March 2009

It’s no secret by now that we’re fans of Wine Spectator, so when we heard from the editor of our now dog-eared cheese issue (Sept. 30, 2008), we jumped at the chance to ask him a few questions. After all, short of penning a weekly cheese column for the New York Times, overseeing the cheese coverage at one of the nation’s most revered wine publications is probably our mutual dream job. Owen Dugan, features editor at the Wine Spectator, had the enviable, if daunting, task of compiling the “100 Great Cheeses” list last year. While he was understandably coy about what he’s sampled lately, here are some behind-the-scenes details of how he assembled the list.

Q. How many cheeses did you taste, and over how long a time period?

A. That’s the No. 1 question and is difficult to answer. Let me conflate a couple of your questions. I was in charge of selection and procurement for the final in-office tastings, but had significant help from contributing editor Sam Gugino and several editors on staff here. We are all eating and tasting cheese constantly, for pleasure and for work (it gets blurry sometimes), and brought these experiences to bear on selection. So the answer to “how many” is hundreds. Many of those in the field, during the year, and not necessarily tasted with this issue in mind. But none was included without being re-tasted and evaluated by Sam and me in the office. Both of us wrote tasting notes and scores to make sure we were in agreement. The in-office tastings probably numbered 200 cheeses, tasted as categories.

So for Cheddars, for example, we used our tastings from a story Sam did a couple of years ago to help us select, and also asked around and trawled local and online sources, and re-tasted all together. Some old favorites did not make it in; some new favorites were discovered along the way.

Q. Did you aim for a variety of cheeses (origin, milk, age, etc.) or did you just see how the chips fell, so to speak?

A. Yes, we did aim for variety, as I think we explained in the introduction. The No. 1 criterion for inclusion was quality above all. But that said, we also wanted the list to be representative of the market, and of where quality is found. You could easily do 100 Best American Cheeses, or French. We chose international, and so were careful to find examples of marketplace stalwarts and iconic cheeses when possible, but also the best examples of the recent proliferation of really great cheese, and not just in the U.S. The numbers were crunched in every imaginable way, but in the end there were very few cases of ‘We need one more x-milk cheese,’ or ‘Why so few wines from y?’ (A lot of this is explained on page 62, under the heading How We Taste.)

Q. You stated in the magazine that one of the criteria used was the cheese’s affinity for wine. Were there any cheeses you sampled that stumped you on a wine pairing?

A. Do I have to answer that? Um. I would turn it around and say that I am one of those people who does not usually like red table wine with cheese. In the few cases where we recommend those wines with the cheese it might mean that I have no better alternative, though my fallback in such cases is to match to texture.

Q. We imagine that for every cheese you included, you must have heard from several other producers wondering why their cheeses didn’t make the cut. Is that accurate?

A. We have fielded a number of questions from producers, importers, readers, and retailers about general and specific exclusions. Truly, though, complaints have been few. Putting together such a list is difficult, but also does focus one’s priorities. Early on 100 seemed too many; now it seems too few. But I think the list is fairly inclusive and does right by both archetypes and newcomers. No cheese got in by reputation alone, nor did anyone get in on novelty. The criteria were weighted slightly, with the goal of giving a fairly knowledgeable and curious cheese and wine lover something to take to market to find even better examples of their favorites and also to broaden their experience. I think people understand that, even if their favorite is not on the list. Let me also say that a couple of my very favorites are not on. In one case production is low and the season short. In another, well, as Procrustes knew, sacrifices must be made.

Q. What was the reaction from your readers?

A. Mostly very positive. It was on track to break the record for newsstand sales, but I do not know if it did ultimately. A couple of stores made little flags reading “Wine Spectator Top 100” to stick in cheeses. You’re the only ones who have taken on the job of evaluating our work so thoroughly, though. Be thankful you have more than a few months at your disposal, and do not find yourself tasting 30 Pecorinos at 9 in the morning.

Q. Have any new cheeses caught your eye since the list was published?

A. Yes. Let’s see if they show up in the magazine.

Q. Will there be a 2009 list?

A. I don’t believe so, but Sam will write regularly on cheese this year.

Q. What would we find in your cheese drawer right now?

A. A half-bottle of German Riesling TBA and … I’ll never tell.

Our thanks to Owen for subjecting to our inquisition ~ and we’ll be reading Wine Spectator to see what they suggest pairing with that German Riesling!

Editors’ Note: If you haven’t already, you can order a copy of the Sept. 30, 2008, “100 Great Cheeses” issue, or access it online if you’re a Wine Spectator subscriber, to follow along and read Owen & Sam’s reviews and suggested pairings.

My love of ooey-gooey soft-rind cheeses has already been well-documented. I love Chaource, I love Mt. Tam, I love any cheese that oozes from its soft shell. So why in the world did I not discover Le Chevrot until this week?

A pasteurized goat’s-milk cheese from France, Le Chevrot is very comparable to Chaource, even though the latter is a cow’s-milk cheese. I found them to be very similar in texture, and the taste, while not identical, wasn’t too far off. Le Chevrot didn’t taste at all like the clean-tasting Loire Valley cheese I sampled last week, but it didn’t have a strong goaty factor, either. Instead, I got a mouthful of creamy, runny deliciousness that I’ve been missing from my recently reviewed cheeses. Yum.

Sauvignon blanc is an oft-mentioned pairing for Le Chevrot, but I think most white wines would be a good match. Even though it doesn’t come from the Champagne region of France, I’d try it with some bubbly, too.

And if you’ll be consuming Le Chevrot yourself, look for the mini variety – I found mine at Surdyk’s – which is only 2.8 oz compared to the usual 6-8 oz. full-size disk. Of course, if you find it to be as delectable as I do, you may need to go for the super-size version.

One of the fundamental flaws in our plan to taste through a set list is that we tend to head to the cheese shop with certain cheeses in mind each week. Those of you with quality cheese shops in your neighborhood know that the better approach is to ask the cheesemonger what’s good. Cheeses continue to age when they reach the shop, and cheesemongers know best which cheeses are perfectly ripe at that precise moment. That’s not to say we don’t sample other cheeses, but our budgets just don’t allow us to bring home all the cheeses we might like. Happily this week, my cheesemonger’s recommendation paired up well with our “thoughts of spring in France” theme, as she steered me towards the Tomme Crayeuse, from Savoie in the French Alps.

This aged raw cows-milk cheese is still fairly heavy, dense and almost chewy in texture, with an earthiness from its mottled grey and yellow surface molds. (The rind is a little too funky to nibble, even for my high-funk tolerance level.) But the sweet, yeasty paste surprises the taste buds with a lighter, almost citrus flavor, that makes this cheese perfect for bridging that awkward between-season gap when your spring wardrobe isn’t quite sufficient for morning temperatures that still hover in the 30s. I devoured my wedge for lunch, but would like to try it with a fruity beer next time. A spicy red wine might be nice, as well.

Y’all know that I started writing for the Heavy Table, right? It’s the new online food magazine covering the upper Midwest. If you haven’t already, check it today – you’ll find my story about Ken Liss of the Premier Cheese Market in Minneapolis. Ken, photographer Becca Dilley and I spent a couple of hours last week trying out interesting cheese/beverage/condiment pairings, and the results may surprise you!

I tried to plan ahead for this week’s forced offline time and purchased two cheeses last week. But a name-confusion snafu left me with the wrong cheese to review! We’d hate to leave you with only one cheese for the week, though, so here are my tasting notes on a cheese that isn’t on the “100 Great Cheese” list.

Now, one thing I’ve learned in my few months’ worth of experience as a cheese writer is that there is a certain “groupthink” mentality when it comes to embracing new cheeses. When I reviewed Winnimere there was only one shop in town carrying it; it was Culture‘s centerfold cheese around the same time and now every shop in town has it in stock. Deservedly so, in that case. But in other cases, one might wonder how much a cheese’s popularity is more driven by a good PR campaign than by its quality or taste.

Take Beehive‘s Barely Buzzed. It was reviewed in the San Francisco Chronicle in February, and I soon after found it at the District’s Cowgirl Creamery. Now, at least two other local cheese shops are carrying it too. Artisanal cheesemakers in the arid Southwest are rare, and Beehive’s Jersey cows graze on lush alfalfa near Great Salt Lake.  

At first taste, I thought their Barely Buzzed coffee and lavendar-coated cheese was kind of cool, combining a sweet, creamy cheese with the bitter tang of coffee. But further sampling has led me to reconsider. After eating more than a few bites, I feel that the coffee grounds are too distracting. The sensation of licking a used coffee filter is not one I typically look for when sitting down to enjoy some cheese and ale. I do recommend trying it with a dark stout if you come across it, and it certainly adds a conversation starter to your cheese plate. But it is one cheese that won’t be jockeying for a spot on my personal “top 10” list anytime soon. (I am, however, curious to sample Beehive’s newest honey and salt-rubbed SeaHive.)

What do you say, readers, have you tried Beehive? Have a much-hyped cheese you just don’t love, either?

Selles-sur-Cher is a sweet little button of goat cheese made in the heart of France’s Loire Valley. Named for the town from which it originated, this plucky cheese actually bigger than a button (it’s about 3 in. across), but its petite flavor gives it a smaller footprint on your tastebuds.

The blueish exterior of Sulles-sur-Cher may turn off French chèvre novices, but rest assured that it’s just a coating of vegetable ash, a common feature among Loire Valley goat’s-milk cheeses. The rind is edible, unless the cheese is aged considerably, but my portion was perfectly young and fresh. I enjoyed the clean, almost floral taste of Selles-sur-Cher – during a week when the snow is melting and the temperature starts to rise, it seemed to be the ideal cheese for welcoming spring. (Watch, I just jinxed Minnesota – we’ll have a blizzard next week.) You’ll only find pasteurized versions of Selles-sur-Cher in the United States, but my cheesemonger Benjamin at the Cheese Shop at France 44 assured me that it’s still quite tasty. Until I make it back to France, I’ll have to take his word for it.

Steven Jenkins recommends serving Selles-sur-Cher with sweet fruits, such as citrus and melon. I sampled mine with some canteloupe and found the pairing to be pleasant, though I also liked just slicing off small wedges while standing at the counter. He suggests a white Sancerre for a wine, while Artisanal Cheese recommends Sauvignon Blanc. I could even see a match with a sweeter white, like Muscat, but I haven’t tested that theory yet. Experiment on your own and let us know!

In light of the upcoming St. Patrick’s Day holiday, I turned my head toward Ireland this week. Actually, I turned my car toward Surdyk’s, where I purchased Ardrahan Farmhouse cheese, but same diff.

And for someone who is not at all familiar with Irish cheeses, I was quite pleased with the Ardrahan. A semi-firm, cow’s-milk cheese made in County Cork by cheesemaker Mary Burns, Ardrahan was born out of a desire of Mary and her family to eat higher-quality dairy products. The washed rind gives it the heady aroma that cheese lovers come to expect from these cheeses, and it gets more and more intense the longer you let the cheese sit at room temperature. And since I like my cheeses as gooey as possible, mine was pretty pungent by the time I sampled a piece. The cheese had begun to liquify near the edges, just as I like it, but the middle kept its semi-firm texture. The flavor was a little earthy but not overwhelmingly so.

While Brooklyn’s Bedford Cheese Shop states that Ardrahan Farmhouse is “great with anything remotely alcoholic,” the Burns family recommends a full-bodied Shiraz, Sancerre or Port. Of course, Irish whiskey would be a natural pairing as well. Happy St. Patty’s Day!

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