especially since many love to carve out sticky blurbs of this Jura cheese and slurp it with a banging glass of spicy rosé d'Anjou. But still, Parm-Reg is a classic and can sit on the counter, getting all greasy for months, and still thrill up a bowl of risotto or a spring pea salad. Yeah, the Italian Stallion will take this one.

2 British Cheddar vs. 5 Camembert. For me, there's no contest. Traditional, bandaged-wrapped cheddar, made in Cheddar, Somerset, where the cheese must be imbued with some mystical, druidic properties…British farmhouse cheddar is the most satisfying cheese I can wrap my lips around. Grill it, grate it, fondue it, or eat it plain, cheddar is the Henry VIII of cheese, but with much less gout. The thing is, Francophiles are just as snobby as Anglophiles, and they will storm the beaches to wrap their paws around a raw round of true Normandy Camembert. This is a toss-up, but I'm sadly banking on the ooze fiends having the gaulle to vote France over England.

9 Wensleydale vs. 6 Stilton. In a battle of quintessential Brit cheeses, which wedge wins? Stilton is better known; Wensleydale's flavor is almost as strong, but many consumers find it more inviting and less intense. Not sure how I'll end up voting this pair myself -- Wensleydale with a thick slice of cranberry loaf and a feisty sauvignon blanc is transporting -- but it's probably Stilton's to lose.

16 Pont l'Eveque vs. 11 Roquefort. Maybe we should have ranked the P. l'E. higher; it had a star turn in a Monty Python sketch, after all, while Roquefort has acquired a reputation among civilians (largely undeserved) as a country-club-salad-dressing cheese without much range. Fond memories of my grandmother's "coleslaw bleu" determine which way I'll most likely vote, but Pont l'Eveque has its faithful fans, who may carry the day in its favor.

10 Saint-Nectaire vs. 15 Ossau-Iraty. One of the tougher match-ups to call in the kick-off round; according to the ranking, clearly we thought Saint-Nectaire had the better odds, but it's a cheese that can make itself hard to know. I could say the same, though, for the O-I, which presents subtly and can seem somewhat bland as a result. The S-N is more consistent and more challenging, but the Ossau has a solid shot here.

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