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Friday, April 04, 2008

The Best Cheese... Part 2, and My Manifesto

Well, after all that, my local cheese shop decided to carry Jasper Hill's Winnimere, or "Winnie," as cheesemaker Mateo Kehler called it in response to an email I wrote to him asking where I can find it.

Now I can't say whether my email to Mr. Kehler had anything to do with the store carrying the cheese.

And I can't say whether my ordering a wheel for myself had anything to do with the store carrying the cheese.

But when my cheese order finally came in, the department manager said he also ordered a few wheels for the counter.

I was very happy to pick up that sweet, little 3/4-lb stinker.

Problem was, I had just brought back another wheel from Zabar's... Oh well. That just meant I had to invite more friends over to help me eat the cheese. I also delivered a half-wheel to my dear friend Laura, as she has been a big influence in my culinary development, and she was there with me when I was a novice cheesemonger.

"Those were the dayyyyys!"

I'm not certain the aforementioned store had much success in selling those few wheels of "Winnie." The staff knew nothing about them, the wheels stayed wrapped in their original paper (not a bad thing, per se, but not great when there's no info on the labels), and each wheel cost just under twenty bucks. That's a lot of money to ask someone to pay for a mystery cheese.

My standards are high when it comes to cheese departments. I ran my own cheese department way back when. I've worked at a few of the finest cheese counters in the country, and done plenty of training of cheesemongers at those same counters.

I'll admit it: I take it personally when cheese is being neglected. Love and effort and resources went into making those fine little wheels. It's wasteful to not give them their due, which in this case, is making sure someone will eat them and love them.

Yes, I take this rather seriously.

This is why I do what I do: consult with those who run cheese counters and shops. I do it to earn part of my living, but I also do it because there's a lot of work that needs to be done out there to get the beautiful cheeses to the people.

I mean no slight against the person who runs my local cheese department. Most managers, including him, are up to their necks in ordering, scheduling employees, dealing with the store's upper management, trying to stay within budget, etc. I know how hard it is to keep it all together, let alone keep on top of new and exciting cheeses.

So I'm here in my Cheese Cave, as it were, waiting for the Cheese Signal to appear in the sky, via the telephone, or in my email's inbox. Then in I swoop, ready to help the cheese department manager in distress.

All in a day's work for The Cheese Snob.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Cheese Poetry

G.K. Chesterton, in his 1910 essay, Cheese, asserts "Poets have been mysteriously silent on the subject of cheese." He then goes on to exalt cheese not only as a ripe (natch) subject for poetry, but as a substance nearly deserving of worship.

If I was an adult in 1910 I'd probably find him and ask him to marry me.

If you'd like to read the entire essay,
go here. I recommend it.

Not being much of a fan of poetry - not that I have anything against it, I just don't always quite
get it, me being very much a prose person - I have no idea if the state of cheese in international poetry has improved since 1910. I can tell you, however, that cheese poetry in my personal correspondence has increased lately.

Before I regale you with the cheese poetry my friend and I wrote to each other, I will give you the back-story.

This year the
American Cheese Society is holding its annual conference and competition in Chicago at the end of July. I'd really like to go.

My friend and fellow Cheesemonger, Mark Bello, proprietor of
Pizza A Casa, spent many years living in Chicago and owns a futon store there. (His pizza business and his furniture business are not connected; though if you buy a futon from him and have him at your house to teach you to make pizza, you will connect the two yourself and probably make him very happy.) Mark also happened to take the photograph of me that stares you down when you approach this cheese blog. While I consider myself rather adorable, I don't usually like pictures of me, so Mark not only had his work cut out for him, but he exceeded my expectations. Thanks, Mark!

I emailed Mark to ask him if he had any friends in Chicago who would like to host a clean and friendly Cheese Snob for the ACS weekend. I could be wealthy by then, but I'd rather stay with a friend of a friend who will show me around town than in a hotel, even though I really love hotels.

Mark sent a reply email and asked where the ACS was holding the conference. When I answered him - it's at The Hilton - he wrote back with this charming poem:

The Hilton

gonna be smellin' like Stilton
Stanky cheese in July
the floral centerpieces be wiltin'

Sometimes no good deed goes unpunished, so I wrote back with some poetry of my own:

July. Chicago.
Melty like Brie de Meaux?

Or hard, sweet like Asiago Pressato?

Never been there
I wouldn't know.
But if the Goddesses of money look kindly on me

this year, 2008, I will go.

If you'd like to give us poetry awards, please do so via this blog.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

The Best Cheese You Can't Find

Last week I was at Zabar's Cheese Counter. Have you been there lately? Their selection might be the best in NYC. Probably the best in the United States. If there's a better cheese counter in the USA, I would like to know where it is and who will buy me a train ticket so I can go there. Maybe in some other post I'll discuss the relative merits of every cheese counter in NYC, but this article is about a particular cheese.

In the interest of disclosure, I am a consultant at Zabar's. Not a current employee. So am I biased? Yes. Definitely. I'm one of the most opinionated people I know, but my opinions are educated. I'm sure yours are, too. Anyway, keep reading.)

I wanted to buy three small pieces of cheese to take back to Vermont with me. We may have a good cheese counter here in my little town, but they cannot offer what Zabar's can.

I bought a piece of Mike Gingrich's award-winning Pleasant Ridge Reserve. It's been one of my favorite American artisan-made cheeses ever since I first tried it. Although it's been compared to Gouda or an Alpine cheese, I find it is unlike any other cheese I've tasted. While it is not like the Basque Ossau-Iraty cheeses at all, what both have in common is that perfect combination of flavors that results in cheese synergy: the sum is far greater than the parts.

I also bought a piece of Beecher's Handmade Flagship Reserve. This cheese is of very limited production. Olga Dominguez, the incredibly talented cheese buyer at Zabar's, managed to score this award-winning Cheddar when she met one of the cheesemakers at the most recent American Cheese Society conference, where the cheese won 1st Place in the Aged Cheddar category, and 2nd Place in the Best in Show category. Wow! Good work, Olga!

But this article is really about the third cheese I bought: Jasper Hill's Winnimere.

Have you ever had
Försterkäse? No? You poor thing.

Those of us who have had
Försterkäse probably have fond memories of this delectably oozing, spruce-banded cheese.

Well, that favorite washed-rind from Switzerland was the inspiration for Winnimere. Both are made from unpasteurized milk, but Jasper Hill's is a smaller wheel, made from the milk of the Kehler's herd of Ayrshire cows and washed with Brewmaster neighbor Shaun Hill's wild-yeast beer, Agathe. It doesn't get much more
terroir than that, my friends.

Försterkäse is not easy to find, but Winnimere seems even more difficult. It's not even mentioned on Jasper Hill's Website.

So when I spotted a stack of wheels at Zabar's cheese counter I knew I had to get some. Wondering if it had just been released and was waiting for me back at my neighborhood cheese counter in Brattleboro, I whipped out my cellphone and called the manager there. (Yes, I have their phone number in my memory, and I mean
my brain, not my cellphone's. I'm that kind of nerd.) Turns out he doesn't carry Winnimere.

I had to go all the way to New York City to buy a Vermont cheese. Where's the justice in that?

Having only a little bit of money, but unable to resist my junkie-like need for
fromage, I bought half-a-wheel. Lest you think I'm some sort of Trust Fund Kid, keep in mind Winnimere weighs slightly more than three-quarters of a pound.

Last night I finally opened it up. It had been out of refrigeration since about 9:30 a.m. on Monday. "It should be ready for eating about now," I thought to myself.

I opened it and it smelled
awful, but in a really good way. We have Brevibacterium linens to thank for that. (For cool pictures of other Lactic Acid Bacteria, go to Utah State University's Microscopy Website. Thanks to them for this picture.) B. linens is the beneficial bacteria that's encouraged to grow on washed-rind cheeses. It changes the character of the cheese in many ways: it turns the rind sticky and pinkish-orange; it gives the cheese a pungent odor; and, like Penicillium candidum, it causes the pâte to soften as it ripens. Many washed-rind cheeses may smell awful, but their bark is usually worse than their bite: their taste is rarely a fraction of the intensity of their odor. So, don't breathe. Eat.

Right, so back to Winnimere. It's cute and it smells bad.

And when I took a little taste... Well... I remembered exactly why I'd been searching for this cheese for so long. The spruce band holding it all together imparts a "green," astringent flavor to this yeasty, eggy cheese, especially as you eat close to the band. The texture is milky, smooth, and seems to melt right into my palate. There's a little sweet fruitiness in there, and a pungent but not obnoxious finish. Last night I only ate a little because I knew I would want some today. Rationing is key here. It was really difficult. I could eat a half-wheel in one sitting, and while it's not a heavy cheese, it's pretty robust and filling. It just tastes that good.

Dammit, I just finished my little half-wheel of this cheese. I scraped as close to the outer edge as I could, but eating spruce bark isn't my thing.

I tried calling Jasper Hill Farm earlier today to ask how I can get some more of this cheese without having to schlep to NYC. Nobody answered and there's no answering machine. I got the number from my American Cheese Society directory. Maybe it's wrong. So, I sent an email to Andy Kehler, one-quarter of the Kehler's cheesemaking clan. I hope it works. I hope he writes back.

I need more of this cheese!


It must be "Greatest Hits" week because I'm posting another article I wrote last year. This one is about our favorite 80-lb Italian cheese: Parmigiano-Reggiano. For those of you who have been looking for something to do with that thick, waxy rind, I include a recipe I made up myself. Enjoy!

Parmigiano-Reggiano And What To Do With The Rind

Anyone who has ever been in a reputable cheese shop or Italian food store has undoubtedly seen hulking wheels of Parmigiano-Reggiano, their 80-lb bulk sometimes acting as tables to display more diminutive cheeses. Upon inspection of the “grating cheese” section of the shop, confusion often abounds. In addition to Parmigiano-Reggiano, one might also find lower priced facsimiles, such as Reggianito, and “parmesan.”

So, if Parmigiano-Reggiano sells for, say, $13.99/lb; Reggianito for $6.99/lb; and parmesan for even less, why should anyone spend the extra money, especially when Parmigiano-Reggiano has a thick, gnarly looking rind attached to most of the cut pieces?

Because Parmigiano-Reggiano is the real thing, whereas the others are imposters. It’s not mere snobbery that should guide your decision, but flavor and tradition. Reggianito and parmesan have little of the burst of complex flavor that Parmigiano-Reggiano has; they are mostly salty, often oddly acidic, and lack character, requiring far more cheese to register on your tastebuds. So, yes, Reggiano costs more per pound, but you will use less of it to get more flavor than the ersatz “parmesans.” Try them side-by-side; you’ll see.

Parmigiano-Reggiano is a DOP (Denominazione di Origine Protetta) cheese, which means its production - hence its authenticity - is guaranteed by Italian law. (For more information on Protected Designations of Origin, please see http://ec.europa.eu/agriculture/foodqual/quali1_en.htm ) No other cheese in the world may use the name “Parmigiano” or “Reggiano.” This is why Argentina calls its aged cow’s milk cheese “Reggianito,” and various cheesemakers across the world make “parmesan.” To learn more about Parmigiano-Reggiano, it is worth visiting the Consorzio del Formaggio Parmigiano-Reggiano website, http://www.parmigiano-reggiano.it/. The English version is not translated very well, but there are beautiful pictures, and you’ll get some sense of why this cheese is so special.

Now, onto that gnarly rind. Chances are, when you buy a piece of Parmigiano-Reggiano, one edge will have the rind still attached. Although some die-hard caseophiles eat the rind, most people will find its hard, waxy texture disagreeable. So do you just throw it away? That would be a waste of good cheese, let alone money. If chewing on it isn’t your style, do what many Italians do, and cook with it.

Although the rind feels waxy, it’s not made of wax. It is actually cheese, but it’s been rubbed and oiled to the point where it no longer resembles food. But it is, as I found out this evening, when I added a nice piece of rind to a soup I was cooking that needed a little extra something. You can add it to stews, stocks, sauces, or anything that contains enough bubbling liquid to melt the cheese down. Try my recipe and let me know what you think. It’s very easy.

Please note: I learned to cook from my Mother, and measurements are rarely Standard Cookbook English. “A squirt” and “a sprinkle” are really just that. If your squirt and sprinkle aren’t the same as mine, the recipe should still taste as good. The food I cook is more of an art than a science.

CheeseSnobWendy’s Leafy-Vegetable Soup
Serves 6-8

For this recipe, you’ll need a blender, a big stock pot, and a big heat-resistant bowl (or another big stock pot)

2 bunches of leafy greens, such as collard greens, spinach, kale, or chard (choose two different ones if you like)
1 quart of chicken broth or stock (if you are vegetarian, use vegetable broth or stock)
2 yellow onions (not Spanish onions)
2 tablespoons of oil, such as olive, grapeseed, or canola (sesame won’t work here)
the juice from one lemon (don’t insult the soup and use lemon juice from a jar. squeeze a damn lemon, already!)
2 cans of white beans
rind from Parmigiano-Reggiano (I used rind from a ½-lb piece, and I cut about ¼-inch down, but your mileage may vary)
a small squirt of hot sauce
a sprinkle of dried basil
salt and pepper to taste

1. Prepare the greens. Tear off the thickest part of the stems, on the bottoms of each leaf. Wash the greens thoroughly.
2. Peel the onions and slice them very thin.
3. On the stove, heat a big stock pot over medium heat. Add the oil.
4. When the oil shimmers, add the onions.
5. Let them cook for a few minutes until they become translucent and smell good.
6. Add the leafy greens. Using tongs or a spatula, flip them around a bit.
7. Add a sprinkle of dried basil and some salt and pepper
8. Put the lid on the pot, and let it cook for a few minutes.
9. When the color of the greens becomes brighter, add the entire quart of broth or stock. Put the lid back on and let it cook for a few more minutes.
10. Then, a little bit at a time, put some greens, onions, and liquid into the blender, and blend on low, until the solids are pretty well chopped up. (Don’t try to blend too much at a time, or you’ll make a bad mess and burn yourself. It took me about 8 trips to the blender to puree this soup.) As you blend a batch, put it in the big bowl or other pot.
11. When all the soup is blended, put it back into the stock pot, and heat over very low heat.
12. Add lemon juice, a small squirt of hot sauce (this is not for heat, but to marry and brighten the flavors), the Parmigiano-Reggiano rind, and some more basil, salt and pepper if it needs it.
13. Let the soup simmer. Stir occasionally.
14. The soup is done when the greens are the color you like and the rind has partly dissolved. This really does vary. Then, just before serving, stir in the two cans of white beans, and simmer just enough to heat the beans. It won’t take long.

Cheese Snob Wendy is the proprietor of www.cheesesnob.com, where you can find everything about cheese except actual cheese.

Not A Gargantuan Grapefruit

We're taking a slight departure from cheese here to bring you an article about one of the finest citrus fruits known to man: The Pummelo.

I wrote this article about a year ago, and here we are in Pummelo season again. In honor of it, and of Chinese New Year, I present to you:

Not A Gargantuan Grapefruit, But A Pummelo

If you are lucky enough to have a Chinatown in your city, or at least a decent Asian grocer, you may have come across a behemoth in the produce aisle. Lurking amongst the demure oranges and tiny clementines are what looks to be props from some lost 1950s B-movie whose plot involved an evil scheme to expose grapefruits to radiation so they would grow to thrice their normal size and crush major cities.

Fear not. It’s just a pummelo.

To the botanical world, it’s known as Citrus maxima, an apt moniker, because it’s the largest citrus fruit known to man. Not all pummelos are huge; some are merely the size of a large grapefruit. But for me, the most fun is had in buying the biggest one I can find – usually 5-6” wide. There’s something satisfying about carrying home a fruit that will scare people on the subway.

I think it’s far sweeter, and has less of an acidic edge, than grapefruit. It’s also unrepentantly juicy. I am not a fan of winter, but with the coming of late-autumn, I know pummelos are on the way. They are one of my favorite fruits.

Most of the pummelos (also known as pomelos, pommelos, or Chinese grapefruit) we find in the Northern Hemisphere are grown in Florida. My Father, a life-long citrus broker, tells me some pummelos are grown in California, but they are quite bitter. Because pummelos are related to grapefruit – they are the latter’s main ancestor – the best of both fruits can be found at the same time: November until early spring.

Although gourmet supermarkets occasionally sell pummelos, I find they are usually overpriced and under-sized. This fruit is popular amongst Southeast Asian people, as China, Thailand, Malaysia, and surrounding areas are its original source. Thus, trust those who know the fruit best: buy them in an Asian-run shop. If you have none in your area, and your local high-end food store is selling them, go for it, but Caveat Emptor!

Here are some shopping tips, regardless of where you buy your pummelos:

Size doesn’t always matter. However, nearly every time I’ve purchased a pummelo, they were sold “by the each” rather than per pound, so take that into consideration. Other than making sure you are buying Florida fruits, in season, the other two crucial characteristics to note are heft and aroma. Take the pummelo in your hands. (You may want to shop with a muscular friend if you are not very robust.) Does the pummelo feel heavy for its size? Like all other citrus fruits, this is a good indicator of its juiciness. Once it’s passed that test, keep it in your hands. I know it’s heavy, but bear with me here. Bring it to your nose. Inhale deeply. Does it smell deliciously sweet and floral, like citrus should? Yes? Buy that one. Do you smell nothing? Put it down and try another.

Once you finally schlep it home, you’ll want to dig in. And here’s where you should take notes, because dissecting a pummelo isn’t as easy as peeling a tangelo, but you’ll be duly rewarded for your efforts.

You will need a sharp knife with a serrated blade, such as a steak knife. The skin is tough. I find it’s easier to peel it first, rather than slice it into sections. Make a horizontal slice to cut off the very top, and start from there. You’ll notice the pith is very thick and fluffy, like cotton batting or the mold found on brie. It’s not meant to be eaten, but I like to tear it apart and examine its structure while I squish it between my fingers.

After you’ve removed all of the pith, you are halfway there. Now you must remove the little juice sacs from the sections. Unlike oranges, or even grapefruit, the skin separating the sections should really not be eaten; it’s awfully bitter. But liberate the actual fruit and you’ll find a sweet treat. It’s not easy, and expect a juicy mess. The easiest way I’ve found to finish the job is to make a slit up the middle of each section, pry apart the section as you would open an oyster or clam, and dig the juice sacs out with your fingers. Or your teeth.

Although I can’t recall the exact circumstances surrounding my first taste of pummelo, I know it must have made quite an impression on me, because the second time I had pummelos, I was in possession of an entire case of them. It was around Thanksgiving in 2001, and my Father had a fruit-grower friend of his send a box from Florida to Vermont, where I was living at the time, because I expressed how much I liked them. I shared them with my co-workers at the co-op store where I was managing the cheese department at the time. None of them had seen, let alone tasted, such a magnificent fruit, and I was happy to introduce them.

This past New Year’s Eve, I went back to Vermont for the long weekend. I had recently purchased one of the biggest pummelos I’ve ever seen, with the express purpose of bringing it from New York City’s Chinatown to my cold-weather friends. When I presented it to my hosts, we decided this festive fruit would be part of our New Year’s Day snacking. Neither Cyndi, Jude, their son Zeke, nor Cyndi’s Dad Harold had ever tried a pummelo, and a New Year calls for a new fruit.

As I contentedly eviscerated the pummelo on the first day of 2007, at my friends’ dining room table, with juice running up to my elbows and thick pieces of peel fanning out from the cutting board, Cyndi remarked, “You’ve been taking that thing apart for the last half-hour!” Yes, it’s true. But as she popped a cluster of sweet, juicy, sublime fruit into her mouth, she understood why.

For more information on pummelos, please visit Purdue University’s horticulture website.