Though Bleu de Basques Brebis is undeniably a French cheese (just look at its name), the fact that it’s made with sheep’s milk gives a hint as to which part of the country it’s produced. The Pyrenees mountain range covers both France and Spain, so it’s no surprise that a part of France so close to Spain would make a cheese using Spain’s favorite cheese-making milk.

Unlike the Bleu d’Auvergne I snacked on earlier this week, Bleu de Basques Brebis isn’t overwhelmingly creamy. While the yellowish-white paste is certainly smooth, the large pockets of blue veining give the cheese a bit of a crunch as well. It also retains some of the oiliness expected from a sheep’s-milk cheese, so Bleu de Basques Brebis is a cheese that suits a certain mood. If you just want a creamy comfort cheese, this shouldn’t be your pick, but if you’re looking for a cheese that offers an interesting contrast of textures and flavors, Bleu de Basques Brebis would be a good choice. Serve with Sauternes or Port, as suggested by Artisanal.

Note: This is one of the last cheeses I purchase at Premier Cheese Market. Sadly, Ken and Amy are closing the shop after three and a half years, and the last day of business will be this Sunday, Dec. 6. If you’re in the Twin Cities area, please visit one more time to support our friends in cheese! Best of luck on your new endeavors, Ken and Amy.

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.

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?

Y’all know that I started writing for the Heavy Table, right? It’s the new online food magazine covering the upper Midwest. If you haven’t already, check it today – you’ll find my story about Ken Liss of the Premier Cheese Market in Minneapolis. Ken, photographer Becca Dilley and I spent a couple of hours last week trying out interesting cheese/beverage/condiment pairings, and the results may surprise you!

Little Darling certainly lives up to its name – it’s a cute little cheese! Hailing from my home state of Wisconsin, this cow’s-milk cheese may be pasteurized, but it has all the spunk and tang of a raw-milk cheese. And unlike Lou Grant from “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” I like spunk!

Little Darling is made by Brunkow Cheese, an artisan cheesemaker that makes a full line of Old World-inspired cheeses. The cheese is aged for six weeks and has a firm, crumbly texture that makes it an excellent snacking cheese. As usual, I enjoyed mine with apples. Its flavor, however, reminded me of Parmigiano-Reggiano – it had the same salty bite. Like Parm, Little Darling could be shaved onto a green salad or served atop a pile of pasta. It definitely has the strength to stand up a tomato sauce or vinaigrette.

I neglected to ask my friend Ken at Premier Cheese Market about wine pairings (I know, my bad), but I could see myself enjoying Little Darling with a big Italian red. Being a Wisconsin cheese, Little Darling is likely compatible with beer, but since I’m not a beer drinker I couldn’t tell you which kind. Feel free to send in your suggestions!

New Year’s Eve was always a particularly fun evening for me, Colleen and our spouses. It typically involved a lot of food and wine and us yelling at whichever teeny-bopper of the moment was featured on “Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve” that year. For our first New Year’s Eve together (2002), the food highlight was the top layer of Colleen and Lou’s wedding cake. The next year is significant for the debut of my (a.k.a. Ina Garten‘s) smoked salmon dip, which was a hit with our guests and my cat. But by the time we got to New Year’s Eve 2004, we found our true calling – fondue. I think it was the idea of our friend Jo, who had lived in Switzerland, and Colleen and I jumped at the chance to make cheese the focus of the festivities. We made two cheese fondues and one chocolate fondue and I think I remember all of them being delicious, but since we went through more bottles of wine that night than we had people at the party, all of our memories are a bit fuzzy.

If you don’t have a menu set for Wednesday night yet, consider fondue. It’s easy to make, everyone gets a kick out of dipping, and you could even make it part of a theme party if your theme is the Swingin’ Sixties. Here’s a step-by-step guide to having a successful fondue:

  1. Ask your cheesemonger for suggestions. Traditional fondue is made with the Swiss cheeses Gruyere and Emmental, which are fantastic, but it’s always fun to mix it up a bit. I went to the Premier Cheese Market yesterday, and the friendly cheesemonger advised me to consider adding Red Dragon or Black Mountain Cheddar. We went with the Black Mountain since its blend of garlic, herbs and white wine was appealing to my garlic fiend of a husband.
  2. Get your proportions right. Your cheesemonger should be able to tell you how much of each cheese to get based on the number of guests. For four people having our Black Mountain fondue, purchase 1/2 lb. each of the Gruyere and Emmental and a 1/4 lb. of the Black Mountain.

    Black Mountain Cheddar with yummy bits of garlic and herbs

    Black Mountain Cheddar with yummy bits of garlic and herbs

  3. Gather your non-cheese ingredients. You’ll want to make sure you have fresh lemons, garlic, cornstarch and white wine (we used a cheap Pinot Grigio from Trader Joe’s) on hand – all four are essential to a great fondue. Traditional fondue recipes often call for Kirsch, a German cherry brandy. I’ve never used it in fondue because I don’t keep any in my liquor cabinet, but if you have some, by all means pour some in. For dippers, you’ll definitely want some crusty bread, preferably cut into cubes ahead of time so they can dry out a bit. Other ideas include boiled new potatoes, baby carrots, broccoli or asparagus.
  4. Start shredding and stirring. Shred all the cheese with a box grater. Heat up your fondue pot (mine is electric, so I just plug it in). Rub the inside of the pot with a cut garlic clove. Add the cheese, the juice of one lemon, three heaping teaspoons of cornstarch and 3/4 cup of white wine (eyeball it). Stir until melted and smooth. Adjust heat as necessary to keep it from boiling.
  5. Enjoy! I made this fondue for my parents, sister and husband last night, and none of them could be considered cheese aficionados. But all of them loved it, so hopefully your group will, too!

For more fondue ideas, check out fonduebits.com or bestfondue.com. Happy New Year!

For me, nothing. Well, maybe diamonds. Or a purse (Burberry or Coach, please). Or a night without my kid and/or cat waking me up. But cheese makes a fantastic gift this time of year – or anytime, of course. My co-worker Deanna had the fabulous idea of sending cheese baskets to our clients and VIPs this year as our agency holiday gift, and the two of us headed down to Premier Cheese Market this morning to speak with the owner, Ken, about putting together the perfect basket.

Our challenge: assembling a blend of tastes and textures when we don’t know what the recipients would prefer. Unless you’re giving cheese to a close friend or colleague with whom you’ve had in-depth discussions about cheese (other people do this, right?), it’s best to play it safe. Ken’s rules: No blues, no stinkies (a.k.a. washed-rind cheeses, like our friend Epoisses). What’s left? Not to fret – there’s a delicious assortment of cheeses at your disposal.

  • Manchego – Tune in tomorrow for my thoughts on this Spanish sheep’s-milk cheese, but in short, its mild, nutty flavor pleases many palates, including my picky husband’s. If you want to take it to the next level, look for a Manchego with rosemary. Cheesetique stocks it.
  • Gouda – A Lewis and Levine family favorite is the Prima Donna Gouda, also mild and sweet. Excellent for snacking with apples.
  • Cheddar – You all know my feelings about Cheddar. Ken recommends the Prairie Breeze Cheddar, produced by a collective of Amish farmers in Iowa.
  • If you want to go the creamy route, a basic Brie would serve you well. Ken also suggests the double-creme Fromage d’Affinois, which is also a French cow’s-milk cheese but is even silkier. Yum!
  • For the adventuresome willing to tread into goat’s-milk territory, a classic Bucheron is usually well-received since it resembles the chevre found in almost any grocery store these days. Patacabra is a good bet, too.
  • Smoked cheeses “can be challenging,” according to Ken, but they’re not off-limits. His suggestion: go for the higher-end smokies, like Spanish San Simon. It’s very man-friendly.

The thing to remember with cheese baskets: “The cheese stands alone” only applies to the song “The Farmer in the Dell.” Be sure to include a tasty assortment of crackers, dried fruit, nuts, olives, honey and chocolates in your basket. If your budget allows, add a bottle of wine. Ask your cheesemonger for a suggestion that will complement the cheeses you’ve selected.

Of course, if you’re too busy to make it to the cheese shop, there are a number of online options. New York institution Murray’s Cheese offers a variety of gift suggestions on its Web site. I know Colleen’s husband would approve of the Best with Beer package. Artisanal Cheese also has a great selection of cheese gifts – check out the American Artisanal Basket for its unique offerings. I have to give a shout-out to my home state by mentioning The Wisconsin Cheeseman’s gift baskets. I’d love to receive the Cheese Crate!

So take the plunge and go cheesy for the holidays. I bet you a hunk of Humboldt Fog that your friends will like it more than fruitcake.