Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Iberian Tipples & Cheddar

"cheeses, fruits, matching port wines," by The Gifted Photographer on Flickr.

To be honest, when on my own, I don't give too much thought to pairing drinks with cheese or any other food for that matter. As long as it's on hand and cheap, that's good enough for me.

If, however, I were to follow a rule for selecting a beverage for a particular dish, it would be to stick close to home--the domain of both the food and drink, that is. While enjoying an alpine cheese, for instance, I'd drink a Swiss beer or wine. Same goes for French cheese and wine, etc. I'm even exploring, with cocktail maven Kara Newman, monastic cheeses with monastic spirits for the Manhattan Cocktail Classic in mid-May. Foods and drinks from the same region tend to go well together, and it's what the locals (even monks!) do. For this reason I primarily gravitate toward ale and cider with my favorite cheese (you know which one!).

Why, then, am I suggesting classic drinks from the Iberian peninsula as potable accompaniments to Cheddar? There ain't much Cheddar in Spain or Portugal (and what there is, save what's on offer at the upscale cheese shop Poncelet in Madrid, is pretty crappy). There is, however, a strong English connection with Port from Portugal and with Sherry from southern Spain. Keep in mind that Port is an English innovation, and many Sherry cellars were established by English families.

It shouldn't be too much of a mental stretch to twin Port with Cheddar. After all, Stilton, the king of English cheeses, can hardly be mentioned without this fortified wine. Its sweet richness is a welcome foil to the savory saltiness of the blue cheese. (Just don't pour a perfectly good Port into a hollowed out circle of a perfectly good Stilton--what a waste!). Port and Cheddar can work amicably together, too, bringing out the best in each other. When drunk with a slightly sour domestic cheese, like Mountain Valley Gootessa Sharp Cheddar--as I did a few years back at a class at Murray's Cheese Shop, "Night Cap 'n' Cheddar, Perfect Togeddar: A Port and Cheddar Pairing," led by Sue Sturman of Epicurean--Port becomes increasingly fruity. With a barnyard-y English cheese, like Keen's Farmhouse Cheddar, the Port tames the barnyard and calls forth its richness. Yummy things can happen when they're consumed together.

Manchego, or another aged Spanish sheep's milk cheese, is probably what first comes to mind when pairing Sherry with cheese. It's a classic match. While I've never drunk Sherry with Cheddar in the same studied way that I did with Port at Murray's, just recently I attended an illuminating lecture on authentic Sherry (i.e., only those wines that are produced in the Jerez region in Andalusia), organized by the Culinary Historians of New York, at the International Wine Center, and learned that Sherry pretty much goes with everything. Very food friendly, Sherry boasts more varied flavors and styles than any other wine in the world. You're guaranteed to find a Sherry that goes perfectly with a hunk of Cheddar. How about a rich, dark, and dry Oloroso? Or add a touch of Amontillado to a beer and Cheddar fondue, as Fine Cooking recommends, to contribute a nutty touch and a depth of contrasting flavors?

Another factor in Sherry's favor is its affordability. Not hip and fashionable like other Spanish wines, Sherry has yet to be "discovered" and this keeps its price low, at least in the U.S. Port's another story, but there are still bargains to be had.

Intrigued? Read more about Sherry in my blog for Sickles Market, due out this Friday.

In the meantime,
Buen Provecho!

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Chatting about Cheddar

You know I like to talk about Cheddar.

This blog wouldn't exist if I didn't!

But the on-line world of CheddarBound hasn't been my only platform for spreading the word about this cheese (if you can believe it!). In the past six weeks, I've been out and about, away from desk and computer, getting the message out there.

For two successive nights in early February, I ventured forth from suburban New Jersey, where I've been chilling as a slacker for the past seven months, to lead two cheese and beer tastings. The first was held at Murray's Cheese Shop in Greenwich Village. Twenty or so people attended the class and listened to fermentation guru Chris Munsey and me talk about "English Ales & Cheddar: Best Mates." Chris led the way with his potent selection of English Ales (by the end of the 1.5-hour class I was feeling no pain!), and I followed with information about six different clothbound cheeses (not all Cheddars, and not all from England): Kirkham's Lancashire, Appleby's Cheshire, Sparkenhoe Red Leicester, Blue Mont Cheddar, Quikes Cheddar, and Cabot Clothbound Cheddar. The next night, I was on my own, but was very competently assisted by the staff of Jimmy's No. 43 in the East Village, where the tasting was held, and by my dear friend Rich Pinto, who cut individual portions of five different cheeses, Keen's Cheddar, Isle of Mull, Montgomery's Cheddar, Sparkenhoe Red Leicester, and Stichelton, while I was talking. All five dairies are located in the U.K., and I visited each of them during my 10-month Great Cheddar Adventure. That trip, in fact, was the subject of the evening's gathering. As well as tasting the cheeses (see photo above), the forty people who attended also sampled a cask ale from Somerset, a "hard" cider from New Hampshire, and an apple wine from Enlightenment Wines in the Hudson Valley. It was a lovely and lively evening, and I am so appreciative that Jimmy Carbone gave me a venue to share the stories of my travels with old friends and new.

After a two-week trip to Mexico during the final miserable days of February (I fortuitously missed two snow storms), I'm chatting about Cheddar again, but this time not far from the realm of cyberspace. For my employer, Sickles Market in N.J., I wrote an entry for their blog which is a new feature on their Web site, and this Sunday I'm heading back into New York, to Brooklyn, to be interviewed by the one-and-only Anne Saxelby on her weekly radio program, "Cutting the Curd," on Heritage Radio. You can catch us live from 2:30 to 3:00 p.m. at http://www.heritageradionetwork.com/programs/14 or download the show at a later date.

My next speaking engagement won't be until mid-May, when I'll be teaming up with spicy cocktail expert Kara Newman to lead a seminar on monastic drinks and cheeses at the Manhattan Cocktail Classic. Until then, fair reader, is there anything in particular about Cheddar that you would like to read about in this blog? Do let me know!

Sunday, January 10, 2010

The Age of Cheddar

My lugubrious black pin says it all. I'm forty and over the hill. With nowhere to go but down, I might as well be six feet under.

Nah, I don't really believe that. Even though my life may be more than half over and (to quote Pink Floyd) every day is one day closer to death, I am nevertheless looking forward to--not dreading--the years ahead. There's still a lot of life left to live, and any number of adventures await me on the other side of that proverbial hill.

I'm not sure everyone has a similarly positive view of age. The prevailing social sentiment, at least in the States, is that the older you get, the less you're worth. Youth, which I no longer possess, is where it's at.

The exceptions to this age-ist attitude are wine, Scotch, and cheese. The older they are, the better, and the higher the price that people are willing to pay for them.

Here's an example. The typical price for a block of Cheddar, the kind you buy in the supermarket, is usually somewhere between $5 and $10 a pound. Its age ranges from a few months to a whole year. But keep that cheese around for another fourteen years and the price escalates to $50 a pound.

This is what happened to Hook's Cheese of Wisconsin. A month ago, in early December 2009, Tony and Julie Hook released a fifteen-year-old Cheddar, the oldest available on the market. A cheese as old--and as expensive--as this captured people's attention and the headlines. It also opened people's purses. An apologetic notice on Hook's Cheese's Web site reports that the first batch of their super-aged Cheddar (about 1,200 pounds) has sold out and that the next batch won't be released until March 2010. No doubt it will get quickly gobbled up, too.

If I could buy just a quarter or a half pound of this cheese (a posting on roadfood.com says that there's a four-pound minimum!), I would, even on my part-time cheesemonger salary. But it would be curiosity driving me, not the belief that a fifteen-year-old cheese is ten-times better than a one-year-old one.

In my amateur opinion, I doubt it is that much better. In a case like this, age serves more as a marketing tool than as a catalyst for bringing out the best in a fermented dairy product. For fifteen years, over a ton of this particular batch of cheese has been stored at a very cool temperature in plastic bags, leaching whey and minerals. This maturing method doesn't really do all that much to enhance the flavors of a cheese. Certainly, they become more concentrated after all that time, but they don't achieve much depth. All it really succeeds in doing is impressing consumers with the cheese's age and proving that a perishable product can be successfully matured for that long, provided that the cheesemaker has a high level of skill and a sufficient cash flow to hold onto inventory for that long.

Before you get too blown away by a fifteen-year-old, fifty-dollar-a-pound Wisconsin block Cheddar and clamber to get on a waiting list for its re-release in March, remember that only twelve to eighteen months are required for a bandaged Cheddar, stored almost at room temperature, to reach its peak. I'll wager $50 that a morsel of a traditional Cheddar will be much more nuanced and flavorful than a block of Cheddar that has been recently released from a plastic bag full of murky whey after fifteen years of captivity.

Does anyone want to buy $200 worth of Hook's Cheddar and do a taste comparison with an American or British clothbound one?

In this post, I seem to be positing two conflicting arguments about age, that it isn't necessarily better (when it comes to cheese) and that it isn't necessarily bad (when it comes to turning forty). What I'm ultimately trying to say is, age isn't everything. What matters in the end is how good the cheese tastes and how fully you live your life, even after the age of fifteen or forty.