Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Parm, Meet Balsamic

Since my last post, several of you have written to me about the cheese that stars in my steamy Youtube video. Friends, it's no ordinary Parm. It's aged by Giorgio Cravero, a 5th-generation cheese man in Bra, Italy. Moist and sweet, Cravero's Parmigiano Reggiano is a classic pairing for aged balsamic, the other heart-stopper in the film.

When I started looking for a Parm to play the lead, I asked around at a number of cheese shops. Turns out, there are over 500 producers of Parmigiano-Reggiano in and around Parma and Bologna. Many are mass-produced, bur Cravero's is not. He selects the best wheels from a number of small family producers, then ages them himself, producing a grand total of about 9 wheels per day. "Miniscule," said Ezekial Ferguson, a knowledgeable South Philly cheesemonger.

When Zeke passed me a sliver, I knew Garbo had found her Astaire. This is a cheese with umami. My nibble was sweet, nutty, full of crispy amino acid crystals -- the sign of a well-aged cheese. Midway through the bite, Cravero released a faintly pickly taste, a thrilling twang.

I knew Zeke was right. This was a cheese that would pair well with a plummy aged balsamic.

This particular bottle of Balsamico Suite is my first grown-up bottle, I must admit. I sampled some cloying, syrupy versions in the $20-$30 range before I fell swooning to the floor over this one. I love its choclatey notes, its velvety feel. It tastes like a cross between port and pickled ginger. When you eat it with this Parm, your mouth goes from nutty-sweet to tangy-salty to bitter-dark chocolate in a wave.

Glorious. I can't think of better tub mates. I may get a mini fridge for the bathroom.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Madame Fromage: The Movie

So, Madame Fromage likes to eat cheese in the bath tub. Secret revealed. Reader, you can now watch a film starring yours truly and some excellent Parmesan in a steamy flick called Balsamic Boudoir.

No, I'm not making nude art films in my free time, I'm entering a contest to win a trip to Italy, and the contest required making a 3-minute film that involved balsamic vinegar.

If you are curious, if you like silent movies, if you want to see my you have it.

Many thanx to the spectacular producer, Aimee Knight.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Spring Cheese Tasting: An All Goat Flight

Saturday, April 17,  4 & 6 p.m.
Quince Fine Foods, 209 W. Girard Ave (at 2nd Street)
$12/person; email reservations appreciated (

A few weeks ago, Nicole, Joan and I sampled a new series of goat cheeses produced in Elverson, PA at a small dairy called Amazing Acres. We loved their goat cheeses so much that we invited cheesemaker Debbie Mikaluk to join us for an introduction to her line. Debbie makes some unusual goat cheeses for this area, including a bloomy, ash-streaked cheese she calls Sea Smoke. 

Please join us for an all-goat-cheese flight. I'll be there to talk recipes and share pairing ideas, and Debbie will be on hand to wax poetic about Nubian goats. Quince is proud to be one of the only cheese counters in Philadelphia offering these gorgeous, handmade cheeses.

Note: due to increased demand, we are now hosting two tastings, one at 4 p.m., the other at 6 p.m. We start on time and serve our cheeses Slow Food style, one at time, so guests can savor. A complimentary glass of wine is included with the last pairing.

Friday, March 19, 2010


I’m into surface mold. I can’t explain it; maybe it’s because I was one of those kids who didn’t mind the crust on her sandwich bread. Or on pizza. When I see people carve out the gooey middle on brie and leave the rind behind, I secretly scoff at them. Silly wabbit, I think to myself, the rind is the best part. It’s where the flavor is.

That’s why I got so excited by a goat cheese pictured in Wednesday’s New York Times, Le Cendrillon. It was coated in ash and had a surface that looked like a bubbly chalkboard – thick, black, stippled. I emailed a cheesemonger with stretchers in his ears, hoping he could fix me up – I figured, if he likes big jewelry, he probably likes bold rind. Was that wrong?

He didn’t have any Le Crendrillon, but he had something similar. When I paid him a visit, he held up a chalky log with thick surface mold the same color and texture as a pussy willow. Montenebro. I’d read about it – a Spanish goat cheese with one maker. I liked that. It’s not like a cheddar, say, where you have lots of makers and umpteen variations. When you order Montenebro, you get the one made by Rafael Baez and his daughter, Paloma, in Avila, Spain.

This is a young goat cheese, aged two months, and it has a magnificent texture -- an oozy rim and a dense center that spreads like frosting. What a treat, I love a multi-textured cheese. The flavor is bold, sweet, lemony with a faint bluesy tail from the Penicillium roqueforti (the same mold that’s used in making Roquefort) that’s rubbed onto its surface, along with the ash. So there is just a twinge of blue taste. Ahhh, amazing.

With a Pinot Noir or Vouvray, this tangy lover is going to make for a perfect picnic some chilly dusk. I can’t wait to serve it up to my rind-mindful friends.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Testun al Borolo

I thought I'd seen it all, from cheese packed in espresso grounds (Beehive) to cheese rubbed down with cocoa (Cocoa Cardona). Then my friend Scott yanked open his fridge, pulled out a brown paper package, and unwrapped a wedge of cheese that looked like it was encased in gizzards. No, it wasn't gizzards, but it looked like a bloody mess. Instead, it was Testun al Borolo, a mixed milk cheese that is packed in grape skins. And grape seeds.

Eating Testun al Borolo is a little bit like eating trail mix, because those grape seeds are crispy -- and yet, the grape skins are damp. Faintly. They made me think of tobacco, dry and yet moist. All in all a perplexing, delightful experience. I can't think of a cheese that tastes, smells, and feels more rustic. Break out the camping equipment; here is a cheese that is best eaten under the stars next to a musty tent.

The grapes that encase Testun come from the Nebbiolo grape, used in making Borolo wine. Mano Vino, a wine and travel blog, described pairing this cheese with a "Super Umbrian" wine, Sportoletti's 2006 Assisi Rosso -- an earthy red with flavors of tobacco and cherries. Sounds marvy. Others recommend a Lambic. Could be a little sweet, although me thinks that a bottle of New Glarus' Belgian Red, made with Door County Cherries, could be a sickeningly good match.

Scary-intense as this cheese might appear, it's actually pretty mild. Complex, yes, but subtle. The texture is very dry, not quite like a Parm, but it crumbles nicely. Scott had it on a salad at a fabu-dabu neighborhood restaurant, Modo Mi, and he said it was all he could think about for the rest of his meal. It's certainly arresting. If I ever go on one of those Jersey Devil tours in the Pine Barrens, I'm definitely taking a baguette and some Testun. I think it could scare off a Yeti.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Tasting Notes: Cheese'n Ale

Last night's tasting at Quince was full of drama. The basement flooded, the power snapped off, and some of our guests got stranded in the rain. But with a few candles and some deep breathing, we prevailed. One of the brewers from Philadelphia Brewing Company, Dean Browne, still managed to traipse over to join us, and so did David April, leader of the Fishtown Beer Runners. And so we drank beer and ate cheese, and we learned a few things about hops and estrogen -- like that IPAs are good for the ladeez. More on that later.

Here are our three pairings, for those of you who stayed home and nibbled brie in bed:

Cheese: Ossau-Iraty
Ale: Rowhouse Red
This sheep's milk cheese from the Basque region is mild and fruity with an aroma of freshly milled wheat. Traditionally, it's served with cherry preserves, so we gave a nod to that sweet, tart pairing by pouring a red ale along side it. With a few olives and Marcona almonds, it made for a mellow, well-rounded combo.

Cheese: Humboldt Fog
Ale: Walt Wit
Our favorite pairing: the citrusy notes in this unfiltered Belgian wheat ale cozied up so nicely to this slightly acidic, perfectly balanced goat cheese, easily recognized by its layer of ash (the ash is supposed to represent the coastal fog near Cypress Grove in Humboldt County, CA where this cheese is made). Joan and Nicole served each plate with a shard of Rosales torta, an olive oil cracker that tastes faintly of anise and burnt sugar.

Cheese: PA Noble
Ale: Newbold IPA
Bitter beer calls for sharp cheese, so we played on this pairing rule by selecting a local cheddar-style cheese made from raw, grass-fed milk right here in Pennsylvania. We think this local cheese from Green Valley Dairy is stellar, and we were excited to pair it with a local brew. This cheese pulled honey notes out of the IPA, and it was terrific served with mango chutney from Stonewall Kitchen.

All of these cheeses are currently available at Quince Fine Foods, and you can find PBC beers at most distributors around Philadelphia or buy it directly from the brewery, which is open for free tours and tastings every Saturday, noon-3 p.m. I visited back in January, and I have never been the same. I'm drinking those hoppy beers all the time now, ever since brewer Dean Browne told me that the estrogen in hops are good for women's bones.

Ladeez, maybe I'll see you at the bar. I'll be the one with the cheddar and chutney.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Cheese Fixes on Girard Ave.

I’m keyed up about tomorrow’s cheese’n ale tasting. We got such terrific press that we had to set up two tastings at Quince. And we still had to turn people away!

I owe a special thanks to the folks at uwishunu and City Paper's Meal Ticket blog for spreading the word. I’m so grateful, too, to Joan and Nicole at Quince, who came up with the idea of teaming up to host monthly cheese tastings. Their little Spanish imports shop is the crown jewel of 2nd Street and Girard Ave., an area that used to be mostly check-cashing stores and bootie-jeans joints – not that I don’t like bootie jeans, okay?

Let me just wax poetic about Girard Ave., if I may. I know it’s riddled with Funyuns wrappers and cigarette butts, I know there’s a lot of graffiti covering the Girard El stop, but there’s a gaggle of business owners who are working hard to make Girard lovable, and I want to give them a little shred of cheddar.

So, if you’re coming up to the tasting or you find yourself living la vida loca up here some scattered aftynoon, here are 15 of my fave things to do along Girard Ave., most of which involve cheese:

1.     Stop into Johnny Brenda’s for a whisky doughnut on a Sunday morning. Their bagels and lox platter with cream cheese ain’t bad either.

2.     Eat a samosa and a dish of saag paneer at Ekta.

3.     Pick up a guitar strap at DiPinto’s Guitar Shop.

4.     Eat a blue cheese burger at Sketch and color on the chalkboards.

5.     Stop into Murph’s for local beer and crab fries with cheese sauce. You may even hear someone spinning old-timey gospel music on Sunday afternoons.

6.     Try on vintage boots and rhinestones at Reverie, a consignment store next to Quince.

7.     Get an espresso and talk smack with Derrick at The Coffee House – be sure to sit in the garden, which is tricked out like a gypsy caravan.

8.     Take up a bar stool at Paradise and eat a $3 grilled cheese, the best deal in town. Don’t let Club Ozz, the girlie bar next door, scare you.

9.     Head down 2nd Street to the Piazza, just off Girard, for their Saturday Farmers’ Market, where there is goat cheese aplenty. Shellbark Farms, anyone?

10. Get your chi aligned at Barefoot Acupuncture. Their sliding scale makes sweet needles affordable. The atmosphere is dreamy.

11. Kiss the statue of Don Quixote for good luck (2nd and Girard). Then get a rose/cheese tattoo at Poison Apple.

12. Buy some vinyl at Milk Crate or Tequila Sunrise. They’re within walking distance of each other.

13. Hell, as long as you’ve come all this way, head to Philadelphia Brewing Company or Yards, and slug back some local beer.  

14. Don't forget to eat the best meal of your life at Modo Mio.

15. If you can't afford Modo Mio, hit up its sister joint, Paesano's, for the Gustaio sandwich: lamb  sausage with sun-dried cherry mustarda, fennel, and Gorgonzola. 

Thursday, March 11, 2010

La Serena

Several months ago, while house sitting for our friends Noel and Carolyn in New York, I went through their cheese drawer – that’s right, some people go through bedroom drawers, I go through refrigerator drawers. One wedge intrigued me, a Spanish sheep’s milk cheese with a label that included “thistle rennet” among the list of ingredients. I filched a nibble and was transformed. This was an aromatic, vegetal cheese with a gooey center and a spiky aftertaste. Was I tasting thistles?
“La Serena” I typed into the notepad of my ipod.

For months now, I’ve been on the hunt to acquire my own wedge and to learn about cheese made with thistles. I’ve read up on rennet, which is an enzyme used in cheesemaking; often, it’s taken from the stomach lining of animals, but more and more cheeses include “vegetable rennet,” a coagulant that’s been introduced to appeal to vegetarians. Vegetable rennet is produced in labs, something purists pooh-pooh. Thistle rennet sounded sexy. It sounded natural.

In a curious twist of synchronicity, I found a wedge of La Serena at a local market the same week I received my latest issue of Culture Magazine, a new cheese rag with fabulous photo spreads. The cover story? Thistle Cheese.

So here’s the dealio: thistle rennet has been used in cheesemaking since ancient Roman times. Now, it’s used primarily in Spain, where it has evolved from cheeses that were made high in the Iberian mountains, thanks to some clever shepherds. The rennet actually comes from cardoons, those purple-tufted mega-thistles you’ve probably seen growing along roadsides. The stamens are steeped in warm water to make a “tea,” which is then added to the milk.

Amazingly, there isn’t a purple twinge to La Serena, but I thought I could detect the faint taste of artichokes, which are related to the cardoon. The cheese has a long-lasting sharp taste, like raclette, but its texture is much softer. If you let La Serena sit out for an hour or so, you can dip bread into it fondu-style. Beware the smell, howev, which calls to mind moldering grapes. It’s whiffy but wonderful. 

Monday, March 8, 2010

What I Learned About Cheese at the Flower Show

There was a surprising amount of cheese at last week's Flower Show here in Philadelphia. I mean, there were wheels of cheese by the escalators, there were Di Bruno Bros. cheesemongers everywhere you looked, and even some Vermonters set up shop outside the culinary demonstrations room, offering pamphlets about Cabot Cheddar.

Was I happy about this? Bien sur. In fact, I learned something very interesting from Beth Kennett, one of the dairy farmers on hand at the Cabot Cheese table. Not only is Cabot a farmer-owned cooperative -- pretty cool -- but their aged cheddar is lactose free, which means all the people I know who are lactose intolerant can actually eat this cheese. Hallelujah!

"Natural aging breaks down the lactose," Kennett explained, so the the simple sugars are easy to digest. Kennett says this does not apply to all aged cheddars, only those that are "naturally aged." (Some aged cheeses are injected with chemicals, or so I've read, to speed up the aging process.) If you want to learn more, check out this link at the Cabot Cheese web site.

I was also excited to learn about some cheese-related hospitality up in Vermont. Beth Kennett actually runs a Bed & Breakfast at her dairy, Liberty Hill Farm Inn, so you can meet the cows that produce Cabot cheese. Rates are reasonable, and Beth cooks meals for the guests herself. Sounds to me like a perfect cheeselover's getaway. I may just have to take Monsieur Fromage. Puh puh puh.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Monte Cabra

My friend – I call him the Blue Cheese Brit – has a cheese boy.  This is his cheese boy, the affable “Rich,” well-known in cheese circles for his owly glasses and vaguely Capote-esque style. I think of Rich as the cheese oracle. Whenever I see him, he doesn’t ask me what I want, he tells me what I want – which always turns out to be true. He knows my palate better than I do.

On a recent cookie-eating junket, I ran across Rich unexpectedly at a new cheese counter – he’s the second of two Di Bruno Bros. cheesemongers who have been poached by Philadelphia’s new Garces Trading Co. Okay, well, maybe not poached, but I’m just sayin’. There’s gonna be a rumble.

“You want Monte Cabra,” Rich said to me, when I saw him, and he unwrapped a wheel of charcoal-black butter, a cheese that had my name all over it. I like ash, what can I say?

Monte Cabra is a Spanish goat cheese (from Catalonia), very mild with a pleasant, sweet, pasturey taste. Like its black shroud, its story remains something of a mystery: I couldn’t find squat, not on the Net, not even in my go-to cheez books. Everyone who has written about Monte Cabra compares it to feta, which doesn’t make any sense. It’s dryer, like Manchego, with a firm, not-quite-crumbly texture. I didn’t taste salt, which is what comes to mind with feta; I tasted hay, wood shavings, an ashy sweetness with a tart hook.

It tastes, and looks, great with blackberries.

Someday I’m going to do a cheesemonger-of-the-month profile, and Rich will hopefully be one of them. Once again, I’m pleasantly surprised to discover the cheese of my dreams. 

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Quark, versatile quark

If you followed Lindsey Vonn’s story during the Olympics last week, you probably heard about how this world-class skier used cheese to help heal her bruised shin. That’s right, cheese. Quark, to be more precise. Vonn applied it topically as a poultice, and it must have done the trick because she medaled – gold, in fact.

In the United States, quark is a relatively unknown delicacy, but in Europe it’s easy to find in dairy cases, alongside yogurt and soft cheeses. I remember eating boat loads of it in Germany, where I was an exchange student in the early nineties. My host family ate quark as a snack, more often than yogurt in fact. They liked that it was creamier than yogurt -- and less sour. With fresh berries, it was delicious.

Given quark’s recent press, you just might start seeing it state-side. It’s worth trying, especially if you’re looking for a low-fat, low-salt alternative to sour cream or even cream cheese. It’s much more flavorful than most low-fat dairy products I’ve tasted, which are often gelatinous and without taste. Quark reminds me of Greek Yogurt – thick, smooth, substantive – but with a fresh, lemony twist that calls to mind mascarpone, the Italian cheese used in Tiramisu.

Vermont Butter & Cheese Company makes a wonderful version of quark that tastes even better than the slightly gritty German brand I remember. This artisanal cheese company specializes in European soft cheeses, including fromage blanc and crème fraiche, and has made a name for itself by using quality r-BGH free Vermont milk.

If you find yourself grinning before a tub of quark in the dairy case (try Whole Foods; some of their locations carry it), here are a few things you can do with it, aside from slathering it on bruises:

            -top quark with brown sugar, granola, and fruit
            -serve it on a baked potato, with chives
            -spread it on fresh bread with sliced cukes
            -put a dab of quark on pureed soups 
            -mix quark with cinnamon sugar and use it to top waffles