Saturday, March 31, 2007

Grana Padano

Remember Affirmed and Alydar, the Triple Crown-winning thoroughbred and the other horse that came in second in each race?

The "competition" between Parmigiano-Reggiano and Grana Padano is like that. The former is the world's champion, an all-time great. The latter? Well, in a head-to-head comparison with real Parmigiano, Grana loses every time.

That's not to say you shouldn't eat it. Both cheeses are made in the same general style, and both work well when grated over pasta or many other dishes. Made from pasteurized cow's milk, Grana is sweet, and grainy, and nutty, with a pleasing, buttery aroma.

But well-aged Parmigiano has a depth of flavor that ranks it among the world's most sophisticated cheeses. Grana, on the other hand, is merely good.

There's another difference: Grana usually costs less than half what Parmigiano does. Sometimes, you want the best and are willing to pay for it. Sometimes, you feel cheap. On those days, buy Grana Padano.

Friday, March 30, 2007

Port Salut

Port Salut was invented by Trappist monks in Brittany during the early 19th century, who originally thought of it as something they would eat, not sell.

But when a visiting cheesemonger from Paris stopped by the monastery of Notre Dame du Port du Salut, he convinced them that cheese's market potential was divine.

Today, most varieties of Port Salut are made industrially, though a few handmade types are available in France.

The cheese always comes cased in a trademark, bright orange rind. Look for the letters S.A.F.R. stamped on it. The acronym stands for Société Anonyme des Fermiers Réunis, the order of monks who originated the style back in the day.

What you discover inside that colorful shell -- particularly the smell -- depends a lot on the length and manner in which the individual variety has been aged.

When young, Port Salut has a mild, even delicate aroma. But with just a bit of age, it can grow deliciously pungent. In any form, however, the taste and texture are always buttery.

PAIRINGS: Since it's not over-the-top robust, Port Salut tends to go well with a wide assortment of medium-bodied wines. Burgundy, in particular, produces a number of good matches, from the region's classic Pinot Noir to Macon-Villages whites.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Cheddar

It’s just a theory, but there seems to be a correlation between a particular style’s popularity and the number of bad versions of it that will surface in the global marketplace.

The most beloved varieties invite industrial production so bland yet ubiquitous that they eventually cause many people to forget what was special in the first place.

If you can’t remember what’s lovable about Cheddar, it’s time to serve up the farmhouse style. Warm and familiar, it is dense, and firm but not crumbly. It develops a pronounced saltiness as it ages.

The initial taste should be fairly mellow on your tongue, followed by piquancy as it develops in your mouth. It comes in various degrees of sharpness, but traditional, well-aged (four years or more) Cheddar should be extra sharp.

Cheddar naturally is a yellowish-white, but many producers add a harmless substance called annatto to color it.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Cheshire

The U.K.’s oldest cheese, Cheshire pre-dates the Romans. It was cited in the Domesday Book, the 11th century census of William the Conqueror; and Boswell and Johnson’s favorite pub was named for it (the Olde Cheshire Cheese).

Often compared to Cheddar, Cheshire is drier than Cheddar and always crumbly. It’s usually dyed orange, though some farmers make it in its natural off-white. It occasionally comes in a blue-veined variety.

PAIRINGS: Classic Cheshire is slightly salty, but with a more prominent savory taste than Cheddar. It works any way you’d serve Cheddar, and is the traditional cheese used in Welsh rarebit. Drink British ale with it, like Fuller’s ESB.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Brie de Meaux

Brie didn't become a cliche during the Chardonnay craze of the 1970s and 1980s; it's been overhyped for centuries.

As far back as 1815, the French statesman Talleyrand was promoting it as the King of All Cheese. (It was crowned at a famous dinner of diplomats negotiating the post-Waterloo Treaty of Vienna.)

Today, of course, the world is awash in Brie, most of it totally ordinary. Only two French styles, Brie de Meaux and Brie de Melun, maintain traditional standards. The rest are rarely great.

De Meaux and de Melun, on the other hand, are well worth tracking down. Both are lush, soft big cheeses. They boast distinct, yet subtly complex flavors: creamy and nutty at once, with a hint of sweetness, yet also mushroomy.

De Melun is ripened a bit longer than de Meaux, so it tends to be bigger and more complicated. It has a yellow, almost golden paste, and a rustic aroma. De Meaux, on the other hand, is precise and sophisticated. It, not de Melun, is considered the standard.

The cheese can be made from either raw cow’s milk or that which has been pasteurized. The important thing to look for is the A.O.C. sticker (appelation d’origine contrôlée) denoting authenticity.

PAIRINGS: Brie goes great with grapes and fruits, medium-bodied red wines, as well as, sigh, Chardonnay.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Brick

Brick is common in the American Midwest, and one of the few other homegrown styles of cheese in the United States.

Wisconsin’s John Jossi adapted it from Limburger in the 1870s. He wanted to reduce the moisture in Limburger, to create a firmer, denser cheese. Squeezing the curd between two heavy bricks accomplished the task, and gave the variety its name.

Make no mistake, Brick is an honest, workingman’s cheese. Pungent and sharp—even more so with aging—it’s usually compared to a blend of Cheddar and Limburger.

PAIRINGS: Jack is a great melting cheese, dripped over nachos or toasted sourdough. Brick is best in sandwiches, or with dill pickles, kielbase, and beer. Try it with bratwurst, preferably while watching a game between the Bears and the Packers.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Gouda

Like its sibling, Edam, Gouda has been bastardized by industry.

A few artisanal makers remain, however. A tradition-minded version will make you understand what all the fuss used to be about.

A matured farmhouse Gouda has a slightly citrus-like tang to it, like a sweet orange. The pale yellow paste will be somewhat firm, though not dry, and contain randomly sized holes. The longer it ages, the sweeter it gets, like toffee or butterscotch.

Look for tradition-minded Dutch cheesemakers, like Boerenkase. For a Gouda-style made in Ireland, try Coolea, from County Cork.

PAIRINGS: If you pick up a good farmhouse Gouda, try it with some interesting Belgian ale, such as De Koninck, a medium-bodied brown ale from Antwerp. For food, it’s good with salty ham, or with cranberry sauce and roast turkey.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Edam

The Dutch, a practical people with natural commercial gifts, have always been Europe’s greatest traders. It’s sad, though, that cheesemakers have allowed consumers to lead them astray.

To wit: Edam and Gouda, with proud histories that have been lost to the mass producer’s quest to find the lowest common denominator.

Originally, Edam was sharp and hard, with an assertive flavor and rounded complexity. Alas, that’s gone. Today, there are no farmhouse producers left.

Unless someone comes along to revive the tradition, what will remain is a rather dull, unobtrusively mild, yellow cheese.

It has an aroma that’s lightly spiced, and a taste that’s just a bit salty. Made from pasteurized, partially skimmed cheese, Edam’s fat content is low and its tolerance for other foods high.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Fromage Fort

This great use of leftovers may have originated in Burgundy, but variations of it can be found all over France.

It’s terrific, not to mention economical. Use as many different cheeses as you like, in any combination. Big pieces, little ones, anything goes.

In France, the cheeses are often left to ferment for a few days in wine before mixing, a step I’ve omitted in this simplified version.

Ingredients:
1 lb. to 1½ lbs. leftover cheese bits (any variety)
¼ cup dry white wine
3 Tbsp. butter
2 Tbsp. any herb (sage, thyme, tarragon, basil)
3 cloves garlic
serves 8 to 10

Directions:
Remove the rinds and any mold from the cheese pieces. Cut the soft cheeses into 1/2-inch cubes, and grate any hard cheeses. Combine them in a food processor.

Next, add the wine, softened butter, and herbs and chopped garlic. Note that this will be a thick, heavy mixture, so make sure your equipment can handle it. (The texture is often too dense for weak blenders.)

Blend everything together for about three minutes, until the texture is creamy and smooth. Serve immediately on top of bread, crackers, or tart green apples, or refrigerate up to a week.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Cashel and Crozier

Over the past few decades, the Irish renaissance has transformed the Emerald Isle from a backwater to an economic dynamo. The best part: the Irish are interested in food these days.

The Grubb family is at the forefront of the artisanal cheesemaking movement there. Their dairy in Tiperrary began turning out the country's first farmstead blue cheese in the 1980s, Cashel Blue. More recently, they've launched a sheep's milk version, called Crozier. Both are made from the milks of animals raised on or near the family farm.

Cashel is a semisoft cheese, made from pasteurized cow's milk. The cheese is often sold young, when it is fairly firm and crumbly. As it ages, it grows more complex, as well as softer and creamier, even runny. Think of it as Gorgonzola with a brogue.

Crozier ripens slowly, and it is a bit milder than its sibling. When young, Crozier is gentle, with a pleasing bit of classic blue tanginess. It is best eaten after four months or so of ripening.

On St. Patrick's Day, Erin go bragh. Now go eat some cheese.

PAIRINGS: A mesclun salad made with either Crozier or Cashel is great with pears, walnuts, and sliced raw onion. Dress it simply, with olive oil and a drop or two of Balsamic vinegar. Either one of these blue cheeses holds up well with spicy red wines.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Religious cheese

Chimay, a major Trappist beermaker, also produces a wonderful cheese by the same name.

It’s a semihard, pressed variety, with a natural, brownish rind. Made from scalded cow’s milk (a gentle way to pasteurize), Chimay is full of cream flavors and flowery aromas. It’s perfect with the sibling beers, especially the blue label.

Maredsous, a community of Benedictine monks, also markets a marvelous beer and a pungent, full flavored cheese to go with it.

The cow’s milk cheese is lightly pressed, then washed in brine during maturation. Its firm rind is burnt orange in color. Inside, the paste is the color of hay, smooth and fairly firm.

PAIRINGS: Northern Europeans like many of the monastic cheeses, including Pere Joseph, as desserts. They also work well with many big, winey Belgian ales. Or, try one with a glass of framboise. Not surprisingly, both Chimay and Maredsous are great alongside their namesake beers

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Feta

In an age of swirling complexity, simple charms are often comforting.

That may be why so many people love Feta, the sharp, uncomplicated sheep's milk cheese made by the Greeks, Turks, and their Balkan neighbors.

Large slices of the fresh cheese are soaked in brine and sold in slices (feta means "slice" in Greek). Bright white in color, Feta should be dense and crumbly, and deliciously salted, virtually pickled.

While sheep's milk is the traditional base, it occasionally comes in a goat's milk version, or as a blend of the two.

Hint: If it's too salty for your taste, soak it briefly in some milk. Always store it in brine.

PAIRINGS: Feta is great in salads, with tomatoes, olives and other Mediterranean specialties. It's often wrapped in phylo, or breaded and fried. It can be paired with crisp white wines, or light, vaguely sweet beers.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Gubbeen

St. Patrick's Day is right around the corner, and what better way to celebrate than with some beer and cheese?

Gubbeen means "small mouth" in the Irish language. But the name of this cheese refers to the body of water near where it's made, certainly not the size of the bite you'll want to take of it.

Gubbeen has an intense, nutty flavor and a big smell. Made in County Cork, the raw cow's milk cheese resembles some fine French ones, notably Reblochon.

Gubbeen is just a bit firmer, and also differentiates itself with a pleasant, ever-so-slight smokiness.

PAIRINGS: Serve Gubbeen with a pint of Beamish or Murphy's, two Cork-brewed stouts that are each just a bit sweeter than Dublin's Guinness.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Lesson Time

Today on A Cheese A Day, we'll take a little break from the cheese reviews to give you a small bit of information about how cheese is made.

Although each type of cheese is made according to its own detailed recipe, there are a number of broad techniques and methods that all cheesemakers follow, regardless of the kind of cheese they’re making.

Like beer, love, and other mysteries, chemical reactions create cheese. This involves sugars, proteins, enzymes, and many other things you forget from high school biology class.

It’s not so difficult to understand, really. All cheese starts with some mammal’s milk, the fresher the better. From there, it is all about “controlled spoilage,” as the great cheese writer Steven Jenkins put it. Or, if you prefer Miss Muffett, minding your curds and whey.

Want to know how cheese is made? Click here to read more.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Pere Joseph

In cheese, like beer, the religious institutions of Belgium have put out an incredible range of rich, distinctive offerings. For centuries, the monasteries and abbeys there have been among the world’s most interesting culinary workshops.

They still are, thank heavens.

Historically, a problem was that monastic producers were often not equipped to produce for the export market. If they did, the cheese was expensive. That’s changing, the former sooner than the latter.

Pere Joseph is a semisoft cow’s milk variety (pasteurized), with a supple and smooth texture. It’s interesting and complex to taste, creamy and a bit salty. The aromatic cheese is often described as a much more palatable kind of Limburger.

PAIRINGS: Winey abbey ales from Belgium -- for example, Leffe Blonde -- go perfectly well with Pere Joseph. So do slightly sweet white wines, such as Gewürtztraminer or Viognier.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Cabrales

A farmer’s cheese from the Asturias region of northern Spain, Cabrales contains raw milk from cows, goats, and sheep. The farmers who make it blend the milks according to availability and taste, but the result is a pungent, crumbly blue cheese with an unbelievably robust flavor.

If you like big, bold blues, this is it. Moist and pock-marked with deep holes and rich purple veins, Cabrales tastes like a rustic, more intense version of Roquefort.

Like its more famous French cousin, Cabrales is aged in natural caves. As you might expect, those limestone caves are cool and humid, which is the perfect place for cheese. The humidity in the air causes mold spores to form, yielding the veins and pockmarks in the cheese.

PAIRINGS: Serve it alone, or paired with big red wines, big red meats, or dense bread. Wines from nearby regions, such as Priorat or Rioja, make excellent accompaniments.

Thursday, March 8, 2007

Appenzeller

Like all mountainfolk, the Swiss protect their secrets.

Just what gives Appenzeller its distinctive, sweet-and-sour tang? It took centuries before cheesemakers in the eastern canton of Appenzell would divulge their rind-washing formula of herbs, pepper, wine, and saltwater.

It’s easy to understand their reticence.

It’s a tricky thing for a hard mountain cheese to stand out, but Appenzeller manages. On its own or with grapes, lettuce, or nuts, its fruity taste lingers awhile on your tongue, at once familiar yet surprising. In a traditional fondue, it blends perfectly with Gruyère and Emmental.

PAIRINGS: Both Emmental and Appenzeller are at home in a delicatessen, and can be paired with most vegetables and meats, and lager beers or crisp white wines. In wine, look for semi-dry Austrian whites, or ones from Italy’s Alto Adige and Friuli.

Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Emmental

There are too many types of cheese for any single variety, no matter how great, to be considered quintessential.

That said, here’s the contradiction: When you think of cheese, what’s the first one to pop in your head? I’ll bet it’s Swiss, and Emmental is the quintessential Swiss cheese.

Never mind that the French also make it.

This is the yellow variety with the big holes. It is produced in enormous rounds—up to 220 pounds—aged four months. Though it is milder than Gruyère, real Emmental is nutty, sweet, and complex.

The famous holes are a result of the specific way its starter bacteria works during the aging process. At certain temperatures, the starter gives off carbon dioxide, forming gaps by “pushing” the ripening cheese away. The holes are random in size, shape, and location.

Note that there are quite a few dull varieties of Emmental. This is partly because the region (outside of Berne, Switzerland) never bothered to protect the name as a brand. So quality standards vary wildly among producers of this variety.

PAIRINGS: Emmental is often a principal component of fondues, and it is also frequently used in those wondrous cheese toppings the French know as gratin. As a relatively mild variety, you wouldn't obviously pair it with big, bold wines. But a well-made Emmental can easily hold its own against Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. And, of course, it's great melted on top of ham.

Monday, March 5, 2007

Gruyère

Is it reaching to say that Gruyère is the manifest expression of the Swiss soul? Certainly, no even-tempered Helvetian would make such a flowery pronouncement. But, hey, I’m not Swiss.

Consider the evidence: Gruyère is sweet yet slightly tart, buttery with a bit of salt. It’s just firm enough, but not quite hard. It’s granular, but not at all crumbly. It’s as dense and lush as an Alpine meadow, but resilient enough to make it through a winter.

Gruyère is rich, yet sensible. It blends diplomatically with the other foods around it, yet is content to stand alone. Most of all, it is beautiful, but, like Switzerland itself, just a bit dull.

Gruyère is made from raw cow’s milk, in enormous wheels that are aged between three and six months. The milk is not skimmed, unlike Emmental, the other classic Swiss cheese. Thus, Gruyère is creamier and softer than its sibling. In color, it falls into some indescribable hue between bone and straw.

It is, obviously, a standard component of fondue. You can also take advantage of its melting and melding capacities by substituting it for Cheddar over nachos—a Swiss-Mex experience, if you will.

In fact, it’s such an excellent cheese with which to cook, just use your imagination. You can employ Gruyère in virtually any dish that calls for melted cheese, including Italian pasta recipes. It sounds weird, but it works.

PAIRINGS: Gruyère is great with ham and other dried or cured meats, and can stand up to spicy mustard, even horseradish. Rustic red wines, such as many Rhone varieties, are best to drink with it, or very dry whites with a bit of body to them.

Sunday, March 4, 2007

Raclette

Gooey Raclette is second only to fondue in popularity among Swiss cheese dishes. But, like so many culinary innovations from Francophone Switzerland, Raclette is enjoyed on both sides of the border. The cheeses that are used in it, both French and Swiss, are collectively known as Raclettes.

The name of both dish and style comes from the French word, racler, meaning “to scrape.” In Switzerland, the classic varieties in this family are named after their respective villages of origin: Orsier, Conches, Bagnes, and Gomser. The French version is a close sibling to Morbier, and is made in Savoie or Franche-Comté.

As a general rule, Raclette cheeses are made from whole, unpasteurized cow’s milk. There are some dull industrial varieties made from pasteurized milk; avoid them if they do not say au lait cru on their labels. (More happily, a handful of French makers, near Poitou, produce a unique goat’s milk Raclette, using artisanal techniques. It is rare in the United States, but quite interesting.)

The Raclette cheeses are semihard, aged about three months, with a smooth texture and a sweet, rather fruity taste. They’re neither sharp nor particularly salty.

The family is related to Gruyère, Emmental, and other mountain cheeses. They tend to be not quite as assertive as a fine Gruyère. But all the Raclettes do, obviously, share its excellent melting capability.

PAIRINGS: The dish Raclette is often made with a special heating contraption. This is not strictly necessary. You can simply heat the cheese in a hot (450 degrees) oven. Then serve and scrape, washing it down with a dry white wine.

Saturday, March 3, 2007

Stilton

In 1720, Elizabeth Scarbrow made history. A housekeeper at Quenby Hall in central England, she learned to make the local cheese, then improved upon it by devising a unique triple-curd production process.

The Scarbrow family (Elizabeth would later teach her daughter the tricky method) became prosperous, selling copious amounts of what was first called “Lady Beaumont’s Cheese.” It got its current name from its first retailer, the Red Bell Inn, a busy coach house in Stilton.

Ironically, it has never really been made in the town itself. Rather, it’s produced in the rolling hills of nearby Leicestershire. The underlying soil in those hills is chock full of iron and coal deposits. That affects the taste of the milk cows produce from its grasses, which may, in turn, be partly responsible for Stilton’s coloring.

The cheese is among the most glorious blue varieties, rightfully compared to Roquefort. It’s creamy, sweet, and layered in flavors. The texture is crumbly, yet moist. It is made from pasteurized, whole milk. It is ripened for at least six months, but is often aged longer for depth.

Stilton is the only British cheese made under name-controlled regulations, but that’s not always a guarantee of perfection. (Unlike in, say, France, the U.K. rules are only modestly strict.) The best versions have a rough brown rind that envelopes a creamy paste. The veins should be plentiful, bursting, and scattered uniformly throughout.

PAIRINGS: A big, robust Stilton is perfect as dessert, with a glass of port or a sweet, imperial stout (try the Brooklyn Brewery’s Chocolate Stout). Always show Stilton off, as a centerpiece on a cheese board or prominently in a salad.

Friday, March 2, 2007

Toma and Paglia

Think of Toma and Paglia-style cheeses as the Brie and Camembert of Italy. There’s a big difference, though: the Italian varieties are relatively obscure outside of their homeland in Piemonte and Lombardia. So, unlike their French cousins, they haven’t paid the price of global fame.

Neither Paglia nor Toma is a particular type of cheese, like Parmigiano-Reggiano. Rather, the terms refer to a general process of making cheese, not an individual variety.

Paglia-style cheeses are made from slightly pasteurized cow’s milk. Their name derives from the traditional practice of ripening the cheese on beds of hay (paglia is the word for “straw”). The term Toma, loosely translated into a “round,” identifies itself as the product of a region’s milk (i.e. Piemonte), but not that of a specific herd.

The cheeses share many characteristics with each other, as well as good Brie and Camembert. They have a basic grassy yet garlicky smell, which is laced through with other aromas. The most prominent is that of mushrooms or truffles. (Piemonte is the heart of the Italian truffle business. As a result, the funghi in the soil affect the milk in a magnificent way.)

Toma cheeses and Paglie differ primarily in presentation. The former are thick and bulging, while the latter tend to be made flat. Both are yellowy beige on the inside, not too white nor too firm to the touch.

PAIRINGS: They are versatile cheeses to serve. Being full-bodied and full-flavored, they go great with high-season fruit and salami or prosciutto. For wines, try northern Italian reds, especially big Piemontese ones like Barolo or Barbaresco.

Thursday, March 1, 2007

Manchego

The region of La Mancha in Spain has two beloved exports: Don Quixote and this hard cheese.

A classic sheep's milk style, Manchego is sweet and fairly mild. But in cheese as in noblemen, aging can make you a bit nutty.

In the case of Manchego, ripening brings out some rather interesting, though never overpowering, tastes and aromas. Nuts, for sure, but also a hint of butterscotch.

In any event, it’s not so assertive, which makes it a great partner for a wide array of foods and drinks. (It’s a staple on tapas menus.)

PAIRINGS: In Spain, where it is by far the most widely sold type of cheese, Manchego is often served on its own as appetizer, or perhaps cured in olive oil with garlic, lemon, or fennel. In the classic presentation, it’s cut into little wedges and served up as finger food, accompanied by a crisp sparkling wine (cava) or a well-made sherry.