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Posts Filed Under The ‘Cheese & Wine’ Category

Friday, July 12th, 2013

Day 9: End of Cruise and Debarkation

1 e1373660737477 Day 9:   End of Cruise and Debarkation

Dateline: Civitavecchia
Aboard Oceania Cruise Ship, The Riviera

We were sad to see the cruise come to an end but the ten days aboard were sufficient. I saw several places I had never visited before: Cannes, St. Tropez, Marseilles, Olbia, Sorrento, Amalfi and Ravello. We could have made ourselves quite comfortable staying on board for another ten days, even though the ship was retracing its journey back to the same ports. The food on board the Oceania was outstanding, as well as the service. Our stateroom, though small, was well-appointed and quite comfortable.

The ship was still running my “Cheese in the Mediterranean Diet” seminar on the ship’s Guest Lecturer channel in a continuous loop. I wondered how much longer it would run after I left.

We had breakfast outside on deck twelve’s Terrance Café. This was our favorite breakfast spot on the ship. Set up as an oversize buffet, with fruits, excellent pastries and yogurts, an eggs-to-order station, it included pretty much everything else one could want including cereals. This final morning on board we were some of the first to arrive so we chose a table by the railing which overlooked our arrival at the port of Civitavecchia – Rome’s seaport.

I failed to record our flight number so we were placed on the first bus leaving that morning, this to make sure we made our flight, whatever the number, at whatever time it was scheduled (which was why we were two of the first at the Terrace Café). This ended up giving us a few extra hours to spend at Rome’s airport. Sure, it would have been nice to sleep in a little, and to adjust our clocks westward an hour or two. The day ended up being a long one.

The early morning drive to Rome was a quiet one. I am sure we weren’t the only ones reminiscing about the previous ten days. We drove past acres and acres of sunflowers, a few small dairy farms, cow or goat, the last of which seemed a little close to the airport. This road from Civitavecchia (meaning “old city”) hugged the coastline most of the way to the airport. I had forgotten this. The bucolic seaside farmland along each side of the road was far different scenery from what we would be driving beside on our way home from JFK later that day.

I could not bear the thought of leaving behind any leftover cheese. It would be one thing if someone else might enjoy it but it was nearly certain that it would have been thrown out. I could have easily left a third of a bottle of leftover Sancerre and another third of a thick Zinfandel. Less likely that either of these would have been thrown out, I can’t say for sure. I was talked into stuffing each of these into my backpack, along with the cheeses, my laptop, tablet, magazines and all the other stuff we guys carry in our man-purses. We had overstuffed our checked luggage pieces and carry-ons anyway; fortunately the luggage carts are available no charge at Leonardo da Vinci.

During the marvelous cruise, with its focus on the cheeses and wines of the western Mediterranean, there may have been more people crisping on the pool deck than there were curious gourmets in the seminars, yet for those that took in the culinary delights it had to have been one of the most fabulous assemblies of gustatory thrills ever experienced on a cruise. People were thanking me all the way up to the airport check-in. After that point we let them run ahead so we could attend to one last piece of business.

Arriving four hours early for our departure (I was told) would allow us time to find a little corner to finish our cheeses and wines. I can’t imagine the same scenario occurring at any US airport: sitting as nonchalant as possible while pouring wine from a backpack into espresso cups, and nibbling on little bits of cheeses. Maybe this is routine here?

- Max McCalman

Wednesday, July 10th, 2013

Day 8

800px Ships wake 2678244614 e1373484493793 Day 8

Dateline: Sea Day, Amalfi to Civitavecchia
Aboard Oceania Cruise Ship, The Riviera

It may not look like a great distance to sail: the final voyage from Amalfi to Civitavecchia. It was a great enough distance to allow for a lovely sea-day – a day during which it appeared we might be sailing around lazily in circles, far from Italy’s western shore. From our window table in the Grand Dining Room I noticed how the ship’s wake curled around behind us, never quite straightening out. With the sun almost directly overhead it was too difficult to tell if this was really happening. There were no land masses or other ships to be able to gauge this, only the relatively placid sea below. Time slows down in the middle of the sea, especially on a warm sunny day.

This was the first and only day that my seminars did not have a port to compete for the passengers’ interest. Many of the Europeans spent most of the cruise under the sun, or so it seemed. Most of the American passengers were interested in the culinary theme of the cruise: a few foodie shore excursions, the afternoon wine tastings, the cooking demonstrations in the Bon Appétit classroom, as well as my sessions on cheese and wine.

This final tasting included some of our favorite Italian cheeses: Robiola Bosina, Pecorino Sardo, Taleggio, Piave, and Gorgonzola Cremificato. The white wine was a Vernacchia — the same varietal we had enjoyed a few days earlier in Olbia but from a different producer, and for the red: a Valpolicella — a blend of Corvina, Molinara and Rondinella. As sprightly and fresh as the Vernacchia was, the Valpolicella was berry-layered and lush. I remembered enjoying the Vernacchia and Pecorino Sardo pairing a bit better in Olbia than I did here though these two expressions still made a delicious blend. The earlier success could be partly attributed to the “being-there” factor as well as Pietro’s warm hospitality, yet also because the Pecorino Sardo I had in Olbia was younger and fresher than this one. Not that I don’t enjoy an aged Pecorino Sardo; it is that the younger fresher-tasting Vernacchia makes a better match for the younger versions of this great cheese.

The session’s beginning cheese, the Robiola Bosina, also paired well with the Vernacchia, but was even better with the Valpolicella. I do not doubt that the cow component in the Bosina made this a factor. Vernacchia is generally a far better wine for goat and sheep milk cheeses (or their blends) than it is for cow cheeses. The Vernacchia met its match with the Taleggio so after the Pecorino it was finished for the day, all the other cheeses made from cow milk.

I recall one of my first “real” Italian restaurant experiences years ago when you could find a nice bottle of Valpolicella for well under $10.00. In a restaurant! I recall how delightful it paired with all the foods we had, and how it was perfectly delightful on its own. This one matched each of these different cheeses beautifully.

We returned to our stateroom to pack for our early disembarkation the following morning. By this time our ship had straightened out and we continued sailing northward. We still had more cheese left in our refrigerator, as well as unfinished wine. Oh my!

- Max McCalman

Monday, July 1st, 2013

Day 6

Port of Livorno pilot boat LI 10143 03 e1372708474767 Day 6

Dateline: Livorno, Italy
Aboard Oceania Cruise Ship, The Riviera

When we sailed into the old port of Livorno early in the morning, the evidence of extensive bombing during World War II remained, even after extensive rebuilding. Yet Livorno is still a major port so whatever restoration took place may not be so evident today. The region surrounding Livorno was relatively untouched, including some of Italy’s favorite destinations: Pisa, Florence, Siena, and the Tuscan countryside. Like Sardegna, the region has more sheep than people.

The Bon Appétit chef on board, Kathryn Kelly, invited us to join her on an excursion to the main market in Livorno, then to a Tuscan winery where we would make pizza, focaccia and biscotti in a wood-burning oven. The idea was to stock up on all the ingredients at the market, and to pick up picnic snacks for the bus ride.

The market had also been mostly destroyed during the war (couldn’t we spare the market?) but was rebuilt almost exactly to its original design in the fifties. Each member of our group was assigned a food to buy. Naturally I got the cheese shopping task. There were at least a dozen stalls focused entirely on cheese, each one specializing on one variety or several. I was only shopping for about twelve people but I couldn’t help myself; I bought enough to cheese to last for days.

I found that young Sardinian goat cheese in Livorno, the one I meant to buy in Olbia. This was the first cheese we shared on the bus ride, and it was sublime. The first taste was faint, but it opened up in the mid-palate, then lingered beautifully creamy in the finish. The other picnic items simply did not measure up. My compatriots helped me finish nearly a kilo of this rustic farmhouse cheese, all of it – including the rind.

I saved the Mozzarella di Bufala for after we got off the bus, just a little too messy for consumption on a fast-moving vehicle. It had just been made earlier that morning, the way we use to receive at Picholine years ago, and just the way it is meant to be eaten. The cheese would have been made outside Naples that morning, then it would be flown to JFK, then we had it to serve to our restaurant’s patrons the same evening.

- Max McCalman

Saturday, June 29th, 2013

Day 5

olbia e1372556905798 Day 5

Dateline: Olbia, Italy
Aboard Oceania Cruise Ship, The Riviera

We docked at Olbia’s port midday after the longish overnight voyage from Marseilles. This was my first visit to the island – the island from which I have tasted many excellent sheep milk cheeses. The Pecorino Sardo has been one of my all-time favorites; something like it has been produced all around the Mediterranean for millennia. The Fiore Sardo is a one-of-a-kind itself, another outstanding cheese from the island.

Sardegna also supports some goats, their cheeses are by nearly as well known. I was determined to find an artisan goat cheese during our short visit on the island. I asked the land agent where I might find some of the best cheeses of Sardegna. At first she suggested supermarkets but I let her know this what not what I had in mind – shopping for cheese in a supermarket. She said she agreed that those were not her favorites either. She pulled out a map of Olbia and drew paths to three different destinations.

Finding an open cheese shop in Europe in the early afternoon is nearly impossible so we waited until later to go ashore on our expedition. The closest shop to where our shuttle dropped us off was more of a tourist restaurant so we kept walking up the old town’s main street, barely wide enough for a single lane of traffic. The town was more tropical than I expected, with palm trees here and there, and very warm sun. The gentle sea breeze made the direct sun tolerable. By 4:00 pm the town seemed to be gradually awakening from its siesta.

When we located the second location recommended it was immediately apparent that this was where we needed to be. The shop’s owner greeted us warmly and offered us samples of whatever cheeses we wanted to taste, as well as a few others I was less interested in trying. All his products were from Sardegna: the cheeses, the honeys, the breads, the nougats, the cork sandals, the wines, and everything else. He told the story of how his grandfather had opened the shop in 1919 in a different building around the corner, and how he had received visitors from around the globe, always offering samples of everything.

My intention was to have a small selection of Sardinian cheese with a little Sardinian wine while in Olbia. (We had already filled up our stateroom’s refrigerator with leftover cheese and wine from previous stops so there was little extra room there.) Serving a little degustation of cheese and wine was not what Pietro was set up to do but this was Sardegna and everything seemed possible, no trouble at all. I picked out the smallest pre-cut piece of a young raw sheep milk cheese I could find, weighing about half a kilo, and a light crisp Vermentino wine. He did not have wine glasses but he did have small plastic cups. He did not have a table either but he did have a couple chairs on the sidewalk in front of the store. Pietro told the men sitting in them to surrender the chairs to his new NYC cheese friends. I was uncomfortable asking these older men to give up their seats but there was no stopping Pietro and they seemed to take it all in stride. When I asked Pietro if the police might give him trouble for serving cheese and wine outside by the street he gave me a look as if to say: are you serious?

He could not sell us just a small chunk of cheese and a couple glasses of Vermentino so we stuffed the remainder in our fridge.

I am sure they will taste fine when we finish them later but probably no where nearly as nice as they did when we had them at Pietro’s shop.

No goat cheese there but I still had a couple more ports to check.

- Max McCalman

Thursday, October 18th, 2012

Have Cheese, Will Travel

Viva Italia 300x227 Have Cheese, Will Travel

I was a guest speaker at the Epcot International Food & Wine Festival last weekend; the theme was “Italian Cheeses and Wines.” Ever since I made my first presentation there back in 1998 the cheese sessions have been some of the most popular seminars of the festival, always hosted by the inimitable Pam Smith.

It is no surprise these cheese seminars are so popular; it follows the dramatic trajectory of cheese appreciation in the US. We may not eat quite as much cheese as the Italians but we are catching up rapidly. Speaking of formaggi, we have some drop-dead gorgeous cheeses from Italy at this time, each of them screamin’ to be eaten. Along with the cheeses we presented last weekend at Epcot we have some that we see less frequently, such as a wash-rind Quadro di Bufala – a variation on the infamous Taleggio (which is also looking great now) made with cow milk. It turns out that making the cheese with Buffalo milk works especially well; the high butterfat content makes this version especially scrumptious.

Another cheese that we see rarely that is in peak form now is the Robiola Pura Capra. The Robiola family of northern Italian cheeses is vast; there are so many styles of Robioli that it is difficult to describe the group. Safe to say, they are made in northwest Italy, particularly in the Piemonte (foothills of the Italian Alps); they can be made from any combination of cow, goat, sheep or buffalo milk; they come in small formats; and they are usually consumed on the young side. Other than that, there is little else you can say that describes Robiola; different types of rinds make a huge difference in their aromas and flavors, as much as the milk choices themselves.

One of the more popular Robiolas is one made with all three (cow, sheep and goat) milks – the Robiola 3 Latti – the best of all three worlds, all blended together. Blending the milks elevates the overall flavor of the cheese, while moderating some of the qualities in any one of those milks that some people may find less pleasing. By the way, these mixed milk cheeses exhibit tremendous pairing potential with many wine types.

Last weekend at Epcot we had a Robiola 2 Latti (cow and sheep blend) that paired magnificently with a white wine of the region – Arneis. This was a bit of a surprise for me, even considering that they are made in the same region. That same cheese paired well with an Amarone from the northeast of Italy. Then, Amarone is a cheese-friendly wine most of the time.

This coming weekend we will be presenting cheeses and wines from France. A tasting of French cheeses would not be complete without Comté, another cheese looking great in our caves now. Comté is one of those more assertive cheeses that generally pairs better with white wines, the best one being an unusual varietal of the region – Savagnin. No two Comtés are the same; this is one of the great things about this magnificent cheese: each wheel is distinctive. The regulations for its production are strict, and strictly enforced. This is what differentiates them: plenty of land for the animals to graze upon, milk collected within a short distance from where the cheeses are produced and ripened, and no pasteurization equipment is permitted in the cheese-making plant – the fruitière – by law.

In case I don’t see you at Epcot this weekend maybe you can enjoy some Comté and several other lovely French cheeses here at the Center. My colleague Erin Hedley has just a few seats available in her class Saturday afternoon.

Cheese is on the move.

Max McCalman

Monday, June 11th, 2012

Comté, s’il vous plaît

The Comté Cheese Association has invited me to come by for a visit. This will be my first visit to this land of cheese royalty so I am particularly excited; this mountainous region is home to heavenly cheese. The name is virtually synonymous with “fromage;” Comté is what many Frenchmen think of when they think of cheese. Were we that lucky!

Edward Behr, publisher of the excellent the Art of Eating called me down for not including Comté in Cheese, a Connoisseur’s Guide to the World’s Best. This was a gross oversight of course. Maybe I took Comté for granted; the flavors may be quite familiar if it is a cheese that has been widely imitated. Yet if you close your eyes and take in all that a morsel of Comté can deliver, those flavors and aromas can resonate distinctly, delicious all the way through to the “finish.” Each wheel is unique, which is part of the beauty of this cheese – it would be difficult to ignore the differences among wheels of Comté, some more subtle than others. These variations make it a little difficult to generalize about what kinds of wines work with Comté; then again it also makes it a little easier to recommend a wine: try any of your favorite wines and see what happens when you pair it with Comté.

I recall experiencing more successes with white wines, more than reds, with Comté. I believe this is due to the many flavor/aroma dimensions of Comté; elevated tannins in the red wines can be a bit fussy with all that complexity. The white wines can be a little more tolerant of those layers of flavor; the tannins do not get in the way.

Comté is used extensively in cooking, able to add a profound accent on many dishes. The cheese can be enjoyed on its own, which is the way I have had Comté most every time. I recall seeing an older woman walking up to a cheese stall in a market in Nice. The fromagère knew exactly what her customer wanted – 100 grams of a young Comté. Today, many cheese lovers have acquired a taste for the more aged versions; the younger cheeses may seem to lack that “wow” factor.

On another occasion I witnessed a couple of Bordeaux wine makers snacking on Comté and fresh baguette. They were not having a glass of their lovely red Bordeaux with the cheese and bread; these two young ladies were having a soft drink instead. I thought it would have been lovely to see how the cheese and wine paired, right there by the vineyard. Then again it was early afternoon.

The A.O.C. rules define Comté rather strictly; the production rules are some of the strictest ones of France. You might think that they would all taste the same. It is precisely those rules that help give wheels of Comté their uncompromised and rather individual signatures.

Max McCalman

Tuesday, May 8th, 2012

Sangiovese, Nice and Easy

Sangiovese is a varietal we often overlook; it could be partly because there were many inferior wines produced from this grape in the past, or because it is often blended with other high-pedigree varietals such as Cabernet Sauvignon, diluting its own characteristics. It has been blended with other varietals to yield some delicious wines. However part of the appeal of Sangiovese is its easy-drinking character, its graceful acceptance of other varietals in the mix, and its harmony with many foods, cheeses included.

Some Sangiovese successes have been noted recently in Napa yet the grape does not seem to grow quite as successfully much of anywhere else outside Tuscany, so it may also suffer from a lack of recognition on the worldwide stage. We are offering Sangiovese wines in more classes here at the Artisanal Cheese Center, not only the classes focused on Italian cheeses and wines, but in other classes too. This will allow us to pair our cheeses produced outside Italy with several Sangiovese wines. As the weather warms up, Sangiovese is sounding rather appealing, like a nice bottle for a picnic, accompanied by a little cheese and a crusty baguette.

Fortunately, some of the many cheeses that happen to pair well with Sangiovese make good picnic cheeses: goat, sheep, cow and mixed milk cheeses; from the lighter styles all the way up to and including some blues. These are some cheeses we have enjoyed with this varietal recently:

Abbaye de Belloc, Barely Buzzed, Cantalet, Cremont, Garrotxa, Gorgonzola Piccante, 4 y.o. Gouda, Gruyère, Hittisau, Hoja Santa, Ibores, Manchego, Le Moulis, Pecorino Foglie di Noce, Pecorino Sardo, Roncal, Roquefort, Scharfe Maxx, Terraluna, and Vacherin Fribourgeois.

Considering how easy Sangiovese is on the pocket book you may want to add an extra wedge of cheese to your picnic basket. There is a good chance that it will make a nice match.

Max McCalman

Friday, April 27th, 2012

Valpolicella: Unusual and Versatile

I recall enjoying a Valpolicella at a northern Italian style restaurant several years ago. What is northern Italian style food, you may ask? Whether you are speaking of the cuisine of the Veneto where Valpolicella is produced, or you are speaking of the cuisine of the Piemonte, or the Val d’Aosta; whichever region: you will find a broad mix of locally produced agricultural products, cheeses and wines included.

The “king” of Italian wine varietals is Nebbiolo, the noble grape whose juice goes into the production of Barolos and Barbarescos. This “king” status for Nebbiolo (Barolo in particular) makes these wines a little pricey. For a more “every-day red,” the more affordable Chianti Classico (made from Sangiovese) makes for a familiar style of red wine – nice, though technically not “northern” Italian. Somehow I knew that the Valpolicella would make a more suitable wine for the delicious food we selected; or was that the waiter’s suggestion?

The first sip of Valpolicella may catch you off guard, especially if it is a little aged. The more aged ones such as Ripasso della Valpolicella offer more depth than the “nouveau” styles, though they are not nearly as massive as the Amarones. The lighter Valpolicelli are easy-drinking and are relatively low in alcohol. In the production of Ripasso the wine maker adds the leftover grape skins and seeds for extra maceration. This makes for a “bigger” wine, a type that can hold up to many of the more assertive cheeses.

A large part of the success of Valpolicella must be credited to the winemakers, whose blends of the grapes (Corvina, Rondinella and Molinara) shape the flavors of their wines. The blended wines often succeed as partners for cheeses, more often than the 100% varietal wines. Kind of like the “best-of-both-worlds” in cheese making: cheeses crafted from mixed milks are usually successful with a broader variety of wine types.

We found several lovely matches for a Valpolicella Ripasso recently: Formaggio Capra, Pecorino Sardo D.O.P., Fontina Val d’Aosta, Capra Ubriaco al Traminer, Ubriaco Prosecco, Piave, and Gorgonzola Piccante.

Max McCalman

Friday, April 20th, 2012

Riesling, the Sommelier’s White

Many people dismiss Riesling, some people refuse the noble grape. It reminds me of how some people feel about goat cheeses, the number one no-no I hear from people contemplating a selection of cheese. They will accept any type except for goat. Not that some people may have an aversion to Riesling the way some people have an aversion to goat cheeses, yet many people skip right over the Riesling section of a wine list and choose any other white wine instead. This aversion could be partly due to the many inferior versions produced from this grape; most of them produced in the past, thankfully.

One reason Riesling is often called a sommelier’s grape is because of its versatility with many foods, cheeses included. When few other wines make suitable matches for the different courses served to a party of four, Riesling may be the right call.

As with other varietals, it is a grape that can yield different styles, though in the case of Riesling especially, they will be recognizably “Riesling.” Rarely found in blends, it is aged in stainless steel more often than oak barrels. This gives a more recognizably “Riesling” aroma and flavor to the wines. The leaner vinifications will have their successes with lighter cheeses, while the bigger and botrytized versions will pair better with the bolder cheeses. Regardless, Riesling will come through for you more often than not.

Some recent cheese successes include Alp Drackloch, Appenzeller, Beaufort, Beermat, Comté, Fontina Val d’Aosta, Gruyère, Hittisau, Hoch Ybrig, La Peral, Le Moulis, Manchego, Morbier, Mousseron Jurassien, Pawlet, Piave, Pecorino Foglie Noce, Swiss Raclette, Sainte-Maure, Sbrinz, Scharfe Maxx, Selles sur Cher, Stanser Rotelli, Tarentaise, Thomasville Tomme, Toma Maccagno, Tomme Fermier d’Alsace, Tomme de Savoie and Vacherin Fribourgeois.

By the way, if you happen to be someone who is not so fond of Riesling, try one of those stinky wash-rind cheeses with the orange rinds. No other varietal will match this family of cheeses nearly as well. You may become a new fan for Riesling.

Max McCalman

Tuesday, April 17th, 2012

Zinfandel, an Easy Cheese Partner: Many Successes, Few Misses

Picholine restaurant’s guests who were considering a cheese course usually wanted to try a variety of cheese types (with my encouragement) and they usually wanted to try several (ditto); the average number being about five. Some people would have as many as nine or more cheeses, while a few guests wanted only one or two. Once the selection was determined the question arose, which wine to have with their cheese course. I recommended certain cheese types if they had wine in their glasses, or if they indicated a preference for a particular wine type. Usually however the focus was on the cheese selections, with wine as an after-thought. This was how most people approached this course – with the cheese selection preceding that of the wine.

This happens in other situations: the wine “person” counterpart asks me which cheeses I want to use at an event so they can select the wines around my choices. I let them know that the wines should be chosen first, as diplomatically as I can, that the wines should “drive the bus.” Besides, the cheeses tend to show up when they want to, whereas you can secure the wines well in advance.

A few Picholine diners asked for an appropriate “dessert” wine: port, Sauternes, Madeira sweeter Muscat, etc. Most people chose to stick with table wines, and if they did not already have a glass of something else they would usually ask for a red. Whenever this happened (which was very often) I would look over the several cheese types and think: that cheese pairs well with most Pinot Noirs, that one is better with Merlot, that cheese is nice with Cabernet Sauvignon, and that one does not work with any red, except maybe a Zinfandel. Ah yes, a Zinfandel, which would actually hold up well with all of those cheeses!

Zinfandel became the default red wine partner for those mixed groupings of cheeses. As I looked over my catalog of cheese and wine pairings, I found successful matches with a full range of cheese types: fresh cheeses, aged cheeses, goat, sheep, wash-rinds, bloomy rinds, Goudas, and blues. Several pairings were outstanding and only a very few disappointed.

Its twin sister, the Primitivo of southern Italy, has similar successes with cheeses, though not nearly as many as the California Zinfandels. This follows the relative successes for other varietals, those of the New World and those of the Old. The more austere styles of the Old World are just that, a little more austere compared to the more gregarious wines of the New.

Some recent successes we have enjoyed with our Zinfandels include Manchego, Idiazábal, Appenzeller, Gorgonzola Piccante, Gruyère, Mahón, Le Moulis, La Peral, Parmigiano Reggiano, Piave, Prattigauer, Quicke’s Cheddar, Stanser Rotelli, Taleggio. The Gamay grape is another red varietal that marries well with many cheeses, though most people seem to prefer reds with a little more backbone, like a Zinfandel.

Max McCalman