Tonight’s the night! If you celebrate Christmas, by now your tree should be decorated, your presents wrapped, and your dinner either eaten or bubbling in the oven. If you don’t, you’re likely eating Chinese food (or wishing you were eating Chinese food because your father, the sole Jew on the planet who doesn’t like Chinese food, is visiting). But regardless of your holiday of choice, everyone is welcome to celebrate Cheesemas!

Whatever your plans for the weekend, we hope cheese is part of the menu. Colleen picked up some Oma and Kunik at La Fromagerie today. I’ll be snacking on this delectable Chabichou du Poitou, which I picked up at the Cheese Shop at France 44 this morning. I’m still deciding whether I’ll share with the rest of my family with flutes of Champagne. Ah, I guess I should – that Cheesemas spirit and all.

Colleen and I wish you and yours a very happy holiday! If you taste any out-of-this-world cheeses or get fun cheese-related gifts, please share in the comments section. Merry Cheesemas!

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If you’ve been following Cheese + Champagne for the past two years, you’ve read our musings on cheeses from all over Europe – France, Spain, Italy, Great Britain, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Ireland, Greece and Portugal. And while there are many, many European cheeses that Colleen and I love and enjoy on a regular basis, we’ve taken special notice of the newer artisanal cheeses that are made right here in the good ol’ U.S. of A. Many are so new that they didn’t make the Wine Spectator 100 Great Cheeses list that sparked this blog, and now through we’re practically done with the list, we decided it was time to turn our focus exclusively on America. We won’t give up eating our beloved Chaources, Roqueforts and Manchegos, of course, but you’ll be reading more about the exciting newcomers and rediscovered favorites from our own shores.

I can’t think of a better cheese to start with than one hailing from my home state of Wisconsin. Uplands Cheese Company of Dodgeville is making it a very merry holiday for all of us cheese fanatics with the release of its first batch of Rush Creek Reserve. Inspired by the Swiss Vacherin d’Or, which isn’t available in the United States due to FDA regulations on imported raw-milk cheeses, this dreamy, drippy cheese is carefully made with autumnal raw cow’s milk and aged for just 60 days. Each 12-oz. wheel is bound with spruce bark and washed with various bacteria that give the rind its orange color. You’ll want to avoid tasting that rind, though – its grittiness mars the creamy goodness that lies underneath. Rather than cutting wedges from the side, run your knife along the cheese’s circumference on top, peel off the rind and dig in with a spoon.

I first heard about Rush Creek Reserve this spring, when Uplands cheesemaker Andy Hatch visited the Cheese Shop at France 44 with a huge wheel of his award-winning Pleasant Ridge Reserve. After swooning over the Pleasant Ridge Reserve for several minutes (and scoring a complimentary wedge in the process), I asked Andy if he was working on anything new, and he said, “Yeah, I’ve got this new cheese that I think will be ready in November. It’s like Vacherin d’Or.” I was immediately intrigued and asked Andy if I could come down to Dodgeville to watch the cheesemaking process, and he said he’d be happy to welcome me. Unfortunately, the demands of a new baby and a new job didn’t allow me to visit this year, but I don’t think I’ll let another year pass before knocking on Uplands’ door…

Anyway, back to the cheese! Saying it’s good is an understatement. Saying it’s great is an understatement. This is a world-class cheese that can go against Epoisses, Langres or any other washed-rind cheese that France has to offer. The paste is so sumptuous, so sublime, that it’s a dessert, not an appetizer. Not as stinky as Epoisses, Rush Creek Reserve still has the barnyardy aroma that a cheese lover associates with spectacular cheeses, as well as a meaty, slightly smoky flavor that is easy to savor. You can protest all you want that washed-rind cheeses are too strong or stinky – I challenge you to have one spoonful of Rush Creek Reserve and not be an immediate convert to the washed-rind cause. This is a truly special cheese and the perfect gift for the caseophile in your life.

Alas, it’s not easy to find. Its seasonal nature only allows Uplands to release Rush Creek over a few short months, and not all cheese shops have received shipments yet. I was lucky to snag one at France 44 (thanks, Benjamin, for putting me on “the list”), but Colleen hasn’t been able to buy one in Northern Virginia so far this winter. If your local cheese shop hasn’t had it in stock yet, be sure to ask your cheesemonger if he or she has put in an order. This is one cheese you won’t want to miss, and it’s worth every penny (I paid $24 for my wheel). And when you do get your hands on it, pair it with a Riesling, Gewürztraminer or a malty beer, per Andy’s suggestions in his interview with The House Mouse last month.

Psst…are you on Facebook? Who isn’t (besides my parents)? Be sure to “like” us on Facebook to keep up to date on all things C+C!

What separates the cheese freaks (like myself) from mere cheese lovers or cheese admirers? A subscription to Culture magazine. A willingness to spend $20 or more each week on cheese. And use of the following words when describing cheese: “beautiful,” “mind-blowing,” “irresistibly charming.”

All those phrases are apt for my second featured cheese of the week, Tome d’Aquitaine. Also known as Clisson, this French goat’s-milk cheese takes cheese worship to a whole new level. Its paste is light, floral and salty, with a smoothness that makes it easy to inhale. During the dog days of August, Tome d’Aquitaine is a breath of fresh air – perhaps a breeze blowing off the Atlantic. I don’t meant to get all poetic – it’s just that good.

Tome d’Aquitaine is another example of how cheesemakers can work in tandem to create tantalizing cheeses that neither could fully develop on its own (see Clothbound Cheddar, Cabot and Jasper Hill, and Grafton and Faribault Dairy). This cheese begins its journey in the Loire Valley (a premier goat-cheese-producing region) at the Union Laitiere de la Venise Verte, a dairy cooperative that produces cheese, butter and baby formula. Later on the wheels of Tome d’Aquitaine travel to Bordeaux, where renowned affineur Jean d’Alos washes the rind in brine and Sauternes. The result – total cheese bliss. Serve it up with a dry white wine, like a Muscadet from the Loire Valley.

Psst…this cheese also makes a great birthday gift, and I’d share it with a certain birthday girl today if we didn’t live 1,000 miles apart. Happy birthday, Colleen!

Before I begin singing the praises of this lovely blue cheese – an apology. C+C has been woefully neglected this summer, mostly due to the newborn craziness that Colleen and I are both experiencing at our homes, and also due to the fact that I had to abstain from all dairy for almost two months to see if it would improve my little guy’s disposition. When my son’s pediatrician suggested I try a dairy-free diet, I sputtered, “But, but, I’m a cheese blogger!” But I knew it would give us the best shot at figuring out if he had food sensitivities, so good-bye ice cream, cheese, yogurt and other treats. It sucked. Thankfully, my recent trial back on dairy hasn’t given him any problems and he is a much happier baby overall, so bring on the cheese again!

I finally made it back to the Cheese Shop at France 44, and after getting my hands on a wedge of Kunik (oh, how I missed you, Kunik!), I scanned the counter for newcomers and set my sights on Sweet Grass Dairy’s Asher Blue. Regular C+C readers know that I’m a big fan of this Georgia cheesemaker’s Green Hill, so I figured Asher Blue would be equally delicious. I was right! (I love it when that happens.) This raw cow’s-milk cheese comes across as both creamy and spicy, thanks to the thick veins of blue running through it. It’s a little too sophisticated to be called a beginner’s blue, but the creaminess of the paste prevents it from being overwhelming.

The Sweet Grass Dairy website suggests using Asher Blue as the basis of a blue cheese dressing, but rather than dilute the cheese’s flavor with herbs and liquid, I’d rather crumble it directly onto a salad with toasted nuts and sweet dried cranberries. The old cracker-and-honey-drizzle treatment would work fabulously, too. Pair with Port, Sauternes, Cabernet or a dark ale.

If there’s one cheese that I’ve been craving more than any other during the past eight months of pregnancy, it would be Kunik. This triple-cream cheese from New York’s Nettle Meadow Farm is made from 75 percent goat’s milk and 25 percent cow’s milk, and the result is 150 percent spectacular. Thank the Lord that the Cheese Shop at France 44 usually has a button or two in stock when I stop in after yoga on Saturday mornings. A week without my Kunik fix is a bad week, indeed.

As lucky as I am to find Kunik here in Minnesota, I can’t help but wish I lived close to the Nettle Meadow Farm in the Adirondacks. The cheesemakers, Lorraine Lambiase and Sheila Flanagan, make a variety of small-batch, hand-crafted goat cheeses mixed with yummy ingredients like herbs, olive oil, garlic, maple syrup and honey. You really can’t beat fresh chevre when it comes to cheese – the flavor is so rich and pure that you can eat it straight with a spoon. But since I’m not close to Nettle Meadow – and I have delicious Minnesota and Wisconsin chevres to devour – I will definitely take the Kunik when I can get it. Though it’s been slightly aged, it still carries the freshness of a chevre with the luxurious creaminess of cow’s milk. If you can find a button, buy it and eat it in small wedges on a cracker or by itself. I’d be surprised if you can stop yourself before the entire cheese is gone!

One of the many benefits of making friends with your cheesemongers is that you can often get an early scoop on what’s new and tasty in the shop that week. France 44/St. Paul Cheese Shop poobah Benjamin and I have an ongoing Twitter conversation (I don’t see him in the Minneapolis shop much anymore now that he spends most of his time in St. Paul), and late last week he clued me in on some exciting Spanish cheeses that were hitting the case that weekend. So when I arrived at France 44 after yoga on Saturday, the manager, Song, had lots of new cheeses for me to try, and Leonora was one of them.

Leonora comes as a big brick of goaty goodness, and Song used a toothpick to scrape some of the gooey paste for me to try. I was sold immediately. The fresh-tasting cheese had hits of lemon and springtime, while the rind had the tangy bite of a properly ripened cheese. I don’t consider it to be an ultra-goaty cheese, though likely still too goaty for others (ahem, my husband), and the soft texture makes it an instant comfort food. Leonora would match beautifully with a medium- to full-bodied red wine (if I could only have a glass!) and could even be topped with some fruity olive oil and fresh herbs if you want to dress it up for a party.

Colleen and I have secretly harbored a cheese crush on Mateo Kehler of Jasper Hill Farm ever since we met him at last summer’s Fancy Food Show and he told us that he had read our blog (be still, our beating hearts!), so when I heard about the Kehler brothers’ new release, Moses Sleeper, I was eager to try it. I made my usual post-yoga trip to the Cheese Shop at France 44 on Saturday and found an uncut wheel just begging to be tasted. One bite was not enough, of course, so I bought a quarter of the wheel and brought it home, where it is quickly diminishing in size. (I’m eating for two, and I need the extra calcium!)

Remember my glowing post about Green Hill a couple of weeks ago? Well, fellow cheese bloggers Ross and Rebecca at the dirty way call Moses Sleeper a Green Hill on steroids, and I’d say that’s pretty accurate. You’ll definitely like Moses Sleeper if you’re a Green Hill fan, but the two cheeses aren’t totally similar. Both have the thick texture of a triple-cream cow’s-milk cheese, but whereas Green Hill tastes warm and buttery in your mouth, Moses Sleeper feels more subtle and cool. I liken it to drinking a cold glass of fresh, whole milk – you taste the richness of the cream, but the chill from the refrigerator remains. The rind is edible, but it has a bit of grittiness in places that may turn off some tasters. But partnered with the luxuriousness of the paste, it’s easy to dismiss any gritty bits because overall, Moses Sleeper is just yummy. Pair with a sparkling wine and strawberries for a real treat!