November 2008


Being a Wisconsinite, I love my cheddar. Sharp, mild, aged, young – I love them all. I don’t limit myself to Wisconsin cheeses, even though I do take special pride in my home state’s offerings, because then I’d miss out on gems like Cabot Creamery and Jasper Hill Farm’s Clothbound Cheddar.

Cabot Creamery and Jasper Hill Farms cave-aged clothbound cheddar

Cabot Creamery and Jasper Hill Farm's cave-aged clothbound cheddar

How can two cheesemakers take credit for this cheese? In the words of a song from one of my childhood Sesame Street LPs, “Co-operation makes it happen!” Cabot Creamery gets the cheese started, but it is then cave-aged in Jasper Hill Farm‘s cellars. The result is a mild yet full-bodied cow’s milk cheese that has a comforting presence on your palate, even long after you’ve swallowed your last bite.

A classic combination

A classic combination

I usually enjoy my cheddar with apples, but I don’t think the Granny Smith apple I had on hand was the best match for this cheese’s subtle sweetness. I’d like to try it with my favorite, the Gala, or a Honeycrisp when the variety is in season. (Honeycrisps were developed in Minnesota, by the way.) Normally, I have my cheddar and apple as a mid-day snack at work, which means I’m not savoring them with a glass of wine, but Liz Thorpe, the wholesale manager at Murray’s Cheese, recommends a medium-bodied Chardonnay.

Cabot Creamery only produces a limited amount of Clothbound Cheddar each year, so act fast! If you have trouble finding it in your local cheese shops, mail-order may be the way to go. Cabot recommends checking with Murray’s Cheese or Artisanal Cheese for availability.

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Camembert is a soft-ripened cheese combining the tang of a blue with the creaminess of a delicate brie. While traditional French versions use only cows’ milk, Nancy’s Hudson Valley Camembert from New York uses milk from the farm’s sheep, mixed with a neighbor’s rBGH-free cows’ milk.  The Old Chatham farm boasts 1,000 East Friesian sheep grazing on organically-maintained fields, and is America’s largest sheep diary farm. (Sheep’s milk is significantly higher in protein and calcium than cows’ milk.) You may recognize the name from a wonderful line of sheep’s milk yogurt available at Whole Foods.

Hudson Valley Camembert has a soft, deceivingly mild bloomy rind surrounding one of the silkiest cheeses I have ever enjoyed. Sampled at room temperature – as all cheeses should be served! – it spreads like butter on a slice of toast or wheat cracker. The butterfat coats your tongue, and the bite finishes with a soft tang. It comes both in a round and in a cute little square that would make a great holiday gift for the cheeseophile on your list.

camembert and cranberry

Serve this cheese with a sweet, crisp apple on the side; New York’s favorite McIntoshes would be ideal. I enjoyed it with a dab of spiced cranberry sauce and pinch of thyme on top. (Was cooking a Thanksgiving-inspired dinner at the time and had thyme to spare.) Stick with white wines, perhaps something bubbly or even a Finger Lakes Riesling in keeping with the regional theme.

Before I begin, a confession: I have not always like blue cheese. It was always too strong for my Wisconsin-bred palette, which was accustomed to nothing stronger than a sharp cheddar. But my former boss and I used to frequent the Majestic Café (now just called The Majestic) in Old Town Alexandria and would share the salad, which came with some very pungent blue cheese, and I began taking small tastes. Then my tastes became bigger and bigger, and pretty soon I wanted all of it for myself (but I still shared with Sue because I’m nice like that).

Crumbly, delicious St. Petes Select - locally made in Minnesota.

Crumbly, delicious St. Pete's Select - locally made in Minnesota.

I’m not sure what kind of blue cheese that was, but it definitely wasn’t my cheese of the week – St. Pete’s Select from Minnesota’s own Faribault Dairy. This blue, Faribault Dairy’s “signature super-premium American blue cheese,” has a mild taste and crumbly texture that’s easy for the blue-cheese beginner to enjoy. I expected a much stronger flavor on first taste and was a little disappointed at first, but then I figured out the secret. I drizzled a bit of honey on top of the St. Pete’s Select, and then I got the flavor burst I was craving – salty, tangy and creamy, too. The sweetness of the honey helped to draw out St. Pete’s “blue-ness” (I don’t think that’s a real cheese term, but it is now!). Honey and blue cheese are a classic pairing, but as I found out at work the next day, other sweet foods will work. My co-worker Sara tasted the St. Pete’s and then took a bite of her apricot-mango yogurt and got the same heightened flavor experience. Who knew?

Topping the St. Petes Select with a drizzle of honey really helped bring out the cheeses tangy flavor.

Topping the St. Pete's Select with a drizzle of honey really helped bring out the cheese's tangy flavor.

St. Pete’s Select is one of three blue cheeses crafted by Faribault Dairy – you may have heard of its siblings, Amablu Blue Cheese and Amablu Gorgonzola. All three cheeses are made from rBST-free raw cow’s milk, hand-made in traditional open vats and aged in hand-dug sandstone caves. St. Pete’s Select is aged a minimum of 100 days, making it the sharpest of the bunch.

St. Pete’s Select is available by mail-order at Amazon.com (really!), and it can also be found at Surdyk’s, Premier Cheese Market and Cheesetique. I’d say that you could find it at my house, too, but I don’t think there will be any left after today.

And now we get down to business! In the spirit of Thanksgiving, we’re starting our tasting journey by expressing our gratitude for outstanding American blue cheeses. For our first cheese, I chose Bayley Hazen Blue by Jasper Hill Farms in Greensboro, Vermont.

The Kehler brothers didn’t intend to become dairy farmers when they took on a dilapidated hillside farm in 1998, but developed an interest in sustainable agriculture as they witnessed other Vermont dairy farms going out of business. They began their herd with 15 Ayrshire heifers in 2002, and the care and dedication they’ve put into their operation is evident in their cheese. The Bayley Hazen is a creamy, tangy, raw-milk blue that strikes just the right balance of salty bite and grassy sweetness. It is not an overwhelming blue, so it is perfect for cooking or crumbled over a seasonal beet salad.

I used it to top my Zesty Green Beans Almondine, and found the lemon zest really brought out the flavors of the cheese. If you were serving it on a cheese plate, I would be sure to include something sweet like dried fruit, maybe even candied citrus peels. If you’re serving it after dinner, a port or other sweet wine would be a perfect pairing.

This seems to be a fairly popular cheese at the moment, and deservedly so. It was available at Cheesetique and I have seen it on several DC-area restaurant cheese lists, including at Restaurant Eve. You can consult the retailer list on their website to find it near you.

Want to catch the latest reviews as soon as they’re posted? Follow @100cheeses on Twitter for updates straight from our cheeseboard!

So I moved to Minneapolis in the summer of 2006 and made many happy trips to Surdyk’s, which was easy because it was just across the river from my office. But I was thrilled to learn there would soon be a cheese shop opening not far from my apartment in the ritzy 50th and France shopping district. Cheese near the office AND cheese near my house? Score!

The Premier Cheese Market is owned by Ken and Amy Liss, foodies who followed their passion for fine cheese and made it a career, just like Cheesetique‘s Jill Erber. The selection was small but satisfying at first, but Ken has really built it to become a well-stocked cheese counter, and I always find something to match my craving. You can find a variety of crackers, olive oils, olives, salts and other tasty treats, and I always pick up a loaf of Rustica Bakery‘s rustic bread – the crust is divine! (Cut thick slices and layer it with fresh tomato, mozzarella and a drizzle of fruity olive oil – oh, I wish it were August again!) Coffee, sandwiches, soups and desserts are also available, but I usually just come for the cheese and bread.

I’ve tried to convince Ken to hold cheese classes in the store at night, similar to Cheesetique’s, but he told me he thinks the store is too small. (I need to bring him pictures of the original Cheesetique to show him that’s absolutely not true!) But he does conduct classes on occasion at the Cooks of Crocus Hill store just down the block, and he’s also available for private wine and cheese parties. Hmmm, good to know…

And since Premier Cheese Market does not sell wine, it’s open on Sundays! The hours aren’t long, but hey, better than nothing. (The shop is closed on Mondays, though.) Visit the Premier Cheese Market at 5013 France Ave. S. in Minneapolis.

When faced with the prospect of moving to Minneapolis two and a half years ago, one of my first questions was, “Is there a good cheese shop?” My friend, Ariela, who was already living there and had developed her own cheese obsession, assured me that there was. “Oh yeah, I’ll take you to Surdyk’s.” So excited was I that I made her take me there on the first day of my four-day find-a-job, find-an-apartment visit, and I was not disappointed.

Located in Northeast Minneapolis, Surdyk’s is primarily known for its wine and liquor shop, which it claims is the Midwest’s largest. But when it moved into its current building in 1979, the owners added a specialty cheese and gourmet food shop, which is the first place I head. The cheese selection is top-notch, and the very knowledgable staff really don’t mind if you taste 10 cheeses during your visit. (I know, I’ve done it!) Besides cheese, the shop is stocked with all the traditional accompaniments, and some not-so-traditional ones, too (chocolate-covered potato chips, anyone?). You can also pick up lunch at the deli counter, which has a yummy array of soups, sandwiches and hot entrees that change daily. The huge brownies are killer, too.

Surdyk’s offers cheese classes as well, but I’ve never taken one because the fee is pretty pricey, especially compared to Cheesetique’s. Instead, I like to buy several cheeses at once and conduct my own class at home…with myself. I also try to convince my husband to taste my choices, but he doesn’t like gooey, blue or stinky cheese, so most of the time I get it all to myself. Can’t complain about that!

You can find Surdyk’s at 303 E. Hennepin Ave. in Minneapolis. Don’t go on a Sunday, though – thanks to Minnesota state law, you can’t buy alcohol on a Sunday, so the cheese shop is closed, too. But if you’ve got a hankering, don’t worry – the next stop on the Minneapolis cheese tour can oblige!

The place where our mutual infatuation with cheese really took root, Cheesetique is a lovely little shop in Del Ray, Virginia. It expanded in early 2008 to include a new cheese and wine bar, which also created a dedicated classroom space for the monthly themed cheese classes. In addition to the area’s best cheese selection, and friendly and knowledgeable cheesemongers, Cheesetique also stocks an array of charcuterie, fresh pasta, olive oils, gourmet crackers, local chocolates, all the necessary cheese accompaniments, wine and beer. (I recently wrote about my “Cheesetique Pasta,” made from the shop’s saffron pasta, salami and roasted tomatoes.)

You can check the archives here for recaps of a few of the past cheese classes, taught by Jill Erber, a.k.a. the Cheese Lady. Jill is the most gregarious cheese advocate I have yet to meet, and is surely destined for a career as the next food network star. Not on that cheesy reality competition, but as the host of a cheese talk/travel show. (Wouldn’t that be awesome?) 

Most recently, I enjoyed the samplings at the fall class, “Love ’em or Leaf ’em.” Some of these cheeses were ordered just for the class, so it was a special treat to enjoy them. A favorite was the Vento d’ Estate, an Italian cows-milk cheese that comes wrapped in a thick layer of green hay. The hay imparts a musty, grassy aroma and flavor to the cheese.

Cheesetique is not the only cheese shop in the area, so as the challenge goes on I will branch out a little and report back on some of DC’s other fine cheese cases. But if you are local, you really must make a point to stop in for a panini, cheese tasting, flight of wine or just some personal consultation with DC’s top cheesemongers.

Cheesetique is at 2411 Mt. Vernon Ave., Alexandria. They open at 8am on Saturdays during the Del Ray Farmers Market season, stay open till 10pm Friday and Saturday nights, and are closed on Mondays. If you already know and love Cheesetique, why not join the fan club on Facebook? See you in the shop!

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