June 2009


We’ll have more to say about the 2009 Fancy Food Show — our first as credentialed members of the cheese press — soon, but we wanted to bring you the breaking news fresh from NYC that Cypress Grove’s Truffle Tremor won the “sofi” tonight in the cheese/dairy category. The Fancy Food Show, put on by the National Association for the Specialty Food Trade (NASFT), hosts the annual competition for specialty outstanding food innovation (sofi). Out of nearly 2,000 entries in 33 categories, 128 finalists were selected by a panel of judges, and the winners then determined by votes of buyers attending the show — the Oscars of the food world, so to speak.

with CGs Mary Keehn

w/ Cypress Grove's Mary Keehn

 

Cypress Grove has a special place in our hearts here at Cheese + Champagne, as their iconic Humboldt Fog was the launching point for our exploration of (some might say obsession with) artisanal cheese. Truffle Tremor is their newest product, a lightly-aged goats-milk cheese with, as the name suggests, the additional earthy flavor imparted by a generous helping of black truffles. This sweet, musty, velvety cheese is truly unique — the distinctive flavor still lingers in my taste memory even after a day spent sampling dozens of cheeses. Don’t just take my word for it; Murray’s calls it sexy, too: “Dense, cakey pasteurized goat cheese with a fine bloomy rind takes on a sexy richness with a few weeks of aging and fungi.” Be sure to give it a try if (when) you happen upon it. And congratulations to Mary and all at Cypress Grove!

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If you look on the Wine Spectator list, you won’t find the name Les Freres. You’ll come across Petit Freres, which is a diminutive version of this washed-rind cheese, but I couldn’t find it locally. But Ken at Premier Cheese Market assured me that this was the same cheese, just bigger, and I am very glad I tried it because it is, to put it simply, yummy.

With a name that translates to “the brothers,” it shouldn’t come as a surprise to learn that Les Freres is produced by the Crave Brothers, a family of four brothers who grew up on a dairy farm near Beloit, Wis., and now own a farm in Waterloo. Each brother has a unique role in the cheesemaking operation:

Crave Brothers Management Responsibilities
Charles Crave – Bookkeeping/Feeding
Thomas Crave – Crop Production/Maintenance
Mark Crave – Herd Manager/Personnel Manager
George Crave – Manager of Cheese Factory

Don’t you love it when siblings play nicely? The rest of us benefit by getting a tasty cow’s-milk cheese that is easy for all to enjoy, despite the washed rind. This is no Epoisses or Red Hawk –  Les Freres has just a mildly stinky, mushroomy appeal. It has a light-colored paste that doesn’t get too runny, and since the cheese holds its shape so well, it’s a good choice for a party cheeseboard with accompanying fruit. Serve with white wine, such as Prosecco or Pinot Grigio, or do as the New York Times’ Eric Asimov did and pair it with a 2006 Crozes-Hermitage from Jean-Claude Marsanne.

The first sign of summer’s field-ripened tomatoes calls for fresh mozzarella, and there’s no finer specimen than the original buffalo mozzarella of Italy, Mozzarella di Bufala Campana.  From the milk of water buffalo (not to be confused with American bison) comes this fresh, spongey cheese with a milky, slightly sour flavor that distinguishes from the readily-available cows’ milk mozzarellas. It is also a more tender cheese than American variations, the curds breaking down until it becomes a puddle of mush. (At which point it’s definitely past its prime — fresh bufala mozzarella should be eaten quickly after purchase.) It is produced in the Campania region, around Naples, and DOC-protected.

There are various legends to explain how water buffalo found their way to Italy, but history is clear that they have produced fresh cheese from said buffalo since at least the 12th century. Mozzarella is often overlooked by serious cheese lovers, but few cheeses are as perfectly refreshing on a hot summer’s day. And the mild flavor makes pairing a breeze, as it would be hard to find a wine or beer that wouldn’t work.  Of course you can eat it as is, or sliced and layered with heirloom tomatoes, basil, and drizzled with olive oil. Tonight we had an impromptu picnic at the playground, where a salami, Mediterranean salad and crackers rounded out the meal.

Read more about Italy’s most popular cheese in this travelogue from LA Times writer Susan Spano, who describes pulling her car to the side of the road to tear into a bag: “With the cheese slithering in my hands, I took a bite, breaking through the thin, shiny rind into dissolving layers of musky-tasting paradise, juice streaming down my chin.”

P.S. The crackers? One of my favorite finds at the recent National Harbor Food & Wine Festival in DC. Locally made right here in Maryland, Little Ragghi’s crisp flatbread are seasoned with olive oil and parmesan cheese for a perfectly satisfying crunch. Their tagline is “quite possibly the world’s most addicting crackers,” and I have to say, they may be right!

(You can find both Little Ragghi’s crackers and the pictured mozzarella di bufala at Cheesetique in Va.)

I ate this week at a fairly new restaurant in DC, Art and Soul, helmed by Chef Art Smith. A Southern-bred, James Beard award-winning chef who came to Washington by way of Chicago — and formerly cooked for Oprah –, Chef Art has a menu that highlights local, seasonal ingredients. Sure, many restaurants profess to do the same, with varying degrees of success, but what impressed me here was seeing the “eat local” philosophy carried over to the cheese menu. Sadly, we didn’t actually sample the cheese this time as it was not on the Kids’ Restaurant Week prix fixe menu (boo!), but the list is familiar to any DC-area cheese fan: Talbot’s Reserve from Chapel’s Country Creamery (MD), Everona Dairy’s Piedmont (VA), Meadow Creek Dairy’s Grayson (VA), and Firefly Farms’ Black and Blue (MD) — all fine choices!

Just to round out the local dairy offerings, Art and Soul also dishes up Moorenko’s ice cream and sorbet. (You can read more about our dinner over at FoodieTots, and if you live in Chicago or NYC, your Kids’ Restaurant Week kicks off tomorrow, June 20.) 

elsewhere in cheese this week ….

Check out Madame Fromage‘s sheep’s milk blue discovery; and, It’s Not You, It’s Brie describes a cheese with “more texture and flavor variations than Mariah Carey has pink stilettos.” Click over to check them out!

I consider Stilton to be the grand dame of blue cheese. It’s not quite as old as some of the French blues, like Fourme d’Ambert, but it’s one of the first cheese that comes to mind when I think “blue cheese,” and it just has the regal quality about it. It is first thought to have been made in early 18th-century England, and even though it wasn’t made in the town of Stilton, many travelers en route from London to Scotland would stop here and purchase the cheese, thus the moniker.

Where did I find that fun fact? Why, the official Stilton Web site, of course! Here are some other gems:

•There are just six dairies in the world licensed to make Blue Stilton cheese — Colston Bassett Dairy, Cropwell Bishop, Long Clawson Dairy, Quenby Hall, Tuxford & Tebbutt Creamery and Websters.
•Stilton is a “protected name” cheese and by law can only be made in the three counties of Derbyshire, Leicestershire, Nottinghamshire.
•It takes 136 pints milk (78 litres) to make one 17 lb (8kg) Stilton cheese.
•More than 1 million Stilton cheeses are made each year.
•More than 10 percent of output is exported to some 40 countries worldwide.
•Every cheese is graded before leaving the dairy to ensure only cheese of the highest quality is marketed under the Stilton name.
•White Stilton is also a protected name cheese and is made in a similar way to its blue cousin – except that no mold spores are added and the cheese is sold at about 4 weeks of age. It is a crumbly, creamy, open textured cheese and is now extensively used as a base for blending with apricot, ginger and citrus or vine fruits to create unique dessert cheeses.

OK, enough with the facts. How does Stilton taste? It’s on the stronger side of the blue-cheese spectrum, with a meaty, almost smoky flavor that fills your mouth. Though pasteurized, this cow’s-milk cheese offers enough oomph for even a raw-milk purist. I, of course, would be perfectly happy eating it straight from the wrapper, but it would also pair nicely with fresh fruit, such as apples and pears. The Stilton Web site also suggests plum bread and mango chutney, which would be intriguing to try.

Blue cheese=Port in many wine-and-cheese enthusiasts’ minds, and it’s certainly a good match, but keep an open mind when purchasing an accompanying wine. A sweet dessert wine or a full-bodied red would also work nicely. Artisanal Cheese and many other sites recommend a Sauternes if you’re not a fan of Port or are looking for a change from the usual wine.

Though I had already bought a cheese from the Wine Spectator list for this week, I was fully on board with Colleen’s idea to take a furlough from said list and sample some local goat’s-milk cheeses instead. This week not withstanding (we had a record three days in a row when the temperature didn’t get above 60°), we’ve also been blessed with spring-like weather here in Minnesota, which turns the taste buds toward young, fresh cheeses. I found two delicious specimens at Surdyk’s that are definitely worth a try.

I hadn’t heard of Donnay Dairy before, but this farmstead operation in Kimball, Minn., produces two certified-organic goat cheeses: fresh chevre and the cave-aged Granite Ridge. The family-run farm began making goat cheese in 2004, and it quickly grew in popularity throughout Minnesota. I brought home a tub of the chevre and marveled at its clean, pure taste.

My second cheese hails from my homestate of Wisconsin, and while it’s not as young as the Donnay Dairy chevre, its uniqueness merited a place on my cheese plate. Carr Valley, maker of the previously review Marisa, has created a goat’s-milk blue cheese called Billy Blue. It’s made from the milk of pasture-raised goats and aged for four months, so it still retains the freshness of a chevre while providing the salty tang of a blue cheese. A great blue cheese for beginners, the Billy Blue will definitely see the inside of my cheese drawer again.

But what’s the best pairing for a blue goat cheese? Carr Valley suggests a Sauternes, Port or cider, none of which I had on hand during my tasting. Since I have a little cheese left, though, I might have to do some experimentation over the weekend. That’s homework I won’t mind at all!

While Jill has been faithfully working her way through the “100 Great Cheeses” list, I have to confess to having strayed off course. The brief glimpses of warmer weather, in between DC’s recent monsoons, turned my thoughts to fresh local goats and I’ve undertaken a brief dalliance to journey coast to coast in a quest for some fresh farmstead cheese. These local goat cheeses, whether in fresh chevre form or lightly aged, are generally available in limited quantities and often don’t travel as far beyond their farm, making them ineligible for the Wine Spectator list. But we would be doing a disservice to you, dear readers, if we didn’t devote a little time to the best cheeses currently in season. Goat cheese has a season, you ask? Yes, indeed. Goats give birth in the spring, after all, meaning those early months of the year are when goats are producing milk. Coincidentally, that is when fresh green grasses on which goats graze are just sprouting, full of flavor that passes on through the milk and into that dollop of chevre atop your beet salad or asparagus pasta. As spring turns to summer, that peak grassy flavor mellows in bloomy-rind, slightly-aged goats milk cheeses, such as the two Maryland cheeses I’ve recently enjoyed from Spriggs Delight and Firefly Farms.

I’m a sucker for a cute kid’s face, human or goat, so I couldn’t pass up the new Spriggs Delight Farm offering at Cheesetique. Spriggs Delight is a mother-son operation in Sharpsburg, Maryland, who have been producing cheese for only a few years. This crumpled bloomy-rind round maintains a strong tangy, grassy goat flavor, and was well matched with some fruit-studded crackers that provided a little sweetness to contrast the almost tart taste of the cheese. 

 

I’ve been a fan of Firefly Farm‘s manchego-style Cabra LaMancha for some time, but it had been a while since I last sampled their award-winning Merry Goat Round, until getting reacquainted this past weekend at La Fromagerie’s “meet the cheesemaker” event. Firefly Farms‘ cheesemakers have recently moved away from managing goats themselves, instead purchasing all their milk from local Amish farmers who raise the goats on organic feed to Firefly’s specifications. During the warm months, the goats graze on wild grasses of the Allegheny plains of northwestern Maryland/southwestern Pennsylvania. Firefly is instead putting all their attention into perfecting their cheesemaking, and building a larger creamery that will double their capacity later this year. Firefly also gave up their organic certification given the expense of paying for hard-to-find certifiers to visit every six months, but continues to follow organic practices. Their Merry Goat Round is a bloomy-rind, Camembert-style cheese that is aged just three weeks. It has a remarkably clean, fresh flavor and a chalky, firm bite. As it ripens, it develops that soft gooey edge inside the rind but maintains the chalkiness in the middle. It is slightly sweet and surprisingly mild, with less of that goaty tang present in the Spriggs Delight cheese.

One of the advantages of these spring/summer goat cheeses is that mild flavor that makes them easy to pair with a wide range of drinks, from crisp white to summer rose or even a light, fruity red wine. Seasonal beers, like Dominion’s Spring Buck Blonde Ale, are also great picks. Of course, I stuck with my goat theme and went with a South African Goat’s Door chardonnay from Goats do Roam with this distinguished gentleman goat on the label (thanks to a Twitter friend’s recommendation). Merry Goat Round was also a hit with my toddler, who snatched my tasting slice right off the plate and said, “Is this cheese for me?” with such delight that I could hardly say no…

Stay tuned for some more “Local Goats” from around the country this week!

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