May 2009

Like salt? I mean, REALLY like salt? Then this is the cheese for you!

Hailing from Central Greece, Greek Mountain Feta is a combination sheep’s- and goat’s-milk cheese from Mt. Vikos. The goats and sheep are allowed graze on free-range grasses and herbs, and their milk is collected every morning by the shepherds, who bring the milk to the family-owned dairy. The cheese is aged in brine for two months, which is what gives it that ultra-salty tang. It is drier than many Fetas I’ve tried, though it still has the creaminess you’d expect from a high-quality Feta. Wine Spectator recommends pairing it with an “aromatic white, such as Assyrtiko or Moschofilero.”

I tried a wedge of Greek Mountain Feta atop a slice of Wisconsin-grown tomato and a drizzle of fruity Israeli olive oil. The combination was superb, even with a non-seasonal tomato. I can’t wait until my CSA box is filled with a bounty of tomatoes come August. Then I’ll definitely try this trifecta again with the heirloom varieties that appear in my box.

If you’ve been watching this past season of “Lost,” you’ll appreciate the Egyptian influence on my cheese of the week, Valencay. (What is up with all the hieroglyphics? And who the hell is Jacob?) According to Steven Jenkins, this pyramid-shaped goat cheese was created for Napoléon during his campaign to conquer Egypt, but when the effort turned south, the Loire Valley cheesemaker, Pierre Jacquin, flattened the top of the pyramid. Apparently, that would help mitigate the blow of Napoléon’s unsuccessful takeover. It still looks like a pyramid to me, but maybe Napoléon (or Jacquin) wasn’t too bright.

You’ll find pasteurized Valencay throughout the United States, and it’s easily recognizable by its shape and gray ash coating. I assume the raw-milk version available in France is superior, as raw-milk cheeses usually are. I wasn’t all that impressed with the wedge I got from Surdyk’s, to tell you the truth. Rather than tasting clean and fresh, like so many young goat’s-milk cheeses, it has an off-putting sour taste that was hard to swallow. I had a similar cheese a few years ago from Whole Foods that I remember liking so much more, so I wonder if this particular piece had been mishandled or had been sitting in the case too long.

Valencay is definitely a white-wine cheese – Artisanal Cheese recommends a Sauvignon Blanc. Anything that could mitigate the sour taste of the cheese would be a welcome pairing!

My cheese of the week likely needs no introduction, but just in case the name doesn’t ring a bell I will mention that its namesake is none other than Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, perhaps one of history’s most influential foodies. (Okay, “epicures,” if you prefer.) A French lawyer who fled to the United States during the Revolution, he penned “The Physiology of Taste” in 1825 which contained the words that have most recently become the sustainable food movement’s rallying cry: “Tell me what you eat and I will tell you what you are.” 

Brillat-Savarin is also credited with being one of the first low-carb dieters, so one assumes he would be honored to have a protein-rich, creamy French cheese named in his honor. Brillat-Savarin the cheese is a pasteurized cows-milk triple-creme brie-style specimen produced in Normandy. It is decadent indeed, delightfully creamy, with a bloomy natural rind. It is a touch more sour than your typical brie, with that subtle tang you’d find in the white parts of a bleu cheese. Best eaten with a spoon, or slathered over a nice fruit-studded bread. It is an ideal partner for a nice glass of French champagne*, if you’re so inclined.

*Speaking of celebrations, we’ve noted elsewhere but neglected to mention here the official cease-fire in the Roquefort wars. Americans can continue to enjoy Roquefort, Iberico ham and Pellegrino for the foreseeable future. Vive le Roquefort!

Two weeks ago I was thrilled to find my Saturday interrupted by an e-mail from Premier Cheese Market announcing that after three years on a waiting list, it had finally received its first shipment of Pholia Farm cheeses. Pholia Farm’s Elk Mountain cheese is on the Wine Spectator list, but I hadn’t been able to find it in Minneapolis up to that time, so I rushed over to the shop right after my son woke up from his nap and grabbed my wedge before someone else did.

And I’m extremely glad I did! Ken let me sample all of the Pholia Farm goat’s-milk cheeses he had on hand, including the sumptuous Wimer Winter, but Elk Mountain was a stand-out as well. A raw-milk, aged cheese, its rind is washed with ale from the neighboring Wild River Brewery, and the Nigerian Dwarf goats are also fed the spent grain from the brewery, giving the cheeses a nutty, hoppy aroma and taste. Elk Mountain is a great snacking cheese – the cheesemaker recommends pairing it with fig and pear preserves – and is complemented by Viognier, Syrah, Champagne and full-bodied ales.

Fun fact: Pholia Farm is located in the same Rogue River valley that is home to Rogue Creamery, one of Colleen’s favorite homestate cheesemakers. Do I predict an Oregon cheese crawl in our future?

One of the advantages of our “100 Great Cheeses” challenge is that I’ve been “forced” to try some classics that I might otherwise have overlooked in my cheese case browsing. This week’s cheese, Le Brin of France’s Rhone region, is one of those. Despite its reddish-orange rind that resembles a stinkier washed rind cheese, Le Brin is a mild, delicately flavored cheese. This semi-soft cows-milk cheese has a chewy bite when cool, but softens to a thick, creamy consistency as it warms to room temperature. It is rich and buttery, slightly sweet with soft yeasty notes.

Le Brin was a crowd-pleasing choice before Friday night’s family dinner. We had it with Riesling, but I’d probably go with a more crisp, less sweet wine next time.

You’d assume that a cheese called Manchester would be British, but no, this one is all red, white and blue.

Named for Manchester, Vt., this aged raw-milk cheese is a prime example of how a good goat cheese doesn’t have to reek of goats. The Consider Bardwell Farm in western Vermont makes the cheese from the milk of pasture-raised goats but then ages the 3-lb. tommes in Jasper Hill Farm‘s caves. The result is a semi-firm, nutty cheese with a taste that reminds of jumping around in a hay-filled barn. If that doesn’t get you in the mood for summer, I don’t know what will!

Artisanal Cheese recommends a Chenin Blanc as the accompanying sipper to Manchester, and I think any light, fruity wine would be a good match. I don’t know if rosés will be trendy this summer, but I’d be willing to give it a shot. Hell, I eat Lucky Charms in applesauce, so do you really think I care about wine trends?

I’m not sure how it happens, but sometimes a weekend comes and goes and I neglect to visit my local cheese shop. And then Monday morning arrives in all its rainy dreariness and I realize I’m without a cheese for the week and both of the cheesemongers in my town are closed for the day. Fortunately, yet another new gourmet shop has opened in Old Town, Alexandria (VA), to help fill the gap. “The Butcher’s Block, A Market by RW” at the newly-opened Lorien Hotel is essentially the kitchen pantry of Chef Robert Wiedmaier, who expands his DC restuarant empire (Brasserie Beck, Marcel’s) with Brabo and Brabo Tasting Room here at the Lorien. In addition to wine, beer and gourmet goodies like salts, chocolates, olives, nuts, etc., the shop offers sandwiches, sauces and stocks, charcuterie and fresh meat – pork belly! – and a small collection of fine cheeses. The cheeses tilted towards a European selection, and I was able to find a Mahon Curado that I’ve enjoyed in the past but have not yet officially reviewed here. A carton of fresh Lucques olives and bottle of wine rounded out the purchase. (I have to confess I didn’t think too hard about the wine selection; Brabo’s Chef de Cuisine Chris Watson was pouring complementary glasses to entice shoppers to linger – quite successfully – and its summer-ready flavor were an easy sell on those of us hiding out from the rain and thinking of warmer weather.) 

Mahon Curado is an aged, raw cows-milk cheese from Menorca, Spain. The semi-firm cheese is coated in paprika and olive oil before aging, imparting a rich, nutty flavor with a hint of smoke. The wine I purchased, Velt.1 2007 Gruner Veltliner of Austria, is a crisp summer white with a lovely yellow-green hue. Its bright, acidic taste was a nice match with the sweet Mahon. And of course, few things go better with Spanish cheeses than olives and pork products; in this case, a “prosciutto-style” ham from Virginia’s Cibola Farms. 

The Butcher’s Block
1600 King Street
Alexandria, VA  22314