Sunday, August 23, 2009
APPRECIATING FINE CHEESE
Here is a freshly-cut wedge of aged Dutch Gouda as the center piece of a luncheon plate featuring fresh figs, strawberries, grapes, apple slices and home-made whole-grain bread.
As the seasons change from spring to summer and from late summer to fall, a time-honored ritual is played out in Switzerland’s dairy country as the milking herds are moved, first from the barns and fields of the low country to the high pastures of flower-covered grass, and then back again before the snows of winter. Leading each procession is a special cow known as the Herrkuh, whose neck bell rings more loudly, and with a different tune than those of all the other herd members. The honor which goes with that clarion leadership role is further underlined by the hand-decorated leather strap, festooned with folk art and strung around her neck, and from which the bell bearing its distinctive number is suspended. In many villages that springtime procession will be preceded by a parade in which the Herrkuh is led through town bedecked in wreaths of flowers. It is also traditional to retire that number, and hang the bell-and-collar in an honored place on the barn wall when that animal dies.
When I sit down to a repast, at the center of which reclines a wedge of Swiss Emmentaler, nutty Gruyere, or an aromatic cube of raclette, I cannot help but reflect on the pride in tradition and passion for perfection which lies behind the road to my table that piece of dairy history has traveled.
I know of a French affineur and cheese-buyer, named Denis Prevent who travels between the mountain farms of Savoie regularly, searching for fresh farmstead-made cheese to stock the curing shelves of his cheese cave and, finally, his retail shop in Chambery. He looks for farms with south-facing pastures, whose sun-warmed wild flowers will add high flavor and color to the milk coming from the local herd. His grandfather, born in 1860, did the same thing, with a horse-drawn cart. Knowledgeable wholesale buyers from the U.S. and other countries have learned to seek out people like Denis who add one more key link in that international road to our dining pleasure.
I think back to the proprietor of a small-village country store in central Vermont, who took the time to explain to a teen-age farm kid why he ordered his huge wheels of Cabot Co-op cheddar by month and pasture number. “The best flavor”, he said,“comes from the summer clover grown in pasture No. 14”. That neighboring farm kid has never forgotten that random experience and a lesson in staying “connected” with the food traditions which dine with us at our tables.
High on my list of things to do this year, is a visit to Rockhill Farm and Creamery in Utah’s Cache County where a new chapter in artisanal cheese-making is going on. There Pete Schropp and Jennifer Hines are turning out some truly great hand-crafted cheeses from their small herd of six spoiled Brown Swiss cows – one forty-gallon batch at a time. In the meantime, I have already enjoyed sampling their Apple-smoked, and Lightly-buzzed offerings.
As promised in a previous column, here are a few recommendations for getting the most out of fine cheese.
• Always bring cheese up to room temperature before serving.
• When possible, buy your cheese from a monger who will cut your wedge from a
• Between uses, rewrap the cheese tightly in new, clean plastic wrap for
• Freezing is extremely harmful to cheese.
• With a bread accompaniment, choose a bread which matches the cheese.
The same advice applies when choosing a wine beverage.
• Natural companions for a cheese plate include slices of pear, apple,
strawberries,figs, dates, or a variety of olives. A dipping sauce of olive
oil and balsamic vinegar for fruit & bread goes well.
As one well-known chef has said, “cheese is the purest and most romantic link between humans and the earth.” I only wish I had said it first. !