Ladies and gentlemen, meet Jill Zenoff, winner of the 2019 Cheesemonger Invitational. This semiannual competition is the Wimbledon of the retail cheese world, an opportunity for the people behindthe counter to strut their stuff. In a series of zany challenges, the contestants flaunt their skills at cutting, wrapping, pairing, plating and selling cheese. A combination of Jeopardy!, Top Chef and America’s Got Talent, the day-long battle ends with a winner crowned on stage before a frenzied audience. Despite the contest’s madcap nature, victory confers prestige. For the monger who prevails, doors can open.
Most of the time, I aim to create a balanced cheese board for guests. Something fresh with something aged. A creamy cheese and a firm one. A range of flavors from mild to strong. Cow, goat and sheep. But sometimes I take a page from the wine world. Wine people love comparative tastings. My first date with my winemaker husband was a dinner party and wine tasting, with Pinots from around the world tasted blind. (Nobody nailed them.) A cheese course featuring the same style from two or three different producers can be illuminating, or at least get a conversation going.
It has been raining here in Napa (hooray!) so I’ve had time for some rainy-day projects, like homemade cottage cheese. I had forgotten how easy it was, and how delicious. Twenty years ago, Sue Conley—the co-founder of Cowgirl Creamery —shared her stovetop recipe with me. I made it then, used it for a story in the San Francisco Chronicle and then forgot about it.
If today’s cheese plates are more beautiful than ever—and they are—major credit goes to importer Michele Buster. Her New York-based company, Forever Cheese, has launched dozens of European cheeses in the U.S. and introduced many of the cheese-board accompaniments we now can’t live without. Everything on the plate pictured above is a Forever Cheese find, including the Marcona almonds, Buster’s first breakout success.
Every week, merchants restock their counters with the cheeses they think you want. And then You the People get to choose. Often, you’re predictable (you do love those triple-creams), but sometimes you surprise retailers with your willingness to embrace the new. I’ve been showcasing my discoveries all year in Planet Cheese so thought I would ask some leading merchants what you have liked best. From coast to coast, here are some of your favorites, the breakout stars of 2018. Great choices, People!
Will 2019 be the Year of German Cheese? You read it here first. France, Italy, Spain and Switzerland keep U.S. cheese counters bountiful, yet German cheeses account for barely a blip. (Let’s put aside Cambozola, the supermarket staple.) But if the exquisite cheese pictured above is any indication, Germany’s cheesemakers have the milk, the know-how and the respect for tradition to create some real dazzlers.
A crusty mini-sandwich filled with oozy truffled cheese is my kind of appetizer. With sparkling wine it’s the happy hour of my dreams. But which truffled cheese? You may have noticed the soaring number of options in this category. Alas, they are not all dreamy. Some are too muted or heavy handed, with blatantly fake truffle aroma. With others, the base cheese is just not that interesting. Here are six I enjoy:
Antwerp wasn’t on my bucket list until I tasted this gorgeous Belgian Gouda. Now I must go. The cheese is made at a creamery about an hour away, then sent to Antwerp for aging. The family that matures the Gouda (and many other fine European cheeses) also runs a cheese shop in Antwerp that some say is the best in Europe. The shop stocks hundreds of cheeses and supplies Belgium’s finest restaurants. The famous De Koninck brewery is practically next door and provides the cheese-aging space. Field trip, anyone?
I was thinking that some of those wavy Southern cheese straws would be a nice addition to my Thanksgiving relish tray, but I can’t find my cookie press. (Maybe I never had one?) However, I did find my autumn-leaf cookie cutters so that’s what I’m using instead. My favorite recipe for the cheese straws comes from an honest-to-goodness Southern belle and good friend who grew up eating them. I think you’ll enjoy making them for Thanksgiving or any holiday parties to come.
A wedge of English Cheddar I purchased recently had a few threads of blue mold inside, the result of a breach in the rind. The blue didn’t deter me—the cheese tasted great—but I knew many shoppers would eye the piece and put it back. I asked the clerk how she talks to customers who flinch at the sight of blue veins in a Cheddar. “I tell them it’s been kissed by mold,” she said. I like that.
October is American Cheese Month, and to celebrate, I have invited some American cheese luminaries to take over Planet Cheese. Last up: Sue Conley (above left), co-founder, with Peggy Smith (above right), of California’s Cowgirl Creamery. This acclaimed company makes Mt. Tam, Red Hawk, Wagon Wheel, clabbered cottage cheese and several seasonal cheeses. I asked Sue to share a cheese-world issue that’s top of mind for her.
Halloween is pretty quiet at my house. We have almost no kids in our neighborhood. Still, I fill a bowl with candy and wait for the doorbell to ring. This year, I plan to settle in for the evening with my favorite candy—a well-aged, crystalline, caramelly Gouda—and a Rogue Dead Guy Ale. The creepy label will get me in the mood for whatever little ghouls do come to the door.
It may be American Cheese Month, but for me, everymonth is American Cheese Month. Heck, every dayis. It’s been that way for twenty years, having been an American cheese enthusiast and cheerleader all my cheese life. And so it is that when the Planet Cheesemaven herself invited me to write a guest post on my passion subject, I answered with an enthusiastic, “Yes!” Not only was I thrilled to be asked to do this, but I was especially happy to be shining the light on five American cheeses and cheesemakers by way of Planet Cheese.
It was a sad day for American cheese lovers when Ig Vella passed away in 2011. Losing this crusty, cantankerous, opinionated cheesemaker was bad enough. But what would become of Vella Dry Jack, his California company’s flagship creation? Would it change for the worse without his oversight? “I can tell you a lot of people were worried about it,” his daughter Chickie told me recently.
Mozzarella consumption plummets once tomato season ends, but not at my house. I love mozzarella with roasted sweet peppers and, in winter, with cooked greens. This summer, a buffalo-milk mozzarella from Colombia caught my eye. It took a blue ribbon at the American Cheese Society judging, and I realized I’d been seeing the brand around but hadn’t tried it. The Colombian co-founder of Būf Creamery told me the company’s origin story—there’s a Cornell connection—and confirmed its head-spinning growth.
Wine with cheese? Of course. Wine on cheese? Absolutely. It may seem gimmicky, but steeping cheese in wine has a long history, especially in Italy. Some say it dates to World War I, when people would bury their wheels in wine barrels to hide them from soldiers. I would bet it’s an older practice than that. In any case, the niche has a new entry—and a particularly tasty one. The newcomer is on the right, above, alongside one of the category’s best sellers. With autumn coming at us and the wine-grape harvest underway, it’s a nice time to get acquainted with these “drunken” beauties.
After a long hiatus, Cowgirl Creamery’s beloved cottage cheese is back. Plump, tender curds in a thick and tangy dressing—ready to dollop on peaches for breakfast or top with cherry tomatoes for lunch. If you think of cottage cheese as grandma food, or grim diet food, prepare for a revelation.
They say that 90 percent of cheesemaking is cleaning up, which is why I’m content to remain just an eater. But if you’ve ever wanted to try your hand at home cheesemaking, I have the teacher for you. Merryl Winstein believes that you—yes, you—can make cheese just as good as what you can buy. All you need is fresh milk and the right recipes. And, wow, does she have the recipes.
You’re not imagining it. Burrata is everywhere. A cheese that almost nobody knew 20 years ago (even in Italy) is now summer’s blockbuster. Retailers struggle to keep it in stock, and chefs have taken it well beyond the predictable insalata caprese. What else can you do with this dreamy dairy queen?
I’ve lived in California for 40-plus years and had no idea that “Eureka!” was the state motto. Apparently, that’s what you say when you strike gold. Spelled creatively, it’s also the name of a terrific new cheese from California’s Central Coast Creamery [www.centralcoastcreamery.com]. The Paso Robles cheesemaker struck gold with it last month, winning a blue ribbon for Ewereka, a sheep’s-milk wheel, in the American Cheese Society’s annual competition.
I’ve had watermelon and feta salads before but never one this refreshing and unusual. My friend Julie Logue-Riordan, a Napa Valley cooking teacher, brought it to a potluck at my house and it was the hit of the evening—cool and crunchy, sweet and minty. With tomatoes and watermelon both at peak flavor, now’s the moment. If you can get tomatoes in multiple colors—well, wow.
Some of the blue-ribbon winners from the recent American Cheese Society competition in Pittsburgh will never make it to your local cheese shop. They are small-production cheeses that hardly leave their region. On the bright side, many do travel. Why not treat yourself and guests to a blue-ribbon cheese board this week? Your area’s best cheese merchant will likely have at least three of the victors, possibly even those pictured above. Alas, to get the winning cheese I want most, I’ll have to go to Colorado.
Harbison, a spruce-banded cow’s milk cheese from Jasper Hill Farms in Vermont, topped nearly 2,000 entries to take Best of Show at last week’s American Cheese Society judging. As if that feat weren’t impressive enough, another Jasper Hill creation—Calderwood—placed second. For one creamery to produce the competition’s two top cheeses is beyond astonishing. And Jasper Hill wasn’t done yet. Bayley Hazen Blue, the company’s Stilton-like wheel, earned a blue ribbon in its category.
Triple-cream cheeses are the industry’s gateway drug. Who isn’t seduced by all that buttery goodness? Cowgirl Creamery’s Mt. Tam, Brillat-Savarin, Explorateur—these luscious creations take cheese to the limits of richness. Pass the walnut bread. But now the triple-cream niche has a new challenger for the butterfat crown. Are you ready for quintuple-cream cheese?
This is not the Manhattan skyline. It’s the average price of milk paid to America’s dairy farmers between June 2012 and March 2018. Who can operate a business with price swings like this? Not surprisingly, many dairy farmers can’t. Between January and July of this year, 338 Wisconsin dairy farms stopped milking cows.
Yogurt. Blueberries. Now’s the moment. I’m a cheerleader for plain whole-milk yogurt because it’s so easy to add fresh fruit myself. The challenge, in some markets, is finding yogurt that meets my specs: plain, whole milk, stabilizer-free (no pectin, no gelatin) and not Greek. Straus Family Creamery is my go-to, but a new California yogurt checks all those boxes as well. What’s more, it’s made with A2 milk.
The last time I was in France, visiting Comté producers in the Jura Mountains, I thought I might find a beautiful old cheese plane in an antiques shop. But I didn’t know how to ask for a cheese plane in French, and my French host—a veteran of the cheese business—was no help. He had no clue what a cheese plane was.