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With the implementation of more stringent adherence to the outdated FDA regulations, those young goat cheeses were summarily banned.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.
Epcot is celebrating its eighteenth annual Food & Wine Festival this year and we are proud to have been a part of this gourmet celebration since 1998. Each year we have presented seminars every weekend, each session highlighting the cheeses and wines of a country: France, Italy, Spain and the United States. A couple of years ago we added a few other themes to the Saturday morning events so that we could include other countries known less for their wines but held in high regard for cheese, such as Switzerland, England, Holland and others. We also wanted to expand the options so that guests would keep coming back for more.
We have long witnessed the growing popularity of cheese and wine in the United States, and more recently, the fast-growing popularity of craft beers. We debated the idea of switching one of the seven Saturday sessions from wine and cheese to beer and cheese. This year we finally made the leap and judging from the way last weekend’s session was received, the craft beer week will be around for quite awhile. And if it was going to be our first beer week, why not make it in October, especially if it’s early October in central Florida, temperatures outside reaching the mid-80’s?
As is often the case, the beers paired very well with all the cheeses. This is usually the case with wines as well but a good beer is almost a “given” when paired with a good cheese.
Why so few mismatches with beer?
There are a couple reasons why beers rarely miss with cheese. Most beers are a little less acid than most wines; this gives beers better pH harmony with cheeses. Cheeses are also a little acid, but not nearly as acid as most wines. Beers also lack the astringency that red wines possess – the tannin factor that can disrupt what might have been a good match with a cheese. Beers also have their effervescence that refreshes the palate when cheese is in the mix. Those bubbles lift up the butterfats, swirl them around, and the gentle acidity breaks them down delightfully.
All this is not to discount the “size” consideration, as in the overall flavor profile of a cheese or beer. The lighter flavored cheeses paired better with the lighter beer, while the bigger flavored cheeses paired better with the bigger beer.
Like the CheeseClock™ indicates, the bigger the cheese, the bigger the beer should be.
Boy does he ever! The first time I was invited to speak at the Epcot International Food & Wine Festival was a sell-out, with people lined up around the outside of the Odyssey hoping to squeeze in. What seemed like it might be a routine Cheese and Wine 101 ended up being a major production for the Disney cast. A wine tasting alone is merely that: a “tasting” of wine. When you throw the cheese into the mix the fun (and the work) begins. Cast members who were more familiar with the small pours a wine tasting requires needed a little encouragement. As we know, cheese has a way of bringing out the thirst. While I was busy in the back helping prepare the plates of cheese, the wine was being poured in one ounce portions. This was rectified.
Meanwhile the cheese display on the dais was set up beautifully, with cameras ready to close in on their various textures, ready to relay those close-ups onto oversize monitors. All was coming together fairly well, until the lights came up. Within the first half hour the cheeses were starting to droop; I could see it happening, very distracting. By the end of the tasting even the aged Gouda was looking a little Raclette-like.
The festival gets rolling again this coming weekend and I will be there Saturday morning conducting the first cheese and wine seminar of the 45-day festival. The first week’s cheese and wine seminar will highlight the cheeses and wines of France – a popular session. I return the following weekend for a session focusing on cheeses from here in the U.S. (where most of the cheese excitement is occurring these days) paired with beers – a first for the festival. I have wanted to feature a cheese and beer session for a while (knowing how devoted those beer lovers can be) so we are now able to include one, and in October!
My colleague, Erin Hedley, will present the cheeses of Spain accompanied by Spanish wines on the third Saturday, October 12th. From that weekend on up to the closing day of the festival November 9th, each session will feature wine with the cheeses, each week themed a little differently. The cheeses and wines of Italy will be featured October 19th. Then to include other important cheese countries such as Holland, England, Switzerland and Portugal, the next weekend will feature “old world” cheeses and wines. The United States gets a second session on November 2nd, this time pairing some other great cheeses with Napa valley wines. The final session features cheeses and wines of the Mediterranean, an appealing thought – the Mediterranean – as the evenings become brisk, even in central Florida.
With all these many years of practice you can be assured that there will be no drooping cheeses on the dais and the wine pours will be generous.
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.
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!
Dateline: Port of Marseilles, France
Aboard Oceania Cruise Ship, The Riviera
Our ship sailed into Marseilles early yesterday, accompanied by excellent weather.
Marseilles seems to lack the charm of our first ports though: Monte Carlo, Cannes and St. Tropez. This could be due in part to its relative size, with a population approaching one million. Yet the city does have an ancient heritage, founded by the Greeks around 600 BC.
With less time docked here we decided to take a taxi into the old town rather than wait for a slow shuttle bus. This ride initiated our exposure to the Marseilles personality quickly. The Russian couple we had met earlier suggested we share a cab. The first couple in the taxi line before us had asked the driver if they might share a cab with other passengers, and we four being the next passengers to arrive were asked if we minded sharing. (The taxi was an SUV which could accommodate all of us comfortably.)
When the next driver in line saw this he flew into a rage, accosted our driver for taking all the business for himself, when actually our man was simply trying to comply with all our requests. He asked our party if we would mind sharing with the first couple, and of course we were fine with the idea. No matter how many rode in the taxi the charge was going to be a flat twenty euros. When the next driver saw all of us start to amble into the first car he became apoplectic, cursing our driver, who returned the favor with his own caustic fusillade. The first couple had by then decided to wait for another pair. The argument went on for over a minute before we got on our way. Our Russian friend sharing with us was becoming a little annoyed with the theatrics; I was more amused. The heated exchange continued even as we were pulling away.
So once on our way into the old town we asked the driver where he would go for Marseilles’ classic Bouillabaisse dish, which is essentially a poor man’s fish stew. He summed it up that they were all pretty much the same though you could pay less than twenty euros or as much as nearly sixty. I kept an eye out for the lesser priced menus once we got out of the cab but did not quite have the appetite for the dish this early in the day, no matter the price.
By the way, speaking of prices: yesterday I had quoted an absurd price for apples noted in St. Tropez. I stand corrected; they are not four euros each. The four euros was a price for a kilo of apples. Even at that price, not a bargain.
My hunt today in Marseilles was for cheese shops however. Sadly, although Marseilles is surrounded by agriculture, cheese does not have the focus it has in others parts of the country. This city is much more maritime – fish is the thing. As France’s busiest port you might suspect that cheese has been an important export commodity. Most of the cheese exportation leaves France from Rungis, north of Paris. The menus I read around Marseilles did not mention fromage.
This was okay, since I still had a little cheese in my stateroom left over from Cannes and St. Tropez. Nonetheless, I would have liked to have found a few more young raw milk cheeses in Marseilles knowing it would be my last stop on French soil this trip.
We returned to the ship in the early afternoon, with our sailing for Sardega scheduled late afternoon instead of late night – the overnight voyage being longer than the previous ones. We were able to catch a free shuttle bus back to our pier and as soon as we pulled away from the platform our bus driver displayed the same confrontational attitude we had seen in our taxi driver earlier in the day, though at the command of a large bus he exhibited an even more aggressive demeanor. When making tight turns around the narrow Marseilles streets he launched a tirade against any car driver who got in his way. This tough attitude among drivers appeared to simply be the way it is here.
I have no doubt that they would be calmer if they included more cheese in their diets.
Sailing east that evening we watched the sun set over the sea from the ship’s main dining room. The sun appeared to descent into the sea while the stars began to appear one by one. I finished my meal with a cheese plate that included a raw milk Camembert, an aged Manchego, and a Gorgonzola Cremificato.
Dateline: St. Tropez, France
Aboard Oceania Cruise Ship, The Riviera
The cheese shop has a simple name, Fromagerie du Marché, which translates to Cheese Shop of the Market. The Var region of Provence is known for its goat milk cheeses, the leaf-wrapped Banon and Rocamadour especially. With all the leftovers from yesterday’s cheese-shopping excursions in Cannes I restricted my purchasing to just those two today, and again, both of them raw milk.
The French Cheese and Wine Tasting taking place back on board mid-afternoon so I had to head back early. That warning of high-priced restaurants was accurate, my warm goat cheese salad was 14.50 euros, excellent of course but still, a salad costing $20.00? Just as well that I did not have time for a main course.
My French tasting took place in the ship’s signature restaurant, Jacques, named after our New York friend, Jacques Pepin. Lovely dining room; the ship’s Executive Chef assembled a beautiful cheese display for the event. The featured cheeses were some of the iconic French cheeses: Valençay, Camembert, Pont l’Eveque, Cantal, Beaufort and Roquefort. The wines were both from Bordeaux: a lovely Côtes de Blaye white, and an easy-drinking St. Emilion red.
I instructed the guests to taste the wines: first the white, then the red. Then I invited them try the cheeses by themselves, then with the white wine, then with the red. The focus of the seminar was on the cheeses but as is always the case, the wines provided a platform to uncover the nuances in each of the cheeses.
With such gorgeous weather, and while anchored near St. Tropez, I feared we might not have anyone attend this tasting. Apparently all you have to do is mention French cheeses and wines and people will show up.
We will bring a little part of France to our summer venue at Manhattan’s Alison Eighteen Thursday, July 25th. I hope to see you there; it’ll be delish!
Dateline: St. Tropez, France
Aboard Oceania Cruise Ship, The Riviera
We arrived at St. Tropez early this morning, anchored out in the bay, far from the docks. The bay is too small and shallow for cruise ships to venture in close. From where our ship is anchored St. Tropez appears to be a sleepy fishing village and little more. However St. Tropez can be considered to be the “soul” of the French Riviera.
Travel guide books warn readers to be prepared for a dismissive attitude toward tourists: with ostentatious dress, expensive yachts and cars, an attitude that we might be intruding on their little private jet-setter paradise, and over-priced bars and restaurants. The market prices for fruits and vegetables were a bit frightening, such as 3.90 euros ($5) for an apple, and thousands of euros for studio rentals. None of the dismissiveness was apparent though.
With my first tasting scheduled for mid-afternoon today I didn’t have time to dally so I found the main cheese shop quickly, saw that it was doing a steady business, and had a little cheese discussion with the shop’s proprietor, Carmen. My command of conversational French is less of a command than a suggestion but cheese talk has an international language of its own that fromagers everywhere seem to share.
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.