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.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

The Skinny on Cheddar

Sorry to break it to you. Cheddar isn't the magic food that will make you effortlessly skinny. But you probably already know that. It's common wisdom these days that cheese is a high-fat, high-calorie food that should be rigorously avoided, unless it's a pale cube of low-fat cheese. It's treated as if it were in the same forbidden food group as deep-fried Mars bars. Not that there's anything wrong with deep-fried Mars bars.... All around me, people (just women, in fact, from my carb-avoiding Mum to my food-loving and food-phobic girlfriends alike to my enviably skinny and toned customers at the cheese shop in N.J.) announce that are trying to eat less cheese.

Now, why would you want to do that? Yes, cheese won't make you skinny, but it won't make you fat either. You might glance at the picture above and point out my double chin to prove your point about the hazards of cheese consumption. In its defense, which I come to often, cheese alone didn't make me lose my chin (or my eyes). That was the result of living every day like it was Friday night when I was traveling for 10 months. (The eyes have to do with unfortunate genetics.) Now, to lose that weight, I'm living every day like it's Tuesday evening. But I haven't given up the cheese!

What you should be focusing on in the photo above, taken on a boat trip from the Isle of Mull in Scotland to a nearby uninhabited island where I got up close and personal with puffins, is my smile. Cheese makes you happy! As do wee puffins. It's my belief, probably unfounded by scientific, nutritional studies, that it is the satisfaction that comes from eating good cheese that prevents you from getting fat from it.

To illustrate my point, I'll share a conversation I had with one of my customers recently, a regular at the cheese counter who has a real love for cheese and who, I have to admit, has a more developed palate than I. She's probably around my age, maybe younger, and of a normal weight, and she doesn't voice any guilt about buying cheese for her and her family.

"Thanks for the cheese."

"No worries. I hope you enjoy them."

"You know, I just don't understand why we're all being told to avoid eating cheese because of the fat. I mean, look at us--you guys behind the cheese counter and me. We're not fat."

"Yeah, I know. I think that if you eat good cheese in moderation, you'll be fine."

"Well, that's it. If you eat good cheese, you're satisfied and you don't need to eat a whole lot of it. Also, I don't think that the fat in cheese is all that bad for you. See you next time."

She's onto something. Without a doubt, cheese is a nutritionally dense food, meaning that it's packed with nutrients, including fat and calories--which Americans abhor--but also protein, vitamins, and minerals--which Americans need more of (well, maybe not protein). Contrast this with nutrient-empty foods, like deep-fried Mars Bars, for which we seem to share the same level of pleasure and guilt as a schmear of a lush double-cream cheese.

So, go ahead; eat cheese! Just enjoy it, in moderation, and don't feel guilty about it. On top of that, pick something that you genuinely like. This means no virtuous, low-fat rubbery stuff. What joy is there in eating that lab concoction? This also means that you don't need to pass over the double- and triple-cream cheeses. Yes, they seem decadently rich, but ounce for ounce, they have less fat or about the same amount as sober hard cheeses. Depending on the cheese and your nutritional sources, brie has 6 grams of fat per ounce and Cheddar has 9 grams. Gasp!

How can that be? It has to do with water content. Younger cheeses, like St. Andre, have more water than the harder cheeses which lose liquid during cheese-making and aging. Think of the difference between a fresh apricot and a dried one. How many dried apricots does it take to equal the weight of a fresh one? Maybe two or three. If you eat the same amount of dried and fresh apricots in weight, you'd be getting twice or thrice the calories from the dried ones, just because you're eating more of them.

I can't help pointing this out to super-skinny customers when they moan about the amount of fat there must be in the buttery, double-cream Fromager d'Affinois, one of our best-selling cheeses. These real housewives of New Jersey are so fit and muscular that they look like world-class athletes. I refuse to fuel their masochistic guilt, and I won't be complicit in bad-mouthing cheese. On top of that, maybe these women are in need of a smile and a Friday night. Cheese can help with that!

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

What's Wrong with Cheddar?

(Photo taken from npr.org)

I agree with Steve Inskeep. "What's wrong with Cheddar?"

This plaintive and totally apt question (in my mind) was how Inskeep, cohost of National Public Radio's Morning Edition, concluded a story by Ketzel Levine, back in August 2007. (It's taken me a wee while to write about this radio piece. In the intervening two years--well, just now--I've learned that there's more to like about Inskeep than just his views on Cheddar and his good humor in the morning. What a dapper radio personality!)

Ketzel's story, part of the ongoing series (at the time) "Climate Connections," with National Geographic, explored how global warming might affect the taste of Europe's traditional cheeses and America's new, farmstead ones. Well-crafted cheeses should taste of the grasses and flowers that the lactating animals were grazing upon at the time of milking. If the variety of flora changes, so will the final flavor. This happens naturally with seasons; a cheese made in May will taste different from one made in August because of what's growing at that time of year.

With global warming, this change in flora is happening geographically as well. An alpine cheesemaker interviewed for the story, Alex Pelletier, has noticed that plants native to the south of France are migrating into the mountains as the country's average temperature increases. One of the factors which make alpine cheeses (e.g., Beaufort, Gruyere, Emmental) distinct are the flavors that come from the plants that grow at high altitude. Dilute this mix with newcomers from the south and you might end up with a different cheese.

Of more immediate concern is the increase in water consumption by thirsty cows, unused to the higher temperatures. This dilutes the proteins and fats in the cows' milk, which means that the cheesemakers must use more milk to create the same amount of cheese, an unwanted extra cost.

So, how does this all relate to Cheddar?

Most of Ketzel's piece focused not on the traditional mountain cheeses of France and Switzerland, but on one from Vermont, Thistle Hill Farm's award-winning Tarentaise. Why an alpine-style cheese in a state that Ketzel calls "Cheddar country"? It has to do with climate, not history or culture. Recognizing that their local climate was more similar to the Alps than to damp England, John and Janine Putnam, owners of Thistle Hill, turned to Beaufort and Abondance, not Cheddar, for inspiration.

But I think it wasn't just the climate that steered the Putnams away from Cheddar. I detected a whiff of snobbery, as well as continued misunderstanding about this English cheese, which many folks, even cheesemakers, believe comes only from big factories. For the Putnams, it's only good enough to store in the freezer and serve as a snack for their kids. In addition, what they fear most about climatic change is that in the near future they might have to change their style of cheese and "succumb to Cheddar." But they hope that day of making Cheddar "never" comes. For them, it would mean the end of a nuanced cheese that tastes of grass and the seasons.

Global warming is a real concern, and until I listened to this evocative piece on the radio two years ago I never really thought how it might affect the future of traditional and artisanal cheeses. (Inskeep introduces Ketzel's story by reminding listeners that climate change can affect almost anything in our lives.) But is the worst thing about accelerated climatic change that some cheesemakers might have to switch to making Cheddar with the milk from their organic Jersey cows? There's plenty of room with this style of cheese to express your farm's sense of place and your cows' healthy and changing grass diet. Just taste a handmade Cheddar from Britain, like Hafod, Keen's, Montgomery's, or Isle of Mull. Or even from Modesto, California! These cheeses give any French or Swiss cheese a run for its money and should not be confused with factory-made Cheddar that works as hard as it can not to show seasonal variations.

So, if were not talking about a mass-produced Cheddar, what's wrong with it? And even if we were, I still ask, as does Inskeep, What's wrong with Cheddar? It's a bloody good cheese! Remember, the Putnams aren't keeping Gouda or Harvati in the freezer for their kids!

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

A Pint for Cheddar

What comes to mind when I say, "pint and Cheddar"?

No doubt a pint of amber ale. It is, after all, an excellent, potable accompaniment to a hunk of farmhouse Cheddar.

But there's another kind of pint that a traditional, British cheesemaker might think of, a pint starter.

Typically--and hopefully--pints close, not start, a day in the dairy. A drink in the pub after a day of full-on, physical cheesemaking (or even cheesemongering) is just what you need.

For some cheesemakers, however, usually the farmstead ones in the U.K., pints also start the day. In this case, I'm talking about pints of starter cultures.

Starter cultures are one of the very few ingredients that go into making cheese. The others, besides milk, are salt and rennet. Each of these basic components play an integral role in turning perishable liquid milk into a solid food substance that can potentially keep for years and still taste like something would want to eat and pay good money for.

Starter cultures are harmless bacteria that are added to the milk to convert lactose, the sugar in milk, into lactic acid. Unpasteurized milk can do this on its own, without the addition of starter cultures, but results are unpredictable. By using specific lactic acid bacteria that have a proven track record of producing good-quality cheese and that behave in predictable ways (e.g., how quickly they will acidify the milk, how they will fare at particular temperatures, how they will tolerate salt, and how they will influence the final taste & texture of the cheese), cheesemakers can maintain more control of their craft.

Control, however, isn't always a good thing. Nuance, depth, and terroir can be lost when cheesemakers rely on freeze-dried packet starters, usually made in laboratories in the Netherlands or Denmark. As mentioned above, their use increases the chance of a well-made cheese, but these bacteria, isolated in a lab, have very little to do with the area in which the cheese originated.

To get a cheese to speak of place and tradition rather than of a modern, controlled factory, some daring folks in the cheese world continue to use pint starters. They look like old-fashioned, home-delivered pints of milk (see the photo above), but inside them, along with the pasteurized, semi-skim milk, are active strains of bacteria that are native to the place in which the cheese is made, or that have been used for generations in that area.

It takes skill, faith, and commitment to use pint starters. First, you have to hunt down a source for them. As far as I know, there's only one supplier in the U.K, Barber's. It's thanks to this cheese-making family in Somerset that pint starters continue to exist at all. Once the frozen pints have been ordered and safely shipped to your farm (not always a guarantee, especially if you live far away from Somerset, say on an island in Scotland) you must store them properly, i.e., frozen, until you are ready to use them. This takes planning. Whereas users of freeze-dried starter cultures can just tear open a foil packet at the moment they are ready to add the starter to a vat of warm milk, the folks who use pint starters have to thaw the pint the day before making a batch of cheese. When thawed, the contents are poured into a specific amount of pasteurized milk (to have a neutral environment for the bacteria to grow). Then the cheesemaker has to incubate the stew of bacteria overnight at a controlled temperature (see photo above for the space age-looking container in which Westcombe Dairy in Somerset incubate the starter). The next morning the right amount of the frothy starter has to be added to the vat of milk for cheesemaking to begin. The stuff that's added looks and tastes like yogurt. I've tried it before and have had it with my cereal for breakfast, as Mary Quicke does every morning. Yum!

But the resulting cheese tastes even better.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Taking Care of Cheddar

If the season for Cheddar is now upon us, then it's also time to take proper care of that hunk of semi-hard cheese you've just bought and brought home with you. (If you haven't done that yet, then go do it now, and buy some Honeycrisp apples, while you're at it!)

And how does one take care of Cheddar, you may wonder.

You're not alone in asking this question. I get it frequently--about cheese in general, not just Cheddar--when working behind the cheese counter.

My typical advice to customers, especially the ones at Neal's Yard Dairy, is to store their precious parcels of cheese in a cool, damp spot (not hard to come by in England!), e.g., in a garage, by a window, or in a wine cellar. These areas are preferable to the refrigerator because cheese prefers temperatures that range from 45 to 60 degrees F and a relative humidity of 80 percent or more. The fridge can't offer that. It's too cold and dry.

Keeping cheese in your basement or garage isn't always feasible or practical. In that case, the fridge will have to do. To my customers who shake their heads when asked if they've got a consistently cool or damp place at home, I tell them to keep their cheeses in the veggie drawer of their fridge, nicely wrapped in the special cheese paper I've given them. This is the most humid spot in the ice box.

I dispensed this advice numerous times throughout the working day at Neal's Yard Dairy, but I didn't know what happened to my customers' purchases once they got home at put them in the garage or fridge. Was one environment all that much better than the other?

I set up an experiment to find out. While at work late last November, I sliced three 250-gram (about half a pound) wedges of my favorite Cheddar, Montgomery's. I wrapped each one up in Neal's Yard Dairy's special cheese paper, a lightly waxed French paper, specifically designed for cheese, and then took them home with me. I put one wedge on the top shelf of the fridge, one in the veggie drawer, and one in a shoebox, which I placed atop a suitcase in the garage of the flat where I was staying, south of the Thames.

Once a week for four weeks, I examined the cheeses to see how they were faring in their respective spots. I did a visual inspection and then tasted them. I then dutifully took pictures of them together to document their progress (all of which were lost when my camera was stolen last December). After the first week, there wasn't much of a noticeable difference among them, but by the second week, the hunk in the veggie drawer had picked up off flavors. The veggie drawer next to it was storing some very ripe bananas, and the cheese absorbed the tropical odor. By the third week, the cheese in the garage had developed pin-dot circles of blue mold around the rind. By the third week, the cheeses had a new home in a flat north of the river, where the garage was replaced by a dank closet under the stairs, where my friends kept their wine and brooms.

By the fourth week, it was time to bring the cheeses to the shop and to have the experts taste the results of my experiment. The hands-down winner was the wedge kept in the garage and then the "cellar." A gifted American cheesemaker, who was helping during the busy Christmas season, remarked that it tasted as though it had just been cut from a wheel in the shop (once the superficial mold had been scraped off). The losers were the ones from the fridge. They had become unpleasantly waxy and dry. Surprisingly, the one from the veggie drawer was more dried out than the one from the top shelf. Both had stale, nasty flavors.

I learned from my experiment that the a cool, damp spot is infinitely preferable to the harsh environment of the fridge, provided that you can keep the cheese away from pets and pests. If you have to store your Cheddar in the fridge, keep it away from other food items that have strong smells and eat it quickly. In short, buy just the right amount of cheese so that you don't have to keep your cheese in the fridge for four weeks!