Monday, July 22nd, 2013

Vive la France, Oui Oui!

800px Cheese shop window Paris e1374515476622 Vive la France, Oui Oui!

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!

I’ll tell you all about it at the next Cheese & Wine 201, with a few tidbits thrown in at the next Cheeses & Wines of France.

Ever wonder why French women don’t get fat?

It’s the cheese!

- Max McCalman

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Thursday, July 18th, 2013

Cultural Affairs: The Garrotxa Anomaly

10239 Large e1374178861319 Cultural Affairs: The Garrotxa Anomaly

The best wine for goat milk cheeses is Sauvignon Blanc, right?

To lump all goat milk cheeses into the Sauvignon Blanc fiefdom is not something to assume as a given. There are many variables to consider beyond species. The choice of cultures employed in cheesemaking plays a prominent role, both the starter and secondary cultures. How those cultures help influence the pH level, the cheese texture, and more importantly, the aromatic flavor profile, will have major implications for the cheese’s synergies with different wines.

I was reminded of these cultural affairs at our Cheese & Wine 101 class this week. The secondary culture on the rind of Garrotxa, glaucum, leaves an indelible imprint on the aroma within. The Garrotxa lacks the typical tart flavor of the better known cheeses of France’s Loire valley. The coating of geotrichum and/or alkaline ash on those styles influences synergies differently from the way candidum (as on Humboldt Fog) does. There is the glaucum on the Garrotxa, and the roqueforti in the rare goat milk blue, as well as many other combinations of cultures for a cheese maker to use.

During our 101 we tasted a perfectly ripened Garrotxa with a Sauvignon Blanc and everyone seemed to agree that it was a “nice” pairing. After a water rinse and a palate-cleansing bit of baguette we tried the cheese with a Chardonnay. The group thought it was a better matching. One woman said that she does not usually care for Chardonnay but the Garrotxa pairing improved the wine.

These are the types of pairings that are especially illustrative: when either the wine or the cheese is “elevated,” and even better, when both are.

We must admit that not all Sauvignon Blancs are the same. One of the main differences in how this varietal pairs with cheese is determined by the type of barrel in which the wine is aged. A Sauvignon Blanc aged in oak (as in Fumé Blanc) will better balance certain cheeses than one aged in stainless steel.

Early in my cheese career I took particular note in how well Garrotxa paired with Chardonnay compared to how well the cheese paired with the goat-to varietal, Sauvignon Blanc. The cheese finds synergies with many other varietals, reds included. This is partly due to its mild flavor; Garrotxa is always pasteurized. This has the effect of neutralizing aromatic conflicts with many wine players.

All this is intended to convey: beware of pairing dogma, such as goat always pairs best with Sauvignon Blanc.

- Max McCalman

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Wednesday, July 17th, 2013

Rosé Verdict

Glass of rosé e1374075938919 Rosé Verdict

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.

- Max McCalman

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Tuesday, July 16th, 2013

First Class at Alison Eighteen

0U7G0770 processed 655 430 85 s e1374000707682 First Class at Alison Eighteen

We start off our summer classes at Alison Eighteen in just a few hours. Our temporary classroom is looking very nice, in the restaurant’s downstairs private dining room. The address is convenient too, at 15 West 18th street, just west of Fifth Avenue, in the Flat Iron District and close to parking and public transportation, far more convenient than our former address on Tenth Avenue (unless you happen to live in Hell’s Kitchen). We are competing with the All Stars’ Game tonight at Citifield, as well as an oppressive heat wave, so we have a small group attending this first session — a Cheese & Wine 101.

Alison and I selected the wines last week, wines we thought would fit the weather forecast: a white Bordeaux, a Chardonnay, a Minervois rosé, and a Mediterranean vin de pays Merlot blend. All the cheeses are southern European (except for the lick-smacking delicious aged Dutch Gouda) a delightful mix of cheeses to taste with these wines, twenty eight combinations to try. Oh my! We look forward to finding some new cheese pairings for these summer wines and we will report the top picks later.

I already had my fruits and nuts this morning; this evening’s 101 will be my dinner.

- Max McCalman

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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

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Friday, July 12th, 2013

This morning’s NYC weather serves as a reminder of the influence of weather upon our appetites. Cooler than it has been (for July especially) our cheese cravings may be greater today than they were a couple days ago when it was much hotter and more humid. We might even allow ourselves a glass of chilled white wine later in the day, or for those of us that only drink reds, perhaps a lighter red wine, slightly chilled perhaps. I can’t say that rosé wines serve as gateways from red wines to whites, especially since many die-hard red drinkers would never drink a pink-colored wine regardless.

I recall a warm and humid afternoon in Catalunya a few years ago when almost everyone was drinking red wines, except for some of the women who were choosing chilled whites. There was a bottle of rosé that no one else was trying, made from Garnacha (known as Grenache across the border in France) a rosé that I recall enjoying in Madrid the year before. It was as though this rosé was an uninvited guest that slipped into the cooler.

In this part of the world (as well as most parts) the few guys who do drink rosés drink them with a certain confidence, with aplomb. I chose it not only because I recall how much I enjoyed an almost identical Garnacha in Madrid, but also because the white wines were less appealing (can’t recall which ones they were) and the weather being what it was, the reds were even less appealing, especially without any food around.

There are similar wines produced in southern France that are made from Grenache, or from a blend of Grenache and other varietals. These wines, from either side of the border, can be enjoyed on their own. This is often the case: these rosés are unaccompanied. This is not to say that many foods (cheeses included) do not complement these wines.

It is only July, so next week’s temperatures will likely reach back up into the 90′s; our appetites may subside. But doesn’t a glass of rosé sound nice? Next Tuesday we will be tasting a Grenache-based Minervois rosé in our first Cheese & Wine 101 of the season. The weather forecast is partly cloudy with a high of 92. Chilled rosé sounds great. Among the seven cheeses we will be tasting, which ones will pair best with it?

Tune in Wednesday and we’ll let you know.

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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

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Monday, July 8th, 2013

Day 7

800px Amalfi02 e1373314159592 Day 7

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

Last night’s quick cruise brought us to Amalfi early this morning. The early arrival allowed time for me to give a presentation to the ship’s many sommeliers, dining room captains, and several members of the officer staff. The executive chef of the ship, arranged a tasting for the crew with a few cheeses and a couple of wines. I prepared a one-page document as collateral that listed ten important things to know about cheese—things that would apply especially well for the crew of a luxury cruise ship such this one.

At the end of this seminar we headed ashore on one of the ship’s tenders. Amalfi is not a large enough port to dock a ship of this size; even yachts were anchored away from land. If Sorrento appeared to be precariously perched above the sea, then Amalfi looked like part of it had already slid into the sea, with another thousand meters of vertical landmass ready to crash into the sea at any time. As it turns out a huge part of this city had done just that only a few centuries earlier. What once was a major port city in the western Mediterranean was suddenly reduced to a thin sliver. I had to wonder why anyone would choose to live here, no matter how beautiful. The British upper classes made Amalfi one of their favorite holiday destinations in the 1920’s and 30’s. I suppose it might be worth a visit if the climate in your home country was typically cold, gray and wet.

The small town seemed to be piled on top of itself, with narrow roadways dug through buildings and mountainsides, and with pedestrians and cyclists taking their chances with seemingly oblivious drivers. Early July is high season for this town and the midday sun made it seem even higher. Unlike other much sleepier towns we had visited, most of the shops were open taking in whatever business was offered.

Our destination that afternoon was Ravello, a little town almost directly above Amalfi. I was warned that the drive to this town was narrow and treacherous, with no solid guardrails on the sides along the ravine. The ride to the town was not so bad; one just had to place one’s faith in a driver who had probably made this trek hundreds of times. On the drive up we passed a number of lemon trees – the lemons for which region is partly famous, and the lemons from which Limoncello is made. From the mountaintop where Ravello is situated the views of the sea were amazing. It is said that the blue of the Mediterranean is not found in any other body of water.

One of the small town’s prettiest hotels is Hotel Villa Maria, built on an outcrop overlooking the ravine directly below and the sea to the southwest. The path to this little hotel passed another one where D.H. Lawrence wrote Lady Chatterley’s Lover. We worked up an appetite on our way up the stone path, so the outdoor restaurant with its wisteria canopy and magnificent view was simply irresistible. Pasta is not my food of choice but I suspected that the linguine dish would be delicious with a glass of the local Ravello white wine made from the Falanghina grape. We finished our lunch with a chilled little glass of locally produced Limoncello. The “being-there” factor is always helpful.

The bussed are scheduled every half hour going back and forth but I am certain we waited for well over an hour. As it was getting late and concern about catching the last tender to ship was growing, I thought that there were far worse places to be stranded. Finally our bus arrived. On our way back down to Amalfi I kept expecting to find dairy goats, the vertical topography seemed like it might suit goats okay. Instead there are lemon trees and vineyards hugging the hillsides, with the occasional house built directly against the road, some of them with marks indicating frequent scrapes from passing vehicles.

It did not seem to matter that I had not had any cheese while in Amalfi or Ravello. Thankfully there was still plenty in the ship’s galley, as well as in my stateroom’s refrigerator.

- Max McCalman

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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

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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

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