I remember when approaching a cheese counter was extremely intimidating for me. When you don't quite know what you're looking for -- or how to explain what you want -- going up to a gleaming case of cheese in all sorts of wheels and rectangles doesn't seem like fun at all. I knew I liked Cheddar, and would wolf down any goat cheese that came across my plate, but I definitely couldn't tell the difference between a washed rind and a bloomy rind. Actually, I didn't even know what a washed rind was.

Then, I tried Humboldt Fog. I don't even remember when, or why, but ever since tasting that creamy and slightly sour goat cheese from Cypress Grove Chevre, I was hooked on fancy cheeses (I'm not the only one). I began to read about cheese, and taste more. Now, I can approach the cheese counter with ease and ask the cheesemongers questions about what they have (also helpful: they give you free samples!).

During the early stages of my dairy journey, I was spreading the Humboldt Fog gospel as far as I could, until my friend correctly pointed out that Humboldt Fog seemed like a gateway cheese -- it makes you want try others like it. It is the marijuana of cheese. It opens up a world beyond flabby orange slices and powdered stuff from a can masquerading as a legitimate Italian cheese. Humboldt Fog also prompted my discovery of several more gateway cheeses -- cheeses that are so good that you can't wait to recommend them to someone else, in hopes that they also experience a dairy epiphany and get addicted as well.

Too much poetic waxing? Hopefully one of the cheeses below will make you understand why:

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  • Humboldt Fog

    The original gateway cheese. This bloomy rind goat cheese is tangy, soft, subtle and perfect for spreading on plain crackers. The real <em>piece de resistance</em> is the part of cheese right under the (edible) rind. It should ooze and be a little goopy -- that's how you know it's good. Make sure to serve this at room temperature -- Humboldt Fog does not taste nearly as good when it is cold. <a href="http://www.cypressgrovechevre.com/store.html" target="_hplink">Buy it here</a>.

  • Manchego

    Manchego is probably the quintessential Spanish cheese. It works fabulously as an appetizer served with Marcona almonds and honey. Beginner turophiles might be slightly intimidated about sheep cheese; this is a great one to start with. It is a semi-hard cheese with a pleasant nutty taste. This is really not an overpowering cheese -- while some gateway cheeses might be risky for picky eaters, Manchego should really be no problem. There are many kinds of Manchego, start with a young manchego if you want something a bit softer and work yourself up to the more mature ones. <a href="http://www.murrayscheese.com/searchprods.asp?txtsearch=manchego&x=0&y=0" target="_hplink">Buy it here.</a>

  • Pecorino Ginepro

    Pecorino Ginepro is an Italian semi-hard sheep cheese soaked with balsamic vinegar and juniper. Despite what you may think, this is actually a subtle cheese -- you don't get an overwhelming amount of vinegar or juniper. Imagine a nice, salty (in a good way) cheese with a finish of fruit. Just because this is a hard cheese, do not make the mistake of grating it. Pecorino Ginepro is best served on its own, in which you keep cutting more and more off for extra bites. <a href="http://www.murrayscheese.com/prodinfo.asp?number=20255100000" target="_hplink">Buy it here</a>.

  • Comte

    There's a few truly great melting cheeses and Comte, a French cow cheese, is one of them. Think of Comte as a mix of Gruyere and Cheddar -- great for a grilled cheese or fondue. It is sharp without being too sharp and can stand up nicely next to cured or smoked meats. Comte is very versatile compared to some other cheeses; hot or cold, grated or chunked, it will always be good. <a href="http://www.murrayscheese.com/prodinfo.asp?number=20320900000" target="_hplink">Buy it here.</a>

  • Mt Tam

    Mt Tam is Cowgirl Creamery's -- a California-based artisanal cheese company -- signature cheese. Imagine a creamier brie and you get Mt Tam. This is a rich cheese, one for people that seriously love dairy. If butter had a cheese form, Mt Tam would be it. <a href="http://www.cowgirlcreamery.com/prodinfo.asp?number=2011CG" target="_hplink">Buy it here.</a>

  • Moses Sleeper

    Another equally excellent buttery bloomy rind cheese is Moses Sleeper from the Cellars at Jasper Hill in Vermont. This is a bit softer than Mt Tam, and also one of those that really shines at room temperature. Consider this for a cheese plate -- it's a good one to get people started with when they are delving into lots of different kinds. <a href="http://www.murrayscheese.com/prodinfo.asp?number=20313700000" target="_hplink">Buy it here.</a>

  • Stichelton

    Blue cheese is especially scary (ugly mold! eek!), and often the last type of cheese beginner curd nerds sample. For the intimidated, Stichelton is where you should start. Made in England, Stichelton doesn't have the overwhelming pungent aroma that some serious blues like Roquefort can. It is a starter blue, and one that teaches the basic characteristics of a blue cheese, most noticeably that the flavor is actually really good, once you get past the smell. <a href="http://www.formaggiokitchen.com/shop/product_info.php?products_id=1937" target="_hplink">Buy it here.</a>

  • Parmigiano-Reggiano

    We would be remiss not to mention Parmigiano-Reggiano, Italy's so-called King of Cheese. This is not to be confused with Kraft Parmesan, which is an entirely different beast. Parmigiano-Reggiano should be purchased in wedges, not pre-grated -- it loses its flavor. While it is acceptable and usually encouraged to grate it over pasta (we recommend a cacio e pepe, or just a simple pasta/butter/cheese dinner), Parmigiano is also really excellent just by itself. Get one that is aged at least 18 months to truly appreciate the nutty, caramel notes. Our favorite part is definitely the crystals inside the cheese which make a fun texture as you chew. Buy it...at most supermarkets and specialty stores.

  • Drunken Goat

    It's a great name, and a great Spanish cheese (goat, obviously). Drunken Goat is a semi-firm cheese that, as the name suggests, goes quite well with wine (try a red that isn't too tannic). The cheese is soaked in wine for 48-72 hours, giving the pasta a fruity aftertaste combined with a slight tanginess found often in goat cheeses. <a href="http://www.murrayscheese.com/prodinfo.asp?number=20025700000" target="_hplink">Buy it here.</a>

  • Gorgonzola Dolce

    We saved Gorgonzola Dolce for last because although it is definitely still classified as a gateway cheese, you'll be ready for some more serious stuff. After you've mastered Gorgonzola Dolce, we're going to officially declare you a bona fide cheesehead. Usually when people think of Gorgonzola, they imagine that crumbled blue stuff on top of a spinach salad. While that is one type of Gorgonzola, it is a totally different animal than the Dolce version. Dolce -- which means "sweet" in Italian -- is a fitting description for this blue cheese. It is super gooey (use a cracker, hard to eat the cheese without one) and much sweeter than the piquant salad topping. Gorgonzola Dolce may not be the prettiest to look at, but there's a reason to be an ugly duckling sometimes. Gorgonzola Dolce is the beautiful swan of Italian mountain cheeses. (Yeah, we went there). <a href="http://www.igourmet.com/shoppe/Gorgonzola-Dolce.asp?cat=&subcat=&cf=usp_ListSpecifiedProducts_Sel&cprod=7633,981S,A276,251S,250S,6040,3999,7587,035,058,2383,G202,G205,246,1580" target="_hplink">Buy it here.</a>

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