Thursday, March 31, 2011

Black Ledge Blue

When I launched the Blue Cheese Invitational at the beginning of March, I started with Maytag, an accessible American blue. Now, I want to take you to the outer limits, to a blue so bitey and cavey that I’m not sure what to make of it.

Black Ledge comes from Connecticut, hand-crafted by one of my favorite farmstead makers: Cato Corner. This mother-son team turns out some of the stinkiest domestic cheeses I have ever nibbled.

Hooligan, my dream cheese, comes from Cato Corner – it’s a washed-rind that looks like a moon pie and tastes like a boozy, gooey peanut cluster, minus the chocolate. Rappleree, also from Cato, looks and tastes like a really moist cheesecake that has been left to soak in a foot bath. It’s rank, deliciously so, but the locker-room quality is definitely over the top.

In keeping with Cato Corner’s strong-cheese focus, Black Ledge trumps many domestic blues in terms of its eye-popping hook, but it’s not sharp so much as it is earthy. If you’ve ever read a Seamus Heaney poem ("the cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap/ Of soggy peat…"), you understand what I mean by “earthy.”

Black Ledge tastes like something pulled from a bog. Like a cheese that has been bandaged, buried, and later pulled from a crypt. I imagine a creature with one eye carrying it home on one shoulder, then eating it between damp fingers, alongside a pint of Guinness.

And so March ends and April begins, with the scent of moss and bedrock. Thus ends the Blue Cheese Invitational. On to spring!  

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Blue Cheese Shout-Outs

Photo Credit: Albert Yee

And so the month of blues comes to an end...almost, but not quite. Let's linger, shall we? Today, I want to pay homage to several bloggers who have furthered the blue cheese cause with posts on the subject.

The above photo comes from Albert Yee, one half of the Messy and Picky team (the other half is Albert's wife, Kate). Albert is a professional photo snappper, who traffics in dairy at the Fair Food Farmstand. His photograph of Incanestro (above) with its surly rind and pearly insides inspired me to run out and buy a wedge. That beautiful rind comes from basket-aging -- the cheese is literally set into a basket and left to ripen in the reeds. Incanestro tastes like pork belly. It really does.
Photo Credit: Albert Yee

Kristin Jackson blogs about cheese from the West Coast, and her site is one of my favorites -- beautiful photos, vivid writing. Earlier this month, she put up a special post about Roquefort. I don't recognize the maker, Jean D'Alos, but now I am on a mission to find it, taste it, serve it, slather it on figs. Her photograph makes my heart grieve for it.

Photo Credit: Kristin Jackson
Loulou lives in southern France, where she blogs about her quest to eat every French cheese. Ohhh...the yearning. Her post about Bleu des Causses piqued my curiosity. I've never heard of this Roquefort relation, made from cow's milk instead of the more traditional sheep's milk. Still, it looks buttery and tender.
Photo Credit: Chez Loulou
Marisa McClellan brought my attention to the blue cheese savory, a thumbprint cookies filled with jam -- the recipe has floated from blog to blog, so it feels somehow crucial to mention it here. And perhaps to make a batch soon, before the weather warms and all anyone wants is a daquiri? Check out Deena Prichep's site, Mostly Foodstuffs, for the recipe.

Photo Credit: Deena Prichep

And, he's not a blogger, but I have to post this breathtaking image of Strathdon Blue, painted by Mike Geno. This piece will appear as part of his June cheese show at the Seattle Gallery, Cakespy.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

March Blues Redux

I always like the last weekend of the month -- somehow I feel change in the air, and it inspires me to count my blessings. March has been a good month, for all its gray skies and international disasters. The urban farm down the street started selling seeds this weekend, and we bought our first packet of Easter Egg radishes -- I love to eat those ruby-pink heart-throbs with a little rice vinegar and sea salt.

All weekend, little surprises have appeared.

This morning, a new friend dropped by with lemons from a family tree in Florida. I love how earthy and bulbous they look, compared to the waxy ones you find at the store -- I can't wait to pack these in salt to cure. I'll use the brine for Bloody Mary's and grill slices of brined lemons alongside fish.

And last night, an old friend stopped through town for dinner, on his way home from hanging a gallery show. We threw together a spontaneous late-nite cheese party with a few treasures from yesterday's cheese-and-beer tasting at Quince.

The tasting was especially delightful, in part due to Joel Armato (below), who brought such good beer in from Michigan's New Holland Brewery. Our Dragon's Milk and Beemster Gouda pairing was a hit, and there were so many new faces -- many of them secret friends from this blog, cheese lovers I had never met. Stephanie and Robin, I love knowing you are out there!

So, even though I set out to make March all about blues, I'm feeling rather light pink, more in the mood for some Oma or salty feta than the dark wedge lurking in the shadows of my fridge for the last post of the month -- a blue that imparts crustiness and scorn.

You'll meet it soon. Until then, I hope you are sitting near a sun-drenched window, sipping tea, counting your lucky stars and new friends, too.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Farmdog Blue

                                                      Photo credit: Jill Lewis

One of my favorite sources for cheese reviews is the blog Cheese and Champagne, co-authored by Jill Lewis and Colleen Levine. They live in different parts of the country (Minnesota and D.C., respectively), but they share a single-minded love of stinkers. When they started their blog a few years ago, they set out to eat their way through the Wine Spectator “100 Great Cheeses” list. Now, they just follow their noses, especially toward artisanal American samplings.

This month, I asked them to participate in the Blue Cheese Invitational, and sure enough, Jill found a blue I've never seen. I can't wait to try a crumble of this raw-milk Minnesota newbie. Even the picture looks like an ol' hound-dog tooth.

Here's how Jill describes Farmdog:
Not many people probably think about Minnesota when they think about blue cheese, but this state produces a few fine specimens of fromage bleu. In fact, my first post for Cheese and Champagne, way back in November 2008, was about a Minnesota blue called St. Pete's Select, lovingly created and aged in Faribault Dairy's sandstone caves. St. Pete's has garnered quite the following in the past few years, and you'll often see it on the menus of Twin Cities restaurants, but there's a new blue in town that's making waves. Let me introduce you to Farmdog Blue. 
PastureLand Co-op, based in Goodhue, Minn., has been making a name for itself with its artisan cheeses, all made with organic milk by award-winning cheesemakers in Minnesota and Wisconsin. Its latest offering, Farmdog, is a raw-milk blue (the best kind of blue!) that is aged at Faribault Dairy - another example of heartwarming cooperation we caseophiles have witnessed in the cheese world. I hope this partnership between PastureLand and Faribault lasts a long time because I'm digging Farmdog - it has a creaminess that lesser-quality blues can only dream of achieving. Though the blue veins are thick and generous throughout the paste, each bite soothes, rather than stings, the palate. My 3-year-old called it "spicy," and I suppose it would be for a young palate, but I only caught a hint of spice on the swallow. 
Farmdog's lack of astringency means the cheese doesn't beg for a sweet accompaniment like some other blues do, but I wouldn't turn down some dried fruit or a couple of shards of dark chocolate on the side. 
PastureLand's market presence is primarily limited to Minnesota and Wisconsin right now, but you can order directly from the co-op if Farmdog sounds too good to be true. Believe me, it's not.  --Jill Lewis

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Cremifacto Verde di Capra

I know a man who buys two blue cheeses a week and eats them for dinner. No, he's not my boyfriend -- he's my muse. When I have a humdrum day, I often think of the cheese boards I have eaten at his house, and then I perk up like daisy.

Two summers ago, the Muse introduced me to Cremifacto Verdi di Capra, a goat cheese from Lombardy that had become his infatuation. "This blue will haunt you in the dark," he told me, "It's so mild and creamy." To continue reading, please visit the Di Bruno Blog.

Full disclosure: I freelance for Di Bruno Bros. twice a month. They pay me handsomely to write about cheese for their blog, and I run a nugget of the post here.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Blue Cheeses I Have Known, by Nikki

Today's blue cheese post comes from brand new blogger, Nikki Palladino of La Mia Tavola. She writes in from Hoboken, NJ and describes a blue cheese burger that makes me want to fire up our sad little patio grill in spite of the snowy forecast. 

Nikki and I share a love of juicy fiction and moldy cheese -- at one time, she was a student in my creative writing workshop, back when she was a rugby-playing, sopressata-loving English Major. I knew we would become friends once she went off to seek fame and fortune. Now she works in publishing, and her new blog -- full of food reflections and new recipes -- makes me feel like a proud Auntie Mame. Give the grrrl a big fat washed-rind welcome!

You Break the Mold Blue Cheese

I get the blues like every other foodie, it comes in waves; sometimes I crave a just warmed mozzarella sprinkled with some roasted red peppers, oil and tomato. Sometimes I want to dig my fork into a beautifully prepared beet salad garnished with pecans and warm goat cheese – perhaps a garlic toast poking out. It is a mood and a consistency thing really. I never feel this way about blue cheese though. When it comes to blue cheese, I have yet to encounter Roquefort I did not want to devour.   

Admittedly, my first encounter with the potent stank of this blue-gray mold involves blue cheese as a kind of sidekick, served with an order of wings. Funny that Sundays still revolve around football and good eats in my house but when I was sixteen and my best friends were teenage boys, we weren’t scooping servings of my Nona’s meatballs and marina onto fine china, the cheese a centerpiece of Italian cuisine. Instead we were sinking our teeth into a heaping Styrofoam container of honey BBQ wings and blue cheese dressing to complement those delicious celery sticks. It is and was love at first crunch.

Even now after my aunt serves a beautiful dish of home style chicken noodle soup, whipped up with tri color tortellini and a side of broccoli rabbe and cannellini beans, my Uncle insists on putting the baby blue mold on a plate surrounding an array of oranges, pears, and plums – a dreamboat Italian dessert for a man who passes regularly on the tiramisu. Needless to say, I eat well when I visit my father’s family.

That’s what blue cheese embodies for me – a favorite pastime I remember of bodies hovering over freshly laid plates and too warm to touch dishes in dining rooms and kitchens on weekends when my family came together before adolescence and aging crept up on all of us. I remember blue cheese -- the topping, the stuffing, feeling stuffed because this “stinky cheese” had done it again – had taunted my eyes until they were bigger than my belly and I could only surrender to the Maytag’s saltier serendipity.

This is sounding more and more like an ode to blue cheese or it may resemble more of a celebration of Madame Fromage’s forget-me-not friend, Mr. Blue. In honor of March’s own cheese madness, I am preparing two ground (but lean) beef patties to be stuffed with none other than the man of the hour, Gorgonzola Blue – a nifty little combo I stumbled across in Hoboken’s own Garden of Eden produce haven. Smooth and inviting, the consistency calls for a cracker or a bed of spinach leaves, a perfect pairing to dress up or dress down a meal. Personally, I like to stuff my burgers with cheese as opposed to caustically dropping the cheese atop and hoping for the best (albeit sloppy) melted results. Cannot say enough about drizzling the finished product with some honey Dijon and mushrooms.

Grazie, Madame Fromage, for including Tavola in this worthwhile project.  

Monday, March 21, 2011

Fourme D'Ambert, by Joy Manning

Photo credit: Joy Manning

One of my favorite things to eat, aside from blue cheese? Oysters. That’s how I got to know Joy Manning of the blog, The Oyster Evangelist. She writes in this week for the Blue Cheese Invitational:
I have a terrible affliction for someone as crazy about cheese as I
am. Let's call it cheese amnesia. For whatever reason, no matter how
many times I buy, order, eat and enjoy my favorite blue cheese, it's
almost instantly erased from my memory. At Whole Foods, in
restaurants, and at cheese shops it happens over and over. I see a
half moon of blue cheese that strikes my fancy, looking just the right
amount veined and likely to become perfectly creamy and spreadable if
left at room temperature. And I say to my husband, "Let's try this
one. This one looks great."

And he rolls his eyes at me, shows me the identical one he already has
in his basket and says, "Oh my god, Joy, you've had that a million
times! It's your favorite blue!"

And then when I spread it over a toasted slice of baguette, maybe with
a drizzle of honey over top, I rave about its sweet creaminess, its
understated mushroomy funk. If cheeses were people, this blue wouldn't
be a hipster. As one of France's oldest cheeses, she's self assured and
dignified--never desperate of trying too hard. She would die of
mortification if anyone described her as "racy." But she is the
laid-back love of my blue cheese life.

But no matter how many times I forget how much I relish it, the wildly
available fourme d'ambert remains my favorite blue--for snacking and
for cooking. Sure, other cheeses often catch my eye and I am prone to
stray. But I will come back again and again.       --Joy Manning
Happy Monday, everybody! I’ve got more bloggers on blue cheese, later this week.  And if you’d like to submit a post – yes, you – there are still two weeks left. March, she is a long month.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

A Blue Haiku for Rogue River

Psst…I write to you from my bunker. This weekend, I have joined the freelance trenches to assist Di Bruno Bros. in their latest efforts, a new cheese stall at the Ardmore Farmers’ Market.
My assignment? To describe 300 cheeses for a new set of labels. I have three days to charm these haikus out of my spring bulb of a brain. Luckily, the fridge is full of fuel, meaning leftover blues from last weekend’s blue cheese and barley wine bonanza.
Of the five we tasted, I keep returning to Rogue River Blue, a boozy leaf-wrapped wedge with a grapey smell. Hyacinths. This cheese just might become my patio staple, now that the air is warming and the forsythia is waxing yellow.
I know I am not alone in being a Rogue River lover – someone very tricksy left a dedication on my manifesto.
So, you, wherever you are, blue cheese newbie or aficionado, I toast you from my table, with a nub of this raw-milk blue. So sweet, and so cool – like plums in the ice box.
Okay, back to my haiku. Back to cheese #141. If you are out in the delicious air and you pass a cheese shop, stop in and ask for a Rogue River bite. Think of me, and dried/ peaches, as you contemplate/ the brandy-soaked leaves.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Blue Cheese Meets Vodka

Annie Baum-Stein, blue-cheese model
Today’s submission for the Blue Cheese Invitational comes from blogger Mike Lyons of West Philly Local. Lyons snapped this shot at his favorite West Philly cheese joint, Milk & Honey, where owner Annie Baum-Stein keeps her cheese case stocked with local gems, like Royer Mountain, along with international dream wheels, like leaf-wrapped Valdeon from Spain.
Lyons and his wife Julija, who is Russian, serve blue cheese as Zakuska – a chaser for vodka. In Russain, Zakuska means "snack."
“After a shot, you need something salty and punchy,” Lyons says.
He recommends a less crumbly blue with a sharp hook at the end. The Valdeon sold at Milk & Honey has become their go-to cheese. Baum-Stein (pictured above) also carries Black River Blue, a customer favorite from a dairy co-op in Wisconsin. I know it well -- what a coup!

For a Blue Cheese and Vodka party, Lyons recommends:
  • pickled tomatoes
  • black bread
  • Valdeon blue cheese
  • chilled Ruski Standard Vodka
Lyons also likes to shop at one of two Russian grocery stores in the Philadelphia area, Bell’s Market and Net Cost Market. Expect a full-on Soviet experience, complete with Russian pop, blue eye shadow, and plenty of pickled fish – both in line and at the seafood counter.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

New Holland Beer & Cheese Tasting

My next cheese tasting at Quince is right around the corner. This month, I am teaming up with Joel Armato, beer ambassador to New Holland Brewing, for a 3-course pairing of cheese and beer. If you’re a Michigander, or a lover of craft brews, come join us. We'll be tasting Dragon's Milk, Charkoota Rye, and a newly released saison called Golden Cap.

When: Saturday, March 26, 4-5 p.m.
Where: Quince Fine Foods, 209 W. Girard Ave., Philadelphia 19123
What: Space is limited to 12. Please reserve in advance: (215) 232-3425
How Much: $12 

Like all of our tastings at Quince, this is a leisurely affair – we serve the cheeses one at a time, Slow Food-style, with accompaniments. Meet other food lovers, learn how to pair beer with cheese, and relax among friends. Our last beer and cheese event filled up quickly, so please reserve early. Cheers!  

Friday, March 11, 2011

Blue Cheese and Barley Wine

There are few things I love more than planning a spontaneous cheese party, so that was my gift to myself last Saturday. It was the first day of spring break, and there was my tenure to celebrate. So off I went to Rittenhouse Square on a mission to buy any blue cheese that called my name.
Most people think all blue cheese tastes the same. But you know and I know that’s not true. Some taste mushroomy and mild, while others pop your eyes out with a peppery hook on the finish. The common thread is salt. Most blues taste like tears.
What alleviates tears? Sweet stuff.
That’s why blue cheese calls for port or sherry. Over the summer, a homebrewer suggested I try blue cheese with barley wine. I wrote it down, then looked it up. High in alcohol. The cognac of the beer world. Intriguing.
On Saturday, I picked up four barley wines at my local beer joint and trotted home to match sorrow and joy, blue veins and barley malt.
Here is what we tasted, cheese-wise:
Cremifacto Verde Capra
Rogue River Blue
Bleu de Basque
Colston Bassett Stilton
Blaue Geiss
Now for the Barley wines:
Blithering Idiot (Weyerbecher Brewing)
Insanity (Weyerbecher Brewing)
Cereal Killer (Arcadia Brewing)
Horn Dog (Flying Dog)
Our cheeses ranged from mild and creamy (Cremifacto) to sharp and clayey (Blaue Geiss) with a mellow sheep’s milk blue (Bleu de Basque) and a traditional British wallop-packer (Stilton) thrown in.
Not all of the barley wines worked with blue cheese, but we found a few favorites. And as the night wore on, the conversation grew livelier and livelier. You can guess why. "Blithering Idiot" and "Insanity" are apt names for these beers – they’re not for the lily-livered.
Blithering Idiot was deemed “O Negative.” It worked well with every blue in the house. Pairing it with Rogue River Blue, a grapey leaf-wrapped blue, earned yelps of “A stunning combo!” and “These were made for each other!”
Cereal Killer, which really did smell like Honeynut Cheerios, made a happy marriage with Cremifacto. Creamy meets creamy, go figure.
Horn Dog loved Blaue Geiss. The heavy grapefruit and honey sweetness of this beer pattered along perfectly with this dense, fudgy cheese -- even with its peppery head butt at the end.
Insanity paired off with feisty Stilton, no surprise. Insanity also spent the night with Rogue River. Two magical mates, very flexible.
And that left Bleu de Basque. With its curious flavor combination of mutton and grass, mixed with a hint of coconut (I kid you not – I made cheesemonger Dan Black confirm this tasting), this Spanish sheep’s milk blue couldn’t find a match, although Blithering Idiot worked okay.
Stick around for more of the Blue Cheese Invitational. In the coming days, I’ll unpack these cheeses, blue by blue. As for Saturday night's guests, special thanks to my blue-cheese guinea pigs: Meat Man Mike, Andre of Canada, and April Lindner whose new book, Jane, makes a perfect accompaniment to strong cheese.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Day 7: Meet the Welsh Blue, Perl Las

The photo of this tender slab was sent to me by Alanna of London, our latest participant in the Blue Cheese Invitational. Alanna works as a full-time policy adviser but still finds time to ferret out delicious cheeses. She recently launched a blog, 360degreescheese, on which she documents a bit of in-home cheesemaking. Do check it out.
Alanna’s favorite blue is called Perl Las, a Welsh nub with a name that means “blue pearl.” It's made from organic cow's milk at Caws Cenarth, a small artisan dairy in Carmeshire, Wales. Look at that rind and those dashing blue stripes! I can almost taste this in the back of my throat, can’t you?
Alanna writes:
I tried this cheese at a St David's Day tasting of Welsh cheeses last week (St David's Days is on 1 March and is the national day for Wales) and it was the stand out cheese for me. It is actually a blue caerphilly cheese and doesn't have the sweetness of some other blues. The taste is a bit like having a small piece of slightly salty cream on the tip of your tongue - its soft and creamy but tastes distinctly strong. The smell is quite mild but musty and earthy. 
I love that in the piece I bought you can see the line where they pierced the cheese (I find the whole process of making blue cheese fascinating  - the adding of the bacteria, the piercing of the cheese and the slow spread of  blue  through the open spaces. Its like the flavour slowly creeps into the cheese).
I'm sorry I can't bring you a sample to eat! 
Oh, Alanna, I’m sorry, too. It looks just like my type of cheese – a little bit crumbly, with a natural rind that suggests cavey notes, maybe a touch of leather? Thanks so much for writing in and sending a picture. Best of luck with blogging and cheesing in the U.K. We'll stay tuned.
In the meantime, I’ve got my nose in the air to sniff out Caws Cenarth, which not only makes Per Las but a gorgeous moon called Golden Cenarth -- winner of Best Welsh Cheese and Best Semi-Soft at the 2010 British Cheese Awards. Golden Cenarth looks like an Epoisse throw pillow. Maybe after our blue cheese marathon we will have to hover over washed rinds for a while.
Want to send in a photo of your favorite blue? Drop me a line, or visit the first post about the Blue Cheese Invitational. 

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Dan Black's Top 10 Cheeses

Today, my interview with Dan Black is posted on the Di Bruno Bros. blog. Dan mongers at the store's Rittenhouse Square location, where he co-runs their affinage program. He keeps tabs on those little goat cheeses with the wrinkly coats.

Dan's a great talker, and he gets really animated when he describes working in the cheese cave and ripening his “little guys." My favorite part of the interview was when he revealed his Top 10 List. 

I’ve posted the list below (note the blue cheese selections), but you should check out the full interview for his thoughts on Iron Maiden, Arrogant Bastard, and the perfect blue cheese for topping a steak.  

Dan Black’s Top 10 Cheeses

8.   Piave
10. Anything from Jasper Hill
(esp. Winnimere, Constant Bliss)

Full disclosure: I freelance for Di Bruno Bros. twice a month. They pay me handsomely to write about cheese for their blog, and I run a nugget of the post here.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Day 5: Lipton Family Cheese Tasting

Today's segment of the Blue Cheese Invitational features a special taster. We'll call her La Petite Fromage.

La Petite Fromage and her family answered my call to enjoy blue cheese for the month of March, and they sent me the following report from their Chester County cheese nest.

"I chose a variety of blues across geography, texture, and milk source," writes Amy Lipton, a.k.a. Mama Fromage. "We (Husband Nick, 7-year-old Petite Fromage, Grandma Sylvia, and me) abandoned any pretense of dinner and just gathered around the cheese plate with crackers and knives."

Saint Agur, Cambozola, Valdeon, Ewe's Blue

The Lipton's voted for their favorite -- by secret ballot, one assumes. And the winner is…

Mama Fromage explains, "We liked its firm and chalky texture, sharp flavor (“It must be an old sheep!”), saltiness, and strong blue flavor – that single vein of blueness packed a real punch!"

"The lone dissenter was Petite Fromage," adds Mama Fromage. "She preferred the St. Agur, citing its smooth texture and tanginess. The Cambozola, though creamy and yummy, was pronounced not blue enough. Oh, and dessert was Gorgonzola Dolce on wheat crackers with a drizzle of honey. A good time was had by all!"

I stand by La Petite Fromage.

What a savvy child. As for tales of cheese and children, there's rumor of a strong-cheese-loving baby on my street. I am standing by for confirmation. Perhaps Saint Agur will be the cheese of choice for tweens and toddlers.

Who said kids don't have taste? Many thanks to the Liptons for joining the Blue Cheese Invitational. Madame Fromage blows you bluesy kisses.