Sunday, January 31, 2010

Cheese & Love

Later this month, I'll be hosting a tasting at my favorite local cheese store, Quince, on Philadelphia's Girard Ave. But today, I have to write about my love affair with Datillo's, an Italian deli in the Northeast that I visited last weekend. Picture an Old World hole in the wall with cheeses hanging from the ceiling, narrow aisles stocked with olives and tins of fish, and stooped old men with lots of ear hair waiting in line to buy bread.

It's not easy to find Datillo's. Forget searching on the web -- there's no web site. You need a good map of North Philly's erogenous zones or a good-natured local to show you around. Our friend Joe, an Olney native who later moved to Rhawnhurst and now lives in Fishtown, ferried us up into the northern wilds for this adventure, and it was well worth the drive past miles of stone facades, each block as homogenous as the one before it.

Datillo's, 8000 Horrocks Street, is located in Rhawnhurst. Think far Northeast. The store is flanked on one side by a very appetizing fish shop (which is saying a lot) and on the other side by a patio with access to Datillo's sandwich window. In the summer, I imagine the neighborhood must dump out here to nurse water ice and gobble hoagies. The flagstone looks well worn by generations of flip-flops.

Even if you don't plan to sit, Datillo's is worth a trip to load up on crusty bread, homemade sopressatta, house-cured olives, and local sweets. And you'll find local and imported cheese here that's a good deal less expensive than other places, especially for Prima Donna, my favorite Gouda-esque love child. You can also find planks of salt-crusted cod, a specialty that our friend Joe likes to use for a Portuguese stew. He soaks the cod in water for a couple days, then boils it up with tomatoes, peppers, and spices.

I walked out of Datillo's with a week's worth of groceries for under $40, including two kinds of cheese, two pints of olives, a big link of sopressatta, a bag of milk biscotti, a snack sack of dried chick peas and fava beans, and a loaf of bread the size of our lap dog. It was perfect for a housebound picnic, and it got me through yesterday's snow.

We've got great cheese shops here in downtown Philly, but I can't help loving Datillo's. It's the real deal, ear hair and all.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Cheese & Beer

A few weeks ago, I heard from a reader who wanted a cheese pairing for a smoky beer, a beer he described to me as "bacon in a glass." Turned out this reader was a tour guide at Philadelphia Brewing Company, home to one of my fave local ales, Walt Wit. So, last Saturday, I decided to pick up some sharp cheese and shimmy over to the brewery to meet the local readership -- and, of course, to enjoy some sips.
Turns out, Philadelphia Brewing is just about the best Saturday-afternoon fun I never knew existed. From noon 'til 3, the brewery offers tours and free samples of all their beers, including some that never make it to market (I was especially fond of "Kilty Pleasure," a Scotch Ale made with heather and hops). The scene was electric: the jukebox was rockin', the dart board was lit up, and even a black-and-white cat was on the prowl.
My reader, David April, showed up with three bottles of his German "rauch bier," and I presented him with a nice wedge of extra sharp Provolone from Dattilo's, a great little Italian deli in the Northeast. Ideally, I would have brought a bandaged cheddar to pair with this bacony goodness, but the Prov stood up to the intense flavor of the beer. When you age provolone -- which is a wimpy cheese, let's be honest -- it gets oniony, and I liked the idea of putting onion and bacon together. Makes me think of hot bacon dressing.

Next time, I promised David, I'll bring some PA Noble, or an English cheddar. I have a hunch that the Natural Horseradish Cheddar I picked up from the LeRaysville Cheese Factory could be appropriately brash, but I'd also be curious to try the rauch bier alongside a smoky blue, like Rogue River Blue from Oregon, for a real smoke-off.

Here's the good part: Philadelphia Brewing Company has eight beers on tap, including a Fair Trade Coffee Porter, so that means I'm going to have to go back at least eight times and take new cheeses to pair with all of them so that I get, ya know, practice match-making.

In the meantime, I have a few cases at home now so that I can run some experiments.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Cheese & Silence

Yes, yes, you have every right to wonder what I've been up to -- I have been silent. Not just on this blog, but in America. Last week, I went on a wee adventure with the Jesuits to live in an abbey for five nights and spend the days close-lipped. Oh, I loved it! I think every New Year, I will make a silent retreat -- if only to remind myself that I love to read, write, walk, sleep, and eat monastic cooking.

Did we have cheese? Bless Father Dan Joyce. On the last night of our stay, this crafty Jesuit disappeared, but he left a fridge full of cheese for us to eat, and the students and I had a feast. Maybe it was divine intervention: Fr. Joyce found a cheesemonger who was going out of business, and she sold him half her stock. We ate blues, we ate Parms, we ate the mystery cheese at the top of this post. It had a very Jesuitical pallor, I thought -- are those blots of port wine or blood?
Hmmm. Father Joyce never let on.

The Jesuit Spiritual Center in Wernersvill, PA is a must on any cheese-loving retreatant's to-do list. First, there are secret passages to explore. Secondly, the library and the grounds are totally BBC Special. Finally, the smorgasbord of desserts during the evening meal (prepared by the mysterious "Anita") is a vision of...I won't say it. I tried not to view the cheese blintzes on the very first night as a personal homage, but then I did.

Perhaps the greatest revelation was a wedge of Saga Blue, which I sampled during our little cheese fete. I've always seen Saga at the grocery and turned up my nose. Silly grrrl, it tastes like a brie -- grassy, creamy -- with a blue-cheese chaser. I wouldn't choose it over an Irish Cashel, but in the summer, amid the blue-curious, I would serve this Danish wedge on a picnic blanket without any regret at all.

In fact, next time I visit the Jesuit Spiritual Center in Wernersville, I may just pack it in my luggage. It would be perfect for eating, undetected, in the library at one of the wooden desks or for nibbling in one's room. It's a very covert cheese, not strong-smelling, and yet -- like all things of spirit -- powerfully subtle.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Sexy Cheese Events

Many of you have emailed about my next tasting -- thanks for your interest! I feel the time has come to explore sexy cheese, and since the feast of St. Valentine's is nigh upon us, I'm planning a Cheese Board of Seduction for you on Saturday, February 13. The details are below. You're encouraged to wear fishnets, cheese cloth, etc.

Sexy Cheese Tasting
Saturday, February, 13, 4-6 p.m.
Quince Fine Foods, 209 W. Girard Ave (at 2nd Street)
$12/person; reservations appreciated

We will try aromatic cheeses, cheeses that need to be untied before they can be eaten, cheeses molded into suggestive forms. It will be subtle -- you can still bring children, as long as they don't mind being drizzled in honey.

Many thanks to Helen over at Philly Foodie for attending our November tasting and posting great photos. Click the linky poo to check them out.

* * *
If you crave cheese and you live in New Jersey (you know who you are), check out the grand opening of a fabu-dabu new cheese shop in Medford. Tomorrow night from 7-9 p.m., Candace Sporer unveils the new Carriage Trade Cheese Shoppe, at 32A South Main Street. Take a sweetie, and see if he's ripe to a really good Camembert or spotty blue, non?

* * *
You know I have a thing for George Perrier, owner of Le Bec Fin. Sadly, I'll be on a silent retreat with the Jesuits during his Loire-Valley Wine & Cheese Tasting on January 12. Go and nibble his ear for me, would you?

For more information, call David Smith at Le Bec Fin: 215-568-1151. If you get there early, order a bowl of artichoke heart soup at the bar. It's the one thing I long for on these long evenings in my cold house of mirrors and chandeliers.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Cheese Accompaniments I Have Loved

Reader, cheese has not touched my lips for over a week. Blame it on a sinus infection, and know, oh, what a struggle it's been not to nibble the three blues sitting in the crisper. Instead of writing about robust cheese, I am wrapping up the last decade with a few fave accoutrements to recommend, from crackers to caramel -- things that go so well with cheese. Here is my dairy-less benediction:

Plum Butter: This might just be my favorite discovery, and at $1.89 a jar, it's a cheap date's dream. I picked this up at my local Polish grocery, Krakus Market, in the Port Richmond neighborhood of Philly. It's a great place to sample Polish cheese, pick up fresh kielbasa (try the juniper berry), load up on poppyseed bread, and buy fresh pierogie. You can also buy pigs' feat in aspic. The market is warm, full of cheerful folk, and on a brisk day it's fun to walk down to Port Richmond Books, a great used bookstore housed in an old movie theater just a block away. I love putting a shmear of plum butter on a Carr whole wheat cracker, then topping it with blue cheese. It's also good slathered on dark bread with a swoosh of cream cheese or ricotta.

34 Degrees Natural Crispbread: These thinny-skinny Australian wafers are the best ever all-purpose cracker. They pair well with brie, spreads, blue cheeses, even cured meats. True cheese freaks poo poo the cracker in favor of a baguette, which mingles better in the mouth and doesn't exert too much pungency, but these crisps are really a revelation. Their mild flavor yields to the cheese, and the gentle crunch is a fab underscorer of both the mild and the bold. If cheese is the lily, these are the lilypads.

Dried Tart Montmorency Cherries: When you don't want to overpower a triple-creme, ohh, sweet mercy, these tarty smarties are so fine. They are also a nice accompaniment to sharp cheddars and blues, and if you have them in your cupboard you can dot them on muffins or dab a few on your oatmeal. For me, they are the new olive.

Carr's Whole Wheat Crackers: These oaty biscuits are an old fave, but every time I open a pack I am reminded of how wise the English are to have invented a firm, nutty cookie-cracker that pairs so nicely with cheese. They're good plain, alongside tea, but they are even more marvy with a spot of blue cheese and a dollop of chutney (or prune butter!). Everyone who tastes this combination at my house practically drops to the floor and starts rolling around on the carpet.

Bacon Caramels: Tracy McGinnis runs a new micro-bakery, called Baked, out of Fishtown, where everything is made in small batches (hence the name "micro-bakery") to ensure perfection. Her bacon caramels, which she sold around the holidays, were smashing -- especially as a capper to a bold cheese plate. I've eaten a lot of bacon-amped treats over the last couple years -- bacon fudge, bacon ice cream -- and so often the flavors are off (too salty, too obviously porcine), but Tracy's bacon caramels are understated. Sweet, salty, and just a little bit crunchy. Now that's haute barnyard goodness.

Root: Can I help the fact that I crave a nip after a night of cheese-tasting? Of course not. It's bred into my Swiss bones. This winter, I became fond of this new, locally made, organic spirit -- a mixture of birch bark, smoked black tea, cinnamon, clove, anise, and other spices. Imagine root beer, then add a dash of bitters and a splash of Pernod. Root is lovely on the rocks with a slice of ginger, or as a cocktail (combine Reed's Ginger Beer with a shot of Root, add a squeeze of lemon). It's also a good tonic for a sour stomach.

Glass cheese globe: I used to see these around and think they were ridiculous -- a cheese showcase? What for? Then someone gifted me this marble base with a glass cover, and I absolutely adore it. The marble keeps the cheese cool, and the dome allows you to leave cheese out for several hours without having to cover it with a cheese cloth or moist towel. It also makes ugly cheese look, well, pretty. And who doesn't love a shapeshifter?