When is a cheese ripe? I thought I understood that adjective—or at least what it means to me—until a student in a cheese class asked me to explain it. He knew what a ripe banana was, but he’d never associated the word with cheese. That got me thinking. How come I never describe Cheddar as ripe? What about this luscious Nicolau Farms Bianchina (above)? Is it ripe yet? I had to ask the cheesemaker.
Walter Nicolau is a fourth-generation dairy farmer in Modesto, California, the great-grandson of Portuguese immigrants. He started his own enterprise at the ripe (!) age of 20 with one dairy goat. Now he’s milking about 200. Bianchina is a mixed-milk Camembert-style cheese that he introduced four years ago, blending his own milk with cow’s milk from a neighbor. I loved it right out of the gate.
But now he has revised it dramatically. He has bumped up the cow’s milk ratio to 80 percent to make it more buttery and less tangy and added cream to make it more unctuous. And he reduced it from two pounds to eight ounces so retailers could sell the cheese whole. Bianchina is officially a triple-cream cheese now and, naturally, sales have spiked. Americans love that sumptuous richness.
When I picked up Bianchina recently at a cheese counter, intrigued by the new format, it felt really squishy. I thought it might be over-ripe. I couldn’t see the bloomy rind under the wrap—that would have given me another clue—but I risked it anyway. An eleven-dollar bet.
At home I noticed that underneath the store’s price sticker was a tiny sticker with a six-digit number. I knew this was the farm’s in-house code for the make date, but I had to ask Nicolau to translate it.
“We release Bianchina at about two weeks, and we find that it is in its prime at 30 to 45 days,” Nicolau told me. My cheese was 48 days old. Past its prime? Over-ripe?
The damp, dimpled, mottled rind told me that this little disk was close to end-stage. But it gave no hint of ammonia—the death rattle—and it didn’t collapse when cut. It was creamy, plush, faintly mushroomy and not shy on salt.
To a large degree, ripeness is up to you. It’s when the cheese is where you like it. (How do you like your bananas?) This Bianchina was perfectly ripe, and it was probably also ripe two weeks before, depending on your taste.
But here’s the part I had not thought about before my student’s question. Cheese people use “ripe” only for cheeses that get softer as they age, not for cheeses like Cheddar or Manchego that get harder with time. “Advanced to the point of being in the best condition” is one dictionary definition. But if you ask for ripe Cheddar at the cheese counter, you’re going to get a funny look.
In Northern California, look for Nicolau Farms Bianchina at The Cheese Shop (Carmel); Mill Valley Market (Mill Valley); Oxbow Cheese Merchant (Napa); Petaluma Market (Petaluma); Sacramento Natural Foods (Sacramento); Sunshine Foods (St. Helena) and Nugget Market (multiple locations). It should also arrive in several Northern California Whole Foods shortly.
You Could Be a Winner
Are you a food professional who would like to learn more about cheese? You may be a good candidate for the Daphne Zepos Teaching Award, a $5,000 scholarship intended to help people travel to Europe for self-directed research or study. The deadline for applications is May 31 and full details are at www.daphnezeposteachingaward.org.
Cheese Class: Sheep’s Milk Cheeses from Near and Far
Join me for this deep dive into the fascinating realm of sheep cheese. We’ll taste fresh and aged wheels from Europe and the U.S., where sheep cheeses are—finally!—an exciting trend. At the end of this sit-down tasting, you’ll understand why, for a cheesemaker, sheep’s milk is the dream ingredient.
Monday, June 12
Silverado Cooking School
5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.