April 2009


I wasn’t sure how I was going to like this week’s cheese, Brie de Nangis. Though I don’t dislike Brie, it’s not one of my go-to cheeses. Cheap grocery-store versions offer very little flavor, and the Brie de Meaux I’ve bought in the past has an odd aftertaste. I was pleasantly surprised, then, to find that Brie de Nangis’ taste and texture mimicked a French triple-creme cheese more than its similarly named cousin.

A pasteurized cow’s-milk cheese, Brie de Nangis almost disappeared from cheeseboards for a while, but luckily for those of us who like its mild, buttery flavor, it is readily available today. You’ll find it in smaller rounds than Brie de Meaux, and its texture is firmer, too. Even after sitting on the counter for an hour, my wedge of Brie de Nangis didn’t get runny, though it probably would have if it stayed for another hour or two.

Surdyk’s recommends pairing Brie de Nangis with a Beaujolais, while Artisanal Cheese suggests a Merlot. Personally, all I need is some crusty French bread upon which to schmear it.

Unfortunately, the third time was not the charm in my quest to review this unpasteurized Brie-esque cheese from western Spain. You see, I had noticed a cheese labeled “Serena” at my neighborhood cheese shop, but when I went in to purchase it they no longer had it in stock. They agreed to get it back though, and I went in soon after to pick it up. But the semi-firm golden wedge I came home with looked not at all like I remembered the gooey, pungent cheese I had sampled last fall at Murray’s. Sure enough, Serena without the La is an entirely different cheese, from the western US (California, to be precise). While tasty in its own right – Cowgirl describes it as the “delicious progeny” of Parmigiano-Reggiano and Gouda – it was not going to get me another check mark on my cheese list. I next picked up a wedge at that cheese-abusing “whole foods” grocer, which was completely skunked. (Is there a cheese-terminology equivalent?) I figured it was a fluke and tried again a few weeks later, looking for the more freshly-cut looking piece. This one was okay, but it just couldn’t shake its funk at being wrapped in saran wrap too long. The interior was soft and had the earthy, fungal flavor I remembered, but it just didn’t achieve the same level of soft gooeyness as the properly cared for specimen at Murray’s. 

note the weird grey tinge inside the rind ...

 

La Serena is a sheeps-milk cheese made with thistle rennet (making it vegetarian for those who are concerned with such things), from merino sheep who graze in the grass and herb fields of a province by the same name.  A properly ripened round can be served whole with an opening cut in the top rind to allow easy scooping of the gooey center; it’s best served with fresh, crusty bread. Here, a touch of last summer’s plum vanilla jam helped revive my cheese’s faded flavors. 

 

[I could go on about the plight of abused cheeses at that aforementioned retailer, but will spare you the rant and send you here for more eye-candy to help you imagine this cheese in all its funk-nificant glory. And remember, support your local cut-to-order cheesemongers — or order a round of La Serena from LaTienda.]

My first taste of Shropshire Blue occurred about four years ago at a Capitol Hill-area restaurant called Sonoma. Colleen, our friend Jo and I met there for drinks and dinner before a movie, and for some unknown reason we thought we could finish off the restaurant’s full cheeseboard, which must have been about 15 cheeses. (We also thought this wouldn’t be enough, so we ordered at least one other dish. Crazy fools.) Shropshire Blue was one of those cheeses and I remember enjoying it, but by the time we left for the movie we were so stuffed that I couldn’t really differentiate all the fine cheeses we just consumed. It was a case of cheese brain.

So I was pleased to get another chance to experience Shropshire Blue and give it due diligence since I didn’t eat it with 14 other cheeses. And I found it to be a dense and delightful cheese that was hard to stop nibbling. A pasteurized cow’s-milk cheese from Nottinghamshire, Shropshire Blue was developed in the 1970s by one Mrs. Hutchison Smith and is now produced by the Long Clawson and Colston Bassett dairies. Shropshire Blue is often described as an orange Stilton, and it does look like a bit like a Stilton dipped in the powdered cheese packet you get in your box of macaroni and cheese. The cheese is creamier than Stilton, though it has the pungency one would expect from a strong blue cheese. After snacking on some yesterday, I decided to be nice to my husband and eat a palate-cleansing apple before kissing him.

Shropshire Blue is a natural match for sweets – ripe, sugary fruits and dessert wines like Port. If you purchase it as part of a cheeseboard, I recommend giving it the spot of honor as the strongest cheese on the platter. Though I love those washed-rind stinkers as much as any cheese lover, sometimes it’s nice to let the blues get the spotlight.

I have to confess that this cheese was the first that made me doubt the trusty “100 Great Cheeses” list, in its candy apple red wax coating and plastic shrinkwrap that made my inner cheese snob bristle. But after Jamie wrote on Serious Cheese this week about Grafton Village Cheese’s move to subsidize their supporting dairy farmers in the wake of falling milk prices, I decided to give Grafton a shot. I called around to my local shops and only Whole Foods carried Grafton’s cheddars. Despite my best “rain, rain, go away,” warblings, every nice DC day seems to be offset with another two rainy days, and today was one of the latter. Putting aside wistful thoughts of fresh chevre, I picked up the cheddar, some tomato soup and a loaf of whole wheat baguette and set about making a classic grilled cheese combination: apple, cheddar, arugula. (Mostly local, even, in a nod to Earth Day. The arugula comes from Va.’s Endless Harvest and apples from Pa.’s Toigo Orchards, both at DC’s Penn Quarter FreshFarm Market.)

I peeled back the red wax to reveal a milky white, crumbly cheese. The first bite was surprisingly full-flavored, a perfect balance of sharpness and sweet cream flavors, clearly indicative of a high quality milk base. Sure enough, Grafton Village carefully selects milk from rBST-free Jersey cows through Vermont dairy co-ops. The subsidy they’ll be paying out to their dairy suppliers will include a premium based on the butterfat and protein content of the milk. Grafton, who’s been making cheese in the historic village of Grafton, Vermont, since 1892, also makes a clothbound cheddar which also earned a spot on the Wine Spectator list. Alas, no local shops carry that one, so it goes on the “wanted” list for future tasting. (Cowgirl suggested Cabot’s clothbound as a substitute, which we’ve reviewed previously.)

At $3.99 a loaf, Grafton’s 1-year cheddar provides a nice break on the wallet, too. Whole Foods also carries a 2-year-aged and maple versions. Based on my first impressions, I’ll be giving Grafton Village’s other cheeses a try too. 

(Psst … this has almost nothing to do with cheese, but if you’re in the DC-area and enjoy our other regional delicacy, blue crabs – or just enjoy clean water, please stop by FoodieTots and check out today’s “Blog for the Bay” virtual rally for the Chesapeake.)

If you say “Wisconsin” to any person from any part of the country, the word he or she is likely to say back to you is “cheese.” Yes, Wisconsin is known for its cheese, and in case you can’t remember that fact on its own, Wisconsinites wear foam cheese-shaped hats to remind you. (Mine proudly rests on my desk, taunting my Viking-fan co-workers year-round.) But while many cheeses that hail from Wisconsin are your typical commodity bunch of cheddars and colbys, once in a while you’ll taste a cheese that makes you realize that Wisconsin is not only known for its cheese, but it knows how to do cheese right.

Pleasant Ridge Reserve, made by the Uplands Cheese Company in Dodgeville, Wis., is a shining example. A raw cow’s-milk cheese made in the style similar to French Alpine cheeses, Pleasant Ridge Reserve deserves the kudos it has received from the American Cheese Society, which gave it the Best in Show award not once, but twice, and from the U.S. Cheese Championship, which awarded it U.S. champion. The milk from the pasture-fed cows starts being processed into cheese minutes after it leaves the cow, and the cheese is only produced in the warm months when the pasture grasses fill the fields of southwestern Wisconsin. After being aged and bathed in brine in limestone caves for four months, the Pleasant Ridge Reserve is ready for tasting. The result is a sweet, grassy, firm cheese that offers a surprising salty finish.

Paired with a Riesling or Vouvray, Pleasant Ridge Reserve rightly earns its place on a cheeseboard, alongside a salad or as an accompaniment to a fresh fruit platter. I chose a German Riesling – mostly because the label matched the pretty tulips I bought at Trader Joe’s minutes earlier – and found the wine’s sweetness to be an elegant match for the cheese. Not too sweet or cloying, the wine brought out Pleasant Ridge Reserve’s tender grassiness – a wonderful after-dinner treat on a warm Minnesota spring evening.

Since Jill is our resident Wisconsin expert, I’m working on becoming the Vermont cheese guru — as several Vermont cheesemakers are represented on the Wine Spectator list, and they seem to be more readily available in DC area cheese shops than in the Midwest. (One of these days I’ll actually get up there myself, but in the meantime you can join me in living vicariously through Cookography‘s Vermont cheese tour. ) If you do spot Vermont’s fine cheeses in your local shops, definitely give them a try. The crisp Vermont air adds something to our East Coast dairy state’s milk that you generally only find in Europe’s Alpine cheeses. This week’s Vermont Ayr is a fine example.

This semi-hard aged cheese has the sweet, musty aroma of ripe pineapple, and the sweetness is evident in the flavor as well. The Crawford Family Farm’s small herd of heritage-breed Ayrshire cows – meet a few of their cows on the website – graze on a blend of clover and alfalfa, and produce a high quality, high butterfat (and rBST-free) raw milk used solely for their signature cheese, Vermont Ayr. The Crawfords, three siblings who took up cheesemaking to save the family dairy farm, carefully choose only the highest quality milk from a select few of the cows for each batch of Vermont Ayr. The curds are cave-aged three months, resulting in a sweet, slightly nutty, smooth cheese. Delicious on its own, or with a crisp Riesling that balances the cheese’s sweet notes.

After noting the injustice of National Grilled Cheese Month overlapping with Passover, Colleen challenged me last week to make a matzah version of a grilled-cheese sandwich. I have made many matzah pizzas over the years, but I don’t believe matzah grilled cheese ever graced my plate before. Up to the task, I came home from a Heavy Table interview last night and decided to give it a shot.

A poor substitute for the real thing

A poor substitute for the real thing

I broke a piece of matzah in half and inserted a slice of Tillamook medium aged cheddar (available at Costco in resealable bags and a fantastic substitute for American cheese singles) and got the sandwich going in my toaster oven. Just a few minutes later, the matzah became brown and the cheese was bubbling. The first taste consisted mostly of plain matzah and was blah as expected, but the second yielded a cheesy bite.

But was it any good? Not really. The cheese was delicious, but the slightly charred matzah did nothing to enhance its flavor, and you really can’t compare bland matzah to the soft and tasty cushion that a piece of quality bread can provide. Luckily, Passover ends on Thursday night, so I can enjoy the rest of National Grilled Cheese Month as it’s meant to be – with the best bread I can find.

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