Karen Syrmos holds a Cypress Grove goat cheese headed for the "Say Cheese" event. At right is Moliterno al Tartufo, a sheep's milk cheese injected with truffles, also to be served.

Cheese that pleases

Fine cheese finds its footing
in the island marketplace

Not that many years ago, cheese in these parts was pretty much a matter of cheddar chunks, Swiss on a sandwich, mozzarella on pizza. Plus whatever came shredded in your tacos.

Those who tried to introduce a higher level of sophistication were met with an interesting response: "Asians don't like cheese."

Wrong, says Karen Syrmos, president of Island Epicure, the gourmet foods division of Y. Hata. For five years, Syrmos has been bringing in weekly shipments of fine European and American cheeses, through Y. Hata and Co. and her previous employer, King Foods. It's gotten so the gourmet community refers to her as "the Cheese Lady."

Cheese samplings in all manner of settings are part of the job, and through these Syrmos has found Asians, like most everyone, receptive to fine, exotic cheeses.

True, cheese is a European creation and not a traditional part of any Asian cuisine, but in this global society, cheese has crossed the continents -- just as lemongrass and hoisin have traveled in the other direction.

"I think it's the hottest thing in the market right now," Syrmos says.

She proves her point later this month in a presentation called "Say Cheese," part of the Rehabilitation Center of the Pacific's annual fund-raiser, "The Joy of Food and Wine."

Syrmos plans what she calls "the ultimate cheese tray," a display of 40 unique, handcrafted cheeses from all over the world. Rather than offering a few types as an accompaniment to wine, in this setting the cheese will be the centerpiece. Wines selected to match the cheeses will be offered on adjacent tables.

Bulking up the selections will be upscale accompaniments -- glazed and roasted figs, rare honeys, almonds, olives, cheese straws and more.

Think of it as a coming-out party for an item that's finally secured its footing in the islands.

Artisan, or handcrafted, cheeses from throughout Europe and the United States will be featured at the Rehabilitation Center benefit, along with cheese-friendly accompaniments.

SYRMOS GREW UP in Europe, particularly the Netherlands, France and Italy. "I was very, very big into cheeses ... just like in Hawaii (you have) Spam. It's what I grew up with."

She made a career in gourmet foods on the mainland, then moved to Hawaii five years ago. And while the sunshine and beaches may have been nice, something was missing: "I said, 'God, there's no good cheese here.'"

The selection was cheddar, its mild tablemates and -- for the truly elegant occasion -- a few goat-cheese logs of moderate quality. "They're good, but they're pointless, really."

Don't even mention plastic-wrapped American cheese slices. "No, no," Syrmos says. (If you think you can't make a grilled-cheese sandwich without pre-sliced yellow cheese, Syrmos makes hers with double-cream gouda and good-quality ham.)

For those whose cheese life has been mostly a cheddar experience, Syrmos suggests easing into the larger world: Start with a soft, mild cheese such as brie, only she's not fond of U.S. bries, so instead she suggests the mild, creamy Fromager d'Affinois from France. "No matter where I sample that cheese, people just love it."

Next, perhaps a Dutch gouda double-cream, which indicates a  content of at least 60 percent fat.

Then, the blues, partly to really "pull them past their comfort zone." The typical answer when offered a blue cheese is, "No, absolutely not," Syrmos says. So she'll offer a soft, mellow type, such as the Blue Costello from Denmark, in an effort to prove that blue cheese doesn't have to be harsh and stinky.

To find these cheeses, search out supermarkets with specialty cheese displays -- Syrmos suggests Times Supermarkets in Kahala and Kailua. "They take the fancy-schmancy out of this," she says. "They make it available." Other good sources are wine shops, in particular Fujioka's Wine Merchants, Tamura's Fine Wine & Liquors and R. Field Food & Wine Co. in Kailua.

Will it be expensive? Not scarily so, although you will have to pay more than the $3 regular price of an 8-ounce block of Kraft cheddar. The Fromager d'Affinois, for example, sells for $11.29 a pound -- or about $5.65 for an 8-ounce wedge -- at Times. The same goes for that double-cream gouda.

"Take the risk," Syrmos says. "Make the dash."

THESE RECIPES from Syrmos make use of feta, a Greek cheese that's easy to find in most supermarkets, although she suggests searching out an imported brand. She says it's a nice cheese for summer meals.

Shrimp a la Grecque with Feta

1 pound rigatoni pasta
1 pound shrimp, 16- to 20-count, peeled and deveined, but tails left on
1/2 pound feta cheese, crumbled coarsely

>> Sauce:
6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon chopped garlic
2 cups peeled, cubed fresh tomatoes
1/2 cup dry white wine
Salt and pepper to taste
1/4 cup finely sliced basil leaves
1 teaspoon dried Greek oregano

Preheat oven to 425 degrees.

To make sauce: Heat half the oil in a pan and add garlic. Sauté lightly, stirring, then add tomatoes and cook 3 to 4 minutes. Add wine, salt and pepper, then basil and oregano. Cook no more than 10 minutes. Set aside.

Meanwhile, cook pasta until al dente and drain.

Heat remaining olive oil in an oven-safe pan and add shrimp, sautéeing about 1 minute just until shrimp turn red. Set aside.

Spoon pasta over shrimp, top with tomato sauce and sprinkle with feta cheese. Bake until cheese is softened, no longer than 10 minutes.

Tomato and Feta Salad with Maui Onions

4 ripe tomatoes, in wedges
1/2 Maui onion, sliced thin
8 ounces Greek feta cheese, cubed
Extra-virgin olive oil
Sea salt, to taste

Combine tomatoes, onion and cheese. Sprinkle generously with oil and grind sea salt over all. Serve with crusty bread.

Nutritional information unavailable.

Joy of Food and Wine

A two-part benefit for the Rehabilitation Center of the Pacific. Call 544-3385.

Gourmet dinner: Guest chefs are Tim and Liza Goodell, owners of the Aubergine, Troquet, Viceroy, Red Pearl and Lodge restaurants in Southern California. At 6 p.m. July 18, Halekulani Hotel. Cost is $275.

Say Cheese: Wine and cheese tasting, plus dishes by Sheraton chef Daniel Delbrel, silent auction, Scotch tasting and seminar on 1990s wines. From 1 to 5 p.m. July 20 at the Sheraton-Waikiki Hawaii Ballroom. Cost is $60 in advance; $70 at the door. Extra charges for scotch and '90s wine tastings.

Cheesy ideas

Karen Syrmos offers these tips about choosing and storing cheese:

Look for raw-milk cheese: This means it is not pasteurized -- a heating process that destroys harmful bacteria, but also affects taste. Proper aging is accepted under U.S. law as an alternative to pasteurization, Syrmos says, as it brings about the same anti-bacterial result. "In Europe it's all about raw-milk cheeses, and you don't hear about people getting sick."

Should you eat the rind? In most cases, as long as it is not a waxed rind, it is edible and in fact adds to the flavor and texture of the cheese. Some natural rinds will be too hard, though, so use common sense. The white "bloom" on the rind of many soft cheeses is perfectly harmless.

What about mold? Again, use common sense. If the cheese smells overly strong or "yucky," or if it's gone completely green, don't eat it. A few moldy spots, though, can just be cut or shaved off and the rest will be fine.

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