NCheeseAA Quarterfinals: The Stank Sixteen
April 22, 2008

Cheesus Christ, people -- this is getting hairy! I don't know whether to be thrilled that my ultimate favorite has made it through to the Stank Sixteen, or worried that it could come down to a British Cheddar v. Cashel final. Well, make that "worried-slash-excited," because the loser of that match-up buys or makes the winner a cheesy dinner when next they meet.

Anyway, it is once again time for all you cheeseheads out there to get to your corners, buck up your stanke pride, and choose your cheeses! Will it be Mt. Tam for the win or will Cashel Blue scream "Erin Go Bragh!" in the Californian's butterfat face? Can Gruyère remind enough people that it too melts with an undefinable grace over pizza? You could cut the tension with a cheese wire. So, please, bracket, vote, eat. I know I will.

Brie vs. Parmigiano-Reggiano. This is a bizarre match-up. One's a "lolling on the grass with grapes, a bottle of wine, a river, and shamisen" cheese, and the other is an ingredient. It's a vital, delicious ingredient, but when was the last time you planed off a dry wisp of Parm-Reg just because you were snackish? Maybe the picnic itch is working its way into my blood, but I think buttery Brie and summer strawberries will leave Parm high and dryer than usual.

British Cheddar vs. Roquefort. Brit Ched has marched through the draw with hardly a break in stride to date -- Camembert and Stilton presented serious competition, in theory, but the UK entry whipped both handily -- and I anticipate a similar outcome here. British Cheddar is more useful and more popular than Roquefort, which has had a relatively easy time of it so far, opponent-wise, and that ends here. Can you smell what the Roq is cooking? Me too -- a sound defeat.

Boursin vs. Cream Cheese. The Stank Sixteen is a lot easier than previous rounds when it comes to these write-ups, and not just because we have fewer of them to do; often, the result (or our respective preference) is so obvious that the blurb writes itself. But when it's not easy, it's really not easy, and this one's a fookin' heartbreaker. As I said in a previous précis, cream cheese don't play -- it does dessert, it does brunch, and a little cream cheese on a Ritz with a tiny triangle of tomato is a first-ballot ghetto-snack Hall-of-Famer. But could I really live without Boursin -- especially the creamy kind that goes so well on crackers, baked potatoes, and fish in a foil jacket? …Well, yes, I probably could, because cream cheese comes with chives and shit in it nowadays. Boursin will put up a fight, probably based primarily on its retro/"klassy" presentation and nostalgic edge, but cream cheese will prevail.

Gouda vs. Vermont Cheddar. We could split hairs over this until the happy cows come home -- is it authentic boer kaas Gouda? Is it bandaged-wrapped Vermont Cheddar or wax? Is the Cheddar at least two years old? Is the Gouda five? -- but it's just going to come down to basics. Both cheeses have had it pretty easy-peasy up until now, so this will get interesting. The thing about these two is that they tend to pull in the same palates: Cheddar lovers are Gouda fiends, and vice versa. However, Cheddar lovers are hardcore and have years of unwavering adoration under their belts, while Gouda fiends are newbies by comparison. Vermont Cheddar for the win.

Gruyère vs. Mozzarella. I don't share Keckler's negative feelings towards mozzarella, but I hear what she's saying; I feel the same way about cottage cheese, with the watery run-off and the sour top note whose faintness makes it all the more oogish somehow. But I like mozzarella, especially on a slender onion baguette with tomato and basil. The thing is, I'd like that sandwich even better with any of three dozen other cheeses; the mozz is just a placeholder, a densely textured delivery system for the garden ingredients. Yeah, it melts like a champ; so does Gruyère. Yeah, it's a critical ingredient in a beloved dish (pizza); so is Gruyère (fondue). You put mozzarella on a cracker, though? You've just wasted a cracker, and you don't do that to a Carr's rosemary just don't. I will vote Gruyère, and I think you should as well, but I also think that enough people consider mozzarella an indispensable staple, despite (or perhaps because of) its lackluster flavor profile, that it, not Gruyère, will live to fight another day.

Asiago vs. Pecorino Romano. I don't know why, but I'm having a hard time getting excited about this match-up. I mean, I love Pecorino Romano over pasta, in hot artichoke dip, and tossed in spring salads. It has that sheepish tang that Parmigiano-Reggiano, cowed by its milk, does not. I guess what I really can't get whipped up about is the Asiago. I'd be totally amazed it made it this far, but it was matched up against cheeses that, aside from the Pigpen of the genre, managed to out-bland its insipidity. I'd love to say Pecorino Romano is the sure thing here, but given Asiago's tenacity thus far, I might have to call the game for the meltable menace. I'm holding out hope that the voters will prove me wrong.

Raclette vs. Fiore Sardo. Fiore Sardo barely squeaked into the quarterfinal after a lively scuffle with Garrotxa; Raclette didn't exactly trounce Fourme d'Ambert in its previous bout, but it seems thus far as though name recognition has given Raclette an edge that it may not deserve on the merits. I'm betting that to continue here, unfortunately; Raclette is an overrated "destination cheese" that's a pain in the ass to serve and unsubtle on the palate, and in my view it's high time the blobby pretender got its ass handed to it -- but Fiore is, I suspect, not the cheese for the job. Fiore Sardo in my heart; Raclette on the podium. Sigh.

Mt. Tam vs. Cashel. Yeah, so this isn't really fair. Pitting a triple-cream against an Irish blue? Again, the bleu-ophobes will gravitate to the 75% butterfat in Mt. Tam and, honestly, that's probably a big pull for other noshers. (Reminder: butter is 80% butterfat, so...yeah.) Personally, I'm torn. I have a California loyalty for Mt. Tam, but I really do love the fact that Cashel is the first blue Ireland ever produced. Plus, the Cashel farmers are named "Grubb"! Desert-island test: I'd probably go for the salty, nuanced Cashel, but the voters will be summiting Mt. Tam to plant the victory flag.

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