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I'm happy to report that in the first few months of 2008, cheese was the star of several spectacular West Coast events. Lucky for me, I got to participate in these events, which took place in San Diego, Southern Oregon, Sonoma, Petaluma (Sonoma County) and San Francisco. (See below for more on each of these.)
In the coming months, I'll be searching out even more great cheeses, attending the James Beard Awards Dinner being held at Lincoln Center in New York (my most recent book, Laura Werlin's Cheese Essentials has been nominated in the Best Single Subject cookbook category, so I'll be there with my fingers crossed!) and getting ready for the 2008 Food & Wine Classic in Aspen.
I continue to find new cheeses and, of course, marvel at the "old" ones that keep getting better and better. Read on for details about one mighty impressive Wisconsin cheese that's just making its way to market .
Finally, if you have any questions for me about cheese, accompaniments, pairing with wine, or anything else cheese-related, send 'em my way. I'll include some of them (along with my answers) in my next newsletter.
Until then, Happy Spring!
California Artisan Cheese Festival
For the second year in a row, Petaluma, California, in southern Sonoma County, played host to the spectacular California Artisan Cheese Festival. One of only a handful of consumer cheese events held in the country, this festival was a sell-out right out of the gate.
This cheese extravaganza takes place at the Petaluma Sheraton, which is a wonderfully hospitable property for just such an event. It abuts a beautiful marshland with endless walking paths along the Petaluma River. Believe me, these paths provide the perfect antidote for all the nonstop cheese eating and wine drinking that is part and parcel of this event.
This year's event went like this:
Opening reception. The newly-formed California Artisan Cheese Guild was the host, and the California cheeses (plus a few Pacific Northwest shining stars) were absolutely fantastic.
Dine-around. Several Petaluma restaurants held special cheese-focused dinners. I'm certain mine was the best because I was at the local favorite café, Della Fattoria, with much-loved cheesemakers, Sue Conley and Peggy Smith from Cowgirl Creamery. The dessert, a panna cotta made with Cowgirl Creamery's Indian-style cheese called paneer, practically put the Italian (and original) version of this dessert in the also-ran category because Della Fattoria's version is so tangy, silken, light, and creamy with just the right texture and sweetness. Just goes to show you should always play with your cheese to find unexpected uses.
Seminars: This was classroom day. Clearly the ravenous appetite for cheese information has reached fever pitch. Almost every one of the dozen or so seminars was sold out. I taught a couple of classes- "Cheese Essentials" and "The Search for Transcendent Cheese and Wine Pairings". The former was based on my book of the same name, which explains how to understand cheese in the simplest of ways, and the latter, conducted with Master Sommelier Tim Gaiser, was fun and raucous after everyone made their way through 8 cheeses and 5 wines. We also heard that people found the session to be educational (phew!).
Gala dinner: Can you say more cheese? This time, everyone got gussied up for a five-course extravaganza cooked by five Bay Area chefs including Food Network star Tyler Florence. Elizabeth Falkner's apple dessert with Point Reyes Blue cheese crumbles was unquestionably the highlight. The recipe is in her incredible dessert cookbook, Demolition Desserts.
Tasting day. In what I call "Fermentation Central," cheesemakers, beer makers, winemakers, and bread makers handed out samples of their products in the hotel ballroom and outdoor tent as quickly as they could cut (or pour) them. About 1,000 people tasted cheeses from southern California to northern Washington.
Next year's event is being held March 20 - 23. It will undoubtedly sell out even sooner than this year's event did, so make your plans now!
Oregon Cheese Festival
March seems to be cheese month on the West Coast, and the decidedly homespun, hugely popular Oregon Cheese festival certainly brings this concept to life. Held in southern Oregon, near Ashland at Rogue Creamery in the Rogue Valley, this is a true celebration of Oregon cheese. It's put on by the Oregon Cheese Guild, whose members are incredibly generous in spirit, as well as in cheese.
At the festival, I got to taste a remarkable number of noteworthy cheeses, including Ancient Heritage Dairy's Adelle (a soft-ripened sheep and cow's milk cheese); River's Edge Full Moon (a soft-ripened creamy goat's milk cheese); Fraga Farm's feta; Rogue Creamery's always-wonderful blue cheeses, including their flagship Rogue River Blue; my favorite Havarti on the planet, which is made by Willamette Valley Cheese Company (who knew that Havarti could be special cheese, but Jersey milk in cheesemaker Rod Volbeda's hands equals magic); and Pholia Farm's Elk Mountain and Hillis Peak.
Lucky for me and my fellow cheese friends, including Marc Druart, an instructor at the Vermont Institute of Artisan Cheese and Lynne Devereux, the associate director of the Artisan Cheese Festival in Petaluma, we got to pay a visit to Gianaclis and Vern Caldwell of Pholia Farm, home of Nigerian Dwarf Goats (Dwarf goats? You betcha!). Those little goats make some tasty milk, which of course, becomes excellent cheese, particularly in Gianaclis's hands. The Caldwells live off the grid in a remote and beautiful section of the Rogue Valley, and their commitment to the well-being of the land, as well as to their cheese, left Marc, Lynne, and me shaking our heads in awe and respect.
Plan for next year's cheese festival on March 13th and 14th.
Celebrating California Artisan Cheese Guild at The Cheese School of San Francisco
I'll bet you didn't know there was a dedicated cheese school in San Francisco, or anywhere for that matter. Well, there is, and it's called The Cheese School of San Francisco. Recently, it was the site of a celebration and benefit for the fledgling California Artisan Cheese Guild. The place was packed shoulder to shoulder as people dug into the cheeses being offered by the eight cheesemakers who'd come to town to strut their stuff. Among them, Cypress Grove, makers of the iconic cheese Humboldt Fog, showed off their newest cheese Truffle Tremor - a creamy, dreamy soft-ripened goat cheese with black truffle flecks, while Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese Company wowed everyone with their flagship cheese, Original Blue. Even Bravo Farms, located some 200 miles from San Francisco, made the trek to feed the masses and support the Cheese Guild. Local cheese emissary Raymond Hook took over the wine duties (his other passion) and poured some amazing Rhone varietals (syrah, marsanne) from the small but very special JC Cellars located in the East Bay among others, and beer lovers weren't left wanting thanks to Lagunitas Brewing Company's spectacular brews. All of this was in the name of cheese, and all I can say is I'm sure glad I work in such a fun universe. Definitely check out the California Artisan Cheese Guild. Membership is open to all cheese enthusiasts.
Sonoma Cheese Conference
Several cheese luminaries from across the country gathered in Sonoma for the sixth annual Cheesemaking Opportunities and Challenges conference. Created and organized by Sonoma County's Sheana Davis along with the grandfather of American cheese, Ig Vella of Vella Cheese Company, this conference is geared toward the cheese trade, but it's open to everyone. What's great about this conference is not only the amazing cheeses that Sheana procures for it, but also the fact that the panelists aren't shy about drilling down on the important issues facing cheese and cheesemakers in America. This year, topics ranged from the inside workings of a distributor, to merchandising, to agritourism to retail pricing (a subject near and dear to every cheese lover's and cheese seller's heart). Next year's conference: February 22 - 25.
Fancy Food Show
In January, I took my annual stroll down the miles of aisles at the Fancy Food Show. Normally, the Winter Show is held in San Francisco, but this year, it was in sunny San Diego. This show, which is not nearly as ostentatious as its name might imply, is where everyone from one-person store-owners to big chain supermarket buyers sleuth for new products and general food trends. The aisles are lined with booth after booth of products of the newest in chocolate (and boy, was there a lot of that), cheese (of course), candies, coffees, snacks - you name it. It is a sampling fest like none other, and yet, the business at hand is nothing but serious.
For me, it is an opportunity to connect with people in the food industry, as well as to see and taste new cheeses and possible accompaniments for them. That's how I found the Sicilian almonds and Cocoa Tortilla Chips that you can read about in Laura's Picks. It's also how I've discovered not just a few new (to me) Italian, French, and even German cheeses over the years.
Here are just three of my finds:
Hirtenkäse: This is a German mountain cheese that tastes like a cross between Parmigiano-Reggiano and aged Gouda, with maybe even a touch of nutty Gruyère. It's absolutely delicious and such a surprise coming from a country whose cheeses we, in this country, know so little about. I've seen this cheese at Whole Foods, so if you're interested in trying it, hopefully you'll be able to get it fairly readily wherever you live. The importer is Fond O' Foods, so you can contact them to find out who sells the cheese in your area.
Bleu du Bocage: I don't know a whole lot about this semi-hard pasteurized goat's milk blue from western France, except how memorable it is because of its decidedly mellow flavor (for a blue cheese) and its buttery, yet meaty, flavors with an unmistakable goat's milk tang. Yum. It's aged by Pascal Beillevaire, and is available in some of the better cheese shops around the country.
Toma Baladin: This Piedmont region (northern Italy) beer-washed cheese has a fairly generic name because it's new and because, well, face it - beer is not exactly the known beverage of Piedmont (think instead, Barolo, Barbaresco, Barbera and other iconic red wines). But there is at least one small brewery (and probably more) in the area that has made a beer that clearly has a special affinity to cheese. The talented people at Guffanti & Sons in Italy, known for their outstanding selection of Italian cheeses and equally, for their skill in bringing those cheeses to perfect ripeness and flavor, have used the beer to wash the toma-style cheese (in the Piedmont region, "toma" is the generic name for a wheel of cheese, usually made from cow's milk). They wash it during the aging process to create spectacular buttery flavors and a seductive semi-soft texture. I don't think it's available in the United States yet, but you can peruse the Guffanti site and salivate over their spectacular selection of cheeses in the meantime, many of which are available around the country.
Every so often a cheese will arrive on my doorstep, and for that day, and often beyond, it rocks my world. Truth be told, this happens a lot because the cheeses landing at my door have improved exponentially since I first started writing about cheese eight years ago.
One of those new cheeses came home to me a week or so ago from a new cheese operation near the shores of Lake Michigan in Wisconsin. Saxon Homestead Creamery started making cheese just eight months ago(!), and already their cheeses are as sophisticated, complex, and memorable as cheeses that have been made by some cheesemakers for decades. It helps that the Saxon Homestead Creamery owners, who've been dairying for three generations, called in cheesemaking guru Neville McNaughton to teach them the art of cheesemaking. Neville's understanding and knowledge of how to make great cheese is possibly unparalleled in this country (I wouldn't be surprised if he holds that distinction in his native New Zealand as well).
The cheese that got to me that morning is called Big Eds. After I took in the beauty of the yellowish-golden color of the cheese and its smooth-looking paste (interior of the cheese), I took a taste. Oh my, I sighed. I was hit by an amazingly sweet butter flavor that reminded me of a cross between the cultured butter I had put on my bread the night before and a romp through a flower-dotted pasture. So sweet, so, well, buttery. At the same time, this cheese's flavor was not an in-your-face taste. Instead, it was subtle, elegant, and lasting. Long-lasting. At the end, I got a hint of the cultures you might taste in some Alpine cheeses, and the occasional smallish openings or eyes in the cheese indicated those cultures were probably there. But, the remarkable quality was this cheese's balance. For me, sometimes there's far more joy derived from an elegant cheese rather than one with huge flavors. This cheese made me happy. Actually, it made me swoon.
I'm sure that the fact the Saxon Creamery cows get to roam outside most of the year helps their milk and therefore the cheese. Likewise, the fact the family has been dairying for about 150 years makes them mighty qualified to be good cow and land managers. And a family endeavor it is.
The Klessig family came to this country from the Saxony region of Germany in the mid-1840s. They built Saxon Homestead Farm, which included a couple of creameries over the years. The current creamery is, in fact, the homestead's third. The parents of the generation of brothers and in-laws now running the farm, Ed and Margret Klessig, allowed their kids to run the farm in the way they saw fit, which meant letting the cows graze. The rest, as they say, is history. But Big Eds (named for Ed Klessig, who died in 1996) is unquestionably a cheese for the now.
Where to get it: Because this cheese is so new, it's just beginning to hit the stores. Look for it at some Whole Foods in northern California, New York and New England, as well as at specialty cheese shops. Later this spring, it will have wider distribution. In the meantime, the cheese can also be mail-ordered through Nala's Fromagerie in Green Bay.
Check 'em out and spread the word!
Boy, have I come upon some interesting and great-tasting products lately. Unusual too. Here are just three of them, but rest assured, there are more finds I'm saving for my next missive.
Peppered Black Mission Fig Preserve: I had just come off the mountain in Snowmass, Colorado, after my first day of skiing in three years, and, in need of sustenance, I made my way to a cheese and wine shop at the bottom of the slopes (big surprise). The surprise turned out to be the small but carefully chosen selection of cheeses and, no less, cheese accompaniments. One of those was a fig black pepper spread, the many flavors in which I'm still figuring out (I detected a hint of rosemary along with the obvious figs and black pepper). But you don't have to think about it. Just lend your taste buds and enjoy this excellent cheese accompaniment.
Mandorla Pizzuta di Avola: Don't worry if you can't say that. All you need to know is that it translates to the best almonds I, for one, have ever tasted. Sure, I love California almonds, and I'm a pretty big fan of the (seemingly) ubiquitous Marconas. But to me, these Sicilian almonds are the quintessential "mother almond," the one that all the others strive to be. They're longer and flatter than California and Marcona almonds, which means that a quick stint in the oven transforms the already crisp nut into a toasty crunchy one-bite wonder. But it's their almondy flavor that is the most seductive quality. Kind of like the potato chip of the nut world, I'll bet you can't eat just one.
Food Should Taste Good™ Chocolate Tortilla Chips: Speaking of chips... I know - chocolate tortilla chips sound downright weird. But all I can say is that when I used these to dip into my cheese-topped chicken chili (a recipe with a little cocoa powder in it), I immediately began to have visions of cocoa tortilla chips with every food I could think of, including ice cream. (No, I didn't actually try it, although really, why not?) They're not chocolaty as much as they are earthy, savory, and plain delicious. Enjoy these with or without cheese; just make a beeline to the store (or web) to buy them.