Cheese Tasting: Birthday Beauties
Happy Easter! Since this holiday marks, among other things, the end of the fasting and sacrifice associated with Lent (thank you, Jesuit education), I thought I’d treat you to a visual feast!
Two of my best friends has birthdays in February but, due to complications and vacations in everyone’s schedules, we weren’t able to properly celebrate. But, since I wanted to do something for these special ladies, I invited them over in late March for a belated birthday cheese tasting! As is my cheese tasting custom, I woke up (relatively) early, grabbed an iced coffee (tip for SF locals: Faye’s Video on 18th street has delicious cold-brewed coffee), and headed to Bi-Rite. I had some idea of what I wanted in my spread, but I was also prepared to let the selection (and the staff) speak to me. And both did!
I was very happy to see some tried and true favorites: L’Amuse Aged Gouda (I think I am officially obsessed), Ardi Gasna, and Jasper Hill Farm Winnimere. They had a great deal on the Pt. Reyes Farmstead Toma, which I’ve heard is crowd-pleasing table cheese (a term that refers to any cheese that can be served as an accompaniment all on its own, or as part of soups, salads, sandwiches, etc.), so I snagged some of that, but I was at a loss when I discovered that they were all out of Vermont Butter & Cheese Bonne Bouche AND Cremont. What to do? Bi-Rite Wine & Cheese expert Sarah must have seen the sadness and confusion on my face, and she very patiently proceeded to describe and sample the soft goat cheeses she recommended instead. In the end, I was torn between the Italian Brunet and the Andante Dairy Vivace, a seasonal and unique mixed-milk cheese from Soyoung Scanlan. After much deliberation (did I mention Sarah’s patience?), I decided on the Vivace, which had only one downside: It’s so rare that there’s almost no information on this cheese online! So, I’ll do my best to remember what that was all about, and we’ll see how it goes. Overall, I was extremely happy with the selection. It was a chilly and overcast day, and I wanted a hearty number of comforting cheeses for us to enjoy. Not only was there plenty to eat, but there was quite a variety of milk types, textures, and strength of flavors.
After my Master Class on Identifying Cheese Flavors (I am still going to write about that, I promise), I wanted to do a bit more than I have in the past to provide accompaniments that serve as flavor enhancers, not just yummy treats (ideally, both). In that aim, I picked up some dried nectarines, some dulce de membrillo (quince paste), roasted marcona almonds (my new favorite snack), dark chocolate covered rye crisps, and a sweet baguette. I’ve been doing a lot of thinking (and tasting) around cheese and bread pairings and, I’ve got to say, I’m in favor of a sweet baguette. In most dining situations I’d go for sour, but as a vehicle for cheese, I just think sweet is the better option. At the end of the day, it’s cheese and bread, so you can’t really go wrong. But if you’re looking to let the cheese shine, put it on a sweet baguette…or nothing at all! I don’t know how well I did explaining just how and why to use the flavor enhancers, but it was my first try and…it’s the thought that counts?
I’ve already written pretty extensively about two of the aforementioned cheeses: The Ardi Gasna and the L’Amuse Aged Gouda. You can read about them here. Now, on to some cheeses that are new to this blog!
Pt. Reyes Farmstead Cheese – Toma (Pasteurized Cow’s Milk, Pt. Reyes CA)
The Pt. Reyes Farmstead Toma is, as previously noted, a table cheese. A table cheese is generally a mild mannered crowd-pleaser, one that can stand on its own as a snacking cheese or that can be added, for delicious effect, to salads, sandwiches, and other meals. Given the strong flavors of some of the other cheeses, I wanted a palate cleansing table cheese, and the Pt. Reyes Toma proved to be the perfect choice. Famously known for their delicious Pt. Reyes Original Blue, the Giacomini family expanded their line of cheeses to include the Toma in 2010, “for people who don’t like blues.” Sounds like someone I know! The Toma is reminiscent of a young Asiago or a Havarti, but with a sweet, buttery flavor and tangy finish. Cheesemaker Kuba Hemerling uses a Gouda technique known as curd-washing — draining the whey from the fresh curds and adding fresh-water in its place — which limits acid development and results in a sweeter cheese. This cheese really lives up to the ‘table cheese’ moniker. It’s easy to eat, and I can’t imagine it ever going to waste. Having people over? Pick some up.
Andante Dairy – Vivace (Goat’s Milk, Petaluma CA)
So, remember when I said that it’s nearly impossible to find information on Vivace online? Well, I was wrong…about the ‘nearly’ part. It’s just plain impossible! So, instead, I’ll share some information on Andante Dairy and cheesemaker Soyoung Scanlan, pictured above. I first learned about Soyoung and Andante during my Desert Island Cheeses class, when we tasted the Crottin, and Anthea raved about Scanlan. Soyoung Scanlan started Andante Dairy in Petaluma, CA in 2009. The dairy is named after a musical term (as are many of her cheeses) as a reflection of the tempo and harmonious nature of cheesemaking. Scanlan was first a biochemist, then a dairy scientist, and now a cheesemaker. It was on a trip to France that she first became hooked on cheese, and she has continued to travel to France throughout her career. One result of these travels is now a major part of her business: Scanlan imports cheeses from France and ages them in Petaluma. Those that she makes on-site in Petaluma contain only Jersey Cow’s Milk and goat’s milk from the dairy farm on which her plant is operated. As it says on the Andante website, “All of her cheese is designed to bring out the magical property of milk and to reveal the essence of terroirs with which the milk and cheese are produced.”
So, that’s that. I’ve searched high and low for a shred of information on the vivace, and I can’t find a thing! All I can remember is that it was good: A bit more crumbly and more tart than what Vermont Butter & Cheese has to offer, and aged with a little bit of ash. I would have liked something just the teensiest bit creamier, but I think that both of my friends picked it as their favorite of the day.
Update: Bi-Rite Cheese Buyer Anthea Stolz was kind enough to answer my “HELP! WHAT IS VIVACE?” email, and here’s what she had to say. “Glad to hear that you enjoyed the Vivace. This is a new favorite of mine, and a relatively new cheese for Soyoung. A few months ago, she found a source of local ewes milk that she liked well enough to start using for cheesemaking and we’ve had two new cheeses from this exploration, one being Vivace. You remembered correctly that the Vivace is mixed milk (sheep and goat). I love the bright lemony quality of the Vivace that is balanced with that tell-tale roundness of sheep’s milk cheese. In my experience so far, the geotrichum rind is developed, yet thin, and the paste dominates the flavor.” Thanks, Anthea! This is yet another example of just how wonderfully helpful everyone at Bi-Rite is. I’m a real fan!
Jasper Hill Farm – Winnimere (Raw Cow’s Milk, Greensboro, Vermont)
Well well well, let’s talk about Jasper Hill Farm’s Winnimere. I first had Winnimere on a cheese flight at Mission Cheese, while I was still daydreaming about making my way into the cheese world and not really believing it was an actual option. The truth? This cheese played a critical role in making me change my mind. Which is not to say that I automatically loved the taste of it, because that’s not quite how it went down. Winnimere is a….strong cheese. It’s a seasonal cheese only available from November to April, made from raw Ayrshire cow’s milk that’s washed with lambic-style beer and wrapped for aging in spruce bark. That’s right, lambic and spruce bark, both of which infuse the cheese with some pretty full flavors, to say the least. Over it’s two-month maturation, Winnimere develops a thin and slightly crunchy surface, and a supple, creamy, and runny interior. Given enough time, the paste breaks down, and goes from ‘runny’ to ‘oozy.’ I’ve heard that, at that point, you’d best cut the top off entirely and scoop the paste out with a spoon, but I’ve never done so myself. The smells and tastes of this cheese are pretty similar: woodsy, musty, mushroomy, with notes of garlic, mustard, and..meat. See what I mean by full-flavored? When I first had this cheese, I didn’t think it was delicious. But I did think it was interesting. So interesting, in fact, that I looked it up when I got home, and learned all about Jasper Hill Farm and their jazz-listening Ayrshire cows and their farm, and their cellar, and the beer that is brewed on site, and much much more. And, in learning about that one farm, I came closer to the realization that there is a lot that goes in to cheese and that, as such, there are a lot of ways in which people can be involved. And I want to be one of those people.
Putting Winnimere on the menu that day was a brave but risky choice (a sentiment echoed by Bi-Rite’s Sarah when she saw it in my basket) and, luckily, one that paid off. Grace and Suzie LOVED it, and I loved that they loved it. Now I know that I’ll have those two by my side whenever a bold tasting opportunity presents itself! Mike? Not so much. He detested the smell so much that he implored me to throw the leftovers away. Instead, I ate them.