Dinner guests don’t usually bring me cheese. Coals to Newcastle and all that. But recently some friends showed up with a new Oregon creation, and let me just say they are welcome back any time. The wedge was luscious, aromatic and unusual—potentially a great new American cheese. But could the cheesemaker repeat the feat? Yes. Would I love it as much the second, third and fourth time? Yes.
A few years ago, I walked into Eataly, the Italian food mega-emporium in Manhattan, for lunch and became so overcome by all the choices that I left without eating. Lame, I know, but I’m starting to feel like that at some cheese counters, especially when it comes to Swiss cheeses. I have way too many number-one favorites. And matters just got worse. Jumi, a respected Swiss producer, has recently targeted the U.S. market, and the cheeses are landing. You need to know them: all raw milk, all sublime. Steel yourself for some hard choices.
Twenty years ago, many Americans had never heard of sheep cheese. (You can milk a sheep?) I’d say we’ve made progress, thanks in part to pioneer cheesemakers like Jodi Ohlsen Read. Despite a tragic setback just as her sheep farm’s notoriety was spreading, Read and her husband, Steven, are about to celebrate 20 years of cheesemaking at Shepherd’s Way Farms in Minnesota. I’ve admired her cheeses from the get-go and ached for the couple when tragedy struck. The path back to a healthy farm and normal life has been arduous and, to those of us watching, inspirational. “I’m not good at quitting,” says Jodi.
I’m not a bumper-sticker person, but if I were, mine would read, “I brake for ethnic markets.” I love poking around shelves with unfamiliar condiments, grains and cooking implements to see what my kitchen might be missing. Middle Eastern markets are my favorite, but I have rarely spent much time looking at the cheese selection in these stores. Now I’m wiser.
The mission: to create a luscious Gorgonzola-style cheese, more creamy than crumbly. An American Gorgonzola dolce, the young cheesemaker imagined. He had tried that spreadable Italian cheese for the first time and fallen in love. “And that’s how it started,” says Joe Moreda of the first cheese he has shepherded from idea to reality. “I told my mom I would like to make it, and she said, ‘Let’s go for it.’” Three years later the world has a new blue cheese.
Mixing cow, goat and sheep milk is an age-old practice in farmstead cheesemaking. Resourceful rural people always use what they have. That mindset has led to some enduring creations, like the mixed-milk robiolas of northern Italy. But today, cheesemakers are more likely to blend milks out of creative impulse, or to set a new product apart. Five years ago, Hook’s Cheese Company launched Ewe Calf to be Kidding, a three-milk recipe, to acclaim. Now Tony and Julie Hook are at it again.
When a friend needs your help, you show up, right? That’s how I feel about raw-milk cheese. If you believe cheesemakers should be allowed—even encouraged—to make cheese according to time-honored methods, then find a Raw Milk Cheese Appreciation Day event in your community and be there on Saturday, April 21.
Here we go again. Last week, the FDA detained a shipment of goat cheese from French producer Fromagerie Jacquin, declaring that the ash coating was not a permitted colorant. This ash, made by carbonizing vegetable matter, is what makes the dark ribbon in Morbier and the inky cloak on the Loire Valley’s famous Sainte-Maure and Valençay, which the French have been savoring since the days of Napoleon.
Quesadillas, you bet. Burgers, of course. Mac and cheese, a no-brainer. This new creation from Utah’s Beehive Cheese will soon be starring in those dishes and grilled-cheese sandwiches across the country. Sales have been phenomenal since the cheese debuted nationally in January; my local cheesemonger couldn’t believe how quickly he sold his first wheels. It’s eminently meltable, snackable and here’s the feel-good part: three percent of sales support a great cause.
Spring + asparagus = ricotta. That’s just the way my mind works. But then, ricotta is often the right answer at my house. I eat it plain, drizzled with honey, dolloped on pasta and baked into cheesecake. And this spring, I have a new way to use it, courtesy of Napa cooking teacher Julie Logue-Riordan. With thick asparagus, a sharp vegetable peeler and some top-notch ricotta, you can wow your Easter guests. And if you like the recipe (as much as I do, the dish could be your go-to salad as long as the asparagus season lasts.
It felt like a death in the family. And I didn’t even get to say goodbye. Learning that I might never again taste Abbaye de Belloc, one of my favorite French cheeses, made me frustrated and angry. (What are those four stages of grief?) The Benedictine monks who make this lovely Basque sheep cheese have decided not to share with the U.S. any longer. Who can blame them? And, alas, they aren’t the only European cheesemakers to reach this decision.
Biggest cheese ever? I would have nominated the 400-pound Crucolo, a cow’s-milk giant from Northern Italy. I’ve never seen it but maybe you have. This massive mamma steals the stage every December when the owner of a Concord, Massachusetts, shop parades it through the streets. A wheel is coming to the West Coast next week, so more of us can see what a cheese that weighs as much as two large men looks like. But, alas, it’s not the world’s biggest.
I always learn so much from Pat Polowsky. This graduate student is half my age and twice as knowledgeable about cheese, especially if we’re talking chemistry. In that case, it’s more like a factor of ten. Ever wondered how salt gets to the middle of a wheel when it’s only applied to the outside? (You didn’t?) Did you think the crunch on the rind of Taleggio comes from salt? I did, but it doesn’t.
I’ve been trying to figure out how Central Coast Creamery [www.centralcoastcreamery.com] has come so far so fast. The five-year-old California producer has already earned heaps of ribbons in competition, and I see its cheeses everywhere. Last summer, cheesemaker-owner Reggie Jones claimed three more blue ribbons at the American Cheese Society [www.cheesesociety.org] judging, including one for Dream Weaver (above). That’s a brag-worthy feat for any creamery, much less a newcomer. How has Jones engineered his success? Are there lessons here for others…in any business?
How much are you willing to spend on a piece of cheese for dinner tonight? Retailers think a lot about that. They know their shoppers focus more on the price per piece than the cost per pound. They suspect you won’t flinch at five dollars for a chunk of Cheddar, however small. But eight dollars for twice as much? That’s when they lose you.
Three years ago, one of France’s most respected affineurs stopped shipping his sublime cheeses to the U.S. Pascal Beillevaire was a cheese-world rock star, his wares selling briskly here and at his 20 shops in France. Then, in mid-2014, the FDA put the entire line on Import Alert, along with cheeses from several other European producers. The banned cheeses, tested on entry, had failed to clear the FDA’s high bar.
Not every person behind every cheese counter is a passionate cheese enthusiast. But many who are dream of competing in the Cheesemonger Invitational, the semi-annual smackdown that crowns a victor after two days of grueling tests and contests. Evaluated on their skills at selling, cutting, tasting and pairing, the participants engage in friendly battle intended to raise the stature of their craft.
If you want to get your Ph.D. in cheese and beer pairing, join me at Thirsty Bear, the San Francisco brewpub, for the ninth annual Cask & Queso on February 16. This is a marathon: Seventeen craft beers paired with seventeen cheeses. Good thing I’ve been in training. Even if you can’t go, you might be intrigued by some of the matches [link to post] from previous years. The Thirsty Bear team really gets it. No wonder this event, part of San Francisco Beer Week, always sells out.
I’m sad when any American cheesemaker shuts the doors, but especially someone as talented, spunky and ambitious as Wendy Mitchell. Mitchell’s ten-year-old Avalanche Cheese Company, in Colorado, won a heap of blue ribbons for its goat cheeses. Mitchell had an impressive record in business. What on earth happened?
Even dinner guests who tell me they detest goat cheese tend to devour the goat Gouda I serve. “This is goat cheese??” they’ll say, astonished by how sweet, silky and mellow it is. Yay! Another convert. How can you not love a cheese that tastes like it’s halfway down the path to candy? A fine goat Gouda like Brabander deserves to be loved by everybody, not just people with cow’s-milk allergies. Dutch rock-star retailer Betty Koster oversees the long aging, so no wonder it’s fabulous. Grab your cheese plane and a jar of fig jam and get to know one of The Netherlands’ tastiest exports.
I can hardly complain about the cold weather in Napa Valley. But still, my calendar says soup. Mushroom soup, minestrone, puree of everything-in the vegetable-bin soup. If it’s chilly where you are, make soup, and then bake up some flaky, tender Cheddar Chive Scones to go with it. Thirty minutes, start to finish.
American cheese merchants know they can sell triple-cream Brie without lifting a finger. But what fun is that? The best merchants take risks, bringing in new creations and unfamiliar cheeses that required some hand selling. And every year, a few of these newcomers click with customers and sprint away from the pack. I asked several top retailers from around the country about the new (or newish) cheeses that over-delivered for them this year.
You read it here first: Tarte flambée is the pastry trend of the year. I’m seeing it everywhere—okay, three places lately—and I’m so happy it’s having a moment because I’ve loved this Alsatian specialty forever. For New Year’s Eve with the first glass of Champagne…well, that’s my plan anyway. I’m pretty pleased with my recipe. Even in a home oven, the crust comes out super-crisp around the edges, with creamy fromage blanc, onions and smoky bacon on top.
My home library is stuffed with cheese books. (You’re surprised?) I have cheese books that make me hungry and dry dairy-science textbooks that don’t. I have cheese cookbooks, encyclopedias, compendiums and memoirs. I have cheese books in four languages. But I don’t have any cheese books as smart, provocative and well written as the new Reinventing the Wheel: Milk, Microbe, and the Fight for Real Cheese by Bronwen Percival and Francis Percival.
One of my first jobs in the food world was working for a French pastry chef. I was just the cashier for his bakery, but I hung out in the back a lot. The best lesson I learned from Marcel was not to waste. He would use his thumb to scrape the last drop of egg white out of the egg shell. (“That’s the profit,” he would tell me.) No wonder I never throw away chard stems or Parmigiano-Reggiano rinds. The cheese rinds add body and flavor to bean soup, and I’ve recently learned that they make amazing stock.
And now for something completely different. Swiss producer. Raw sheep’s milk. Washed rind. I don’t know of any cheese that fits that description other than the one you’re about to meet. Oh, and the milk is organic and from French Basque sheep transported to the Swiss Alps. They don’t seem to mind: the views are great, and the shepherds speak French. The ewes quickly adapted, and the cheese made with their milk is one-of-a-kind.
Welcome back, Maytag Blue. We’ve missed you. Just in time for holiday cheese boards, this beloved Iowa product has returned to shops. It has been almost two years since Maytag Dairy Farms suspended production, in the aftermath of a positive test for Listeria in two lots of cheese. (No related illnesses were ever reported.) The road back has been longer and costlier than the owners imagined, but they managed to find a silver lining in this traumatic experience.
Spoiler alert for my Thanksgiving guests: We’re having cheesecake for dessert. This cheesecake, which could be the best cheesecake ever. From the most beautiful baking book ever. Last month, 13 pastry chefs came to my house with desserts they had made from this stunning new book, and I heard the most raves for the pumpkin cheesecake. If I can make it—and I did for this photo—so can you. What’s Thanksgiving without pumpkin? And what’s a meal without cheese?
Last month’s wine-country wildfires were cruelest to those who lost loved ones or their homes, but those with businesses in the affected areas are also struggling. What will the future look like for a cheese counter whose best patrons are temporarily homeless? One highly regarded Sonoma County cheesemonger took a particularly big hit.
Chez Panisse may be the superstar of Berkeley’s Gourmet Ghetto, but The Cheese Board was there first. Fifty years ago, a young couple opened a tiny shop in an alleyway in North Berkeley, stocking it with cheeses they selected by paging through a distributor’s catalog. The first day’s gross was $95. “You’re going to make it,” predicted an initially skeptical Alfred Peet, whose Peet’s Coffee was next door.