Pittsburgh was recently named Zagat's No. 1 food city of 2015, with Baltimore right behind. I happened to visit Pittsburgh last weekend, and I can't speak to Pittsburgh's restaurants, but I can tell you that, unfortunately, Pittsburgh is definitely ahead of Baltimore in the cheese game. I didn't even go there for cheese, but cheese just happened, in beautiful, massive quantities. For the first time, I experienced Pennsylvania Macaroni Co., an Italian grocery in the Strip District, and its cheese selection could probably top Baltimore's entire gourmet cheese arsenal combined.
That being said, Baltimore's cheese offerings are growing. After I went through the bulk of my cheese haul from Pittsburgh, I stepped into the new Mount Vernon Marketplace to visit Cultured, which offers a fairly extensive and diverse selection—lots of Italian, French, and Spanish cheeses, made from cow, goat, ewe, and buffalo milk—as well as cured meats and cocktails. I picked up a modest block of Sottocenere ($6.82), a semi-firm raw cow's milk cheese dusted with an ash rind made with a mix of spices including cinnamon, licorice, and coriander. Those elements don't jump forward so much as they bring out the flavor of the cheese. Hailing from Northern Italy, where the tradition of preserving cheese in ash originated, Sottocenere is laced with delicate slivers of black truffle suspended in a sweet, fudgy paste. It smells like an expensive cigar burning in the fingers of an oiled-up guido, unexpectedly enticing.
This is the truffliest of truffle cheeses (read about my complicated feelings toward truffles here) that I've come across, so it’s appropriate that the pale yellow paste is mild and buttery. Flavored cheeses are usually a miss, but truffles are always an exception; they were made, like people, to be immersed in cheese. Truffles are a delicacy, so if you're looking for a last-minute stocking stuffer, Sottocenere will make that stocking smell like love.
Sottocenere is ideal for eating whole—literally shove as much as you can fit, the whole wedge if possible, into your mouth. As we all know, cheese is healthy and low in fat, so there's no harm in just really going for it. In some cultures, a face full of cheese is considered attractive, even thought to be a sign of sexual prowess. So take control of your life, dammit; 2015 is nearly over. Eat that whole cheese.