Backpacking With Cheese

ParmigianoReggiano
Photo: Consorzio del Formaggio Parmigiano-Reggiano

By Laurel Miller

Cheese is one of those glorious foods that make every meal better. The French epicure and politician Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin once said, “A meal without cheese is like a beautiful woman with only one eye.” I suppose that’s one way to put it.

Because I’m a cheese writer and consultant, it usually finds its way into my backpack when I’m planning a big hike or hut trip. Because many cheeses are delicate, however, the key is to choose the right style (which refers to the texture, make-process, and how long, or if, a cheese is aged). Food safety experts cite two hours as the window in which it’s safe to leave perishable foods (think raw proteins such as meat, poultry, eggs, most dairy products) at room temperature.

As outdoorsy folk, we’ve all doubtless consumed “perishable” foods that have festered in our packs for a lot longer than what the FDA would recommend. And to cover my butt, I also can’t tell you it’s completely safe to consume cheese that’s been unrefrigerated for longer than two hours, because it’s what the FDA deems an “inherently dangerous” product, even if pasteurized. So if anyone reading this is pregnant, has a compromised immune system, is a child, infant, or elderly, just say no.

Regardless of your feelings about the FDA, you should always avoid backpacking with  fresh (unaged) cheeses like mozzarella, ricotta, or chevre, or soft cheeses like camembert or brie, because they have a higher moisture content, and are thus faster to spoil. They also don’t hold up well in a pack or in hot weather. You should also pass on packing blue cheeses or washed rinds (this refers to stinky cheeses, regardless of texture, like Delice du Jura, Taleggio, or Epoisses), unless you want your pack to smell like roadkill.

Instead, purchase semi-firm, firm, or aged cheeses, which have a lower moisture content. They’re sturdier, and I’ve safely backpacked with them to no ill effect. You should also forgo bringing cheese with you if it’s an extremely hot day, as even harder cheeses will sweat and grow flabby—not appetizing. The type of milk—cow, sheep, or goat doesn’t have any bearing upon a cheese’s portability, but do be aware that sheep’s milk cheeses are higher in butterfat, which means they get oily on the surface when warm.

Vella Dry Jack copy
Photo: www.culturecheesemag.com

Some readily-available cheeses that do well in a backpack include semi-firm to firm varieties like Manchego (sheep); Ewephoria (sheep); Midnight Moon (goat) Ossau-Iraty (sheep); Cheddar (all milks), Piave (cow), Pecorino Toscano (sheep); Pleasant Ridge Reserve (cow); Pondhopper (goat), and Comte (cow). These are all wonderful for snacking, cheese plates, sandwiches, or melting.

If you’re making a cheese plate and feeling Martha Stewart-ish, find some dried, non-toxic leaves, wipe them down, and lay them on top of a cutting board. Add a wedge of cheese, dry-cured olives tossed with some lemon or orange peel and crushed garlic cloves (brined olives are guaranteed to leak in your pack), and sliced salami or summer sausage for a savory plate. A post-prandial dessert plate could include sweet elements like dried fruit and roasted, unsalted nuts.

If you need a grating cheese, think Parmigiano Reggiano, (cow) Pecorino Romano (sheep), Asiago (cow), or Grana Padano (cow), and pack a nutmeg grater or microplane zester, which are more compact than traditional graters. Then add lashings of cheese to linguine with garlic, chile flakes, and extra-virgin olive oil (I pack mine in a sample-size plastic bottle and place it in a Ziploc); new potatoes roasted in the coals, smashed, and drizzled with extra-virgin olive oil and sea salt, or grain-based dishes like couscous or quinoa with garbanzo beans, lemon zest, and mint.

Aged cheeses like a 2-year Gouda or 5-year Cheddar will have nutty, caramel and butterscotch characteristics, as well as some crystallization (those pleasingly crunchy bits, which are actually proteins). Try these with a post-dinner whiskey or bourbon (you know you have some) around the campfire.

Properly wrapping and protecting your cheese will ensure it arrives at your campsite or cabin in good condition. If you purchase it cut-to-order, it will be wrapped in special cheese paper. Pre-cut semi-firm or firm cheeses are usually cryovaced or covered in plastic wrap (if the latter, be sure to purchase right before you leave on your trip or rewrap as directed below, because it will leach petroleum odor and flavor into the cheese).

It’s easy and inexpensive to make your own version of cheese paper, which is comprised of two layers: One is a permeable cellophane that permits the cheese to breathe, and the other is similar to butcher paper, to retain moisture. For a DIY version, wrap the cheese in wax or parchment paper, and then a layer of plastic wrap. To protect it from getting crushed, use  Tupperware or a collapsible, nylon thermal lunchbox (available at larger drugstores); they’re the perfect size to hold a few wedges of cheese and a frozen gel-pack).

P1040164
Photo: Laurel Miller

Laurel Miller is a Boulder-based food and travel writer and cheese consultant, the co-author of Cheese for Dummies, and a contributing editor at culture: the word on cheese. She is also lactose intolerant.

For more from Laurel Miller click here.

  • http://flyinginglow.ca ehud42

    I’m surprised that more cheeses don’t pack well, or that they require such special handling. I thought cheese was discovered / perfected specifically as a way to preserve milk prior to refrigeration? Specialty cheeses for adding flare to meals are great, but there’s got to be more pragmatic cheeses that simply provide nutritional value when away from the fridge for extended periods. Do you have any recommendations for cheeses that keep (or maybe even improve) at room temperature for many days or even weeks?

    • MSR_Staff

      Cheese is a living thing, hence its perishability. You’re correct that it was accidentally discovered and became a way to use/save surplus milk, but since that was roughly 12,000 years ago, our knowledge of food-borne pathogens has come a long way and cheese is now handled accordingly, including during the aging process, which occurs at very specific levels of humidity and temperature control. I can’t in good faith tell you to keep/eat any cheese that’s been out of refrigeration for longer than 2 hours, as after that time, the bacterial count begins to rapidly multiply (http://www.fsis.usda.gov/wps/portal/fsis/topics/food-safety-education/get-answers/food-safety-fact-sheets/safe-food-handling/danger-zone-40-f-140-f/CT_Index). Hard (aged) cheeses are always a safer bet when hiking or backpacking, but it’s never a good idea to push your luck. The chances of contracting a food-borne-illness, while small, simply aren’t worth the risk.

      • Mike Lindsey

        i didn’t know cheese supposedly went bad right away at least.I keep hard cheddar cheese with me every day,on the bicycle or in a backpack,I can go about three days give or take while hiking,it’s fine,it just melts is all

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  • MSR_Staff

    I wouldn’t chance it, even with a processed grated parm like the stuff in the green can. Even though those products have preservatives, they’re meant to be refrigerated; per the above answer, a lack of refrigeration means bacteria and other harmful pathogens multiply rapidly. I’m a fan of nutritional yeast flakes as a sub for grated parm when I’m backpacking- not only are they high in B vitamins, but they add a savory, slightly cheesy flavor to dishes.

  • MSR_Staff

    Cheese is a seasonal food- something few people realize, especially in this age of industrial agriculture. Dairy animals only produce milk after they give birth, and then their lactation cycle varies depending upon the species- on average, it’s from seven to ten months. This is true today, but a century ago, taking into account lack of refrigeration, fresh milk need to be used immediately. That meant fresh cheeses and other dairy products like yogurt or buttermilk were used right away, but farmers always had to think about the lean winter months, when food was scarce. That’s why aged cheeses were developed- in many parts of the world, they still provide essential calories, fat, and nutrients when fresh milk isn’t available. This is also why most cheesemakers make fresh cheese as well as aged cheese- the fresh provides them with immediate revenue, while the aged cheeses provide income in the winter when their animals aren’t lactating.

    That long-winded explanation defines what kind of cheeses were eaten a 100 years ago- the exact variety would depend upon the region and to a lesser degree, animal species. For example, in the Midwest, there are many cheesemakers of Swiss descent, hence aged cheeses tended to be Alpine styles like those found in their homeland.

    As far as what cheeses would be good for a week without refrigeration- the answer is unfortunately, none. Cheese is a living thing, and our knowledge of food-borne pathogens has come a long way over the generations and cheese is now handled accordingly, including during the aging process, which occurs at very specific levels of humidity and temperature control. I can’t in good faith tell you to keep/eat any cheese that’s been out of refrigeration for longer than 2 hours, as after that time, the bacterial count begins to rapidly multiply (http://www.fsis.usda.gov/wps/portal/fsis/topics/food-safety-education/get-answers/food-safety-fact-sheets/safe-food-handling/danger-zone-40-f-140-f/CT_Index). Hard (aged) cheeses are always a safer bet when hiking or backpacking, but it’s never a good idea to push your luck. The chances of contracting a food-borne-illness, while small, simply aren’t worth the risk.