I love when the first leaves pop, hot green and feather-tipped. Our North Philly neighborhood awakens. Cats appear. Then teenagers -- warming the walks as they hover in clusters. Soon my neighbors take to their stoops to read the paper and sip coffee or beer.
That’s when I want Ascutney Mountain, a cheese that somehow tastes like spring. Like peas in their pods.
That’s what Zeke told me he tasted when he handed me a sample of Ascutney Mountain several weeks ago at the cheese counter. Zeke has a palate of gold. I go to him as one would go to a guru, not for a mantra but for a tasting lesson. When my palate goes off-key, Zeke helps me find the note.
“Fresh peas, can you taste it?” he asked.
I couldn’t taste peas at first. But I did detect an Alpiney edge, that bell-clear herbiness I now recognize in mountain cheeses. Think of Appenzeller, Gruyere, Emmentaler. They all contain an herbal quality – not as in dill or parsley – but as in herbed spirits (think of Jagermeister or Chartreuse).
Ascutney Mountain, which is made in Vermont, has an Alpine herbiness, but it’s more vegetal in nature, and less bitter and boozey, if that makes sense.
It tastes fresh, I kid you not. Like greens. Like spring seedlings.
I have eaten two wedges of it now, nibbling away through the gray days that haunted April. And now I taste pea pods. I do. Once I could identify it, I tasted it in every bite. Magical, how even taste grows. All it takes is nurturing.
Gail Holmes at Cobb Hill Cheese in Hartland, VT makes Ascutney Mountain. She uses raw milk from Jersey cows, a breed known for its supremely creamy milk. That makes Ascutney Mountain gloriously creamy once it melts on your tongue.
The texture calls to mind a young Gouda, with crispy crystals that pop on the togue – the mark of an aged cheese.
If you like Comte, you will want to seek this out, though it’s rare. Only 45 wheels are made each week – fewer in winter, one assumes. Serve it with spring vegetables (ramps, morels, peas, fiddleheads) and a lush white or a light- to medium-bodied red. Prepare to shiver.
Other notes to look for: fuitiness, nuttiness, a whiff of pineapple.