Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Formaggio Kitchen South End

We walked from the Theater District in Boston, crossed Chinatown and reached our destination in the upscale world of puppies and yipsters in the South End. Our destination--ie, MY destination--was Formaggio Kitchen.  For those of us living in the upper east corner of New England, it's our Murray's.  It's our specialty food utopia, crammed into a space probably no more than 700 sqft.

If you've never been to Formaggio--South End, it's dizzying in its selections, sights and smells. From the small batch gourmet chocolate up front (one that would rival a specialty shop twice its size) to the eight, or so, feet long enclosed cheese case, one could easily be overwhelmed on even a slow day of the week. While I'm pretty confident in my product knowledge, my brain was reeling as my eyes tried process the Olympic Provisions salumi selection, endless single varietals from Ames Farm in Minnesota and the large Charlies Chip like offerings of Spanish olive oil potato chips.

You get the picture by now. And our friends, who live in the South End can attest to, you can never full absorb the number of items that they have.

For me, the visit was meant to be centered on their much revered cheese counter. I must say, it was a thing of beauty--with the top counter offering dozens of more stable cheeses from France (including three different Comtes), on one end, all the way down to a myriad of Pecorinos and other various Italian cheeses.  The refrigerated portion of the case held the more delicate items such as bries, blues and fresher cheeses.

This is the part in any turophiles cheese adventure when it can get tricky: the sampling. Yes, I could have eaten my way across the counter, but amongst so many offerings my palate focused in on one, Serra da Estrela. The unique beauty about this cheese is that it uses true vegetable--or thistle--rennet.  It's a rarity these days to encounter one and it's an opportunity to savor when you do.  I shared the sample we were given with my wife, surprised by the overall creaminess of it and it's lack of acidic bite (something I've come to expect with thistle rennet cheeses).

But, in the end, it wasn't the Estrela that we walked out the door with. Instead, I went the opposite direction and opted for one that I hadn't had in several years:

Chabis Feuille
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From the second I asked the cheesemonger to take one out of the case so that I could look at it, I knew it would be leaving with us. The paste of this young goats milk cheese was stark white, unblemished and tucked perfectly into its singular chestnut leaf. While the practice of wrapping cheese in leaves (like Valdeon, Ledyard and Banon) was meant to protect them as they aged or, perhaps, infuse a bit of flavor into the cheese (like the leaves of Rogue River Blue that are first soaked with pear brandy before being secured around the wheels), you are sometimes left wondering if they are done so to make the consumer feel like they're opening up a package of beauty.

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The flavor profile of this Loire Valley beauty seemed to straddle the line between mild fresh goats milk and barnyard hay. There was also a back note throughout the cheese of a clean brininess akin to freshly shucked oysters. Not something you would usually relate a goat cheese to, but it's where my mind kept going to with every bite. I lean towards relating the hay to the flavor from the chestnut leaf, but the saltwater flavor--it wasn't a heavy presence--still has me scratching my head.  I'm getting in a case of the Chabis Feuille this week and I'm quite anxious to do another taste comparison to see if it was my cold medicine messing with my pallet or if it's a characteristic unique to the cheese.

But, that's one of the great things about cheese--they can vary so much batch to batch, that you can never be quite sure what you'll get when you unwrap each unique wheel.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Winnimere

winni

The Cellars at Jasper Hill Farms, located in Greensboro, VT, is a bit of a cheese geek utopia.  Not only is it home to their much lauded Clothbound Cheddar--done in collaboration with Cabot Creamery--it is home to several other cheesemakers (Landaff Creamery, Von Trapp Farmstead) who put the affinage (cheese finishing) in the hands of those working at the Cellars. Oh, yea, and they also have their own ridiculous popular line of farmstead produced cheeses like Harbison, Bayley Hazen Blue and Alpha Tolman.

Now, the beauty above should be no stranger to anyone worth their weight in washed rinds--Winnimere. Out of nearly 1,800 cheeses submitted to the American Cheese Society annual conference, it was the Winnimere that was chosen 'Best in Show.'  It was quite a shock too, as the crew hand only brought so many wheels to the conference for judging.  When the news came down that they had won, their 'jack of all trades', Vince, had to drive--mind you, I said DRIVE--several more cases to Vermont to Madison, WI to make sure there were enough wheels to go around for the conference ending Festival of Cheese. Vince won the conference, hands down.

So, what makes this cheese so damn special?

  1. They make you wait for it and you have no problem doing so. Sure, there's great sadness, a few tears and major withdrawal when the season is over (it usually runs from January to June), but you know it'll come back around. You'll just spend the next six months talking about how you miss it. See, that's the rub with seasonal cheeses--and this one is only made with the winter milk of the farms herd of Ayrshire cows--THEY'RE SEASONAL.

  2. It's just damn pretty to look at. From light tan to neon rust, the rind on Winnimere is a thing of beauty. This coloring comes from the cheese being washed in a cultured brine solution over and over to encourage the b.linens (that's fancy cheesespeak for the bacteria that makes many stinky cheeses have their unique smell--like Limburger and Tallegio). It's also wrapped in spruce bark that is harvested around the farm and this bark not only keeps the goo contained, but also works to add a woodsy profile to the paste (particularly the areas closest to the rind).

  3. Like snowflakes, no two batches are ever the same.  I've tasted 3 different makes of Winnimere in the past six months--the ACS winning batch (done with a cultured brine), one of the first released batches of this season (washed with a cultured brine) and an exclusive make they did for Whole Foods Market (washed with Deschutes Brewing Black Butte Porter). The pastes ran the gamut of meat, mustard, creme fraiche, onion, bacon, hay and back again. And the cheese will evolve through the season though, to me at least, that profile of cured meat is always a present one. If there is ever a cheese that represents what is so fantastic about artisan produced cheeses, it's this one. They should vary as they reflect the fluctuation of protein/butterfat in the milk, diet the cows are eating and, hell, even the weather (never underestimate the effect of humidity on a cheese).


The rush is on right now for Winnimere, so don't be surprised if you have trouble finding it--but, if you're really in a pickle, check out the Cellars website and buy direct. Or wait. After the glut of cheeseheads, trying to get a taste of the best cheese of 2013, dies down a bit, she'll be a bit easier to come by. And then go buy an entire wheel for yourself. And don't share.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Ending on a High


















So, it's official. It actually has been for 3 weeks--I got the announcement right after I had finished helping in the production of Vermont Creamerys "Bonne Bouche."  My worry and stress and sleepless nights paid off. I'm now one of 253 Certified Cheese Professionals in the US/Canada and one of two in Maine. I'm not sure what doors this may open--hell, I'm just happy I passed that exam.

But, on that note, the other bit of news that I have is that I've decided to cease updating this blog.  It's been a good 4 1/2 years, but over the past year--with new responsibilities in life--I don't really have the drive or desire to keep it up.

Thanks to everyone who read and joined along on the trip. It was fun.

-S



Monday, August 12, 2013

From Maine To Madison--Epilogue






Imagine for a moment that you walked into Willie Wonkas Factory, only in this world the chocolate has been replaced by cheese. Every corner you turned, every room you entered, was filled with glorious cheese.


That's essentially what it's like to attend the American Cheese Society Conference.


There were cheese t-shirts, cheese posters, cheese bags, cheese making kits, cheese and chocolate pairing classes, lectures on running a cheese business, beer and cheese pairings, classes on 'squeaky' cheese, cheesemakers, cheesemongers and cheese distributors. You could rub elbows with cheese royalty, like Laura Werlin and Mike Gingrich





Or cheese rock stars like the crew from Jasper Hill





(from the Cellars of Jasper Hill Facebook)

You couldn't throw a stone in Madison and NOT hit someone that was somehow connected to cheese. Nor could you go more than an hour without finding someone who wanted to feed you cheese. It was like I was living in a mid-west utopia.

We would have to venture outside of our cheese bubble every few hours to snag up some real food--which doesn't count the endless baskets of Deep Fried Cheese Curd with sides of Ranch Dressing that we ate (my favorite proved to be the ones from The Great Dane pub).



The Great Dane was actually the place of a few meals during the week, including my first, a plate of fish and chips which I had just an hour after I landed with my coworkers from Boston.





Post exam drinks at The Tipsy Cow (along with some more cheese curd and fried alligator)




Last day brunch at Marigold Kitchen, which included an omelet with artichokes, tomatoes and asiago, and a few bites of my friends Duck Confit Hash (WHY IS NO ONE MAKING THIS IN PORTLAND?!).


 


 



There was also a coma inducing footlong Maple Bacon Donut from the Farmers Market





But, my most important stop every day came from Alterra Coffee (now Colectivo as they've been bought out by Nestle but they get to keep the Madison location independent from the others).




If I stayed in Madison, it would have been for this. I love my local roasters, but Alterra bakes all of their bagels, muffins and pastries in house, including this killer biscuit that was stuffed with eggs, cheese and bacon.


But, I'm sure you want to hear more about the Conference..maybe how the exam was?




Well, truthfully, the exam was a good deal harder than many of us anticipated. Of the 98 of us that represented Whole Foods, I'd guess that one walked out of that room without any doubts or worry, but he was also the guy that played Final Fantasy during our review session the day before the exam so I knew he felt very confident in his knowledge. The other 190+ people in the room, probably felt good, but through the conversations I had, had some issues with some of the questions that were on the exam, particularly the way that they were worded. As we're only the second group to take the exam, there are are still a lot of kinks to be worked out. The true downside is that we won't find out until sometime in September. But, honestly, I waited five months to take the exam, so waiting another few weeks is a breeze.


And, it's funny how there was such emotionally and mental lead up to the exam, but as the week passed by it seemed like such a small blip on the map compared to everything else I did there.


One of my favorite classes that I attended was a Chocolate and Cheese pairing class that featured Gail Ambrousius, from Wisconsin. To get our appetites going and our palets honed, she led us through a brief tasting of different single origin chocolates. My favorite, by far, was an 85% chocolate from Ecuador.





The card says 65%, but it was a misprint. This was probably the smoothest dark chocolate I've ever encountered and lacked any bitterness that you would associate with a percentage so close to unsweetened.


The overall pairings for the class were:






It's a toss up between the Marieke Gouda and Almond toffee pairing and the Espresso BellaVitano with a Dark Sea Salt Caramel as far as my favorite. The last tasted like a rich caramel latte, the first was a balance of sweet/salty and creamy/crunchy.


The Friday before the conference ended, the ACS gave out it's awards for the best American cheeses. It was essentially the Oscar for cheese, but with more flannel than sequence. Maine represented nicely, with York Hill, Silvery Moon, Pineland Farms and Crooked Face Creamery all taking home awards. But, the ceremony really comes down to the last few minutes of the show, where the top three--or in this case, four--were announced. Bleu Mont Dairy tied with itself for 3rd overall, with their Reserve Bandaged Cheddar and Big Sky Grana. I was lucky enough to pick up a piece of the Reserve Cheddar the next morning at the Farmers Market and shared it with co-workers back in Maine.




It had all of the markings of a superb English Cheddar: creamy paste, saliva inducing sharpness and a note of horseradish at the finish.

2nd place went to Grafton Village for their Bear Hill, a sheeps milk cheese with a pretty limited production, so we haven't seen it around these parts yet (and I missed tasting it at the Festival of cheese on Saturday).

And, I really should have put money on my call for Best in Show. I was offered a bet with a vendor, but probably make no where near the money they do... But, man, if I had I would have won with my dark horse pick of Winnimere from Jasper Hill Farms.



How much of a shock was it to the crew at Jasper Hill? Well, they only sent three wheels to be judged, so when they did eventually win, they had to hike several cases from Greensboro, VT to Madison, WI in less than 24 hours. By car.


As you can see in the picture above, the wheels were perfect and having some Winnimere in August felt like a horrible, naughty treat, as it's usually not available for several months. It was bliss on a spoon and I could not be more happy for everyone at Jasper Hill for their blue ribbon showing (Harbison, Willoughby, Landaff and Cabot Clothbound Cheddar also took home ribbons this year for the Cellars).


There were so many other great cheeses, in the sea of 1,800 entrants this year, that I'm going to simply sum it up with a few photos of some of my other favorites.
































Monday, July 29, 2013

From Maine to Madison--Final Journey


















Today I fly out of Portland for my second--and final--trip to Madison, WI, of the summer. The first trip was a training for work, a week long intensive study at the Center for Dairy Research housed at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. During the week we visited Chalet Cheese Cooperative, home of Limburger production in the US.


















It was on that visit that I gained true respect for Limburger cheese, usually referred to as the "stinky old man" cheese by many (myself included). To see the workers hand washing the bricks in the humid rooms and then later taste the finished product was something I rarely get to do in my job.


 

But, much like Maine and its cheesemakers, the humbleness and love of their craft is what connected to me the most to places like Chalet, Emmi Roth Kase and Crave Brothers Dairy. These are smaller operations, Chalet being the smallest of the three, that have worked through decades to perfect their cheese and focus on smaller batch, quality product.

Visiting Crave Brothers, I was reminded of my trips to Pineland Farms, with the sprawling scenery, but Crave, easily, has several hundred more cows than Pineland tends to.






































Their main products are pasta filata style cheeses like various sized and shaped mozzarella, as well as some of the sweetest mascarpone cheese I've tasted. Our trip to Crave ended up to be a bittersweet one, as just a month later, they were linked to a listeria outbreak with one of their cheeses--a washed rind. It's one of those heart breaking stories that can make or break a creamery, like it did with Sally Jackson's cheeses three years ago. What Crave is doing environmentally, in regards to turning manure into power and then putting it back on the grid and powering around 300 local homes, makes them an industry leader and I truly hope that they can bounce back from this incident.

But, it wasn't all about petting adorable cows and visiting picturesque creameries, most of our days were spent in lecture halls learning the science of cheese (veal rennet is the most traditional of the rennets used in cheesemaking)
and eating more cheese than our bodies were ever meant to (there were over 100 cheeses eaten in just 4 days).


































We were even lucky enough to get elbow deep in curd and make our own cheese for several hours. The humidity in the room was nearly intolerable and I felt for the people in the rooms at Crave, Chalet and Emmi Roth for dealing with it for hours on end, day after day.
Overall, the week was exhausting and invaluable to my studying for the Certified Cheese Professional Exam that I take this Wednesday.  This trip marks the end of five months of studying and preparation for the first test I've taken in about a decade. (Ok, maybe four months of studying--I will admit to taking a month off after returning from the CDR because my brain was at utter capacity).

My summer, essentially, has been consumed by cheese. Reading all three of Max McCalman's books, weekly lecture calls at work with some of the most prominent people in the industry (teaching us about everything from pairings, to sensory to proper storage and handling), lugging around one 25+ pound binder (and one smaller 15 pound one) with all of my notes, readings and power point presentations from our lectures, going over and over the ACS 'Body of Knowledge' for the exam to make sure I don't miss any key areas and writing up 311 flashcards to study (on top of the 700+ shared by friends who are either already taken the exam or are taking it this year with me). There hasn't been much summer, really--and there sure as hell hasn't been much blogging, even though I had all of the best intentions to use this as a studying outlet so I didn't go stir crazy reading about the fat/protein ratios in cows during their lactic cycle.

But, Wednesday--after 4pm our time (3pm in Madison)--I will finally be able to exhale. Until then..May the cheese be with you.




Friday, July 5, 2013

Pocket Picnic






































Drink Koozies, bearded chefs and a lake side view. Welcome to the June edition of Pocket Brunch. This months outing of the locally organized pop-up brunch, which has caught a bit of a cult following, was held at the newly opened Bresca and the Honey Bee at Outlook Beach on Sabbathday Lake in New Gloucester. The guest chefs for this round of brunching was Krista Kern Desjarlais, of the much loved Bresca restaurant, and her husband, Erik Desjarlais, who also happen to own Outlook Beach and the attached Snack Shack.






































When Pocket Brunch was started a year ago, I quietly held my breath and waited--month after month--as they announced their guest chefs. The Desjarlais' were my dream Pocket Brunch guests--bringing together two chefs whose food and restaurants I've highly enjoyed and respected--and apparently I wasn't alone as this edition sold out in less than two hours.







































I'm just going to leave it to the food to do the talking this time around, kids.  There wasn't a bad bite in the bunch, the weather was perfect, the company was fantastic and not a single descriptor for the meal--hell, for the entire day--would do it justice. Definitely one of those "you had to be there" kind of meals.

Viva la Pocket Brunch!













 
















































 

Thank you SO F'ING MUCH to:
Josh and Katie Schier-Potocki
Joel "Juice Bomb" Beauchamp
Nan'l Meiklejohn
Rocco Salvatore Talarico (who is doing a crazy offshoot of PB at his home--with details here).

And, to our chefs, Erik ("Stop calling me that!") Desjarlais and Krista Kern Desjarlais.
We have wedding details to talk about for next summer with the two of you.