Italian tradition. Canadian milk. American persistence. Calabro Cheese’s ricotta di bufala required input from three countries and a decade of effort before the Connecticut company had a viable product. The cheese now has earned multiple ribbons from the American Cheese Society and is poised for takeoff. Like other water-buffalo cheeses, Calabro ricotta di bufala is not inexpensive (I paid $3.49 for a four-ounce basket), but if successful, it may persuade others to ponder the potential for water buffalo in the U.S. We can hope.
It’s no joke. The U.S. is threatening to slap a 100 percent tariff on European Union cheeses, and importers say the decision could come as early as next week. Brace yourself to pay double for Parmigiano-Reggiano, your holiday Stilton and Gouda. The targeted cheeses include most of what we get from France, Italy, Spain and the U.K. Importers and retailers are justifiably frantic. How can they place orders, print catalogs, run a business with such uncertainty? You can’t stockpile Brie.
Last weekend’s American Cheese Society competition produced only one Best of Show, of course, but multiple firsts. For the first time, a blue ribbon went to a 15-year-old, who won her category and then placed third overall. For the first time, the first- and second-place cheeses were made by the same person. (Amazing, no?) For the first time, two of the top three entries were private-label cheeses matured by a retailer. And I suspect it’s the first time in the competition’s long history that all three top winners are newcomers, with none more than three years old.
For me, the standout cheese at last year’s American Cheese Society competition was a new hay-covered Vermont beauty named Calderwood. Entering for the first time, Calderwood placed second in a field of 1,800 entries. An auspicious debut, but frustrating for its new fans because almost nobody could get the cheese. One year later, distribution has improved; I have a big piece in my kitchen. (We’ll taste it in my upcoming cheese and beer class.) And I’m headed for this year’s ACS conference in Richmond, VA, where we’ll see if lightning strikes twice for Calderwood.
I’ve been hectoring consumers for a long time about storing cheese properly at home. Make sure it can breathe. But don’t let it dry out. Do this, not that. People would ask whether they needed to buy fancy cheese paper or invest in a cheese vault, and being gadget-averse myself, I always said no. You can provide suitable storage for cheese with materials at hand, I told them. But then I spoke at length to Mark Goldman, owner of Formaticum, the cheese-paper company, and our chat has me rethinking my methods. I’ve edited the conversation for length and clarity but here’s the gist of it:
Penne all’arrabbiata (“angry” pasta) relies on a simple tomato sauce made fiery with dried red chilies. Garlic is permitted; cheese is frowned on. Being a cheese person, I ignore that and reach for the pecorino. When a sample of Laura Chenel’s Spicy Cabecou landed on my doorstep the other day, I thought of another way to make pasta angry. Garden tomatoes and basil, good olive oil, capers, nuggets of cabecou…such an easy no-cook sauce for hot pasta.
A new blue cheese made with goat’s milk is cause for rejoicing. There are so few. This beauty, from Andalusia, was the region’s first goat blue when it debuted in 2012. Andalusia produces a lot of goat cheese but nothing remotely like this. The innovator? A spunky young woman who married into a cheesemaking family and wasn’t afraid to challenge tradition.
Raspberries, blueberries, ricotta…what could be more American? Italian immigrants are a huge part of America’s cheesemaking story, past and present. They brought their know-how and taste memories with them and created their own made-in-America interpretations of mozzarella, burrata, Fontina, Gorgonzola and Parmigiano-Reggiano. What would American cheese counters be today without the Swiss, German, Dutch, Portuguese and Mexican immigrants who arrived with little besides their work ethic and built our cheese factories and dairy farms? Let’s toast all these hyphenated Americans on the Fourth of July.
As the author of a yogurt cookbook, I should know something about skyr (pronounced skeer). Sales are growing in the U.S. for this Icelandic dairy product, but when a friend asked me how it differed from yogurt, I couldn’t say. It’s thick, creamy, tangy cultured milk—like yogurt. It’s fermented with bacteria—like yogurt. So why do Icelanders insist that it isn’t yogurt?
When I see the name Rodolph Le Meunier on a new cheese, it’s my signal to seek no further. That’s the cheese I want. Le Meunier is a cheese whisperer, uncovering little-known gems in. hidden corners of France and maturing young cheeses made by others. Some of the cheeses in his product line are exclusive to him, like this crusty wheel from the Pyrenees. To know it is to love it.
Where has this luscious cheese been all my life? How many bagels have I slathered with gummy cream cheese when I could have used this fluffy spread instead? It’s French, it’s not high in fat (well, as cheese goes) and it’s going to be a summer staple in my fridge. Hors d’oeuvres just got a whole lot easier. Pour yourself some rosé, make some toast and meet your new favorite fresh cheese.
June = peas. Peas = feta. Maybe that’s not the way you think, but my mind turns to feta every time I see the season’s first sweet English peas. That’s because one of my favorite Greek meze is the pea, feta and dill salad from Kokkari, the acclaimed San Francisco restaurant. I collaborated on the restaurant’s cookbook with chef Erik Cosselmon several years ago, and many of the Kokkari recipes entered my repertoire, but this one is probably the one I make the most. With warm pita and chilled rosé, you have the perfect first course.
It’s travel season. Maybe you’re going to Europe. Maybe you’d like to bring home some of that stinky raw-milk Brie. But can you? Do you have to bury it in your suitcase and “forget” to declare it? I get asked this a lot. People think they can’t enter the U.S. with raw-milk cheese, or that a wedge has to be vacuum-sealed to pass muster.
Which of the European cheeses pictured above would you have to surrender at the U.S. border? Let’s stop speculating about what’s permissible and ask Customs and Border Patrol.
What better way to celebrate Planet Cheese’s fifth birthday than with a cake? Cheesecake, of course. My favorite recipe (see blog) comes from a food-stylist friend; the surface never cracks or sinks, and the texture is dreamy. Serve with a strawberry-rhubarb sauce and just try to stop at one slice.
Cheese has been good to me. To pay it forward, I’ll be marking Planet Cheese’s birthday by donating to five non-profits doing important work in the cheese or dairy realm. Please join me in supporting them if you can.
My recent class on “Best Buys at the Cheese Counter” reminded me—and my students—that a superb dinner-party cheese platter doesn’t have to set you back more than the lamb chops. You can spend $35 to $40 a pound on cheese today, or you can spend half that if you know where the values are. I assembled the seven selections for this class without shopping at a big-box store or chain. I was a little surprised by the class favorite but almost all the cheeses got some votes.
My dad made my mother breakfast in bed every Sunday. It wasn’t fancy—Bisquick biscuits, scrambled eggs and canned orange juice—but she wasn’t picky. She got to lie in bed for a quiet hour or two with a tray over her lap and the Sunday paper and her coffee. I’m pretty sure it was the highlight of her week. If you’re within cooking distance of your own Mom, or your kids’ Mom, consider pampering her on Mother’s Day with a warm, cheesy frittata. Whether served in bed or at the table, it’s a treat.
Can you name America’s top five milk-producing states by volume? Let me help you: California, Wisconsin, New York, Idaho and Texas. Are these also the top five states for artisan cheese? Not if you ask me. Considering not only the quality of what’s produced in the state but also how enlightened its retailers are, I’ve compiled a different list. See if you agree with me.
Where should you live if you’re a cheese lover? Maybe it’s not as important as great weather, but availability of great cheese is one reason I love where I live. Artisan cheesemaking is happening well beyond the leading dairy states, and it has been exciting to see the activity push into new territory. Weighing a couple of factors, I’ve compiled a (totally subjective) list of the Top Ten Cheese States.
Ever since my husband, home baker extraordinaire, made a star bread with raspberry jam—gorgeous on the first try—I’ve wanted to make one with cheese. It took a few attempts to transition the sweet recipe to a savory one, but the shaping technique is easier than it looks. I got some whole-grain flour into the dough, which made me happy, while still maintaining a soft texture, like pull-apart dinner rolls. The filling is feta mixed with ricotta and a pinch of dried spearmint. If you want to impress the heck out of people at your Easter table, here’s your recipe.
The most persistent defenders of raw-milk cheese are, in my view, the cheesemakers of Switzerland. “They see pasteurizing milk as a risk,” says Joe Salonia, a U.S. marketer of fine cheeses from Switzerland. “Why would you do that? Why would you hurt the most precious part of your milk?” With Raw-Milk Cheese Appreciation Day approaching (on April 20), I’ve been thinking about why it’s so critical to defend the right of cheesemakers to work with raw milk. Making the argument for me are the phenomenal cheeses from Gourmino, a Swiss marketing co-op that represents exclusively raw-milk cheeses. You don’t need to know the name Gourmino, but you do need to know its cheeses.
Steve Jones is one of the cheese world’s wise men, proprietor of Cheese Bar and Chizu in Portland, Oregon, and a cheesemonger everybody respects. He has been telling me for years that he is going to write a book, and now he has done it, with co-author Adam Lindsley. Cheese Beer Wine Cider: A Field Guide to 75 Perfect Pairings(W. W. Norton) takes us on a tasting journey that upends some conventional wisdom. You might be surprised to learn which beverage he would choose for cheese if he could have only one.
I have long thought that feta was the most useful cheese you could have in your fridge, and a recent trip to Greece convinced me of it. I ate feta from morning to night, in salads (of course), breads, bruschetta, risotto, dips, and pies both sweet and savory. I had squid stuffed with feta; cooked greens topped with feta; and fried feta with sesame seeds and honey. Here’s the highlight reel plus a recipe for one of my favorite dishes from the trip.
Spring. Not a moment too soon. I’m dreaming of fresh cheese and fava beans, those first-of-the-season moist favas that hardly need cooking. I slather the cheese on toast and spoon the warm favas on top. Herbs of choice. As long as favas are in season, this is the go-to app at my house. (Asparagus works, too). The recipe is from my beautiful new book, Wine Country Kitchen.
One of a kind. Unique. Those words are tossed around a lot but are rarely accurate when it comes to cheese. If it’s a good idea, someone has probably done it. But as far as I know, this splendid, scoopable bark-wrapped goat cheese occupies a category of one. Chef José Andrés nudged the creamery to create it, so we can add that to his long list of good works.
The European immigrants who settled in the U.S. more than a century ago and began reproducing the cheeses of their homeland couldn’t have imagined we would be arguing about their creations today. These newcomers, not surprisingly, marketed their cheeses with the names they knew: asiago, romano, brie, parmesan, feta. Today, the EU protests that American cheesemakers have no right to these names and insists we stop using them. And the American producers tell the EU to take a hike. These are generic names now, the argument goes. They belong to no one.
Several years ago, I spent a day behind a busy cheese counter, just for enlightenment. My dad was a retail merchant, but I apparently did not inherit that gene. The cheese store’s customers drove me crazy. I left with renewed respect for the smiling cheese-counter people who put up with our annoying requests and quirky behavior. Today, it’s their turn. I’ve asked a few key retailers about the customers they like best.
Okay, curd nerds. How many clothbound goat Cheddars can you name? Several producers make goat Cheddar in rindless blocks. But a wheel aged in cheesecloth so it can breathe and develop a rind, like a traditional cow’s-milk Cheddar? That’s a rare thing. Thanks to Quicke’s, the English Cheddar specialist, we can taste the magic that happens when experts apply classic Cheddar techniques to goat’s milk. Quicke’s Goat’s Milk Clothbound is irresistible.
The number of American creameries making raw-milk cheese from their own grass-fed animals is minuscule and not likely to climb. It’s a risky business model given the unpredictability of the FDA and its rule-making around raw-milk cheese. Plus, there aren’t that many places in the U.S. where livestock can be outside, eating grass, all year. So you have to applaud those who still take this traditional path and (the “and” is important) consistently produce distinctive, well-made cheeses. In that light, it’s time for a shout-out to Georgia’s Sweet Grass Dairy and its newest creation, Griffin, a recent Good Food Award winner.
If you cook at home on Valentine’s Day, I have the dessert for you. Silky, sexy, surprising. What more do you want? I tasted it at a party at the Cheese School of San Francisco, where chef Jocelyn VanLandingham dreams up all sorts of creative ways to slip cheese into recipes. Crème brulée infused with Parmigiano-Reggiano and topped with black cherry jam…no, I never would have thought that up, but man, is it good.
Is “cashew cheese” cheese? Is “almond milk” milk? The FDA wanted our opinion but the public comment period just closed. Not to worry. More than twelve thousand people weighed in on whether plant-based foods like soy milk should be allowed to keep their dairy-referencing names. Cheese has a standard of identity—a government-policed definition—and cashew brie does not meet it. Is it time for the FDA to step in and insist that “milk” and “cheese” are dairy products? Or is the dairy industry overreaching in arguing that consumers are confused?