what cheese am I eating no. 6

Back in November, I had the pleasure of attending a brief talk at the Great Lakes Dairy Sheep Symposium from Carol Delaney of UVM who spent a good bit of time in Sardinia, learning about their cheesemaking practices. She came back with slides and stories, mostly about the manufacture of Pecorino Sardo, or Sardinian Pecorino. Sardinia, though a part of unified Italy, like all the Italian regions, has its own particular culture that it zealously protects. Indeed, you would be remiss if you were to lump Sardinia, or Tuscany, or Umbria into the broad category being merely "Italian". Pecorino, as a general term, is a hard, aged, sheep's milk cheese (pecora means sheep, or hoofed ruminant in Italian). You are probably familiar with the well-known Pecorino Romano cheese, or Roman Pecorino. The region Lazio, where Pecorino Romano is made, lies in the central western coast of the peninsula and has its own terroir that is different from that of the island of Sardinia, about 125 miles to its west. In general, Sardinia is much drier and hotter than Lazio, yielding different conditions for the grass, the sheep, and the aging process of their version of Pecorino. According to Ms. Delaney, it is quite difficult to get hold of true Pecorino Sardo. The Sardinians covet it and keep it mostly for themselves.

During the talk, I was excited most by the slides of the Sardinian cheesemakers burying their Pecorino Sardo in hot ashes to produce Fiore Sardo. Now, I'm not generally a big fan of smoked cheeses. Usually the smoked flavor becomes a mask that overwhelms the flavor of the cheese itself; all you taste is smoke. But as a sometime potter, this slide reminded me so much of the process of ash firing ceramics that I had to try a cheese that was made using the same technique. So, you can imagine that when it finally came in at the cheesemonger, I was very excited to see it.

If you're going to have a smoked cheese, this is the one to try. The taste of smoke is clearly present, but truly enhances the overall flavor of the cheese, punching out its earthy tang. When I taste it I get lots of roasted sweet aromatics like caramelized onion. It also has a garlic-like piquantness that mingles with the lactic flavors really nicely. And of course, the smokey complexity of the cheese yields a strong sense of umami. The rind is especially interesting. It tastes like a garden store or nursery: loads of soil, greenery, and fertilizer aromas. Overall, as a fine D.O.P. cheese, I give it a 3.

what cheese am I eating now no. 5

Sorry for the absence of fresh cheese posts over the past few weeks. I've be so busy with the farm and life and everything else that I have not stopped by the cheesemonger in far too long. But yesterday I made up for the lack, picking up four new cheeses. I will post about each in turn, beginning with Moses Sleeper.

Holy frijoles. This is a good cheese. Really, really good. For those folks out there who enjoy Green Hill from Sweetgrass Dairy, think of that cheese on steroids. It has a seriously creamy, filling mouthfeel without being goupy. It has a very thick consistency, like custard, only quite sticky. The rind is soft and flavorful, not chewy, ammoniated, or bitter in the least. The rind just melts in with the rest of the cheese in the mouth. The flavors are delicate and yet distinctly complex: hard to pin down into distinct categories and yet satisfying and pleasing: sweet and lactic with melted butter, maybe even a hint of white chocolate mingled with a cashew-like meaty, umami flavor would be my best stab at describing it. I've got to give it a 6. I ate the little wedge at one sitting and I've sent Ross to the cheesemonger this week to come home with a whole wheel both for me and to share. I had tried Moses Sleeper before several months ago, but it had so many off flavors that, being a cheese from Jasper Hill, I knew clearly that it been damaged in shipping.

Jasper Hill. Let me say a few words about who they are and what they are up to. The farm and creamery are owned by two brothers, Mateo and Andy Kehler and is located in northern Vermont. They make rock-star cheese. Don't believe me? Do a search for "Constant Bliss." Chefs like Emeril Lagasse and Martha Stewart advocate for it and use it in their recipes. Not only do they make rock-star cheese, but they are also working hard to renew and regenerate Vermont's local dairy economy. Specifically, they have created The Cellars at Jasper Hill, a beautiful, huge facility built exclusively for affinage. The cellars are not only where Jasper Hill ages its cheese, but where cheesemakers all over Vermont come to partake of Mateo and Andy's facility and expertise. When we were last in Vermont, we met a pair of young cheesemakers just starting out. They had a very small facility and could not afford the equipment needed to create a good cheese cave. So, these two women age their cheese at The Cellars. When Ross and I were at VIAC over the summer, we had the oppertunity to meet Mateo and talk with him about the Cellars project. Mateo essentially said that the aging process is one of the most cost-prohibitive aspects of small-scale dairying, especially at start-up. His Cellars support the cheesemaking industry in Vermont by providing a common facility. The fine folks of Cheese By Hand did a wonderful interview with Jasper Hill, where you can learn loads about their awesome work.

Constant Bliss, Jasper Hill's most well-know cheese, just got a huge makeover in that Mateo has started to pasteurize it. It's a totally different cheese now, and one very much still in progress. The exterior mould is much "fluffier" now and the mouthfeel is out-of-this-world creamy. However, it's quite bitter at the moment. According to my cheesemonger, Mateo is having a "cheese ninja" from France come help sort out the bitter problem. The in-constance of Constant Bliss is really interesting to me. On the one hand, the goal of a good cheesemaker is to deliver a consistent product. On the other, cheesemakers are artists practicing a craft, working to find the cheese they want to make, and therefore altering make procedures and recipes. Now, there are always variations in hand-made cheese, just like anything else hand-made, but these are variances more than they are changes. However, Constant Bliss has made a series of changes since it was first made, this one being the most dramatic I have seen. Some might react to this process by saying "quit messing with a good thing," which I can get on board with to a degree, but at the same time, I can't begrudge a cheesemaker's desire to edit in pursuit of getting it just right. I look forward to watching the cheeses from Jasper Hill shift. They always start out so strong, it's amazing to think of how they can and will become even better.

what cheese am I eating no. 4 Bossa

Tim my cheesemonger recently returned from judging at the American Cheese Society (where he sat next to master cheese maker and one of my teachers from VIAC, Marc Druart! Small world, no?). Tim's been bringing in some of the better things he found there, one of which is a beautiful washed rind, sheep's milk cheese, Bossa, from Green Dirt Farm in Missouri that won first prize in its category. When Tim said Green Dirt Farm, I immediately lit up with curiosity. We have been in contact with them about the possibility of purchasing livestock from them. They are a small farm that is very similar to what we want our own to be and they work with the two breeds we are most interested in (Gulf Coast Native and East Friesian). Tim had nothing but good things to say about the cheese. I tasted all he had, but I especially liked Bossa and took a wheel home.

First off, I really like the packaging: clean, simple, with a nicely designed sticker (plus the ASC winner sticker is always a marketing bonus) and appropriate, breathable cheese paper. The pretty, orange rind had some streaks of blue and white mould that I'm not sure were intentional, but frankly, were irrelevant to the taste which was phenomenal.

I immediately jotted down this: strong grassy manure notes in the rind, only the mildest hints of ammonia; fruit, smells EXACTLY like a milking parlor in the rind; tastes like a pasture smells, sweet, only mildly grassy, earthy and softly picante (if that's not too much of an oxymoron). These notes sum up my initial reaction to the flavors. As for texture, it was pleasantly rubbery and creamy, like a washed-rind cheese ought to be. The rind had a bit of a gritty texture to it, which is my only real complaint about the cheese. Overall, I give it a 5.

what cheese am I eating now, No. 3 Shahat

Recently, I stopped by my "other" cheesemonger (not Tim) at Alon's just to take a peak at what was new. Now, I'm not a huge lover of Alon's cheese counter; the folks who run it are polite and reasonably knowledgeable, but the selection and presentation of the cheeses is less interesting and less discriminating than Star's. I've come to the understanding that if it's a cheese I already know, I can get it from Alon's without too much risk, but as of my most recent purchase I have decided that if it's new and different, or if it's a delicate cheese that requires special handling, I stay away. When I was last there, I picked up an intruiging-looking cheese, Shahat. I was drawn by the unusual packaging: an octagonal cardboard box with a minimalist typeface. I was further drawn to it by its mixture of sheep and goat milk, and even further interested by the fact that it is an Israeli cheese; not something one sees everyday, to be sure. From the sturdy packaging, I assumed that these cheesemakers took the handling of their cheese very seriously. Indeed, the back of the box has specific handling and temperature instructions (think the packaging of VB&C's Bonne Bouche). When I got home and opened the box, I found to my great surprise, that the cheese was tightly wrapped in plastic. It had also been in the plastic long enough for the p. candidium to grow into the folds and crevices of the plastic, giving it odd little fins (not a good sign).

Here is is after I took the plastic off, notice the fins on the bottom and how it looks like the plastic is still on.

At this point, I knew that the odds for disappointment were getting pretty high. Cutting it open confirmed my bad feeling:

Something crazy happened to this poor cheese. It had about four different textures going on inside, none of which were consistent. In some places it was a dense, dry paste, in others it had an open structure, and in others it looked like it was trying to become creamy, but ended up looking greasy, like the fat was separating from the protein. It was bad. One corner of the cheese looked like the rind had completely died off and the inside of the cheese in that area was discolored and slightly foul to taste. Pretty much all I got out of the cheese was sourness, slight bitterness, and strong ammonia. It was edible, but not altogether pleasant. Interestingly, I opened it back up a couple of weeks later, just to see what, if anything might have happened to it. Indeed it had changed:

Look at that pretty, soft new p. candidium growth! I mean, the cheese is not any good anymore at all, but it shows very clearly that the rind was being killed by the stifling conditions of plastic wrap.

This experience is a case-in-point for the critical importance of good packaging and storing. Cheese is a living food. As such, it respirates, i.e. it breathes. If someone wrapped plastic all over your body, you would eventually die. Even if you could still breathe through your nose and mouth, your skin would eventually rot from trapped moisture. This is exactly what happens to cheese, especially high-moisture bloomy and washed-rind cheeses. Gross. I have to wonder whose fault this really was, though. Was it an issue with customs? Is it a regulation that imported cheeses must be wrapped in cellophane? Did Alon's wrap these cheese when it arrived? Why was special "breathable" wrap not used? Who knows? All I know is that this was a sad circumstance for what could have been a lovely cheese. I give it a 2, though it's unfair, really to rate a cheese that has been so abused.

what cheese am I eating now No. 2

A couple of weeks ago, one of my favorite splurges arrived in the mail. Culture Magazine enticed me with a sexy, sexy photo of Jasper Hill's Winnimere and I was won over. I joined their Centerfold Club (a.k.a. the cheese porn club). So now, every few months, a beautiful and often hard-to-find cheese arrives at my doorstep. The last go-round was Dafne, a superb goat's milk cheese from Goat's Leap creamery in sunny California. It is a seriously pretty cheese. Packaging had done some damage to it, however: the bottom of the cheese had some blue mould spore contamination and some of the downy coating of penicillium camemberti had died off, either as a result of improper packaging, or just an imperfect balance of geotrichum to penicillium ratios. Regardless, it was a stately cheese, decorated by a simple olive leaf (I think it was olive), broken in half and crossed over the surface of the round. As a bloomy-rind cheese, I expected the typical oooey-gooey center. Instead, I was surprised to see a dense, moist, friable paste; velvety really is the word for it. It was consistient throughout, as opposed to having several layers of maturation within, typical of many bloomy-rinds. It was very, very pretty.

I cut a wedge out and smelled it, expecting to detect at least some of that musky, super-earthy goatiness, but there was hardly any. When I first tasted it it was disappointingly neutral, too "clean" as some cheesemakers call it, referring to the extreme hygiene in dairies and especially problematic in pasteurized cheeses. Of course, it could also have been a bit too young, since as I enjoyed it over the next week or so, the flavors continued to develop and increase in complexity, but subtly. This cheese is subtly complex. Controlled, might be a good word. As I continued to taste it, it was clear that the rind was doing its job, as that's where all the flavor was coming from. It was lovely: floral with only the mildest hint of earthy goatiness; mildly sour and sweetly lactic. There is complexity in this cheese, but you have to wait for it. As it got a bit older, I sprinkled some over a plate of sliced tomatoes with basil and my best balsamic vinegar. It was fantastic this way. The cheese had strengthened in flavor, but was subtle enough to compliment the tomatoes and vinegar without being either overpowering or absent, as is the case with most goat cheeses. Overall, I give it a 4.