Bon Bouche

A Good Mouthful…of Cheese

Archive for the tag “travel”

Ooey Gooey Italian Beauties

Greetings! Happy 2013! As my sister said to me when I first made the transition into cheese official, “It’s going to brie an exciting year!” My response? “It cheddar be!” Kaufman family comedic genius aside, we were right. I’ve been so busy working with cheese that I haven’t had any time to write about it. Well, that’s going to change. There’s so much I want to tell you. Things are going wonderfully for me at work — I’m learning tons, tasting pounds, making amazing new curd-nerd friends, and I’ve recently been put in charge of ordering shop supplies! Glamorous? Not quite, but I now know the praise and appreciation one receives upon the arrival of a much-needed case of paper towels. Still, my love for cheese has not been replaced by a passion for latex gloves, so this blog will remain focused on what’s important. And, right now, I’m living and loving the Dolce Vida….surrounded by ooey, gooey and amazing formaggio.

This would be a nice addition to my cheese pillow collection. No lie, that exists.

This would be a nice addition to my cheese pillow collection. No lie, that exists.

The shop where I work carries about 80% domestic cheeses. So, with an inventory that includes only about 20% imports, you know those long distance travelers have to be good. Sure, a solid Parmiggiano Reggiano or a peppery Pecorino is a perennial fave, but I’m currently all about the stuff that’s soft, salty, spreadable…and a little bit stinky.

Taleggio

Taleggio

When it comes to stinky Italian cheese, Taleggio is like the Godfather. No offense to my Italian readers. I’m sure you’re kind of over all the mafia stuff but, this time, it fits. You do not tell Taleggio what to do — it tells you. As a cheesemonger, there are some cheeses you can push around…but not this one. If Taleggio wants to ooze, it’ll ooze. If Taleggio wants to stick, it’ll stick. You get the idea. There’s just no arguing with Taleggio…and there’s no denying its greatness, either.

Taleggio is an old cheese — an iconic stinker with a long history. Made in the caves of Lombardy’s Val Taleggio since the 9th century, there is evidence that this cheese was once used as currency. Delicious, pungent currency. Taleggio is a washed rind and smear-ripened cow’s milk cheese, meaning that the young slabs are covered in brine, as well as a secret solution that most likely contains bacteria, fungi, and the leftovers of Taleggios past. It sounds gross, but the results are anything but: A thin, firm, flavorful and sticky orange rind with a pudding-like, moist, and hopefully oozy paste hidden underneath. Like most washed rind cheeses, the taste of Taleggio is mild in comparison to its funky aroma. Still, this isn’t necessarily a bite for beginners. Our Taleggio is organic, soft, and scrumptious. The flavor is rich, beefy, dirty, and delightfully salty. The paste is pliable and one bite will coat your mouth with a velvety sensation that is nothing like Velveeta. Pair some with crusty bread, an Old World Pinot, and a willingness to indulge. Evviva!

Val Taleggio: I want to go to there.

Val Taleggio: I want to go to there.

Nuvola di Pecora

Nuvola di Pecora

If Taleggio is the Godfather of stinky Italian Cheeses, then Nuvola di Pecora is like Michael Corleone — a classy & reluctant heir to the throne. However, Nuvola di Pecora can be a little bit like Fredo, as well — bold, charismatic, and entertaining. Or maybe I just don’t know The Godfather well enough to make references? I’ll stick to talking about cheese and I promise not to put any cow, sheep, goat or water buffalo heads in anyone’s bed.

The point is: Nuvola di Pecora doesn’t seem quite sure what it wants to be, and therein lies its beauty.  The name Nuvola di Pecora literally translates into “sheep clouds”, and I can’t imagine a more fitting description. A beautiful, bumpy bloomy-rinded square wheel of fluffy, velvety aged sheep’s milk made by the River Po in the Emilia Romagna region of Italy, the older (and, in my opinion, better) wheels of Nuvola come decorated with splotches of beautiful neon yellow and aquamarine mold. This looks like a cheese that’s going to blast your sense of smell and taste (a la Fredo), but it’s much more mellow and refined (just like Michael). The paste is not quite creamy and not quite hard. Really, this is sheep’s milk custard, with added hints of root vegetables, steamed milk, and a pinch of toast-dipped-in-egg. Every now and then, we get a wheel that’s a little bit strong and a lot bit salty — and those are my favorite days. Either way, pair a thick slice of Nuvola with some thick fruity jam…or just a lush, fruity wine. No matter the pairing, you’ll go to bed dreaming of sheep clouds no matter what.

The Brothers di Bufala – Quadrello & Casatica

Let's make some cheese!

Let’s make some cheese!

Running the mafia isn’t the only way to get into a family business. Just ask Alfio & Bruno Gritti of Caseificio Quattro Portoni, the makers of two of my new favorite cheeses: Quadrello di Bufala and Casatica di Bufala. The Quattro Portoni farm was founded in Bergamo, Italy in 1968 by Renato Gritti, father of Alfio & Bruno. Dairy farming started in 1970, but with one big different from the way they do it today: They were milking cows. In 1982 the operation was taken over by Alfio (who had received a degree in Veterinary Farming) and Bruno (a specialist in agronomic land management) and, in 2000, they made the decision to try their luck farming and milking Mediterranean water buffalo. How’d it go? Well, by 2003 they had decided they would only work with water buffalo and, in 2005, they began making and selling rich, delicious, water buffalo’s milk cheeses. I love these brothers, and not just because their products make my taste buds sing. These guys have some good ideas, and they describe their mission like this (roughly translated from Italian to English): “To combine the ancient Lombardy tradition of cheesemaking with the exceptional characteristics of buffalo milk…to suggest a novelty capable of stimulating the interests of experts in high quality products.” I like the way the Gritti brothers mix old-world tradition with innovation and I admire the way they boldly aim to please. It’s true that water buffalo’s milk is exceptionally rich and wonderful, and there’s no better place to see it at work than in these two cheeses.

Quadrello di Bufala

Quadrello di Bufala

Remember Taleggio? Well, this is its buffalo’s milk counterpart (don’t worry, I’m done with the Godfather comparisons). Raw milk is formed into square slabs, washed in brine, and then aged for 2-3 months. The thin, slightly sticky rind varies in color: some wheels are light and pink like the one shown above, and some are dark and tough, an almost-gray or brown brick. No matter the exterior, the paste is always a treat: soft, fudgy, and crisply white, Quadrello di Bufala is a mild, milky, sweet, and sometimes fruity play on the classic Taleggio recipe. Want an Italian cheese that looks awesome and will appeal to every palate? Go for Quadrello….or Casatica.

Casatica di Bufala

Casatica di Bufala

Oh Casatica di Bufala, my newest creamy obsession. While Quadrello is inspired by Taleggio, Casatica di Bufala is a more traditional stracchino (or ‘stretched curd’) style of cheese. Water buffalo’s milk contains about twice the fat content of cow’s milk, and this luscious decadence is on full display in Casatica. The intact wheel looks like a squat, fat, snow-covered log, due to its thick and bloomy rind. Cut this cheese into chunky slices and let the paste take center stage. Soft-ripened and aged for only a few weeks, Casatica is much creamier than Quadrello, extremely spreadable and delicately sweet, salty, and a little bit savory. I’m not usually a fan of bloomy rinds (yep, I’m that person who tunnels into the Brie), but for Casatica I make an exception. Instead of something limp and bitter, you get a nice crunch and roasted garlic-y bite from Casatica’s rind, the perfect complement to its sweet and creamy paste. Put this on some toasted foccacia and it’s the most buttery garlic bread you’ve ever had. Or just eat it off the knife. No judgment here.

No Fault in San Andreas

“Go West. Paradise is there. You’ll have all that you can eat, milk and honey over there.”

As a cheesemonger-in-training, part of my job at Cowgirl Creamery is to familiarize myself with cheese. Cheese in general and, in particular, the cheeses that we sell. To do this, I look, feel, listen (to coworkers & customers…I’m not yet doing any direct cheese whispering), and taste. Taste, taste, taste. On my own, with the other cheesemongers, and with the people to whom I’m selling. The best way to talk to a customer about what they’re trying is to try it right there with them. And the way to sell what’s best is to know what’s best — for any and every occasion. While I have a list of favorites about a mile long (we sell a lot of cheeses!), the current apple of my eye is a native Californian — just like me!

Bellwether Farms San Andreas (Raw Sheep’s Milk from Valley Ford, CA)

One bite of San Andreas puts a song in my heart…and one in my head! I don’t think my love of this cheese is entirely due to the fact that it reminds me of a favorite Natalie Merchant song, but it doesn’t hurt.

Seriously though, this cheese stands on its own. Bellwether Farms makes a number of great cheeses (check out their lovely website), many of which we sell at the shop. Family owned & operated by the Callahan family, this mostly-sheep farm is located in picturesque Sonoma County, a few short miles from the tang & fog of the Pacific Ocean. The sheep at Bellwether Farm are mostly East Friesian Ewes, the most Lambchop-looking cuties that you’ve ever seen. The ewes graze freely year round (yay! run free!) and, in addition, are given grain and alfalfa as necessary.

Just standing around, being cute.

This might seem like a lot of sheep-related info, but it’s not for nothing. I firmly believe that good cheese comes from good milk and, as you may have heard, good milk comes from happy cows — or sheep (in this case), goats, and water buffalo. What the sheep eat will also come through in the taste of the cheese, so knowing about their dietary habits can shed some light when it comes to talking about flavor. Let’s do that!

San Andreas is made from raw milk. Though it’s made in the style of a Tuscan Pecorino, it’s a true Bellwether original. The interior paste is smooth, pale and straw-like in color, and dotted with some nice eyes (little holes) throughout. And that taste! The flavors of this cheese are rich and, like any good and oily sheep’s milk cheese, they linger in your mouth. I get notes of butterscotch, lots of nuts, and some hay — or maybe that’s alfalfa! — with a delightfully sour finish. This is a semi-firm cheese, but with enough moisture that it really melts in your mouth. A little bite goes a long way.

San Andreas might be named for the famous California fault line that runs past the Bellwether property, but I can’t find any fault with this cheese. I’m recommending it to all of my customers!

Cheese & Wine…But Why?

Wouldn’t you like to travel the world, discovering and tasting the best wines that each region has to offer?  While some people can only dream of an adventure like that (for example, yours truly), others are able to make that dream a reality. You could do this on your own, of course, or with the help of expert and experienced guides. Like, say, for example, the ones at Wine World Tours. They are, as they say on their website, “dedicated to providing the extraordinary “life experience” one finds tasting, discovering and adventuring with wine,” which they do through “customized and personalized wine country adventures in the world’s most prestigious wine regions of France, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Argentina, Chile, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand.” Amazing, right?

I’d cheers to that!

Don’t worry, this isn’t a sponsored post. I wish. I’m not quite that big-time…yet. Here’s a little bit of back-story: At a dinner party a few months ago, my father met a man named David Marchese, who happens to be the CEO of Wine World Tours. My dad mentioned my brand-new career and, upon discovering that Mr. Marchese is a cheese-lover himself, gave him a link to my blog as well as my contact information. Before too long I was having a lovely conversation with David Marchese. We talked about our shared passion for both curds and words and discussed the possibility of doing some work together. Like most savvy businessmen who know what’s up on the web (that’s some serious tech lingo), the people of Wine World Tours are looking to update and diversify their online content. In the minds of most, cheese & wine go together like peas & carrots, so this made perfect sense. Was I interested? Of course! I may not be very knowledgeable about wine, but I’m certainly a fan of the stuff (I’m enjoying a glass of Pinot Grigio right now, in fact — can you tell?) and, more than that, I’d love to get more people to read what I’m writing. There was only one thing: I’d need to write more about wine. No need to change my focus or anything like that, but simply add a pairing suggestion or two for each cheese that I featured. No biggie, right?

Wrong. In truth, this condition gave me more pause than you’d expect, because it came just at a time when I was already dedicating a lot of thought to wine…and not necessarily in a favorable light. I enjoy wine just as much as the next guy (who enjoys wine), but…I’m not sure how I feel about having it with cheese. Over the past few months, I’ve dedicated a LOT of time to learning about cheese. Through my work at The Cheese School, my own research and writing, and now at Cowgirl Creamery. And I’ve discovered a theme. While almost every notable expert in the field dedicates a chunk of time, energy, or writing to the pairing of wine and cheese, they always do so with a disclaimer. And this disclaimer explains, in essence, that cheese and wine don’t really pair well together! They tend to get in each others way, overpower one another, or simply clash. I’m not kidding. Everyone I’ve read or talked to says that, as a rule, cheeses are more easily and harmoniously paired with beer, liquor, or other accompaniments…and then they go on to talk more about wine.

WHY? WHY?? WHYYYY???

That all-caps level of emotion is no joke and I can remember the exact moment in which I reached peak frustration. During a brief moment of downtime while working a class at The Cheese School, I grabbed a copy of Max McCalman’s beautifully authoritative Cheese: A Connoisseur’s Guide to the World’s Best and began to flip through the pages. Sure enough, at the very beginning of the section titled ‘Cheese & Wine’, I found the all-too-familiar refrain: cheese and wine are, in fact, not a marriage made in heaven. Right now, I’m looking at my notebook, and under the date of that class (8/5/12), there’s a massive, angry scrawling: “Cheese & Wine…BUT WHY? Why force the need to marry the two?”

Since then, I’ve been on a quest to find answers of any kind. The origin of this marriage, an impassioned defense of the tradition, or even just the proof of one pairing so good that it justifies the entire pursuit. So far? Not much luck. The closest I’ve come to discovering ‘the answer’ is from the introduction of Janet Fletcher’s book, Cheese & Wine: A Guide to Selecting, Pairing, and Enjoying. As Fletcher explains, both cheese and wine became everyday dietary staples in Europe during a time when preservation was the name of the game.

“Over the centuries, humans have learned to preserve nature’s seasonal bounty for the times when nature is not so generous. The abundant milk that a cow gives in summer becomes cheese for the winter months. Fresh grapes, which last only days, become wine for future enjoyment.  In the temperate climates that nurture both grapevines and dairy animals, it is not surprising that cheese and wine are savored together. Both have long been the daily sustenance of farmers in Spain, France, Greece, and Italy, who think of wine and cheese not as fancy foods for entertaining, but as the wholesome heart of an everyday meal.”

Hmm. Sure, the section in question, titled ‘Cheese and Wine: A Time – Tested Marriage’, sheds light on the history of the pairing, but does little to justify (at least in my eyes) why it persists as the standard. Fletcher suggests pairings based on complements and contrasts (in texture, intensity, acidity, and region of origin)…but, again, with a disclaimer.

“Whether you are choosing wine to accompany a platter of cheeses, or selecting cheeses to enjoy with a favorite wine, the objective is the same: to ‘do no harm’ to the taste of the wine. When we talk about a successful wine and cheese match, we mean that the cheese or cheeses do not diminish our pleasure in the wine. The wine tastes just as good with the cheese as it does on its own. Occasionally, but not often, a cheese may even enhance a wine.”

Okay, am I seriously the only one who thinks this sounds just a little bit crazy? Still, the passion with which Fletcher, and so many others just as intelligent and accomplished as she, pursue this particular pairing, gives me hope. I’m entering an entirely new field, but it’s only new to me. Cheese — its making, its selling, its enjoying —  has existed for centuries, a history longer and richer than anything my mind can even really fathom. And you know what’s been there right along side of it? Yep, wine. With that in mind, I’ll continue to try and ‘get it.’ I’ll do more reading, more eating, more drinking (ugh, what a tortured existence!), and I promise to share with you what I learn.

But I won’t be sharing, at least not officially, with Wine World Tours. As much as I admire what they’re doing, and as much as I would love the extra attention (just being honest), catering to that audience, right now, simply wouldn’t feel right. I’m busier these days than I have been in a long time. I’m working at The Cheese School (where I’ve been hired to do some extra work beyond my internship) and Cowgirl Creamery, getting some amazing hands-on cheese time. I’ve also received my first freelance writing assignment, doing some short profiles of ACS award-winners for Culture magazine. This is all great – so great! – but I’m quickly realizing that the moments I’ll be able to dedicate to working on my own blog will be few and far between. And when I do have that time, I just want to write about cheese. Or maybe I’ll want to write about beer. Or maybe I’ll want to write about bread or fig jam or pickles or… Justin Bieber. I don’t know, and that last one seems unlikely, but the point is that I want to write about what I want to write about and, often, I don’t think that will be wine.

Which is ironic, since I spent a lot of time on it just now.

ACS Reading Round-Up

I bet everyone has their idea of a dream vacation. Around the world by hot air balloon (whimsical), Alaskan cruise (nautical), stilted hut in Bora Bora (tropical), and so on and so forth. While I’d take any of those options (air balloon ride from Alaska to Bora Bora?), I must admit that my current dream vacation just passed me by: The 2012 American Cheese Society Conference in North Carolina. To be fair, North Carolina has long been on my list of places-to-go (Asheville, one day we’ll be together), but really I’d follow the ACS conference anywhere. Awards ceremonies, classes, panels, and a legitimate Festival of Cheese? Sign me up. Well, don’t actually try to sign me up, because the 2012 conference just ended and 2013 registration isn’t open yet. But, when it does open, you better believe I’ll find a way (and the wallet) to get there.

Until then, I suppose I’ll sate myself with the stories (and mouth-watering photos) of those who were able to attend. Lucky for me, and for you, there are no shortage of either of those things. So, without further ado, my 2012 ACS Reading Round-Up.

Oh man. If that doesn’t convince you to go to next year’s ACS (with me, hopefully!), I don’t know what will. Also – any accounts you read that you recommend? If so, do tell. I just can’t get enough!

 

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.

“Go Milk a Goat!”

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Earlier this week, I was lucky enough to enjoy a whirlwind of a phone call with esteemed chef Frank Pace. Pace is a graduate of the California Culinary Academy who was formerly a line cook at Aqua and then chef de cuisine at Carnelian Room, both SF fine dining establishments that are now closed. These days, Frank lives in Burlington, Vermont, where he’s recently taken on the role of in-house butcher for Catamount Hospitality and where he runs his own catering business. On top of these noteworthy credentials, Frank also happens to be a relative of my dear friend Jay, which makes him all the more impressive (and, most importantly, all the more accessible). Once Jay and his mom heard about my new cheese course (I can’t believe I haven’t used that before now), they insisted I talk to Frank, and I was delighted that he agreed!

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He may look calm in that picture (perhaps he loses himself in the meat?), but on the phone he was a big, enthusiastic, and inspiring ball of energy. His advice? Get to it. That quote up there — “Go milk a goat!” — that was his. And while I may not be able to get my hands on a hoofed creature as soon as I’d like, some of his other advice might be easier to follow.

  • Really, the #1 theme of the conversation was that I need to get busy and get my hands dirty. First up: Get a job! Get behind the counter somewhere, and start (literally) cutting some cheese. This one, Frank, I’m already working on! I’ve been in talks with various members of the Bay Area cheese-selling community, and I continue to try to ‘network’ my butt off (which is a good way to counteract the butt-padding all this cheese is doing). I can’t wait to start my internship at The Cheese School and, hopefully, at some point, get a job.
  • Next step: Make some cheese! Now this, this is good advice. And doable!  I’ll be at The Cheese School for two cheesemaking classes, but there are other curd-creating opportunities in this delightful city of mine. I recently learned of the SF Milk Maid, a well-trained and well-traveled cheese-maker who teaches private and public courses in the city. And, thanks to SF Milk Maid’s facebook page, I discovered the wonderfully intimidating blog Milk’s Leap, which chronicles the amazing at-home cheese creations of another SF local. With these resources at my disposal, how could I go wrong? (I’m sure there are many ways, all of which I promise to document)
  • Another piece of advice? “Go to Europe. Go to Italy, go to France, go wherever cheese is made and learn how it’s made there, why it’s made that way, and how it tastes.” (I’m paraphrasing) Oh Frank! Oh life! If only it were this easy. But, I assure you, one day (and hopefully not one too far away), I plan to do just this. I’d be lying if I said that the thought of traveling the world in pursuit of cheesy bliss wasn’t one of the many reasons a curd nerd life called to me. Neal’s Yard Dairy? Yes, please. Fruitiere de Saint-Antoine? Yes! Fromagerie L’amuse? Yes, yes, yes! One day, you guys. One day.

Speaking of traveling: How about a trip back East?  Frank may have started his career out here in San Francisco, but he’s now a serious Vermont enthusiast. While he mentioned a few connections he has here in California, he made it clear that his real hook-ups are with dairies in Vermont. Luckily, this assertion was followed by a welcome invitation to visit any time. Not only has Frank offered to show me around Vermont, but he said he’ll take me up in to Canada, too. Awesome! I’ve already corresponded with Jay (currently far away in Buenos Aires), and we’ll probably spend the next few months conspiring to actually make this happen.

So, that’s what I learned from Mr. Frank Pace. In all sincerity, I’m really grateful that he took the time to speak with me, and I’m really looking forward to keeping in touch and learning from him in the future. Thanks, Frank!

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