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.
Just got my cholesterol levels checked. HDL 106, LDL 51. Great genes, certainly, yet all the cheese I am consuming does not appear to be hurting. The Mediterranean diet that I prefer may help: more fresh fruits and vegetables, fish and olive oil, cheese (definitely) and less red meat. We often hear about that Mediterranean diet but somehow cheese is not usually mentioned as one of its parts.
Cheese most certainly is a part of that “diet.” The highest per capita cheese consumption occurs all around the Mediterranean and on many islands within. We tend to try to bring it down to one or two things, like fish and red wine, and the same holds true with explanations why certain nutrients, like vitamin C, accomplish their stated claims. Most nutritionists recognize that many players are involved in the success of the Med diet.
The 2013 Epcot Food and Wine Festival ends this weekend and our cheese series closes with a Mediterranean theme, which of course means there will be some goat and sheep milk cheeses, as well as one cow cheese, all of them from within and around that wonderful sea.
Just wanted to make sure we got a full complement of those delicious nutrients.
A part of what makes that “diet” succeed is the pace at which one enjoys the foods and wines. The pace in central Florida is a bit slower than the one here in New York, though not as slow as the Mediterranean. This weekend is not going to be that slow however. The Epcot festival’s Saturday morning cheese and wine tasting will be sandwiched between a pairing session Friday night at Orlando’s La Femme de Fromage and an early afternoon Flying Fish Café luncheon, complete with its own cheese course.
This time of year the Mediterranean sounds wonderful – the thoughts of warmer, sunnier climes replete with Mediterranean cheeses and wines. So if you’re not headed that way, or to central Florida either, we have a couple of classes planned for you: Italian Cheese and Wine this Saturday, and French Cheese and Wine on Sunday, the 17th. Both classes will be held at Alison Eighteen, 3:00-5:00.
We do not usually call them “ewe’s milk cheeses” because of the way that sounds. “You’s” is heard around these parts a little too often. Calling them “ewe milk cheeses” does not sound much better. Calling them “sheep milk cheeses” is commonly accepted, as is “goat milk cheeses.” Neither the sheep nor the goat (the guys) produce the milk but the female names, ewes and does, are both problematic. Think of “does milk cheeses.”
How would you read that?
So much for “you’s milk cheese.”
I have seen many people completely enthralled by sheep milk cheeses. People seem to love them, or most do. There are only a handful of people who cannot tolerate sheep cheeses, including, surprisingly, a judge in a recent national cheese competition. For her it had to be cow and cow only.
Cheese suffers in so many ways.
The different species’ milks are a little less distinctive. Yet when you convert those milks into cheese, their different aromas, flavors and textures begin to diverge.
If there were only one adjective that defines goat cheeses from sheep or cow it would be “chalky.” If there were only one for cow cheeses it would be “buttery.” For sheep cheeses I would say “olive.” Maybe not an adjective but it conveys a distinction. Not that each of those milks does not at times have the other qualities – these are only the main descriptors.
Everything may be better with a little butter on it, but chalk? This could be one of the challenges goat cheese face with some people. Chalk is not so easy to swallow. Olive oil may be the easiest to appreciate. That olive oil note comes partly from the higher butterfats in sheep milk. The butterfat contents can be nearly twice as high as those in goat or cow. Some Spanish sheep milk cheese labels promote the cheeses underneath as “Extra Graso,” as in “extra greasy.” Yum!
No wonder we love them.
Sheep milk also contains more protein, another source of some of the wonderful aromas (wonderful for most of us) that sheep milk cheeses can offer.
When the milk is converted into cheeses and the cheeses are allowed to age, the relative protein and fat contents can be more closely lined up. The water content in cow milk averages about 87% of total weight, similar in goat, while sheep milk typically averages around 80%. Simply stated, sheep milk has more solids.
While this does not fully explain why we love sheep milk cheeses, all those butterfats and proteins do play a big role in the way sheep milk cheeses taste and smell, as well as in how they feel. During the fermentation processes of cheese making the proteins and fats break down into distinct flavors and more volatile aromatics. The lively aromas that arise from sheep milk cheeses are appealing to most people. The extra fat is appealing, though many people consider this to be an indulgence.
I would argue that this extra fat is not at all an indulgence but a wholesome attribute.
The fat works well with many wines too. I have found fewer wine “challengers” from among different sheep milk cheeses than I have for goat or cow. This is a broad generalization but considering how the acids in wines, beers or hard ciders work with fats, it should be little surprise that sheep milk cheeses enjoy so many tremendous synergies with those fermented beverages. Looking at three recent cheese and wine score sheets, the sheep milk cheeses all paired well with each of the wines. This is not to say that there can’t be outstanding matches with cow or goat, or with water buffalo cheeses.
Plus, those extra solids in sheep milk indicate higher overall nutritive values, including those derived from those wholesome butterfats. I firmly believe that our bodies know a good food when we eat it, which is one reason why we keep going back for more cheese, and why sheep cheeses in particular are often chosen to be favorites from within a mix.
Some cheese experts insist on calling them “ewe’s milk cheeses” but wouldn’t this have read a little silly if “ewe” was substituted for “sheep” all the way through?
We have enjoyed some lovely weather around New York City for the past several months. After Sandy, we have had little to complain about. During the last few hours of summer it has seemed more like November. The cooler weather is good for many things, including the cheese appetite. It may not be quite as good for the Sauvignon Blanc fans, those that would prefer to have a chilled glass by the side of the pool. For many however, the weather matters little – this varietal is a favorite, even in February.
If other foods rise to the Sauvignon Blanc occasions only sporadically, it is nice to know that cheese can meld well with this grape in greater frequency. The goat cheeses are practically a given. As it turns out, the sheep cheeses favor this varietal too. About the only major cheese family that seems to shun Sauvignon Blanc is the family of blues, unless the wine happens to be one of those rare expressions of a “dessert” Sauvignon Blanc.
Kirkham’s Lancashire is a cheese I have known and loved for many years. I recall sharing it with my friend David Pasternak back in the day. In case you do not know David, he is one of the owners and the Executive Chef of Esca restaurant here in New York. He would come into my cheese “office” daily when we worked together at Picholine and ask what I would recommend. I had already fallen in love with Kirkham’s by then so I wanted to see if he felt the same. It was (as it usually is) in fine form, so David would ask for it frequently, from that day on rarely bothering to ask what I would recommend.
A big part of my job there was to make wine recommendations for cheeses, and vice versa. The Lancashire showed very well with many wine types, both reds and whites. As Pinot Noir was (and still is) a favorite wine, an expression of which many parties would be enjoying when the cheese trolley pulled up, it was pleasing to see how well this varietal paired with this cheese. And so it went with many other reds: Syrah, Barbera, Tempranillo, Gamay, Amarone, Merlot, Sangiovese, Nebbiolo, Primitivo, even the occasional Cabernet Sauvignon. And of course the white wines paired well too: Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris, Riesling, Albariño, Sémillon, the occasional Chardonnay, and Champagne. My British friends would say “Give me a pint of ale.”
So what gives this great British traditional such synergy with all these wines and ales?
It mostly comes down to balance. This is a quality Kirkham’s Lancashire possesses. By this I mean that it is not too salty, yet salty enough; not too sour, but acid enough; with a scant trace of bitterness; sweet fresh milk flavor; as well as a pleasing buttery mouthfeel. Pour a little astringent red wine on top and the cheese is able to soften the edges, or a little white wine and the fruit in the wine springs forth.
You have to take care of your Lancashire however. Make sure it is not left out for hours on end; it can dry out, which takes away from the lovely texture. And when you rewrap it, it helps to give your leftover Lancashire its own little microcosm. It is a raw milk cheese so when the pairings succeed they can be brilliant, though when they miss, they can miss badly. It is best to try this “chef’s cheese” alone first, the way David Pasternak always did. Get to know it on its own terms. A keen palate will recognize this cheese as one of the culinary world’s greatest masterpieces.
I just returned from Mickey’s Camp (no, not the one in Florida, that comes later) the fund-raising camp held each year southwest of Indianapolis. Each camper pays a nominal fee to attend the camp with all the proceeds going to area charities. I have been to every Mickey’s Camp but one, so now well over a decade of “camping.” The women campers arrive Monday morning and finish up noon on Wednesday when the men arrive to stay through until Friday afternoon. The organizers thought it would be best if I offered my seminars to both groups; so it has worked out best if I start 8:30 Wednesday morning with the first group of women (hearty souls drinking wine and eating cheese with me at that hour) then with a second group of women at 10:30. The guys arrive for their first cheese and wine seminar at 1:30; the final group of guys begins their session at 3:30.
I arrive early those Wednesdays to begin preparing for the first session, with a short window of time to prepare for the second, then for the third, and finally for the fourth. It ends up being a long day of cheese and wine for me, but it is one that I enjoy. After all, cheese and wine all day long? It can be done.
The trick is to be well rested the night before, and to drink gallons of water all day long. It is also helpful to take small sips of the wines, without holding back on the cheeses whatsoever. The crackers? Only in moderation. Seriously! The crackers tend to make you thirsty (with their salt) and the cheese accomplishes this on its own. The cracker is there as a palate cleanser between the cheese and wine pairings, just a nibble, no more. The cracker is not a vehicle for transporting the cheese into the mouth. The campers get it, many of whom have attended my sessions in the past.
Some of the campers finish all the cheese on their plates; others save some for snacks later in the day. After four sessions of this I am usually done with cheese, at least for a couple hours.
I hear that the cheese and wine sessions are many campers’ favorites. No surprise there; they keep inviting me back again and again. I always bring different cheeses each year. I doubt that I have brought the same cheese more than twice. It is easy to forget how many great cheeses exist. Even though there are many hoosier gourmets, their access to the world’s best cheeses is limited, outside of www.artisanalcheese.com. I’m glad we are there for them, spreading the curd.
There was a time when most people seemed to insist on red wines with cheeses, or ports. Then there was a flip-flop and many people insisted that white wines were the only ones appropriate for cheeses. I confess that I may have helped contribute to that trend. I have found many more great matches with whites than with reds, yet there are many red wine pairing standouts.
At last week’s Cheese & Wine 101 the reds beat the whites hands down. The Alsatian Riesling scored well (as Rieslings usually do) but the Vacqueyras in which Grenache was the driver succeeded nicely with each of the cheeses: goat, sheep and cow; soft to hard. The Primitivo scored a couple +2’s: with Le Moulis (vache) and with the aged Gouda. This wine was a bit much for the lovely little Rove des Garrigues but everything else paired well, which is no surprise.
I mentioned how well the Riesling paired (except with the Manchego [not bad but not very good either] and with the Echo Mountain [ditto]) yet it scored a couple +2’s as well: with the Roves des Garrigues and with the Taleggio. You can count on Rieslings of any stripe to flatter the wash rind cow cheeses, as well as most of their goat and sheep expressions.
The big disappointment of the evening was the Verdejo—the Rueda. Lovely wine to begin but it faded fast. Excellent on its own and with the Roves des Garrigues, nice with the aged Manchego, then it was headed for the showers.
Overall scores: Reds 16 Whites 10.
Of course this was only seven cheeses and the selections, though diverse, just happened to be selective partners for these four wines, each in their own ways. Interesting to note: none of the matches was bad; which serves as a reminder: in more cases than not, cheeses and wines do pair well with each other.
If you can get people to try a white wine other than Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay or Pinot Grigio, it might not be such an easy thing. Those three varietals are the work-horses for Americans’ white wine preferences. All together I would venture to guess they comprise more than half the white wine we consume, and quite possibly as much or more than a third of all wines that we drink. Not that I have anything against those three but they do have their limits when you pair them with cheeses.
Last week I was reminded of how valuable the humble Muscat can be as a cheese varietal. Years ago it was my number one go-to white varietal if a guest wanted a recommendation for a glass of white to go with their cheese course. The grape can cover a range of dryness: from drier table or sparkling wines to dessert and fortified wines. Depending on the guest’s tolerance for bubbles or sweetness, this would define the Muscat style I would recommend.
At last week’s Sexy Cheese & Sumptuous Wines class the Bonny Doon Muscat was the star player among the four wines poured. The Mâcon Chardonnay held up fairly well except with the one sheep milk cheese in the mix, the Abbaye de Belloc. The Napa Merlot was delicious on its own but it did not come into its own until we reached the Epoisses, the Gruyère, and the sweet Prima Donna. The Merlot fell flat with most every other cheese on the plate including the blue Fourme d’Ambert. The northern Rhône Syrah fared a bit better than the Merlot but the star of the show was Muscat.
I would not write off Muscat out of hand. Some may be a bit cloying but many are simply delightful, especially with cheeses.
On our home page tool bar you will find “Beverage Pairings” under the “Entertaining” dropdown. A couple of words about this:
Each cheese on our website is assigned a varietal, just one. However there are often many wine types that pair successfully with a particular cheese. Some cheeses seem to pair well with any wine we throw their way. Isn’t there a name for those types of cheeses? Lush cheeses?
Regardless, one varietal is given – a varietal we agree is a successful match with the cheese in question. We are in the process of adding other varietals in the full description of each cheese so you can check each for additional wine matches.
Pairing cheese and wine is a little subjective yet there are some principles of successful food and beverage pairings that help create great matches. One of the fundamental principles of these success stories is simple: the bigger flavored cheeses pair more successfully with the bigger flavored wines. This is what the CheeseClock™ pairing tool is all about. Conversely, lighter cheeses are generally more successful with lighter wines.
Sometimes it seems that some of the strongest cheeses meld better with the lightest of wines, like a 180º counterweight. Some of the strongest cheeses seem to butt heads with the bolder wines. When this happens the cheese invariable comes out on top. In more cases than not, cheeses and wines do pair well together. The successes arise far more often than the misses. And again, there is a level of subjectivity in this.
So watch for additional wine pairing recommendations to appear in our updated cheese descriptions. You will find entries for beers and other beverages too.
The rosé we enjoyed in last night Cheese & Wine 101 class was from the Languedoc region of southwest France. Like many rosé wines of the region it was made from a blend of Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre, Carignan and Cinsault. The other wines were delightful: a white Bordeaux, a Lodi Chardonnay, and a vin de pays Mediterranée Merlot-dominant red wine. I had a good idea of how all these wines would pair with each of the cheeses but I was far less certain about the rosé. It was the prettiest wine among the four and it was a wine that could be enjoyed on its own. The best cheese match for it was a Robiola Castagna. Also nice with the Garrotxa, the Royale and Le Moulis, its best partner was the mixed milk cheese from Italy’s Piemonte, the prettiest cheese on the plate. Might this be part of the logic of successful cheese and wine pairings? Pretty wine likes pretty cheese? Mixed milk cheeses tend to be more versatile with different wine types. The Robiola Castagna has all three primary dairy animals’ milks in its recipe: goat, sheep and cow. The blend of grapes (something the French have mastered so well) gives blended wines enhanced versatility with different cheeses too. The limitations for this cheese and this wine could be largely attributed to the overall “size” of flavors in each. The rosé held up with each of the cheeses pretty well, until we got to the alpine cow cheese, the delicious Flösserkäse, and the gorgeous four year old Gouda, and the fabulous Fourme d’Ambert. Conversely, the Robiola Rocchetta was nice with the white Bordeaux and the California Chardonnay, not bad with the red wine, but stunning with the rosé. This was one of those “impress-your-date” cheese and wine pairings. Memorable.