Everything tastes better on vacation, but that holds especially true for cheese. Do the Camembert and Brie you buy at home have less flavor, depth, and complexity than you remember them having in France?A lot of that has to do with U.S.D.A. import requirements and arcane aging laws. But it might have just as much to do with your surroundings. In Europe, whether you're in a piazza or a country pasture, nothing beats an impromptu picnic to make you feel like a local. If you crave pungent washed-rind cow's-milk Livarot, a creamy chèvre, or salty, nutty blue-veined Cabrales, going to an open-air market or a neighborhood shop is the ultimate way to get your cheese fix. Instead of visiting monuments in search of "culture," you'll be immersed in it. Here, some cheese-lovers from around the globe share where they stock up.
Jamie Oliver, author and host, The Naked Chef
Favorite Shop: La Fromagerie 30 Highbury Park, London; 44-207/359-7440; www.lafromagerie.co.uk. "La Fromagerie looks like an old-fashioned English farmhouse kitchen. Patricia Michelson, the owner, really takes care of you. The staff is also a mine of information about everything to do with cheese."
Don't Miss: Innes Buttons An unpasteurized, very fresh goat's-milk cheese with a tangy, lemony taste. Durrus A semi-soft washed pinky-beige crusted cow's-milk cheese that's made from morning milk only, which is lower in fat. Montgomery's cheddar It's slightly crumblier than the usual cheddar, very savory and intense. Wigmore An unpasteurized sheep's-milk cheese that is matured until it's velvety, rich, and mellow. Berkswell The nearest a British cheese gets to a Tuscan pecorino. Colston Bassett Stilton Expertly matured so that it's crumbly and has a lovely spicy-blue tangy taste without being overpowering.
Patricia Wells, author of The Food Lover's Guide to Paris (Workman)
Favorite Shop: Alléosse 13 Rue Poncelet, 17th Arr., Paris; 33-1/46-22-50-45. "Philippe Alléosse knows more about cheese than any five people in the world, and is an expert at aging cheese. All the shopkeepers have intimate knowledge of every cheese in stock and are incredibly helpful."
Don't Miss: Mountain Beaufort A rich cow's-milk cheese from the Haute-Savoie region, in southeastern France. Brin d'Amour An uncooked, unpressed sheep's-milk cheese from Corsica. Abbaye de Citeaux A very special nutty, washed-rind cow's-milk cheese from Burgundy.
Daniel Boulud, chef and owner, Daniel, New York City
Favorite Shop: La Mère Richard Les Halles, 102 Cours Lafayette, Lyons; 33-4/78-62-30-78. "Madame Renée Richard supplies cheese to all the best chefs in town from this little shop in Les Halles of Lyons. I seek it out every time I go home."
Don't Miss: St. Marcellin A cow's-milk cheese from southeastern France. It's a small disk with a runny, strong, nutty center and a moldy rind (which should be cut off). Sometimes it's sold wrapped in chestnut leaves or in a little ceramic crock.
Marcus Samuelsson, executive chef at Aquavit, New York City
favorite market: Östermalmshallen 31 Nybrogatan, Stockholm. "Swedes go to this covered market for everything from foie gras to fresh fish to local cheeses. It's one of my essential stops in Stockholm."
Don't Miss: Västerbottenost A Swedish country cheese like cheddar, but with the sharpness of Parmesan. Prästost A sharp cheese made from cow's milk. The name translates to "priest's cheese" and dates back to the 16th century, when a village pastor's wife used to make it. Mesost A dark, caramelized goat cheese that's more like a spread; it's usually eaten at breakfast."
Max McCalman, maître fromager at Picholine and Artisanal, New York City, and author of The Cheese Plate (Clarkson Potter)
favorite market: Farmer's Market Moosstrasse, Lucerne. "The Saturday market in Lucerne is a great place to find artisanal cheeses. When you get there, look for Rolf Beeler. He crosses Switzerland selecting some of the most stunning cheeses I've tasted."
Don't Miss: Stanser Röteli A Swiss version of the French Reblochon, a washed-rind cows'-milk cheese, but not as powerful. Stanser Schafchäs A sheep's-milk variety of Reblochon. Sbrinz Many people consider this hard cheese the grandfather of Parmesan. It's aged at least two years, so the taste is regal and round in the mouth.
Alex Urena, executive chef at Marseille, New York City
Favorite Shop: Quimet & Quimet 25 Calle Cabañas, Barcelona; 34-3/9344-23142. "The cheese store I love in Spain isn't really a store at all; it's more of a tapas bar. But it also sells cheese. I like eating cheese there because each one is paired with a different garnish."
Don't Miss: Zamorano A hard, nutty sheep's-milk cheese served with chestnuts. Torta del Casar This soft and creamy farm cheese is great with artichokes. Nevat A goat cheese that's often paired with olives and tomatoes. Cabrales The intense flavor of this traditional Spanish blue is matched with simple country bread.
Mario Batali, chef and owner, Babbo, New York City, and host, Molto Mario
Favorite Shop: Peck 9 Via Spadari, Milan; 39-02/8802-3161; www.peck.it. "Peck in Milan is the FAO Schwarz of cheese. It simply has everything."
Don't Miss: Pecorino From all over central and southern Tuscany. Mountain Gorgonzola Piccante Saltier and tangier than other Gorgonzola varieties. Castelmagno A young, semi-firm cow's-milk cheese that gets more intense and spicy as it ages.
Many U.S. purveyors import cheeses from around the world. To have those similar to your European favorites delivered to you at home, try Dean & Deluca (877/826-9246; www.deandeluca.com), Zingerman's Delicatessen (888/636-8162; www.zingermans.com), or Murray's Cheese Shop (888/692-4339; www.murrayscheese.com).
How to Bring it Home
Cheeses brought into the U.S.A. must comply with FDA guidelines. This means that any fromage made from raw (unpasteurized) milk must have been aged for at least 60 days. As a general rule, it's better to eat fresh, soft cheeses abroad, and bring home hard ones, which travel better. Plus, their aroma won't raise eyebrows in the airplane cabin.
You can take it with you: Parmigiano-Reggiano, Emmentaler, Gruyère, Appenzeller, Vigneron, Comté, English farmhouse cheddars, Spanish Idiazabal, Manchego.
Leave it behind: Unpasteurized cheeses such as young French Camembert, Brie, and Époisses, Irish Milleens, and Spanish Afuega'l Pito.
Becoming a Cheese Whiz
Before you create your cheese course, here are some serving tips from the pros:
1. Remove cheese from the refrigerator an hour before you plan to serve it. Cold cheese is wasted cheese.
2. Offer three to six varieties. You can work within a theme—say, firm, mountain sheep's-milk cheeses or blue cheeses—or just pick your favorites.
3. Start with the fresher, younger cheeses and move on to the more robust. End with a blue, whose flavor will linger in the mouth far beyond most others.
4. Fruit-filled or flavored breads can interfere with the taste of cheese. A simple baguette or toast is your best bet. If you do want to serve nuts, fruit, or preserves, keep them on the side.
Melissa Clark writes for the New York Times, Food & Wine, and Martha Stewart Living. She is the author of 13 cookbooks.