Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Cheese for a Wednesday - pt. 30 Carre de Pitou

I love goat cheese.  Not only is their cheese delicious, smooth, tangy and complex, goats are just darn cute!  And if I can find a goat cheese that also falls into the category of "spreadable" as defined by Darling Husband as something gooey that won't break your cracker when you try to spread it, I buy a lot of it.  A few weeks ago, my friend Andrew - cheese monger extraordinare - gave me a taste of Carre de Poitou a soft, spreadable Loire Valley goat cheese that some might consider part of the second coming.  I try to have a little restraint when tasting cheeses at Andrew's, but in this case, I found myself licking the paste right off the paper so as to get every last little bit!  This rare square (carre is French for square) is the perfect cheese to get any party started.  It is both sweet and tangy, and it's bloomy rind makes it a great brie substitute for anyone with cow's milk allergies.  But don't tell your guests that it's a brie.  This cheese doesn't have the unctuous creaminess of brie nor the ivory paste.  This is a bright white goat's milk cheese with a soft, edible rind and an almost milky interior.  See how it's starting to run after 10 minutes?  Andrew actually sent it home with an ice pack.  That's how sensitive this lovely is.  

I'd love to have a picture of it at full "run," but DH had gobbled most of it before it was fully ready even though I told him he would be able to taste even more of the fresh grassy flavor if he waited.  There were (miraculously) a few leftovers, which he enjoyed as part of a very upscale grilled cheese a few days later.  Look how sad the dog is that he won't be getting any of that cheesy goodness literally sliding off the bread in it's melty quest for greatness.  I didn't get any of these cheesy canapes either, though DH was kind enough to let me take a photo before he snuck out to the "man cave" to inhale his snack while muttering like Golem about his precious cheese.  

If you are lucky enough to find this cheese at your local shop, buy enough to share and enjoy with a nice crisp bottle of Sauvignon Blanc and good friends.  

Monday, May 24, 2010

Science Monday and Vendeen Bichoone

A while ago, the great state of Wisconsin voted to name Lactococcus Lactis that official state microbe in honor of all that it does in the production of cheese (according to the New York Times, Wisconsin leads the nation in cheese production).  How great is that?  A little weird, but pretty cool.

This got me thinking - there must be microscopic differences in the microbes that help various cheeses around the world make the transition from milk to fromage.  Cheeses are all so unique - based on the type of milk used, what the animal was eating before being milked,  what processes were used in making the cheese, what molds are introduces, how and where the cheese is aged.  What if I could do my own research to discover the molds and microbes in my favorite cheeses?  Ultimately, could I re-create famous cheeses in my kitchen?  (Well, no, probably not, but still...maybe we could create something new from something old - a hybrid as it were)  All I was lacking was a little equipment and know-how.

And then, I started talking with my friend the Professor, who has a PhD in biochemistry and a lab at CalTech.  He didn't see how it could be that difficult, and encouraged me to start my little science experiment.  So, last Friday, I visited his lab and returned home energized and with a bag full of petri dishes prepared with agar substrate to encourage bacterial growth.  All I needed was the right test subject.  Mwa ha ha ha!

I found it in an amazing Loire Valley cow's milk cheese - Vendeen Bichonne.  This semi-soft cheese ( it will totally gum up your grater - so just eat giant hunks of it) is aged in an abandoned tunnel, which explains the mealy grey rind and industrial basement smell coming off of it.  Don't let the outside fool you though.  The paste inside is sweet, rich and creamy with just a hint of the green pastures where the cows graze.  There is also an earthiness present in the cheese, but it doesn't taste anything like the rind smells.  Maybe a little bit of slate - if you were to lick a wet slate paving stone it might taste a little like this, but only if the paving stone was covered in rich, creamy, sweet cheese.  I can't say enough about how much I love this cheese.  I want to melt it onto a nice piece of home made wheat bread and enjoy it with a glass of a Spanish Tempranillo.  Bliss.

Anyway, in my attempt to harness to magic of this cheese, it became the first subject in my science experiment.  As you can see, under completely sterile conditions, a small slice of cheese was rubbed onto the plate, which was then labeled and placed in a temperate, dry location in the kitchen (on top of the tortillas and next to the coffee maker).  I can't wait to see what grows!  Hopefully, there should be some results soon.  The Professor has said that he might be able to help me take up close and personal pictures of my biological blooms.  Looking forward to having something fun to share with you!

Friday, May 21, 2010

Milk in the Raw - Miracle Cure and Tasty Treat or Bio-Hazard?

The raw milk controversy has been raging on the internet for a while now and the politicians are involved, so I'm sure there won't be a definitive answer for a while.  Each state has its own regulations surrounding raw milk.  Massachusetts allows people to buy raw milk only from the diary farm directly.  Wisconsin just yesterday vetoed a bill that would permit similar farmer to consumer sales.  In California, you can get raw milk in health food stores but it has to have a warning label.  Alaska has banned raw milk for human consumption - unless you are getting it from your very own cow.  You can see a list of state regulations here.

Why all the controversy?  Certainly the locovore movement has had a lot to do with it, along with people wanting fewer preservatives, pesticides, etc. in their food.  Small dairies are hoping for more leniency in order to improve their market share and promote their high quality products, while "big dairy" wants to keep the raw milk trend in check for more than medical reasons, and the government wants to keep people alive.  Raw milk - milk that hasn't been through the pasturization process - is full of vitamins, minerals, enzymes and pro-biotics that are believed by many to help "cure" people with medical problems from asthma to acne.  When milk is pasturized, or heated to 161 degrees F for at least 15 seconds, any bad microorganisims and bacteria present in the milk are killed, along with many of the healthy probiotics and enzymes.  In large scale milk production, milk from many farms is dumped together into vats, and it is always possible that nasties like sallmonella or listeria can get into the milk when a worker forgets to wash his hands, or something dirty falls into the vat, and it would be passed along to consumers if it wasn't pasteurized.  Salmonella has been in the press a lot lately thanks to spinach, etc., and pregnant women in particular need to be aware of listeria which has been known to cause stillbirth.  All of the bacteria affiliated with raw milk cause severe intestinal distress, some can cause paralysis, and they can all be particularly dangerous to kids, the elderly and people with weakened immune systems.  It can be really bad.  Luckily (and a main part of the raw milk argument),  this isn't the case with small dairies where farmers name their cows, let them eat delicious, nutritious grass and flowers and a  whole lot of love goes into each milking.

Many of the world's great cheeses are made with raw milk.  Some say that cheese made with pasteurized milk lacks essential flavor, or oomph.  If you taste a grocery store cheddar and compare it with a Isle of Mull cheddar, for example, you will probably agree.  The grocery store stuff starts tasting a little bit like orange rubber.  Yum.  In fact, if you visit the Isle of Mull Cheese website, you will find the following quote: "We believe pasteurisation to be unnecessarily brutal way of treating milk to be used in making Isle of Mull Cheese.  Far too many of those organisms, which have the potential to create individualism and maturity of flavour are indiscriminately sacrificed in the process."

All raw milk cheeses imported to the US are all over 60 days old, which gives the any listeria (not likely) present the opportunity to die.  It is an anarobic bacteria, and thus can't survive beyond 45-ish days outside the milk pail.  In addition, raw milk cheeses (both in the US and abroad) are almost always made by small producers who name and love their small dairy herds and keep scrupulously clean facilities and detailed records, so chances of bacteria in the milk are limited.  Take, for example, the beautiful Avonlea Cheddar below - raw milk, aged and delicious.  If you are still worried, cheese makers and dairy farmers have been making great strides in a lower heat, longer cooking time pasteurization technique that retains more flavor in much safer milk.

The argument is that if you want to buy and drink raw milk for its medicinal properties, and are smart enough to buy it from a reputable, clean-as-a-whistle dairy that produces on a small scale, you should be able to do what you want, so long as you don't sue if you knowingly choose raw milk and something bad  happens.  I'm not sure where I fall in this debate.  Kind of like a Oiji board, I don't really believe the drama, but I don't know if I really want to mess with it either.  I do know that I am not one to turn down a cheese regardless of it's pasteurized status.  At the end, it's all about personal choice (and your state's desire to protect your gullet).

So there's your cheese politics for the day.  I'd love to see (polite) thoughts and dialogue to follow!

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Cheese for a Wednesday - pt. 29 Washington State's Seastack

My birthday was a while back.  As crazy as life was that month, I still needed to celebrate, and I wanted cheese!  Getting to Andrew's for my weekly fix had been elusive and what better excuse than a birthday!  I was going to need to share my cheese "cake" with others that afternoon, so I thought it might be a little dangerous to bring out the stinky blue cheeses or some muenster.  One needs to gently help people toward a love of the more "black diamond" cheeses.

I didn't have to think about it very long before realizing that Mt. Townshend Creamery's Seastack was the perfect cheese "cake" to share.  With a circumference a bit bigger than a hockey puck and about twice as thick (if my early memories of what the shape of a hockey puck is are correct), Seastack is the perfect size to share (or horde to yourself...).

Because of it's rind, it looks a lot like brie, which makes it accessible to those without a lot of cheese experience, but the similarity ends with the visual.  This edible rind is a result of rolling the cheese in vegetable ash and salt before the aging process as opposed to the bloomy bacterial rind on brie.  The folks at Mt. Townshend say the rind bears a "subtle resemblance to the picturesque islands sprinkled along Washington's northwest coast."  Reason enough to visit, I say.  The paste is rich and creamy, with a hint of sweet pasture and just enough saltiness to encourage you to grab a glass of crisp glass of Pinot Grigio.  Just look at the fantastic goo seeping out of the rind! It spreads beautifully on a cracker, and would probably go well with apples or pears if you had them cut in advance.  Wait until after people have had a taste, and there won't be any left by the time the wedges are ready!

This is my new go-to cheese.  Not only did I have it for my birthday, I've taken it to a baby shower with great success.  Ask for it by name.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Italian Cheese and Wine Pairings - with a nod to the martini!

Last night Darling Husband and I went to our first wine club meeting since December, and as luck would have it, the focus was on Italy.  Fantastico!  There are probably as many delicious Italian cheeses as there are delicious Italian wines.  Since we have both red and white wine drinkers in the club, I wanted to bring a little something for everyone to enjoy that would elevate the wine tasting to another level.  Plus, a cheese board isn't really a cheese board with just one cheese, right?

First up (on the right), was a delicious, mild, 4 week old goat cheese from the Piedmont region of Italy called Tumin Rutulin.  The edible ash rind is from the juniper plant.  The one that makes gin, yes.  But it turns out juniper also imparts it's sweet deliciousness to goat cheese.  The sweetness from the juniper was immediately obvious to me, but maybe because I knew about the juniper ash in advance, my mind was playing palate tricks on me.It can't hurt that the goats helping to make this cheese probably munch on nothing but sweet mountain grasses and flowers.  Perfect on a little slice of bread, and absolutely spread-able while retaining a soft crumble.  It would also be amazing in a salad with some spring greens and some blueberries.  In fact, I'm eating it right now with my fingers!  It also helped mellow out an angry little Pinot Grigio, giving it a nice smoothness.  Man Who Sneers at Goats (Cheese) will sadly never give this one a try, but my slightly cheese-phobic friend really liked this one last night (even before a few glasses of vino)!

On the left, cut into cunning little triangles, was the Pecorino Ginepro.  Pecorino identifies this as an Italian sheep's milk cheese, while Ginepro lets you know that the rind is washed with balsamic vinegar and juniper berries during the aging process.  I wasn't planning on having a juniper theme for the party, but there you go.  I must be craving a martini...  Anyway, the sheep's milk here is nice and rich, with just a touch of oiliness on the lips after, and the juniper and balsamic lend a woodsy, salty, sweetness to the cheese.  Sometimes, I find that rind coatings don't make a  huge difference in the flavor of the cheese, but this combination of acid and fruit really come through here.  This cheese was perfect with the red wine from Calabria that I brought.  The gaglioppo grapes in this wine had just enough tannin without being too overwhelming, and the richness of the cheese gave extra body to an already delicious wine.  I'll be snaking on those cheese leftovers after dinner.

I am thrilled to be turning the last few months of Cheese Dreams into cheese realities!  What have you been tasting?

The Cheese Dreams are Back!

And we're back!  Classes are done, the vile dental work that prevented me from adequately using my palate has healed and (fingers crossed) won't have to be repeated EVER!  I have missed writing about cheese almost as much as I have missed eating it.  But I digress.  Enough about me.  It's all about the cheese here folks.  

Now that I'm able to once again focus on my (non-sentient) true love, expect lots of mouth watering cheese reviews, a little political dialog (as pertains to cheese and dairy products), and if all goes well, some really cool in-depth education about how cheese comes into being.  Sound good?  Good.  I'm excited!  On with the show.