Everything You Need to Know About Bringing Cheese Back From Vacation
“Will travel for cheese.” These are words often spoken by a true cheese lover when traveling abroad.
I recently trekked through the Netherlands on a Cheese Journey trip, visiting small Dutch cheese makers and coveted cheese shops, like Betty Koster’s L’Amuse, collecting different hunks and chunks of gooey, smelly cheeses along the way.
Luckily, Koster and Tenaya Darlington, a cheese author and writer behind Madame Fromage, were at arm’s length to help me properly pack and store my goods for a long-haul flight back to the states.
Here’s how to buy, store and travel long distances with some of the best fromage on the planet:
Basic Rules to Abide By
There are strict rules for food transport when crossing borders, so it’s ideal to check out the US Customs and Border Control’s website to cross reference, especially when it comes to cheese. To sum it up briefly, solid, as in hard or semi-soft cheeses, are always acceptable. Other cheeses like Feta, creamy bries, Buffalo mozzarella, brined cheeses, and so forth, are also allowed. Cheeses that spread like butter are most likely unpasteurized, and Darlington notes that on occasion, gooey cheeses of this nature are sometimes suspect at the airport.
Vacuum Pack Hard Cheeses…
After purchasing cheese, ensure it’s vacuum-sealed or packed properly, as it won’t survive without proper care. Hard and semi-hard cheeses should always be vacuum sealed. “Many independent cheese shops abroad are familiar with helping tourists pack cheese for long flights,” says Darlington. “If it’s shrink-wrapped, your cheeses will stay fresh and you don’t have to worry about them melting all over your good walking shoes.”
Market stands most likely won’t have a vacuum sealer. If planning to double up and buy cheese from a cheese shop as well, ask the cheese monger nicely and they’ll usually vacuum seal any market cheese. If not, Koster suggests wrapping cheese in a layer of foil and a layer of newspaper and folding it in a towel for utmost protection. This also helps keep it cool.
… But Be Careful With Soft Cheeses.
Soft cheeses that spread like butter are more difficult to transport. “Bloomy rind cheeses cannot be sealed, as the mound will die,” notes Koster. Soft cheeses are more prone to spoil while traveling, but with proper care, it can be done.
“I have flown many a time with weepy Bries and oozy Vacherins,” says Darlington. “The key is to buy these cheeses when they’re on the young side, however, when they are still firm–then you can keep them in your fridge at home for a few weeks while they ripen up and soften up.”
Koster recommends packing soft cheeses in a Tupperware-like box, wrapped in aluminum foil. “A cooling bag is sensible for the smell,” she adds.
Invest in a Cheese Suitcase
“Everywhere I go, I carry a little cheese valise,” says Darlington. A valise is essentially a fancy term for a cheese suitcase that allows cheese fanatics to keep stuff safe and sound while on-the-go. Whether traveling by train, airplane or road tripping, a valise or cheese porta will ensure cheese stays unspoiled until reaching your destination. Darlington’s current favorite valise is by way of Peg & Awl. “It has the right amount of room for little knives, a wooden board, and there are two pockets that can hold jars of jam or pickles.” Keep in mind any TSA requirements (knives, liquids) when packing your porta, however.
Should You Stash Cheese in Carry-On or Checked Baggage?
It’s safe to transport cheese in your carry-on or checked luggage, however, checked luggage wirl ease the stress of going through TSA–if you know the suitcase won’t be sitting on a hot runway or stashed in a warm environment.
“If they’re in your carry-on, make sure they’re well-sealed, especially if they’re a little whiffy,” notes Darlington. “Otherwise your seat mates may hate you.”
Insider tip: Both experts divulge that newspaper helps to absorb some of the stinky-ness in more raw, gooey cheeses.
If You Get Delayed
Flights are prone to cancellations and delays, so if stuck in an airport and cheese is in a carry-on, indulge in an impromptu cheese party. Darlington always travels with a waxed canvas tote, wooden cheese knife, cloth napkin and a bag of dates and walnuts, obviously alongside cheese. Or better yet, if stuck on the tarmac, amp up snack time.
“Why settle for plain old pretzels with your plastic cup of wine when you could dip them into a mini Camembert?” she adds. Better to consume cheese when it’s still fresh vs. risking it being spoiled if the delay gets lengthy.
Worst case scenario, if cheese melts due to wrongful packing or hideous delays, Koster suggests turning it into a fondue party and enjoying it in a whole new light.
When You Arrive Home
“Do not wait too long,” notes Koster. “Traveling is tiring, also for cheese.” Use extra paper from the cheese shop or a slightly wet towel to wrap and store in the refrigerator. When ready to consume, let cheese sit out in room temperature for an hour before eating.
Cheeses to Bring Back, by Country
Bringing back any cheese from abroad is a good idea, however, if seeking a more exclusive cheese not available back home, Koster shed light on what to look for when perusing markets and cheese shops, by country:
Croatia: Head to Pag Island in search of hard sheep’s milk artisan cheeses, better known as Pag Island cheese.
Germany: In the South of Germany, alp cheeses are also worth seeking out.
Italy: Browse cheese shops for five to seven-month Pecorino or Bitto, an Italian DOP cheese coming from Lombardy.
France: Koster notes to add Beaufort d’Alpage or a three-month-old Franco-Basque sheep’s milk to the must-bring-back list.
Netherlands: Avoid touristic markets and always ask for farmhouse cheeses, either natural or Leidse kaas, a semi-hard cheese with cumin seeds “Even farmstead cheese from typical Dutch breeds of cows are nowadays available,” she notes.
Spain: Roncal for spicy cheese fanatics and real Cabrales cheese that’s not too aged.
Switzerland: If visiting from October through February, don’t board a flight back home sans Vacherin Mont D’Ora, one of the most sought after cheeses in the world. Swiss Monlesi should also be on your radar.
United Kingdom: One of Koster’s favorites is Kirkham’s Lancashire, or Duckett’s Caerphilly.
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All photos by the author.
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