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Cheese: The vegetarian’s friend in Europe

By Katie Jeffreys

features editor

As promised, this week’s column will focus on cheese. For vegans (who have, in my opinion, adopted the ideal diet) cheese is of little interest. However, since this is the “Essential Vegetarian” I will proceed. As you may recall from last week’s column, I spent the summer in Venice, Italy, as well as traveling around Europe. While there, I relied heavily on cheese for its nutritional value as well as a supplement to the sometimes unfilling pasta dishes. Not to mention that fresh cheeses there are much tastier than their bland, processed, American counterparts.

The manner in which cheese is eaten is also strange to a foreigner. The servings are larger, the bites bigger (sometimes I would see someone eat in one bite what an American might use as a whole day’s ration of cheese), and a block of cheese is often drenched in olive oil and eaten with bread.

The most obvious difference between an American and Italian cheese is mozzarella. The version of this cheese which we are accustomed to (in its pale yellow, grated or brick form) does not exist to Italians. Fresh mozzarella, which to Americans is a luxury, is commonplace in Italy. For about seventy five cents to a dollar for a ball (125 grams), it makes for light, inexpensive summer fare. One version, Mozzarella di Bufala, is made from the milk of buffalos, and is considered to be of better quality than the cow milk version. Mozzarella is also much like tofu in that it absorbs the flavor of what it is mixed with. It is best served sliced with tomatoes, then tossed in olive oil and sprinkled with fresh, diced basil. It also makes a nice alternative to grated mozzarella as a pizza topping, a taste you can find at Bertucci’s locally.

Another class of cheeses, which can be intimidating, is molded (green or blue) cheese. Two exceptional examples of this are Gorgonzola and Roquefort, both made from cow milk. The former is a creamy Italian cheese with greenish-blue flecks which adds flavor to pizzas (good when combined with spinach or portobello mushrooms for a simple yet gourmet dish), pastas (especially gnocchi, or potato pasta), or simply with bread. The latter is the more pungent French version which I found would add some zest to cheese fondue.

I also enjoyed the mild flavors of brie and camembert, the richness of warm smoked cheeses, and harder cheeses such as parmesan (not the grated version we are familiar with), provolone, and pecorino (which is made from ewe’s milk).

On a different note, the 4th Annual Boston Vegetarian Food Festival, sponsored by the Boston Vegetarian Society, will be held on Saturday, September 25, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. in the Reggie Lewis Athletic Center at 1350 Tremont Street in Boston. The center is located opposite the Roxbury Crossing Orange Line T-stop. The festival will have free food sampling, exhibits of food manufacturers and stores, registered dietitian consultants, cooking demonstrations, and hourly speakers. Admission is free.

The following recipe, for Brie, Roquefort, and Wild Mushroom Fondue, is a rich treat which can be enjoyed with bite-size cooked veggies (I would recommend broccoli and potatoes) or with a crusty bread. The recipe was taken from Bon Apetit (February 1997), as reprinted at <> As always, e-mail me with any comments or questions at

Brie, Roquefort, and Wild Mushroom Fondue

1 1/2 teaspoons olive oil

4 ounces fresh shiitake mushrooms, stemmed,

caps diced

1 shallot, minced

1 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme

1 1/2 tablespoons all purpose flour

12 ounces chilled 60 percent (double crÈme) Brie cheese (do not use triple crÈme)

2 ounces chilled Roquefort cheese

1 cup dry white wine

1 13-ounce loaf crusty white bread, cut into 1 1/2-inch cubes

Vegetables (such as carrot sticks, blanched broccoli, cauliflower and boiled small potatoes)

Heat oil in heavy medium skillet over medium-high heat. Add mushrooms, shallot and thyme; sautÉ until mushrooms just begin to soften, about two minutes.

Place flour in large bowl. Cut rind from brie; discard rind. Cut Brie into cubes; drop into flour. Toss to coat; separate cheese cubes. Crumble Roquefort into same bowl; toss to coat. Place wine in heavy medium saucepan and bring to simmer over medium heat. Add cheese by handfuls, stirring until melted after each addition. Continue stirring until smooth.

Stir mushroom mixture into fondue. Season with generous amount of pepper. Transfer to fondue pot. Set pot over candle or canned heat burner. Serve with bread and vegetables.

Serves six to eight.