Happy New Year! While Jill’s beloved Badgers may not have been victorious in last weekend’s Rose Bowl, Wisconsin can take solace in knowing its cheeses are still tops.  We look forward to bringing you many more cheese winners in 2011. But first, while we’re detoxing from our holiday cheese (over)consumption — and working on a fresh new look for 2011 — we’re going to bring you a few of our favorite winter snacking cheeses from years past. After all, it’s January. It’s cold, and all we want to do is curl up in front of the tv and watch some football…

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I know that the Scots probably don’t care much about American football, but it seems to me that their Isle of Mull Cheddar was made for the Super Bowl. A cheddar with flavors of mustard and malt? Score.

The mustardy flavor of Isle of Mull Cheddar makes it an ideal match for pretzels - and football.
The mustardy flavor of Isle of Mull Cheddar makes it an ideal match for pretzels – and football.

What gives Isle of Mull Cheddar its distinctive flavor? The cheese’s island namesake, located off the western coast of Scotland, is home to the Tobermory malt whiskey distillery. The cows that supply the milk for this aged raw-milk cheese feast on the distillery’s leftover fermented barley, which in turn give the cheese a Scotchy taste. Once brought to room temperature, the Isle of Mull Cheddar has a mustardy aroma that intensifies with each bite. Bring on the pretzels!

As you might expect, Isle of Mull Cheddar is a natural match for Tobermory Scotch, but for those of you who aren’t planning on breaking out the hard stuff during the game, consider serving the cheese with a Pinot Noir or, as Jamie Forrest of Curd Nerds suggests, a California Chardonnay. But let’s be realistic – you’ll be serving it with beer for the Super Bowl. In that case, DiBruno Bros. suggests an ale.

Special note: Isle of Mull Cheddar has also been toddler-approved. My 1-year-old son couldn’t get enough when he spotted some on the counter yesterday.

— originally posted by Jill, 01/23/09

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While the official cheese tour may be over, I have one final cheese purchased in New York to share this week, the Italian Fiore Sardo. We purchased a hunk of this crumbly, hard cheese at Stinky Bklyn, and greeted it again at the Fancy Food Show where it was displayed in all its full-size glory.

Fiore Sardo is a pecorino hailing from the island of Sardinia, a D.O.P.-protected, raw sheeps’ milk cheese with a dark rind. It is flaky, sharp and salty, with the fragrance of a fruity olive oil and a little smokiness. It would be wonderful grated on some hot pasta — in place of the ubiquitous pecorino romano from your grocery store, perhaps — or is perfectly suited to snacking. It is yellower in color and fruitier in flavor than the Pecorino Foglie, which hails from cooler northern Italy, and the two are an interesting illustration of the variations one can find even among cheeses of the same type.

When I think of French cheese, I generally think of something blue and/or creamy, like the beleaguered Roquefort or decadent Bries and Camemberts. Yet the most popular cheese in France is a hard, aged Alpine cheese, Comte. Comte is one of France’s oldest cheeses as well, dating back to the time of Charlemagne. Comte is the French interpretation of Gruyere, derived from raw mountain-grazing cows’ milk, and aged for over a year for a smooth, slightly sweet caramel flavor.

While Comte is wonderful for snacking on as is – enjoyed by my toddler and dog (the latter snuck some rind off the table when no one was looking) – it would also make a lovely fondue into which to dunk spring’s first asparagus spears. I’d stick with French wine, of course, such as the white Cotes du Rhone I enjoyed recently.

My cheese this week is one of the oldest artisanal American cheeses, from Vella Cheese Company which was founded in Sonoma in 1931. Tom Vella began aging his Monterey Jack cheeses to produce an alternative to parmigiano and pecorino during World War II, when Italian imports became unavailable. Tom’s son Ig took over the business in 1981, and has earned an “Ark of Taste” designation from Slow Food International as well as recognition for sustainability efforts such as installing solar panels on their historic creamery building. 

Dry Jack is aged 7 to 10 months, developing a smooth flavor and hard, flaky texture. It is creamy and a little sweet, slightly nutty like pecorino. While it is coated in cocoa and black pepper, giving it a unique brown exterior, those flavors are undetectable in the cheese. It would pair nicely with dark chocolate for dessert, though. It is also ideal for grating over pasta, in alfredo sauce or just snacking on its own. I enjoyed it with a Dashe 2006 Zinfandel from nearby Dry Creek Valley