Bon Bouche

A Good Mouthful…of Cheese

Archive for the month “July, 2012”

You Can’t Write on an Empty Stomach

Or, at least, I can’t. And definitely not when I’m writing about cheese! As such, while I wrote yesterday about the blues, I snacked on a few pieces of a Pacific Northwest classic!

Beecher’s Flagship Handmade Cheese (Pasteurized Cow’s Milk, Seatlle WA)

Beecher’s Handmade Cheese really is a part of the Seattle scene. Located right in the historic and tourist-attracting Pike Place Market, Beecher’s is the only artisanal cheesemaker in the entire city. I have a coworker who’s a Seattle transplant (yep, the same guy that loves the brie and hates the goat’s milk), and he has been raving about Beecher’s Flagship ever since my turophilia became public knowledge. His love for this cheese is so strong, that we actually considered ordering some and having it shipped to the office…until we realized that would cost close to $100. Publishers don’t make that kind of money! Since then, I’ve been keeping an eye out for it locally, and I was finally able to track some down with the help of cheesemonger Mike at Little Vine in North Beach. And, let me tell you…it is worth the hype!

Beecher’s Flagship is a unique cheese. I would definitely say that it’s a ‘Cheddar’, but…it doesn’t taste like your average cheddar. It’s a semi-hard pasteurized cow’s milk cheese (with a vegetarian rennet!) that’s been aged for 18 months. And boy, when you finally get your hands on a piece, you can tell that it’s been aged…and lovingly! Unlike a really firm cheddar, Beecher’s walks the line between semi-firm and crumbly. That’s great for snacking (perfect little small pieces), but we had a hell of a time trying to grate some for a mac n’ cheese. This cheese melts slowly in your mouth, unfolding an incredible and lingering flavor. “Flavor of what?,” you might ask. Well, Beecher’s starts out with a smooth sweet taste – fruit and caramel. After a bit, you start to notice bursts of acidity, which keep your mouth watering (something about histamine-triggering, if I remember correctly…but don’t quote me on that). The finish is long and mellow, creamy and yeasty (like buttered toast), and it stays in your mouth even after all the cheese is gone.

Now that I’ve had Beecher’s, I can’t wait to tell my coworker, and I’m really looking forward to a TBD Seattle trip. I have some great friends who live up there, but now there’s an added incentive: a visit to Beecher’s! Situated amongst the various food stalls of the Pike Place Market, Beecher’s makes cheese production a spectator sport. Visitors can look into the windowed cheesemaking kitchen and see milk being turned into curds and, after that, whole wheels of delicious cows milk cheese! Now that’s what I call dinner and a show.

Bonnie Blue?

Let’s take a minute to talk about soup, shall we? It may sound crazy to you, but until 2012 (yep, this year), I didn’t like soup. “What?,” you’re probably saying. “Who doesn’t like soup?” Now, don’t get me wrong: Like all sane humans, I enjoy a grilled cheese dunked in tomato soup from time to time and, before I went veg, I frequently fed a cold with some chicken noodle (I have tendency to get sick). But…that’s about it. To me, soup was always just an excuse to eat something else: a delicious bread bowl or croutons and cheese. I would proudly proclaim that “I like to chew” and end any discussion. That makes it sound like I lead an exciting life full of soup discourse but, really, it’s only come up from time to time. Anyhow, this year, something changed. I don’t know what prompted the decision but, at a local salad and sandwich spot, I ordered the soup. It was carrot dill, and it changed my life. Dramatic language aside, it was so delicious, I can’t even tell you. The ingredients tasted so wonderfully fresh and the soup was so flavorful, I didn’t dunk anything in it! Since then, my eyes have been opened to the world of soup. Potato leek, lentil, minestrone, corn chowder, and on and on and on. My point is: There’s a whole world of soup out there, and to think that I didn’t like all soup, just because I didn’t like some soup, was crazy! And, if you think there’s a wide variety of soup out there, just wait until you start to learn about cheese.

Ah, yes, cheese. Back to the point. I have a coworker who is a self-professed cheese lover. There’s only one problem: According to him, he doesn’t like goat’s milk cheese. He insists and, still, I refuse to believe it. “I didn’t like soup,” I say. “Now, I love it.” Is this making sense? What I’m trying to say is that there are literally thousands of different kinds of goat’s milk cheese. My coworker has had some he doesn’t like, that’s all. One day, with my help, he’ll find the ones that he does! It’s not like he’s lactose intolerant. This guy eats brie almost every day. And if you think that I don’t know what I’m talking about, let my own story be a lesson.

Before about, oh, 6 months ago, I would have sworn to you that I don’t like blue cheese. If I saw anything on the menu that came with blue cheese, I automatically passed. If I saw blue cheese at the grocery, I grimaced. Just the thought of “blue cheese” offended me. Now, I realize that I was wrong. I didn’t like some blue cheeses, but that doesn’t mean I don’t like any of them. My limited experiences with French Roquefort and salads decorated with Gorgonzola had misinformed me! While I appreciate these cheeses and what they (pun intended) bring to the table, I’m still not a fan of that peppery cheese taste and I prefer not to have rich goop weighing down my lettuce (unless, of course, that goop is Ranch dressing). The difference is that now I know there’s a whole world of blue cheese out there, and I’m basically determined to try every one. In fact, my past ‘distaste’ makes each new delicious discovery even more amazing, and it’s taken less than a year to realize that I’ve been a blue lover this whole time!

First, I found the delightfully sweet and sour Bohemian Blue. Then, I became quite fond of the rich and tangy Colston Bassett Stilton. I realized I’d been converted when I tried the smooth & savory Fourme d’Ambert and, when I had that washed rind Tilston Point, I briefly considered never eating anything else. Well, there’s another breathtaking blue to add to that list.

Strachitunt Val Taleggio (raw cow’s milk from Lombardy, Italy)

The first class I worked at The Cheese School last week was ‘Cheese & Wine of Lombardy’ with Italian cheese expert Andy Lax and wine aficionado Naomi Smith. We tasted an incredible variety of Lombardy’s delicacies (one ticket to Italy, please!*), but nothing stunned the crowd (or my senses) like the Strachitunt. This cheese is often called “The Jewel of the Val Taleggio” and it’s not hard to see why.

Where to start? Well, Italy! And the alpine valley of Val Taleggio, to be exact. Strachitunt has been made in this part of Lombardy since the late 1800’s using raw local milk taken only from the Bruna Alpina cows that live at an altitude of nearly 3,000ft. (or, as they say there, 900 meters).

This guy’s just chillin.

Strachitunt is the product of a unique making process: The cheese is made with the combining of two different curds, worked (i.e. produced) 12 hours apart. Meaning, una Bruna Alpina is milked once in the morning and then again that night. The curds from these two milkings are then combined to make this treat. But, first, it’s aged in limestone caves for over two months. Trust me, it’s worth the wait!

As you can maybe see in the picture above, the Strachitunt doesn’t even look that blue. There are some eyes and clustered pockets, but not too many. The piece that I had was completely cream colored! If it weren’t for the appearance of the rind, I wouldn’t have known that it was a blue…until I tasted it. Oh, that taste! This is an aromatic cheese, and you get a good informative whiff right before you pop it in your mouth. The texture is a delightfully confusing mesh of soft and firm (perhaps as a result of the mixed curds?) with an insanely wonderful creaminess on the palate. Known as a ‘dolce-amaro’ (sweet & sour), I found it to be more of a sweet & salty cheese, but in a very delicate and balanced way. Does that make sense? This cheese is hard to describe, it’s magic is so elusive. Here’s an idea: Get some for yourself and let me know what you think. I bet it would be great for dessert, paired with port or some fruit and honey.

*I’m sure my father is ready to kill me at this point. We took a family trip to Italy in 2005 or 2006, which marked my last summer as a meat-eater. I spent the whole trip downing steaks. Now, I’m a vegetarian cheese enthusiast – I should have been eating formaggio instead!

Daphne Zepos

This past Tuesday, July 3rd, an important member of the cheese community passed away. Daphne Zepos was founder of the Essex Street Cheese Company and, closer to home, co-owner of The Cheese School of San Francisco. More than that, she was a cheese enthusiast, advocate, and educator. She was a teacher, a writer, an importer, a cheesemonger, and – from what I’ve heard – a wonderful and passionate friend. There’s no way I could write anything about her that would add to what has already been said.

Daphne died at home, in my neighborhood of The Mission, at the age of 52. Lung cancer. I only met her once, maybe 5 months ago, at a Cheese School master class. I stood, talking to two other attendees, when she approached to welcome us and, specifically, to congratulate me on my upcoming internship. A fleeting, but genuine, interaction. Later, she introduced the instructor, Cowgirl Creamery’s Peggy Smith, and simply glowed as she spoke about her friend. That was it. I can remember her face, a little bit of her voice, her hair pulled back. That’s it.

On Tuesday, when I read the Cheese School’s facebook announcement  (accompanied by a beautiful photo of Daphne & co-owner Kiri Fisher), it hit me like a hard blow to the chest. I had to catch my breath, steady myself. I felt dizzy. I couldn’t explain why. I hardly knew this woman, beyond what I had read and heard of her. And still, I felt the loss. The loss of Daphne’s family, the loss of The Cheese School, the loss of the community. I felt sadness, and anger, and regret. Regret that this great teacher, this potential mentor, was gone so soon. And then I realized – that’s a familiar feeling.

2 months ago, Mike’s father Mark died of esophageal cancer. He was 58. I knew him for a year and a half, let’s say. Time spent knowing someone is certainly hard to calculate. He was in my life briefly when he was well, longer when he was sick, and then…he was just gone. It’s awful, and a cheese blog is not really the right place to get into it. But, more than I’m capable of missing him, I regret not getting to know him. I’m sad and I’m angry for many reasons, but mostly because I won’t get that chance. In losing a person you barely know, you find yourself grasping at memories. The best jokes that person made, your brief conversations. What their hand felt like in yours, the first time you shared a knowing smile. That’s what I did Tuesday, too, replaying and replaying Daphne’s welcome in my head. Remembering the feel of the hand she placed on my shoulder, attempting to recall her height, her smell. Holding on to the slip of a relationship, no matter how small.

Now, I love when Mike shares a story about his dad. He’ll mention how he would have said or done something, he’ll teach me something Mark taught him, and I listen more attentively than I’ve ever listened before. That, after all, is the legacy he leaves. And in that same way, I’ll devour what I can from those who knew Daphne. I won’t learn directly from her, but from those whom she taught. I’ll make my place in a community she did so much to support and enrich, in the same way I now make a place for myself in Mike’s family. Mark carries on in Mike, in this incredibly special person he helped form, and I get to know him that way. I’ll do the same with Daphne, through The Cheese School, the ACS, and her friends and colleagues. I only wish I had more of an opportunity, to thank them both, for enriching my life in such profound ways.

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