Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Rolf Beeler Thurblau

Maybe my own Swiss heritage makes me biased, but I can’t stop thinking about the Rolf Beeler Thurblau, a raw milk blue from Switzerland, that has a sweet, bitey flavor that keeps evolving. When we had our last tasting, our Stilton lover called this “a blue lozenge,” due to its melty mouthfeel; his partner, an art museum director, tasted “crisp green apples” and “lavender hay.” There is something colorful about this cheese, a beautiful hard blue that is both piquant and chocolaty, with brush strokes of sweet grass and citrus.

Tonight, as I was packing for my trip to the Wisconsin motherland, I stopped to prepare a little cheese board. A few crumbles of this and that from the über crisper. I lit the candles. Cut up some figs. Toasted a few walnuts. I let the cheese soften, waiting for Monsieur Fromage to finish teaching his night class, and when he came through the door we sat down to a lovely snack plate.

I bought a few new blues today that I’ll reveal shortly, but I must say, I had forgotten how good the Thurblau (“true blue”) tasted, how busty, how bold. Imagine an Emmenthaler infused with a sharp, tongue-rattling blue. It would be wonderful with cold green grapes and a glass of sherry, especially on a mountain picnic, when it could be enjoyed with cowbells in the distance. Although it’s not a blue that you could eat a lot of in one sitting, it is definitely the kind of blue that adds “achtung” to a cheese sampler, and it’s the only blue I’ve tasted so far that has tiny crystals in it.

Next to a Stilton and a Roquefort, it would be a diplomatic third – not as vixeny as a Roquefort but almost as nuanced as a good stilton. Think of it as a Gustav Klimt painting next to, say, an Egon Schiele (Roquefort) and an Albrecht Dürer (Stilton). Picture gold notes, a passionate sweetness. Now you’ve got it.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

The Cheese Atlas

Back in March, USA Today ran a story about a cheese roadtrip through Wisconsin.  Brilliant! Reading it got me so excited that I went online and ordered a cheese atlas.  That’s right, an atlas of cheesemakers all over America.  I pictured detailed maps and helpful travel information -- a kind of Frommer’s of Fromage.

Then I got my copy of The Atlas of American Artisan Cheese in the mail, and I was disappointed. Despite its lovely introduction by Carlo Petrini (of Slow Food fame), the book is really no more than an encyclopedia of cheesemakers grouped by state, with profiles that have been assembled through questionnaires.  Some profiles are several pages long, others only a paragraph.  Sure, there is useful information – phone numbers, web sites, photographs of people in overalls holding up wheels of golden cheddar – but the atlas feels more like a marketing tool than a guide you’d want to stash in your glove compartment and thumb through at rest stops.

I’d like to see a cheese atlas with road trippers in mind – a book with useful maps and real travel writing compiled by people who had actually visited the farms.  I know this was not what Jeffrey P. Roberts had in mind when he edited The Atlas of American Artisan Cheese.  Still, I think cheese tourists could be cultivated in Wisconsin, much the same way Napa has generated hoopla around wine tasting, but people need a good road guide.  I happen to love Carr Valley cheese, but I don’t think the Atlas of American Artisan Cheese would inspire a road trip to La Valle, Wisconsin.  Is there camping nearby?  Is there a juicy tavern full of taxidermy that serves good fries?  Is there a place to buy a crusty baguette? 

I’m heading to Wisconsin on Wednesday, and it looks like I will be hopping in my rental car to Lewis-and-Clark it alone.  I know I want to pay a visit to North Hendren Dairy Co-op in Willard, home to my favorite award-winning Gorgonzola.  Alas, it’s not included in the Atlas of American Artisan Cheeses, so maybe I’ll just have to create my own -- one that includes a list of pit stops and watering holes for curious travelers looking to cheese-taste their way across the Plains.  What we need is a cheese atlas with flavor!

Monday, May 11, 2009

Roquefort vs. Stilton

Here’s my million-dollar idea: blue cheese playing cards.  What?  You don’t think there are enough poker-playing strong-cheese-lovers out there?  Or, are you under the misguided impression that there are only a few blue cheeses in the world? 

Well, here’s my latest revelation:  there are more different blue cheeses on the market than I can keep track of.  Possibly hundreds.  Maybe thousands.  In fact, I have at least a dozen Saran-wrangled wedges in my cheese drawer, and I don’t think I’ve even sampled one percent of the moldy blues that are being cave-aged at this moment.  It looks like I’m going to have to embark upon a blue cheese summer.

When I first started this blog, I had the silly notion that I would take on a different kind of cheese each month.  Newsflash: it takes more than a month to really know a cheese, kind of like dating.  Blue cheese and I are still on first base.  I’m only now beginning to understand the nuances of “liberal blueing,” and I’m just beginning to appreciate the wild differences between a rough-rinded blue (like, say, a stilton) and a foil-wrapped blue, (i.e. Roquefort).

Take last weekend’s second cheese-off.  I finally got to try these two world-class blues side-by-side, and I was stunned by how different they tasted.  The Roquefort was creamy and sharp, but salty as a starfish, whereas the stilton was crumbly and robust with much subtler flavors – hints of leather and woodsiness.  They even looked different – the Carles Roquefort was wet, the color of porcelain.  Trés elegante.  The Colston-Bassett Stilton was dry with an egg-nogish color that deepened as you got to the rind.  It made me think of a fine wool suit.

In my pack of cards, the Roquefort would definitely be the Queen of Diamonds – edgy, refined; think delicate veins on a high forehead – whereas the stilton would have to be the King of Hearts – a smooth operator with a crusty smile and a penchant for ascots and cummerbunds. Which do I prefer?  The stilton, of course.  Who wants to play blue cheese rummy?

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Rogue River Smokey Blue

I want to talk about Rogue River Smokey Blue.  I mean, really talk.  For the past several weeks, I’ve been eying it in cheese cases, wondering if it would taste like blue cheese dressing with cigarette butts.  I don’t know why I conjured something so distasteful, except that most people I know pooh-pooh smoked cheeses, and maybe that’s rubbed off on me.  I secretly like smoked gouda – go ahead, judge me.  I have a weird fascination with smokey things in general– meats and…uhm…smoke rings (I think I read too much Tolkein as a child).  Still, the idea of a smoked blue made me cringe.

Then last week, my brother flew in from Wisconsin, demanding a tour of the Italian Market, where the real cheese geeks flock.  Before I knew it, I was laying out cash for a wedge of Smokey Blue.  “This is the only smoked cheese I’ll eat,” Zeke, our cheese man at the Di Bruno's counter, told us.  He had very blue eyes and a drifter’s smile, so I couldn’t tell if he was being sincere, but when he gave me a taste, I knew I had found something remarkable: it tasted like fireplace.  In fact, now that it’s been raining for about five days straight, I’ve found myself dreaming about it: it’s a cheddary blue, firm, with a sharp, smoldering taste.  Think canoe trip+fog+your grandfather’s sweater.  Then add a campfire.

Rogue River Smokey Blue comes from the award-winning Rogue Creamery in Central Point, Oregon.  It’s a raw cow’s milk cheese that undergoes 16 hours of cold smoking with hazelnut shells.  The same creamery also produces Oregonzola, Crater Lake Blue, Echo Mountain Blue (a seasonal goat-cow blend), and a much-lauded blue that is wrapped in grape leaves macerated in brandy (it’s simply called Rogue River Blue).

My brother didn’t think Rogue River Smokey tasted distinctly “blue” enough, which is fair.  When you eat it aside other blues, it does seem cheddary, and its bluesy notes pale in comparison to, say, Bayley Hazen, a twangy, sharp, herbaceous blue from Vermont that has won a lot of acclaim.  I confess, the Bayley Hazen is just about the best American-made blue I’ve tried so far, but on a rainy night when the spring air still has a pinch of crispness to it, the one cheese that calls to me from the crisper drawer is the Rogue River Smokey.  Its bold flavor makes my mouth water just thinking about it – leading me to think of smoked meats, smoked trout, even the smoky Scotch I love (Laphroaig).  And of course, Bilbo Baggins.