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Sunday, January 9, 2005; Page M07

CHEESE WIZ: When I was 19, I worked at a cow dairy in Israel. It was dirty and smelly, but it spurred a passion for me: I wanted to work with food. Then three years ago, when I went to work for a friend of mine who supplies gourmet foods to area restaurants, I discovered cheese. I'd never imagined the varieties that exist -- it's a whole world! That revelation led to my going to work at a local farm in Virginia called Tall Cedar, where I learned hands-on how to make cheese. And last February, I opened up my store, Cheesetique, in Del Ray.

GOT MILK?: Making cheese is pretty simple. First the milk is soured and turned into curds by adding either animal or vegetable enzymes, then the curds are concentrated and molded, and then the cheese is ripened. The ripening period, when the cheese is exposed to humidity and the bacteria starts multiplying, is when most of the flavors and characteristics are developed -- though what the animals were fed, how they were raised and how fresh the milk was also matters. Generally speaking, you can make cheese from any animal that produces milk -- including camels and buffalo. It takes approximately five gallons of milk for each pound of cheese.

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RAISING A STINK: Some of the most flavorful -- and rare -- cheeses are those that I call the "stinkers." Epoisses and Morbier, for example, taste amazing -- meaty, rich and robust -- but the bacteria on their rinds makes them quite pungent. If you touch them, you will smell for days. I've become quite skillful at cutting, wrapping and restocking these cheeses without ever actually touching them with bare hands.

SEASONAL SENSATIONS: Popularity depends on season. In the winter, Gruyere and Swiss -- fondue cheeses -- are popular. But I also have a white Stilton and mango cheese that is always quite the crowd pleaser. So far none of D.C.'s notable crowd has come into the shop, but I am praying that Laura Bush stops by (hint, hint).

QUEL FROMAGE: I wish I had known about Dupont's big $10,000-prize grilled-cheese contest last year (www.grilledcheese-contest.com). I think I would have won! The secret to making a great grilled-cheese sandwich is selecting a cheese that melts well. I have this great Gouda with mustard seed. It is sweet and butterscotchy when it melts and would make your mouth water. As told to Karen Hart

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