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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!


Laura Austan said...

Henry is smiling to beat the band right now.

Christopher said...

You _are_ a beautiful writer! Effective, too - even though I've just finished breakfast I want to get up now and immediately find this cheese!