Saturday, January 28, 2012

Haunted by Handkäse

Readers, you know how I feel about stinky cheese. I always welcome it into my home. That is why there is a funeral-sized incense burner in my living room. Alas, my last Stinky Cheese Mission went awry, and I am still puzzling over it. Did I eat a bad piece of cheese, or is Handkäse really and truly intolerable?

The tip came from a reader who heard about Handkäse during a German conversation class in New Jersey. She asked if I knew of it, then sent me instructions on how to find it. “My German teacher calls it Handkase mit musik,” she wrote. “The musik comes afterward.”

Okay. I like a fart joke. I’ll eat a farty cheese.

So off I went to Rieker’s Prime Meats, a German specialty foods store in the neighborhood of Fox Chase, Pa. I pictured a meaty fright wig of a cheese with a devilish rind, something akin to Limburger. I did not expect Handkäse to look umbilical, like a glassy Tootsie Roll. But, there it was in the cooler: slightly cloudy, tubular.

Let it be known that I loved Rieker’s Prime Meats. I loved the cuckoo clocks, the German cookies, the fresh spaetzle and rouladen in the dairy case. I bought bags of fresh pretzels, wursts, mustard in a toothpaste tube – all the family favorites. 

The only item I didn’t love when I got home? Handkäse. And it wasn’t the musik.

Handkäse is a specialty of Hesse, Germany, where it was originally rolled by hand, hence the name. According to Cookipedia, it’s a “smeared acid curd” cheese made from sour milk that is ripened for several days in a “sweating room.” New terms for this cheese geek. Acid curd? Sweating room?

You get the picture. Handkäse did taste sweaty and acidic – like sour cream mixed with rubber cement. My first bite stuck to my front teeth like a fetid gummi bear. Terrible. I tried melting it, added onions – as others on the internet suggested – but oy vey, that only made Handkäse turn slimy. 

If Tolkein’s Golem character had tried ripening a cheese in his cave, it might have looked like melted Handkäse. Look at it. Tell me you don't think of Lord of the Rings.

I’m headed back for some Limburger. I think I like cheese that smells like feet better than cheese that looks like a severed finger. But, readers, set me straight. Is there something I’m missing? Are there magical nuggets of Handkäse out there, or am I stinktarded?

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Ubriaco To Chase Away Doldrums

Now that the holiday parties are over and more sleet is in store, a person can easily turn gloomy. If you find yourself prone to despair, I suggest a nice wedge of Ubriaco as a cure-all.

Ubriaco, which means “drunken,” is a cheese that understands darkness. It spends months in a wine barrel before it comes to market. Originally, Italian cheesemakers hid wheels from tax collectors this way in order to avoid their fees. Eventually, these drunken cheeses became popular. Lucky for us!   To read on, please click here.

Full disclosure: I freelance for Di Bruno Bros. Twice a month, I pick a wedge of my dreams and develop a post for their blog. This is how I cover the cost of my dairy habit.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

How to Make a Downton Abbey Cheese Plate

I can’t seem to get enough of the PBS series, Downton Abbey, and neither can you. This became clear at the Cheddar class I taught on Friday night at Tria’s Fermentation School. It was a Masterpiece Theater-loving crowd (lots of beards and one waistcoat); Lady Grantham would have fit right in.

By the end of the night, we’d eaten seven Cheddars, and there was hardly a crumb on the tables. After everyone left, I couldn’t help but imagine them settling in on their settees at home with a spot of port and an episode of Downton Abbey cued up for a nightcap. Since today is Sunday, and you’ll surely be watching, let me offer you a few crumbs of wisdom about building a Downton worthy cheese plate.

Photo credit: JBUK_Planet
First off, Downton Abbey is shot in Cheddar country, in Hampshire, just one county over from Somerset. Highclere Castle (above) is the actual name of the palatial estate, and it’s just a jaunt from London, home to one of Europe’s best affineurs, Neal’s Yard Dairy. Should you decide to holiday in Hampshire, make sure you pop into Neal’s Yard for a whiff and a nibble. Lord Grantham would insist.

Secondly, you’ll want to serve some traditional farmhouse West Country Cheddars, which would have been fairly easy to come by in 1912, before the advent of Britain’s agricultural depression in the 1920s and ‘30s. Before World War II, Britain developed a Milk Marketing Board that streamlined industrial cheese production, decimating small cottage industries. Many great cheese recipes were lost, but a few have been revived.

Lady and Lord Grantham lived during a veritable Cheddar heyday, you might say. For a taste of some of these extraordinary cheeses, scout out the following wedges for your next Downton Abbey viewing party:

Mrs. Kirkham’s Tasty Lancashire
A gentle, citrus-bright clothbound cheese made from milling the curds of three days’ milking. The texture has earned it the nickname “floofy monstah.” You’ll understand why. Character: Mrs. Patmore

This wickedly creamy goat’s milk cheese has a layer of beautiful surface mold and a decadent, fudgy center. It’s a bit naughty and a tiny bit two-faced. Character: Lady Mary

Montgomery’s Cheddar
One of the best loved traditional West Country Cheddars, this is one of three recognized by Slow Food. It’s made by hand by Jamie Montgomery at his farm in Somerset. It’s a cult cheese for anglo-loving Cheddarphiles. Character: Lord Grantham

Keen’s Cheddar
To rival Montgomery’s, a traditional Cheddar that’s earthier and more aggressive. This clothbound beauty is made by George Keen, a legend in cheesemaking. Character: Mr. Carson

Lincolnshire Poacher
This smoldering character is named after a 17th century ballad. It has Cheddarish traits, but there’s a bit of Gruyere lurking in the background, making it a bit of a split personality. So of course, you can guess which character it best represents. Character: Thomas the Footman

This piquant, ultra traditional version of Stilton is made with raw milk, unlike other Stiltons on the market. It’s very feisty and worth every penny for its craggy, churlish nature. Character: Violet, Dowager Countess of Grantham

For more ideas, pick up a copy of Great British Cheeses , by Jenny Linford (DK, 2008). Downton Abbey, Season 1 is available for streaming on Netflix. Season 2 streams on PBS.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Scenes From The Cheese Ball

                                                        Yours Truly with Sue Miller of Birchrun Hills Farm

You may have heard. On Saturday, I held a Cheese Ball in Philadelphia. It was everything I hoped it would be. And more. There were cheeses from Holland, London, and New York. We had guests from Spain, France, Norway, and Green Bay. Admission? A wedge of cheese. By the end of the night, I counted over 100 cheese tags left on the table. Amazing. Here is a glimpse into our wonderful feast.

The Cheese Board at 8 p.m.

The Cheese Board at 9 p.m.
The Cheese Board at Midnight

There were friends. And there were strangers. Cheesemongers brought dates and wedges. Couples came in gowns and tuxes. A king and queen were crowned at the end of the night. Here are a few outtakes. There are lots more on flickr.

A Beautiful Pair from Di Bruno Bros.

A Jesuit Digs In
Blog Readers from New York City (Columbia Students)

The night was truly an Alice in Wonderland of Cheese. Everyone brought beautiful wheels and wedges. Not a single block of Velveeta. Many thanks to the following cheeses houses for donating wheels and for sending emissaries: Di Bruno Bros., Quince, Fair Food, Wedge and Fig, Greensgrow, and Downtown Cheese. And many thanks to all of you who contributed so much!

Many thanks to the staff at RUBA, the Russian Social Club of Northern Liberties, for hosting us. The bartenders were quick'n dirty. The taxidermy was perfect. The kitsch behind the bar was spot on. I can't think of a better place to host a cheese ball in 2013!

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Reading Raclette

So many award-winning cheeses are made in Vermont these days that it’s easy to feel Green State envy. One Vermont cheese that’s got cheesemongers buzzing this winter is Reading Raclette. Now, the Swiss make Raclette and so do the French, but until Spring Brook Farm introduced its artisanal version from Reading, no American cheesemaker had come forward with a melt-away Alpine stinker this good.

Reading Raclette has another thing going for it. All of the proceeds go to a Vermont nonprofit called Farms for City Kids that offers urban school children a chance to explore farming and cheese making. To continue reading, please visit the Di Bruno Blog

Full disclosure: I am a freelancer for Di Bruno Bros. Twice a month, I select a cheese and develop a post for their blog. This is how I cover the cost of my dairy habit.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Blog Redesign with Stef Patrizio

Designer Stef Patrizio works on a Mood Board at Madame's kitchen table.

Behind the scenes here at Madame Fromage, there has been a lot more than cheese on the table. Over the past few months, I have been working with Stefania Patrizio on a site redesign. Come spring, this blog will get her wings. Even a new url. 

To start, Stef created a new logo, which appears on the Cheese Ball invitation (see last post) I put up last week. Yes, that invite was all her idea. She is a dream. She's also taught me a lot about how to think visually, set a mood, and re-envision this site. Here's how we got started:

Building A Better Blog: PART I

Step 1: Gather Ideas
Stef asked me to collect all of the things I own that gush Fromage -- from cheese graters to business cards. Upstairs in the Cheese Command Center, where I do most of my writing, I got started with a bulletin board. Max McCalman's business card, a personal treasure, was one of the first things I pinned to the board.

Step 2: Build a Mood Board
Stef and I spent an afternoon creating a "mood board" -- a process of brainstorming the aesthetic look and feel of the new site. She collected a bunch of images and put together a slide show so we could brainstorm color and tone; the images ranged from black-and-white mug shots of women from the 1920s to vases of flowers. 

I gave a thumbs up to the mug shots, a thumbs down to the flowers. The process was much like going to the eye doctor and trying on lenses. The fun part was conceiving of a new look for the blog by exploring -- not text -- but photos and drawings. Of course, we had a cheese board to go with it.

Step 3: Design a Logo
Stef developed four new logo designs. Each one had a different look and feel. The unveiling, which took place at her apartment over breakfast, was exciting. I was so curious to know what she had come up with. After all, she had snapped oodles of photos at my house, and we had looked at dozens of food blogs together. I knew I wanted a logo with personality and a new site with some theatrics -- after all, what is a cheese board if not a stage?

Step 4: Create Images For a New Site 
Stef and I made a cheese trek. She wanted to snap some pictures and shop for cheese. So, off we went to Di Bruno Bros., a Polaroid in tow. We snapped some photos of the mongers who are so essential to this project, then came home to plate our wares and shoot a still life or two. Stef turned into a DSLR ninja. You can't see it here, but at one point the tripod was propped on a piano bench and Stef was hanging by a toe from the ceiling. 

Step 5: Keep Collaborating
The best part of this whole process has been sharing ideas with Stef. I met her at a cheese tasting, so I knew she valued some of the same things I did: handcrafted food, cheesemakers, exploration, stories. It's been great to find someone who is as passionate about images as I am about writing. Stef has given me ideas for posts, suggestions for blog features, and an understanding of how to build this site as a stage for sharing, educating, exploring, and entertaining. In the meantime, I've introduced her to a few new cheeses. 

Stefania Patrizio ( is a freelance designer in Philadelphia. She specializes in logos and branding for restaurants, food bloggers, and food producers. 

Monday, January 2, 2012

An Invitation To A Cheese Ball

That’s right, cheese lovers, I’m ringing in 2012 with a CHEESE BALL. I hope you’ll bring a wedge for the giant cheese board I plan to create. And I hope you’ll put on a cheesy outfit, but it’s not required.

Why a Cheese Ball? Well, I just feel we should meet face to face. After all, I’ve been blogging for three years, and a grrl gets tired of tapping keys. I want to tap my foot to a beat. I want to go cheese Gaga.

Here’s the line-up for the night at RUBA:

8 p.m. Doors Open
We dance cheek to cheek to some live jazz, we feast.

10 p.m.  Raffle Winners Announced
Uh, that’s right. I’ve got a Mike Geno cheese print to give away.

11:00 p.m. The Coronation
Will you be crowned King or Queen of the Cheese Ball? Perhaps. If so, we must disco. 
DJ Raclette will be making a special appearance from Wisconsin.

Midnight: The private party officially opens to RUBA Social Hall members. RUBA is open until 3 a.m. You can stay and meet handsome Russians or head home to recuperate.

The Cheese Ball does not require tickets. You must love cheese to attend. 

Note: The invitation above is courtesy of the daringly awesome Stefania Patrizio Design