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Around the World In Four Cheeses

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Monday, Jun 10, 2013
Tenaya Darlington is out to demystify cheese for the timid, but it can be hard to see what a bubble outfit, rickety wheelchair, and oversized sunglasses have to do with an artisanal Northern California cheese.
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Di Bruno Bros. House of Cheese: A Guide to Wedges, Recipes, and Pairings

Tenaya Darlington

(Running Press; US: May 2013)

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Chez Jacques: Traditions and Rituals of a Cook

Jacques Pepin

(Harry N. Abrams, Inc.; US: Apr 2007)

In Di Bruno Bros. House of Cheese, Tenaya Darlington, writer of Madame Fromage Cheese Blog and the Di Bruno Bros. official cheese blogger (Di Bruno Bros. is a Philadelphia market of long standing), is out to demystify cheese for the timid. Cheese being a magnificent food, Darlington’s efforts to permanently end the era of pasteurized processed cheese food is a good and noble thing. That she accomplishes this nimbly, with good humor, is all to the better.


Writing about cheese is like writing about wine: the writer is attempting to convey information about a nuanced, complex comestible. Darlington is writing for an audience who knows little about cheese beyond the occasional foray into rubbery baked brie, leaving her with the same adjectives used for wine: barnyardy, mushroomy, flowery, lemony, fruity, nutty. These adjectives trudge wearily between cheese and wine writing, wearing a path in the terroir. Darlington, a writing professor at Philadelphia’s St. Joseph’s College, is well aware of this. She wants to lure you into tasting that scary, moldy round thing with the French name. She wants you to fork over extra money for the good stuff. She even wants you to eat the rind. To that end, she employs, if not quite the language of seduction, then certainly the language of the personal ad, ascribing human personalities and their attendant idiosyncrasies to cheeses. Mistress of the creative metaphor, her “cheese personalities” induce giggling. Where else have you seen a cheese compared to Pink Floyd? Or been instructed to tell your friends a new taste is the Lady Gaga of cheese?
  
Taking the human analogy further, the book is divided into types: “Baby Faces”, “Quiet Types”, “Mountain Men” and “Rockstars”, taking the reader from the mellowest mozzarella to the “Pierced Punks” of cheesedom, those scarily veined blue cheeses.


I realize Darlington is trying to reach a young audience who is interested yet anxious, and slang is a way of breaking through, but cheese is a serious food; we’re talking about something requiring intensive work to prepare, then money and some education to eat pleasurably. Besides, the Cowgirl Creamery Red Hawk I am scarfing down this very moment deserves better than “a roller derby girl, after a long night on the rink.”


Cowgirl Creamery Red Hawk, at $29.00 a pound, is the most expensive cheese I’ve ever purchased. Here’s what I paid for: unwrapped, Red Hawk’s washed rind is a pale apricot color, resembling a miniature cheesecake. This impression is not dispelled by slicing into it, revealing a pale, lemon-yellow paste (“paste” being a helpful term I learned from Darlington). Darlington describes Red Hawk as “fudgy and dense with a lot of sass up front and a lingering peanutty taste that makes it unique.” Red Hawk is the cheese assigned Lady Gaga-like qualities. I agree the cheese is fudgy in texture, but I lack Darlington’s trained palate. I did not get sass in front or peanut in back. I got intensity, creaminess, depth, and the shameful inability to nibble daintily. And while Red Hawk is a cheese you could confidently serve novice cheese tasters, I’d omit the Lady Gaga comparison. It’s hard to see what her plastic bubble outfit, rickety wheelchair (honey, let me put you in contact with a good wheelchair tech), and oversized sunglasses have to do with an artisanal Northern California cheese.


Grouping cheeses by personality may help the novice figure out what he or she likes, but it’s a little confusing when most cheese books are organized by milk type or area of manufacture. It also makes locating information in the index hellish. Somewhere in Di Bruno Bros. House Of Cheese is a guide to cultivating your palate. I wanted to reread it before my ad-hoc cheese tasting, but couldn’t find it. Given the cheese was on the table, I wasn’t about to start paging through the book.


Indices aside, taste is such a personal experience: your “Quiet Type” may be my “Vixen”. And in a decade’s time, some reader may pick up this valuable manual—and yes, despite my kvetching, it is valuable—and wonder why Darlington chose to herd the Blue Cheeses under “Pierced Punks”.  By 2023 we’ll like have moved on to newer, more painful ways of adorning ourselves.


Lest I sound overly harsh, let me say Darlington knows a lot about cheese, and her attempt to convey that knowledge is wildly creative.  A visit to her excellent website confirmed my suspicions: when she isn’t trying to lure novices into sampling Cabrales, a blue cheese so strong cheesemongers refer to it as “the nine-volt battery”, she is arch, amusing, and deeply serious. No Lemmy, no Lady Gaga, no Mountain Men. 


So keep reading and you’ll learn a great deal about cheese. If you’re anything like me, you will also blow your grocery budget. Darlington and cheesemonger Hunter Fike offer more than just a rundown of cheeses. There are recipes, serving suggestions, information about pairings (more on this later), what to drink with your cheese, and how to store it. 


The only thing left out is the matter of cheese knives. I received a set for Christmas, and while they’re quite snazzy, I haven’t any idea which knife to use with which cheese (there is a Beavis and Butthead joke lurking here). And what about those cheese cutters resembling wishbones strung with wire? Are they useful? To be avoided? Should I just stick to my paring knife? 


Anyway. A word about pairings. Cheeseheads—the official term for people like Darlington and Fike—live for matching cheese with the nut, fruit, or condiment that brings it all together, the way a pair of Manolos makes the outfit. You can never go wrong with apples, pears, honey, fresh fennel, or a few nuts. Certain cheeses call out for charcuterie, jams, or even chocolate. Baguettes are often suggested.


Darlington helpfully offers wine and beer pairings, as well. One minor criticism: many American beers she suggests are largely found in the Midwest, or Philadelphia proper. This is easily remedied: if she says hoppy beer, get thee to your local IPA. Belgian beers figure prominently and are available nationwide. The wines are largely European—Gewürztraminers and other whites predominate, along with rosés, champagne, and Prosecco, a sparkling white Nigella Lawson calls “Prozacco”, nomenclature happily adopted chez Curious Omnivore.


Incidentally, what Darlington leaves out about knives she includes about rinds. We’ve all wondered whether or not to eat that brie rind. I notice most people don’t, reaching with their knives (the right ones?) to scoop out the good stuff. Revelation is at hand: cheese rinds, save the wax-wrapped, are edible, and often tastier than the cheese itself. Darlington advises taking a small taste to determine whether or not you want to eat the rind. Leaving it is not a faux pas


There are words of wisdom for the lactose intolerant and information about raw milk cheeses, which must be aged 60 days before entering the United States. We are a nation happy to consume fast food yet terrified by raw milk cheeses. Cry, o backward nation! You’ll learn about washed rinds, terroir (place), why great cheeses are so expensive, and the best cheeses to take camping, should you engage in this behavior. If Di Bruno Bros. House of Cheese does its job, you’ll soon be creating your own little tasting.


***


I confess I did not go to a specialty cheese shop for my tasting.  Instead, I paid closer attention at my usual market, which has an extensive cheese counter. I bought the aforementioned Red Hawk while noticing many of the condiments Darlington recommends were conveniently in reach: sweet and savory jams, membrillo (quince paste), hunks of chocolate, crackers, Spanish Marcona almonds, a few patés. I loaded up on a St. Marcellin, a soft, stinky cheese that comes in its own adorable little crock, a Spanish Iberico, an Italian Grana Padano, an Italian Mountain Gorgonzola (savory, not dulce, or sweet), a French Saint Agure, and because my fellow taster prefers them, a Horlicks Farm Extra Sharp Cheddar and a Vermont Cabot Extra Sharp Cheddar.


I should mention most cheese tastings generally hew to one geographical area or milk type, moving gracefully from soft, mild cheeses to harder, more intense flavors.  My collection is schizoid in all regards, and could even be taken as an affront to cheese tasting. The truth is I love cheese, eat it daily, and suddenly had an excuse (I was writing a piece. Anything goes.) to buy all those lovely cheeses in the name of accurate journalism. I should also mention cheese tastings, like wine tastings, consider the palate and generally don’t try more than four cheeses at one go. We would not be breaking into eight cheeses in one sitting. Rather, my lunches will be improving substantially over the next few weeks. Besides, cheese keeps wonderfully well: simply scrape any offending bits of mold off and chow down. 


Should you find yourself with a crisper full of odd cheese ends, make like the French and prepare fromage fort, or strong cheese. Hunter Fike gives a recipe, as does Jacques Pepin in his lovely Chez Jacques: Traditions and Rituals of a Cook. Not only is this book filled with delicious recipes, it features Pepin’s paintings. Pepin is more than a classically trained French cook: he’s is a fine painter, too. Go ahead, feel like a worm. I certainly do.


Pepin’s recipe for fromage fort calls for a half pound of cheese, two garlic cloves, “about half a cup of dry white wine”, and black pepper. You grind this in your food processor (or mini chopper, or blender), put it into crocks, and try not to eat it all immediately. Pepin writes about the way his father made it, with leek broth and the strongest cheeses he could find. Pére Pepin allowed the mixture to sit for a week or more. The family ate it spread on bread.


***


The evening finally arrived. I sat my live-in cheese taster down to a cheese tasting. 


On hand were the following:


Spanish Marcona Almonds, which I feel compelled to share cost $16.99 a pound.


A gently spiced salame


A loaf of olive bread


A bit of fresh sliced fennel


A bottle of Prozacco


The cheeses:


Cowgirl Creamery’s Nettle-wrapped St. Pat (California)


Iberico Sheep Milk’s Cheese (Spain)


Saint Agur Blue (France)


Grana Padano (Italy)


The cheese ranged from soft to hard, mild to intense. And so, around the world in four cheeses.


Cowgirl Creamery’s St. Pat: Surprisingly mild after the Red Hawk, which I confess did not make it through the week to be tasted. St. Pat melted at cool room temperature to what Live-in Cheese Taster called “rubbery” until we tasted it on slices of salami, whereupon we understood the elusive magic of pairings. Lacking the language of cheesemongers, let me say the mellow St. Pat played nicely with the spiced salami. The textures—soft, chewy, were also…delicious? yummy? Try this combination yourself. Then bring your adjectives.


Iberico: Mild, but more strongly flavored than the Cowgirl. Firmer textured, even at room temperature. Nice with all our pairings, and it struck me as a cheese that would work deliciously with mild onion or shallot. Inedible black wax rind.


Saint Agur: Buttery at room temperature, almost too runny for Live-In Cheese Taster, who foolishly dislikes soft cheeses. Strongly flavored, not for the meek of tastebud. Best in small amounts; both the mold and richness would otherwise overwhelm. This cheese did well on bread, and I think a small amount would be delicious in a green salad. Live-In Cheese-Taster disagreed, so proceed with caution if your sweetie eschews Pierced Punks. 


Grana Padano: A hard cheese, salty and complex. After years of grating Italian Parmesans over salads or into pesto, Grana Padano sliced more easily than I expected it to. We both agreed it was the cheese we’d turn to when concluding a meal. Nutty and deeply flavored, it’s easy to see why Italians have successfully been pairing this cheese with pears since time immemorial.


An additional note about cheese knives: Live-In Cheese-Taster discovered a guide at the bottom of the cheese knife box. I dutifully matched knives with cheese, and it was nice, but a couple of sharp paring knives would’ve done us fine. If you are eating a softer cheese, a table knife or spoon would suffice, particularly if you’ve spent all your disposable income on cheese and cannot afford the marble slabs, fancy labels, glass bells, or specialty knives certain catalogs would impress upon you as essential to a tasting. They aren’t.In fairness to Darlington, she doesn’t suggest you invest in cheese paraphernalia: found marble, tiles, old saucers, even brown paper wrapping are all fair game for your cheeses. So don’t let those fancy lifestyle catalogs intimidate you. Darlington would obviously prefer you spend your carefully hoarded sums on the cheese itself, and she’s right.


***


A couple criticisms must be dispensed with before we wrap up.The primatologist is named Dian Fossey, not Diane (this on the first page, no less). The island off Spain is Minorca, not Menorca.  Don’t blame Darlington.  Ask yourself where all the copyeditors and indexers have gone, and remember the limitations of computerized spellchecks.


Then return to your Mountain Men and Baby Faces, your Stinkers and Wiseguys, and happily immerse yourself in an tasty, nutritious experience. While you’re at it, throw out those eraser nubbins in the green cardboard container. They are no more Parmesan cheese than I am Richard Nixon. If you have that orange stuff starting with a V in your fridge (you don’t, do you?), don’t even try composting it: that shit will never rot. Spend your money on that Cowgirl Creamery Red Hawk. See if you find yourself a Caciocavallo: “The cowboy’s friend, a potent old-timer who rides with a lasso.”

Because really, when you get down to it, life is too short for cheeses without lassos. Hop in the saddle and round up Di Bruno Bros. House of Cheese. You’ll be glad you did.


P.S. Don’t forget the Prozacco.


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