Bon Bouche

A Good Mouthful…of Cheese

Archive for the tag “food and travel”

More than Manchego: Otros Quesos de Espana

Hold up — is it really 80 degrees and sunny here in San Francisco? It is…and it has been for the past few days. What? Suddenly it feels like we skipped right over spring and in to high summer, and all this direct heat is making me…groggy. Seriously, I’m nearly asleep on my feet, dazed, and I’m daydreaming of Spain. Have I ever been there? No, which makes it that much easier to imagine it as romantically as possible, all sunshine, siestas, sangria and, por supuesto, queso.*

When I say that, I bet you think of Manchego, no? Not I. While the sheep’s milk wheel from La Mancha might be even more well known than Don Quixote, I’m not sure it has quite as much to offer. Don’t get me wrong: Spain’s most popular cheese is a great and simple staple, one which is particularly good at complementing and enhancing the flavors of its accompaniments. But Spain is a big place — covering an area of over 195,000 square miles — with a cheesemaking history that dates back to the second century. As such, it’s safe to assume that the Spanish have a slightly larger selection to offer. So, when looking for a slice of Espana, try some of these instead.

Mahon Reserva – Raw Cow’s Milk from Minorca, Spain

Mahon Reserva

This Spanish cow’s milk cheese is almost as popular as Manchego and only slightly stronger in flavor. If you want to branch out, but not go too far, Mahon is the cheese for you. Is it fairly mild? Yes. Is it also beautiful and delicious? Yes and Yes. Hailing from the island of Minorca, a jewel of the Mediterranean, how could it be anything but? Seriously, look at this photo. This is a cheese that is made in paradise.

I just stared at this picture for 20 minutes.

I just stared at this picture for 20 minutes.

Mahon is the capital and port of Minorca and, as you may have surmised, also the name of the island’s most famous export. All of the cow’s milk cheeses produced on the island are actually called Mahon, all of which are built tough to withstand long-term storage and transportation by sea. This reminds me of Madeira, the second most delicious beverage in the world (after Dr. Pepper, of course), but that’s subject matter for a different post.  On Minorca, the dairy industry is second only to the tourism industry, and the final product is undoubtedly a result of the local terroir (or whatever that word is in Spanish). The island has a mild climate and gets lots of rainfall which, in combination with sea winds and humidity, give the milk — and later the cheese — high acidity and saltiness.

The Mahon most common here in the states is Mahon Reserva, a firm, square, orange block. To protect the cheese, the rind is rubbed with paprika and oil, then aged for 10 to 12 months. The spicy bite of the paprika certainly makes its way into the taste the of the cheese, preparing the palate  for what’s to come. With a dense, hard texture that breaks down almost instantly when popped in your mouth, Mahon Reserva is all slowly unfolding and lingering flavor. Equal parts sweet and sharp, this cheese is beautifully balanced and consistently good. I sometimes get a smoky, caramel flavor (almost like a muted aged Gouda), but I’m most partial to the wheels that read as a little bit sour. Every now and then, a bite will remind me of my favorite cocktail, an Old Fashioned, bursting with the taste of bourbon and bitter orange peel, and I instantly get a little buzz.

Ombra – Pasteurized Sheep’s Milk from Catalonia, Spain

Ombra

Oh Ombra, one of my favorite cheeses to share with customers. Not only does this cheese bring me joy by reminding me of Joey’s duel with the Hombre Cowboy on Friends but, when sampled, it can always be trusted to sell itself. It’s that good. As fellow cheese blogger Kirstin Jackson says, Ombra is a cheese “that helps to explain why people fall in love with sheep’s milk.” Like many ewe-phoric delights (get it?), Ombra is at once both mild and full-flavored, with a firm texture that melts beautifully in your mouth. Much like Pringles, once you start popping Ombra, you just can’t stop.

Produced in the Catalonia region of Spain — right next to some other makers of lovely cheese, The French — Ombra is aged for 6-8 months, resulting in a cheese that is firm but still soft, dense but still porous, sweet and buttery, yet sharp like dry grass. I prefer the more aged rounds, when the paste gets really firm and flaky, chunking off the wheel in shards that remind me of pale stained glass. These old wheels are peppered throughout with crunchy tyrosine crystals, giving the illusion that there are actual nuts hidden in this nutty-tasting treat. I dream of Ombra paired with a spicy red wine and some hearty, crunchy, fruit & nut crostini.

Oh, and did I mention that it tastes like chocolate? Nutty, sharp, grassy, sheepy, melty chocolate. Like I said, it sells itself.

Veigadarte -Pasteurized Goat’s Milk from Castilla-Leon, Spain

Veigadarte

Veigadarte: Hard to pronounce (say vague-uh-dart-ay), easy to eat. This is a relatively new cheese in my life, but it has made a very strong first impression. Anyone who has recently come in to the shop looking for a soft goat cheese — especially those particular enough to ask for a French Bucheron — has been met with a sample of Veigadarte. And you know what? They leave with some, too. Every. Single. Time. It’s so delicious, I think I sample it out frequently just so I can sneak a taste, as well.

Hacemos queso muy delicioso!

Nosotros hacemos queso muy delicioso!

Made from the fatty milk of Spain’s scrappy Murciano-Granadina goats, Veigadarte is a goat cheese log on butterfat steroids. Cheesemaker Joaquin Villanueva Casado, who operates in the small and picturesque town of Ambasmestas, dusts each 1-pound log with vegetable ash then allows an edible, bloomy rind to form while the cheese ages for one month. The bloomy rind on Veigadarte helps to create this cheese’s treasured texture: Because it ripens from the outside in, the layer of cheese directly under the rind becomes extra ripe and creamy (and a little bit beige), while the inner paste remains bone white, fluffy, and freshly tangy. When tasting Veigadarte, really let it sit and form a paste in your mouth. The smooth texture is divine, but the flavor is even better. I taste salt (my favorite!), garlic, peppery greens, fresh lemon juice, and a delightful dash of beety dirt.

It’s been many years since I enjoyed a good salami sandwich (there’s no soy product that quite compares, is there?), but I imagine a thick smear of Veigadarte would pair insanely well with the fat peppery taste of that particular meat. However, veggies like me can let the cheese wow on it’s own: Spread on some bread with a side of salty, oily Marcona almonds, tart fresh berries, and a glass of fruity, floral, white wine (think Riesling, Viognier, or Albarino). I may have to treat myself to this very feast later tonight. It is the weekend, after all.

Torta de Trujillo (Mini) – Raw Sheep’s Milk from Extremadura, Spain

Torta de Trujillo

Torta de Trujillo reminds me of that scene in There’s Something About Mary where, just before being violently attacked, Ben Stiller coos to Mary’s terrier, “Are you the little guy making all that big noise?”  Not that this cheese will attempt to kill you, by any means, but it packs a serious punch for something that looks so cute and perfectly packaged.

The makers of this petite powerhouse are Finca Pascualete, a cheesemaking operation in the Extremadura region of Spain. I don’t know much about this area, other than the fact that it sounds magical and it looks even more magical than it sounds.

We interrupt this broadcast to share a mindblowingly beautiful image from Extremadura, Spain.

We interrupt this broadcast to share a mindblowingly beautiful image from Extremadura, Spain.

Back to it: Just like the lovely gentlemen at Quattro Portoni, the team at Finca Pascualete are focused on honoring traditional cheesemaking practices while, at the same time, creating new and marketable cheeses. A big part of their strategy is the use of thistle (i.e. cardoon) rennet as a coagulant (as opposed to an animal-based or microbial rennet), which is a time-honored tradition in Iberian cheesemaking.

This little Torta is a washed-rind  squishy puck of 2-month old sheep’s milk. While the cheese is covered in a slightly sandpaper-y and sticky orange rind, the pale pink paste contained within is silky, unctuous, and so creamy that it’s basically a liquid. The idea is to cut the top rind off , let it get to room temperature, and then dip in to the sweet, wooly, funky goop within. This is strong cheese, but it’s not  harsh or offensive. Where other washed rind cheeses can bring salt and bitterness to the table, Torta de Trujillo is completely round (i.e. not sharp) in flavor: the yeastyness of fresh baked bread, the sweet & savory comfort of Honeybaked Ham (again, if I’m remembering correctly), and the cozy Nutella-meets-wool-sweater taste of all good sheep’s milk cheeses. If there’s a heaven, I’m pretty sure it’s full of Nutella and wool sweaters.

Want more? Here are some that I didn’t have the space to include:

  • Valdeon – A noble goat’s milk blue. 
  • Roncal – The gamey Basque alternative to Manchego.
  • Montcabrer – An earthy, mild, and messy charcoal-washed goat.
  • Tetilla – A mild and zingy cow’s milk cheese, named for it’s likeness to “a small breast.”

*I’m really getting a kick out of revisiting high school Spanish right now. Lo siento.

Making Waves: Bay Blue

My roller-coaster of a relationship with blue cheese has been well-documented on this blog, but that love/hate dynamic has recently reached new heights. I have found my cheese crack…and it comes from a very unexpected place.

Have you guys heard of Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese Co.? If you’re reading this from California, my guess is that you have. Throughout the country, really, these guys are a big deal. The creamery was founded in 2000 by Bob Giacomini, his wife, and their four daughters, on the family dairy farm in beautiful Marin County, California. There’s a lot to like about Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese Co.: A true family-run operation, the Giacominis are dedicated to preserving the area’s natural environment, serving as stewards of the land (check out this great write-up about their compost company & super-cool methane converter) and very active members of Marin Agricultural Land Trust. Plus, they raise hella-cuta (that’s Northern Californian for ‘very’) pasture-based cows! With all this going for them, and considering their popularity here in San Francisco, you can imagine the weight of my secret shame: I don’t like their flagship cheese. There! I said it!

Point Reyes Blue Wedges

Point Reyes Blue Wedges

Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese Co. filled a huge gap in the market when they popped on the scene in 2000 with the first-ever California-made blue cheese. Point Reyes Original Blue is famous, in-demand, and highly regarded…just not by me. I’m picky with blues! You already know that. The sharp, metallic, and persistent push of Original Blue is just too much for me. Amazing and mysterious cheese-blogger J ( Straight Outta Comte) perfectly described this flavor as ‘steely‘, an apt characterization that I recall every time we receive a new case of crinkly, pre-wrapped silver wedges. While that guy likes this cheese, I don’t. I’ve tried, and I’ve tried, and I’ve tried (often unintentionally, that cheese is so ubiquitous around here), and I just can’t get into it.

Sidenote: For those of you who love Point Reyes Original Blue, please don’t feel bad. By all accounts, I seem to be in the minority here, even in my own household. A certain boyfriend of mine maintains that this is the PERFECT cheese for a bacon burger, but we’ve managed to make things work despite our differences.

Suffice it to say, I’ve been looking for another California blue alternative and, in the meantime, put on my best poker face while talking with customers. So, you can imagine my mixed feelings upon learning that there was another local blue about to hit the market…from Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese Co. I heard rumblings and rumors about Bay Blue for months before I ever encountered it in the wild. It was on it’s way…and then it wasn’t. It was out, but impossible to find. And then one day I was out shopping, putting together a cheese plate for a friend’s visit. I had everything I needed, minus a nice, taste-ending blue. I asked one of the cheesemongers at my local little grocery for a suggestion and she pointed to a few small pieces of something tucked away in the corner of the case. And there it was: Bay Blue.

I have to admit, I felt chills. At the time, I thought I was nervous, but in retrospect I recognize that feeling as love-at-first-sight. I told her of my apprehensions and confessed my opinion of Bay Blue’s precursor, but she assured me that this cheese is almost that cheese’s opposite. If I was looking for a dessert cheese, this was IT, and she wouldn’t let me walk away without it. What a saint. That night, I ate Bay Blue for the first time…and I haven’t stopped eating it since.

Pt. Reyes Farmstead Cheese Co.’s Bay Blue (Pasteurized Cow’s Milk from Marin County, CA)

Bay Blue

The love that I have for Bay Blue is without parallel. It’s crazy to imagine the old me, ardently declaring myself anti-blue, when you see me now, happily spooning Bay Blue into my mouth (small, taster spoons, mind you). I have found my blue and, like I said, from an entirely unexpected source.

Where Point Reyes Original Blue is creamy, tangy, and intense, Bay Blue is dense, fudgy, crumbly, sweet, and mellow. This natural-rinded wheel is slightly yellow and jam-packed with little bits of crunchy blue mold. It looks killer, but it only kills you with kindness. Bay Blue is modeled after Stilton, but its salted caramel taste and slightly chocolatey finish remind me more of warped aged Gouda…gone buttery and blue. SF Gate cheese expert Janet Fletcher calls the flavor “a blend of toasted walnut, praline, caramel, brown butter, and saltine cracker.” Yes! That saltine bit is spot on and something I never could have pinpointed myself. Ms. Fletcher and I aren’t this cheese’s only fans. Only months after its debut, Bay Blue was named a 2013 Good Food Awards winner. I like to say that I knew it before it was famous.

Now go get yourselves some Bay Blue! I’ve been fantasizing about turning this cheese into a flavor of ice cream or gelato (especially if sandwiched between two gingersnap cookies) but, until that dream becomes a reality, simply smear some on a cracker (Effies Oatcakes, if you can find ’em) and drizzle with a little bit of honey. Feeling savory? A few weeks ago, I put some Bay Blue in a salad of Romaine, Arugula, cherry tomatoes and red onion with a simple dressing of balsamic vinaigrette. Delicious!

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