August 2009


As you might expect, it’s Vermont Cheese Week here on Cheese + Champagne, and the first virtual postcard from Vermont comes from Blue Ledge Farm in Salisbury, in the southern end of the Champlain Valley. We drove through the valley en route to the Vermont Cheesemakers Festival, and it was breathtakingly beautiful even with the on-and-off rain showers.

This was one of the last cheeses I sampled at the festival, and I was delighted to find Hannah Sessions of Blue Ledge Farm tucked into the back corner as their Lake’s Edge is on our Wine Spectator list and had proven hard to find further south. This cheese is similar to Humboldt Fog, in that it is an aged goats-milk cheese with an ash layer and bloomy rind, but its taste is markedly distinct. It is fresher, with that sweet, clean taste of fresh chevre; the jet-black line of ash adds an earthy tang that awakens the palate. The pure milk taste distinguishes Lake’s Edge from more sour goats-milk cheeses, making this cheese approachable without compromising on flavor.

Blue Ledge Farm has a mixed herd of Alpine, Nubian and Lamancha goats, milked in season (February through November) and rotationally grazed on organically-maintained farmland. In keeping with the cheese’s name, we ate this cheese for lunch on the shores of Lake Champlain — by hand, improvising with dried banana chips as knives. My sister-in-law and I literally had to fight my 3-year-old for the last bites.

Chocolate-goat-cheese-on-shortbread

In honor of National Goat Cheese Month, I sampled a chocolate goat cheese spread available at my local Whole Foods and reviewed it for Heavy Table. If you haven’t already, check it out! The goat cheese is from Wisconsin’s MontChevre and is mixed in store with cocoa butter and cocoa liquor. Paired with a shortbread cookie, it’s a divine dessert.

Just a teaser. More to come when (if) I get back from Vermont. (Click for slideshow.)

A cheese that comes snuggly tucked in its own crock has to be good, right? That was my assumption when I picked up this cute little cow’s-milk cheese at Surdyk’s last week. Though St. Marcellin doens’t fit into our goat-cheese theme, it is a fine cheese to include on your cheeseboard any time of the year.

St. Marcellin is produced in the Rhône-Alpes region of France, which is in the southeastern part of the country – an area known for fabulous food. If you travel there, you’d likely find a raw-milk version of St. Marcellin, but here in the United States, we have to make do with the pasteurized variety, which isn’t really a sacrifice because the cheese is so damn good. Ignoring the rule that you should let a cheese sit at room temperature for one hour before eating it, I let my St. Marcellin sit out for three hours (a.k.a. dinnertime and two episodes of “Mad Men”). By then, the paste was a puddle of ooey-gooey deliciousness, just the way I like it. It was more practical to eat it with a spoon than with a knife at that point.

The taste wasn’t unlike Chaource – a creamy, slightly mushroomy blend of flavors. It had the decadence of a special-occasion cheese, but I never save cheese for special occasions – a Tuesday night is a good enough reason for me! And the three-ounce size almost makes it guilt-free – you know you can’t overdo it because it’s not a large wedge of cheese. If you enjoy St. Marcellin with a glass of a heart-friendly red wine, like a Syrah or a Châteauneuf-du-Pape, you could even consider it a healthy snack.

Continuing with the National Goat Cheese Month theme here at C+C, today we venture to Italy to sample one of its most delicious cheeses, Caprino. Based on the Italian word capra, which means goat, caprini are delectable little goat’s-milk cheeses from the country’s Piedmont region, which borders France and Switzerland. It’s not surprising then that caprini resemble French chevres in shape and texture, but the sumptuous Caprino Tartufo I sampled is in a class all of its own.

Though it’s actually a Caprino Stagionato on the Wine Spectator list, I couldn’t find that cheese (often aged and seasoned) anywhere in the Twin Cities, and the Caprino Tartufo is a worthy substitute. Left to sit on the counter for just an hour, the cheese oozed runny paste when I cut into it. It lacked a strong goat odor and taste; instead, the clean creaminess made it a refreshing start to my dinner. The truffle (tartufo) added an earthy touch but didn’t overwhelm the cheese’s smooth flavor.

In his “Cheese Primer,” Steven Jenkins notes that Italians often eat their caprini with a drizzle of olive oil and cracked black pepper, so I got out my special bottle of Israeli extra-virgin olive oil and poured a dab onto the cheese, topping it with pepper. I tasted each ingredient separately upon taking my first bite – the fruity splash of the olive oil stands out at the beginning, then you get a smooth swallow of the cheese, and finally the spiciness of the pepper bursts through at the end. It would be a stand-out appetizer at a summer dinner party, provided you buy enough caprini to keep your goat-cheese-loving guests sated. Sommelier Mauro Cirilli recommends serving caprini with a light-bodied white wine, such as a Sauvignon Blanc from Italy’s Fruili-Venezia region.

It’s National Goat Cheese Month and we’re determined to celebrate it to the fullest here at Cheese+Champagne. We’ve already sampled most of the American goat cheeses on our list, though, so this week I found a French cheese from the list, the Jacquin Aged Crottin. For comparison’s sake — and because I suspect National Goat Cheese Month was designed to promote American cheeses — I also picked up Vermont Butter & Cheese‘s fresh crottin.

Fromagerie Jacquin‘s Aged Crottin is a product of the Loire Valley, where the traditional young goat’s milk cheese recipes (Crottin, Selles sur Cher, Valencay) must be adapted to use pasteurized milk in order to meet the FDA’s import requirements. There’s an interesting tidbit at Artisanal about their work transporting and finishing the cheeses to maintain raw-milk characteristics in these deceptively complex cheeses. The aged crottin is a dense little dimpled ball of goats-milk that loses its goaty tang to mellow with age; firm and a little bit gamey, it has a buttery rich flavor.

The Vermont Butter & Cheese Co. crottin is younger, and I ironically got it for free at my cheese shop as they had too many on hand and find them hard to sell when they begin to age and look “like a real crottin.” It is softer, creamier, a little floral in flavor and still retains more of that tangy goat flavor you would expect from a young goat cheese. The company also make an aged version called Bijou that may be more similar to the Jacquin; I will be sure to keep an eye out for it and give it a try. (If you’re not familiar with Vermont Butter & Cheese, they were some of the pioneers of the Vermont cheese industry, launching a French-inspired goat cheese business in 1984 that now supports more than 20 family dairy farms around the state. They just won awards at ACS for their fresh goat cheese, fromage blanc and butters.)

These cute little doorknob-sized cheeses are perfect for summer entertaining. I made a late afternoon cheese board of the two, a bright citrusy Salumi Agrumi, and a fig-olive tapenade whose sweet-salty tango was perfect with the mildly tangy crottins. Fromagerie Jacquin suggests a Sancerre or “rouge corsé” with the aged crottin; I enjoyed it with a Virginia Petit Verdot from North Gate.

P.S. I found the Jacquin aged crottin at the Italian Store in Arlington, Va.

The American Cheese Society award winners were announced last night at the 26th annual conference and competition in Austin, Texas. This year saw a record-setting 197 producers from 32 states, Canada and Mexico, and the judging committee had the enviable task of tasting 1,327 cheeses and dairy products to determine this year’s winners.  The “Best in Show” award went to…. Oregon’s Rogue Creamery* for Rogue River Blue!  In second place is Cowgirl Creamery‘s Red Hawk (CA). Third place is a tie between Consider Bardwell‘s Rupert (VT) and Carr Valley‘s Cave Aged Mellage (WI). You can view the complete results here (link is a pdf file). Unfortunately Rogue River Blue is a seasonal cheese; we tasted the last of the 2008 batch at the Fancy Food Show in June, you’ll have to wait till the new batch is released in October and make due with another of Rogue’s wonderful blues in the meantime.

A few highlights:

In the “American Originals” category:

  • 1st place, cow, Roth Kase USA (WI), Valfino (in a tie for 3rd, Vermont Ayr by Crawford Family Farm/Cellars at Jasper Hill)
  • 1st place, goat, Carr Valley Cheese Co. (WI), Cocoa Cardona
  • 1st place, sheep or mixed, Carr Valley Cheese Co. (WI), Cave-Aged Mellage. (Carr Valley nearly swept this category with 2nd place for Marisa and 3rd place (tie) for Shepherd’s Blend.)

Some surprises, notably:

  • Cellars at Jasper Hill/Cabot Clothbound Cheddar was knocked out of first place in clothbound cheddars (aged less than 12 months) by Vermont upstart West River Creamery’s Cambridge Classic Reserve.
  • Beehive Cheese Company’s (UT) Barely Buzzed won the best flavored-with-things-that-aren’t-peppers cheddar category. (Okay, maybe not a surprise to the 99% of the cheese community who loves this cheese, but a surprise to me.) 

A couple local cheesemakers placed in their categories, though the Mid-Atlantic appears to have been denied any first place ribbons this year:

  • Meadow Creek (VA) Grayson, 2nd place in Washed-Rind, cow
  • Firefly Farms (MD) Bella Vita, 2nd place in International-Style, goat
  • Sweet Grass Dairy (GA) Kelle’s Blue, 2nd place in Blue-Veined, goat

Jill can claim a large number of winning Wisconsin cheeses as local to her, but we’ll also note that Hidden Springs Creamery (WI) Farmstead Feta took 1st place in Feta, sheep — not something you typically associate with Wisconsin cheese. Surfing Goat Dairy of Maui, which Jill wrote about earlier this year, placed 3rd in the flavor-added marinated category for their Maui Secret Sicily. And Minnesota’s PastureLand Cooperative took home ribbons for its butter (2nd place salted, 3rd place unsalted).

By the numbers:

  1. Wisconsin, 25 first place, 92 total
  2. California, 14 first place, 47 total
  3. Vermont, 14 first place, 33 total
  4. Oregon, 6 first place, 22 total
  5. New York, 4 first place, 19 total

Technically Quebec beats out New York with 8 first place, 20 total — but last I checked Quebec was not actually a state.

*Rogue’s Tom Van Voorhees and Steve Jones of Steve’s Cheese in Portland made up the winning team in the ACS’s first ever Merchandising Competition — congrats to Team Oregon! (and a thank you to Tami Parr for identifying the team members)

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