A “rule” of goat cheeses use to be that they were not so great in the winter months. When we factor in the northern hemisphere lactation cycles and the relatively short durations of aging for this family of cheeses, they would come into their primes late spring then they would fade in the early winter. Many of the younger goat cheeses were best avoided in winter, like tomatoes. Around most of the country it is easy to tell that we are in deep winter now yet there are many lovely goat cheeses available today.
Part of the success of goat milk cheeses is what fresh goat milk brings to the table on its own. The fresh clean flavor of good goat milk is best enjoyed if it is not compromised by too many other competing influences. The rarity of blue cheeses crafted from goat milk should serve as a reminder: the lovely flavors goat milk can offer can be overwhelmed. Some excellent blue goat cheeses exist but they are rare.
Perhaps it is better to wait past winter and early spring for the fresher goat cheeses. In the meantime, a light bloom of Candidum can help preserve that fresh goat milk flavor so long as the milk is good milk to begin with and the cheeses are carefully made, ripened and stored. The Geotrichum rinded goat cheeses can help preserve that fresh goat milk flavor too.
For many goat cheese lovers the light yeasty note added by that mold species makes these cheeses more desirable than those coated in Candidum. An advantage the Geotrichum has over the Candidum is its permeability; the goat milk within the rinds respires more easily. Goat milk does not like suffocation. This enhanced respiration can expedite draining and drying too, which is nice only up to a point. A dry goat cheese is not to everyone’s liking, even if the flavor remains fresh and creamy.
Interestingly, those fresh and creamy goat milk flavors are sometimes more noticeable in a drier aged goat cheese than in a younger one.
Back to San Francisco for the annual Fancy Food Show; it is a nice town to visit any day of the year but for those of us living in the northeast it also gives us a chance to thaw out a little. We have several more weeks to go before we’ll see any daffodils around here so the Golden State will be a welcome sight. About the only living flowers we are seeing here in New York now are the ones that are growing on the rinds of our cheeses and sausages. Maybe not quite as colorful as an English garden but they look gorgeous nonetheless, at least to some of us.
Recently we had a customer call who was concerned about the molds (read: flowers) growing on a perfectly ripened Sainte Maure, and another concerned about the white mold growing on one of our Country Sausages. These concerns would not be voiced in most parts of the world, yet here in the States we have been cautioned to reject that that does not look uniform, perfectly cylindrical, and free of any blemishes, even barnyard aromas. How far we have gotten away from the farm!
It is apparent that our high school biology classes have skirted around the diversity-of-life studies and have instead taught us that anti-bacterials, cleanliness-is-next-to-godliness regimens, and near-sterile environments are the choices we should make. The recent research on our biomes is, to put it mildly, a little difficult to swallow, especially after having received the fear-mongering assaults on biodiversity received in basic Biology. Sadly, the same hysteria lingers into higher education. The first clue some people receive regarding biomes comes in undergraduate Symbiosis classes. Maybe it is not as bad with some of today’s Biology intro courses but the overarching fear of other living forms does seem to persist. Anti-bacterial soaps are ubiquitous, almost impossible to avoid.
You can’t judge a book by its cover.
Given a choice between a cheese that is perfectly cylindrical and white, and one that looks a bit misshapen and dotted with molds, I will go for the latter. The former cheese may be perfectly edible but I invariably prefer the ones that appear to have some life in them. Better to have a cheese that is supporting a “garden” than one that is barely breathing.
The first Master Series of 2014 will be offered here at our new facilities in Long Island City, February 23rd & 24th. The series will be intensive, covering various aspects of the cheese world, all the way from cheese making to pairing with wines. This series promises to be a special one, as students will witness some of the final stages of assembly of our new facilities.
Back when we opened our old plant on Manhattan’s west side we were at the cutting edge in the industry: with our five cheese-maturing caves, production facilities, and our lovely events & education room. The industry has evolved and what was state-of-the-art in 2003 is now only sufficient, at least as far as affinage (cheese maturing) is concerned. Our production area was suitable too, yet only for the first couple of years after opening. It soon became apparent that we would require more space to work with our cheeses, larger caves, in order to keep up with the rising demand for our high-quality cheeses.
I often recommend that tight spaces are best for cheeses, up to a point. It is far easier to maintain cheeses in smaller spaces than larger one: the proper humidity, temperature, air exchange and microflora. I recall seeing the cheese caves in restaurants around the US in the early aughts; almost all of them were too large for the sizes of those operations. It is valuable to keep in mind that a little bit of cheese goes a long way. So our own fully packed cheese caves worked relatively well, the biggest problems were their ventilations. Certain parts of each cave had excessive air exchange while others were practically “dead.” The area outside those caves, the production area, was a little tight too, especially during busier weeks.
Bottom line: Now that we have been at it for over a decade, added to the years working out of the restaurants Picholine and the Artisanal Bistro, we have learned a lot about how to operate a cheese facility of this type. How to get the right product mix, find the top quality in each category, cure the cheeses to their optimal levels of ripeness, wrap them expertly, ship to our customers in good packaging, and provide the best customer service possible (which includes education).
It seems that there are a myriad of facets to the cheese industry so we will do our best to cover the essentials in this two-day series. We will also be eating quite a lot of cheese. Yum!
Do you remember the first time you tasted Scharfe Maxx? Or the first time you tasted Sharpham Rustic? Those “first-dates” with great cheeses are memorable. I recall the first time I tasted Tarentaise, and Roncal, Ocooch Mountain, and many others. I admit that my first impressions with some cheeses were less “impressive” yet they were no less memorable. For some that I did not fully appreciate the first time I would later fall head-over-heels with them; I just needed to give them a second chance.
Fine cheeses may have qualities that may be a little confusing at first. They’re simply unfamiliar, like the way some people approach sheep or goat cheeses; their flavors may seem a little gamy compared to cow.
This is not to say that cow cheeses cannot have their own barnyard aromas and flavors.
We may be tempted to write off disappointing first impressions or perhaps blame them on the cheeses: “That was not one of its best specimens.” With artisan cheeses we do well to recognize that each wheel will be a little different from all the others. Expect the unexpected. So long as cheeses are not wildly different. Of course there will be those occasional outliers – a wheel that was not a good specimen. This is one reason why it is better to sample another wheel, especially if the cheese has been recommended.
Each time I taste one of the cheeses mentioned above, as well as hundreds of others, I am reminded of those first tastes. If I haven’t had one for awhile I may think that I was not all that enthralled with it to begin with. However I usually find that I had simply forgotten how nice it was; I had only forgotten, or perhaps it was one of those lesser specimens.
This phenomenon can be a challenge for a cheese judge. We aim to give every cheese the benefit of the doubt and be open-minded. When a judge tastes dozens of cheeses in one sitting it can be a bit more difficult to taste multiple samples from the same producer. After all, cheese deserves contemplation. If you go through the process of tasting too quickly it is difficult to take in all that a fine cheese can offer.
The weather we’re experiencing around here these days suggests fondue. For other parts of the country even more so! Nothing warms you better than melted cheese and currently there are several specimens here that dissolve beautifully into simmering white wines. One of the original fondue cheeses is Fontina d’Aosta, always crafted from raw cow milk, as they have been for over a thousand years. The so-called “mountain” cheeses are the ones to seek out, especially the cow milk varieties.
It seems that cow milk cheeses are better at melting into a fondue than sheep, and certainly better than goat cheeses. Many of these mountain cheeses are delicious on their own at room temperatures, yet Fontina (though delicious at room temperature) simply does not hold up so well when left out. A wedge of Fontina will start to slump, the butter fats will leach out, and the wedge will dry out quickly. The cheese seems to demand that it be melted down, which is one reason why it makes an excellent cooking cheese.
A similar cheese from across the border in eastern France is Morbier, more of a smear-ripened cheese than Fontina but equally nice at melting. The Morbier has the same disposition when set out at room temperature as the Fontina d’Aosta. The harder cheeses that are closely related to these stand up better when left out, such as Comté, Gruyère, Uplands Pleasant Ridge and Tarentaise. When I first started snacking on these types at room temperature I was admonished, as though that was the only way to fully enjoy them, melted.
Maybe that is true for today’s weather but when it warms up in a few months, I would prefer to leave the fondue pot in storage and instead shave off several thin slices of these marvelous cheeses, invariably some of the most popular in cheese competitions.
There was a time about a decade ago when we were able to acquire some young unpasteurized goat cheeses from France, some of the AOC varieties. And of course, no one became ill from consuming them, though their legality here was lacking. It was kind of like “Don’t ask, don’t tell.” Back then we would recommend that customers follow the seasonal fluctuations: those chèvres being much better during the second half of the year, actually some of them beginning to show well as early as May.
With the implementation of more stringent adherence to the outdated FDA regulations, those young goat cheeses were summarily banned. Seems that we are due for updated immigration reform. What French goat cheeses were available from then on were mostly insipid and banal. This descent has been taking place for many decades anyway, even within the French borders themselves. Fortunately, the overall quality of the Loire Valley chèvres has remained relatively high, if nuances and depth in flavors have been missing.
These imitations of the original AOC cheeses have continued to enjoy popularity here, to the point that most of them are routinely called by their cherished names such as Valençay, Sainte Maure, and Selles-sur-Cher. The newish “substitute” cheeses don’t dare use those names when they depart France but we use those names here anyway. The names practically roll off the tongue. Considering what I have tasted in France recently, these replacement Loire Valley cheeses are not that different. Some of the goat cheeses without AOC status produced in other parts of the country are closer in flavor profile to what our Loire selections use to be!
The affineur has a few tricks he can apply to help those cheeses reach their greatest potential. As in the old days: a little sechage in the haloir is invariably part of the process (drying in a dry environment). These cheeses arrive in plastic wrapping and dripping wet, and virtually flavorless. Not to be too much of a cheese snob here, I try those “fake” cheeses from time to time, curious as to why their popularity seems not to have diminished, but only after they have dried a little and after they have acquired some of their beautiful multi-colored mold coating. It could be partly that they don’t offend, either mold-covered (though the appearance seems to bother some) or the younger ones (with no mold coating) with far less character. Sadly, this is what many consumers expect from cheeses – that they be flat-flavored, bland and lifeless. With a little careful ripening these pitiful things can become more interesting.
Think of those molds as the “flowers” growing on the cheese surface. Some “flowers” blossom in the interior of cheeses! Almost all of these mold species are beneficial. They contribute flavors to the paste within and also enhance drying. Those “flowers” themselves may not be particularly tasty but the cheese’s flavor will be enhanced. For those that do want flavorless cheeses they may want to specify this via a phone call. We may have some fresh arrivals pre-affinage we can send along.
I fear that the assumption from some consumers is that if the cheese comes from France, it must be great. And our obsessive hysteria regarding mold, well, don’t get me started!
A recent shipment of “Sainte Maure” (cheese-on-a-stick) came in so fragile that one of the logs broke the day we took it out of its packaging. We set the poor thing in with its sisters anyway and I took a little taste after its few days of drying, ripening and molding. It was very nice, mold included.You may want to try some of these now, even though it’s January. A little TLC goes a long way with the chèvres.
The appetite for cheese in Colorado appears to be rising faster than ever. Little surprise then that artisan cheese making is enjoying an uptick to satisfy that growing demand. Artisanal cheese production has been in existence for decades here but now the industry is booming. Craft beers are a big thing in Colorado too, which helps to grow the cheese appreciation.
The fifth annual Colorado Cheese Festival was held in Longmont this year, about an hour north of Denver. The festival enjoyed record-breaking attendance even though it was not in Denver itself. Several Denver denizens made the drive up, but there were other participants from all over the state as well as a number from out of state.
John Scaggs of Haystack Creamery brought four of his goats to the festival this year, two Nubians and two La Manchas, beautiful and gregarious animals. They stayed out in the parking lot munching on hay and taking in all the attention. When a small plane flew overhead all four of them looked up to see what it was. Curious, too. They held their gaze on the plane until it was out of sight.
Inside the convention center hundreds of cheese lovers were milling about, visiting cheese makers’ kiosks and attending sessions. I was asked to conduct a pairing session on cheese and beer. Turned out to be a big hit. Along with the Oskar Blues beers a local gin and coffee liqueur were thrown into the mix from Spirit Hound. My word of caution to the assembly was to know one’s capacity.
It appeared that everyone in attendance was being careful though. No one falling down. If there was anyone who might have fallen down it would have to be the festival’s organizer, Jackie Rebideau. Jackie had been up most of the night before putting the final touches on the event. She met us a few years ago when she attended one of our Master Series. She has gone on to make quite a cheese career for herself, along with hosting the Colorado Cheese Festival she also hosts a radio program, A Fermented Affair, and she just rolled out her first food truck in Denver, Mobile Meltz.
The festival will be back in Longmont again next year and I look forward to being a part of it again, helping Jackie spread the curd.
The excitement occurring in the cheese world today is occurring right here within our shores. However there are some cheeses that simply will not be successfully replicated outside their original provenances. Actually, no cheeses can be recreated identically if produced in different places. There are too many variables that come into play. The French have elevated the importance of terroir, as well they should. For a country about the size of Texas there are many distinct soils, climates, topographies and cultural/historical influences. These qualities which define terroir shape the profiles of cheeses dramatically. The same cheesemaker will not be able to make the same cheese in a different locale. Even if she has the same milk to work with, and the same recipe, the locations where the cheeses are produced and cured will have their own influences on the cheesemaker’s cheese.
The French were not the first to make cheese, nor do they produce the most cheese, nor do they eat more cheese than anyone else, yet the cheeses of France are widely considered to be the best. Many people feel the same way about French wines – that they are the best. We are finding as many distinctions among French wines as we are among French cheeses. It is rather mind-boggling, this array of quality in French cheeses and wines.
French cheeses have found an important export market in the United States – a good thing since per capita consumption in France has been leveling off. While American cheeses continue to improve, these imported French cheeses are finding unexpected competition with our own artisan cheeses. There are many French cheeses that will never find their way onto our cheese shop’s shelves; the young cheeses made from unpasteurized milk find homes within France or in other less paranoid nations than ours. It is difficult for me to avoid this topic: the young cheeses crafted from uncompromised milk that are prohibited here. Many of these cheeses are becoming “luxury” cheeses within France itself. Cheeses that were recently humble peasant foods are now finding their way onto cheese trolleys of the most exclusive restaurants in the world. Sadly, some of these cheeses are barely hanging on; the economics simply don’t add up, even with the appreciation among well-healed turophiles.
The denial of young raw milk cheeses here has served to shape our cheese choices toward the more aged varieties, and fortunately with a little uptick in the raw milk cheeses too. This means that we do not have those young delicacies, most of which are as close as we can get to that fresh wholesome milk without destabilizing heat treatments. This is not to say that aged cheeses cannot be fabulous, both aesthetically and nutritionally, but it does mean we are missing out on a dizzying array of magnificent curds.
So what can we do to preserve these old cheesemaking traditions, many of which are very much endangered? I am afraid it is highly doubtful we will see any revisions to our regulations but we can go to France and eat them while there, or wherever they may be produced: England, Switzerland, Spain, Italy, etc. I have no problem with that: venturing to Europe to taste cheeses that are illegal here. It is easier for me to fly to Paris than it is to get to Burlington, Vermont. I missed the Vermont Cheese Festival again this year, partly for that reason. Another thing we can do is eat as much artisan cheese as we possibly can, from wherever, young or aged, pasteurized or not. If we eat more cheese it will help keep all cheesemakers in business and future generations will see the industry as one that is viable.
The only problem with eating all this extra cheese is that we will have to purchase new wardrobes; our waistlines will slim down dramatically. Seriously!