Cheese Tasting Notes: Old World/New World

At this week’s Cheese Tuesday, I brought together five couplings of a classic European cheese and a local cheese “inspired” by the European version.  We enjoyed dinner, wine and the cheeses with 25 guests. Here are the notes of the night.

1. Ossau –Iraty, sheep, Pays Basque, France
• This is an ancient style of cheese from the Pyrenees mountains that separate France from Spain. These cheeses are a product of the transhumance: the yearly springtime migration of shepherds and sheep high into the mountains, moving from one green sweet pasture to the next until the snows come again. The summers yield of cheese was used for both commerce and sustenance during the long winter when the valley villages were cut off from the world.
• The cheese is firm but slightly crumbly and grainy. The flavors are sweet and a tad sour (in other words, sheepy), buttery, nutty. It is rounder and not as edgy as the Verano.

Verano, sheep, Vermont Shepherd, Putney, Vermont
• David Major was one of the first artisan sheep farmers and cheesemakers in America.
• The Majors spent a season in the Ossau Iraty Valley learning from local cheesemakers.
• Originally called Vermont Shepherd, it has been in production since 1990. Now called Verano, Summer Cheese, it remains an all time favorite.
• It is slightly dry, with a pronounced sweet/sour tanginess that fades to a lush, buttery finish

2. Taleggio, cow, Lombardy, Italy
• Dating back to at least the 11th century, this washed rind cheese is another product of migration: cows leaving the Alps each fall were milked in the small towns through which they passed, and this bonus milk was made into cheese. It is also said that this milk, from tired cows, made the cheese tastier.
• A soft plush square with a gritty, moldy mottled orange rind, Taleggio is buttery and slightly earthy when young and much more assertive as it ages.

Tobasi, cow, Cricket Creek Farm, Williamstown, MA
• From a small farmstead producer in the Berkshires, this gorgeous raw milk cheese has an orange rind embossed with gothic tracery. It is meltingly smooth and slides easily to a spicy, lip-tingling finish.

3. Raclette de Savoie, cow, Savoie, France
• Raclette, made in both France and Switzerland, is the ultimate melting cheese. Tradionally, an open wheel of this orange/pink rinded semi-firm cheese was planted on a hearth. As it heated, a lava-flow of running cheese would be scraped onto a plate of boiled potatoes. It is also achingly delicious it its au naturel, unmelted state.

Reading Raclette, cow, Spring Brook Farm, Reading, Vermont (10.19.13)
• Spring Brook, well known for its Tarentaise, began producing Reading in 2010, utilizing the Jersey Cow milk of neighboring farms.
• It has long, drawn out flavors, is slightly denser than the French, and is endlessly smooth and sophisticated with a bright yellow paste and peach-glo rind.

4. Keene’s Clothbound Cheddar, cow, Somerset, England (11.19.12)
• An English treasure, made on the Morhayes Farm in Somerset since 1898.
• Densely textured in an almost clay-like way, the flavors start bright and lively before settling into a more domestic mood, with a touch of that basement (or should I say cave) mustiness that make English cheddars so memorable.

Vermont Clothbound Cheddar : Queen of Quality, cow, Grafton Cave Aged,
Brattleboro, Vermont (7.30.13)
• Although cheddar originated in England, it is arguable that bandage wrapping began in Vermont and spread east-ward across the Atlantic. The purpose was to hold the young, pliable cheese together, and to offer protection during the long aging process.
• Made and aged in Grafton’s state-of -the -art cave, this dense cheese is beautifully balanced, sweet and slightly caramelized, and a bit chewy. It has more of an “English” taste than I usually associate with American cheddars.

5. Gorgonzola DOP piccante, biologio, cow, Piedmont, Italy
• An erborinati, or parsley cheese, because of its green mold color, this cheese was originally made in the town of Gorgonzola when the Alpine cows, summer vacation over, returned to their flat-land winter homes.
• Moist and creamy, very smooth, with pronounced spiking to let air into the tight interior, allowing the green mold to grow.
• A lively start quickly morphs into a spice bomb of hot/cool flavor.

West West Blue, cow, Parish Hill Creamery, Westminster West, Vermont
• Peter Dixon, Vermont’s illustrious itinerant cheesemaker and consultant to cheesemakers both new and experienced, is showing off his skills with this new blue and probably having a lot of fun in the process.
• Inside the natural rind (the Italian versions are gooey rindless, wrapped in foil) is a mottled ivory/white paste, each white patch centered with a fuzz of green mold. This is the product of mixing two days curd – the more acidified older curd provides a nice home for the mold to develop.
• The cheese is moist, gritty and bright, with a tangy start that builds to a nicely spicy finish. Beautiful and beautifully balanced.

Join us for an upcoming Cheese Tuesday: April in Paris on April 15!

Bonus Cheese Song (We love you, David Bowie!)

Cheese Odyssey
(Words by Louis Risoli)

Farmer Tom to Big Brown Cow
Farmer Tom to Big Brown Cow
Let your udders fill get ready to milk now

Farmer Tom to Big Brown Cow
Commencing pumping switch is on
Milk is flowing we will have a cheesy day

Ten Twenty Thirty Forty Fifty Gallons: Milking accomplished

This is Farmer Tom to Big Brown Cow
Milk is flowing through a tube
It’s collecting in a great big copper vat
It is rich in flavor and in butterfat

This is Farmer Tom to Big Brown Cow
We’re adding rennet now
And your milk has turned to lovely curds and whey
It is molded and then it’s stashed away

For here
Is it sitting in a damp cave
Far beneath the earth
Mold will make it blue
And there’s nothing more to do

Now that it has aged for sixty days
It’s ready to be sold
So we’ll ship it from Vermont to Boston Town
The Cheese Tuesday folks would love to …scarf it down

Farmer Tom to Big Brown Cow
Your cheese is great, you should be proud
Let me milk you Big Brown Cow
Let me milk you Big Brown Cow
Let me milk you Big Brown Cow
Cow say:

Here am I standing in a meadow
High above the town
Field is green and sky is blue
Eating grass is what I do

Salon Sessions: Searching for the Perfect Pairing

Although I am perfectly happy to eat a perfectly ripe cheese all by its perfect self, there is that added thrill of perfect contentment when it is combined with a wine or beer that, well, adds to the perfection and creates a proverbial “marriage made in heaven”.

Once a month my curd nerd self joins up with L’Espalier cork dork Erich Schliebe and a few guests in our Salon to explore a few pairings and see if we can come up with a few blissful combinations. This grew out of our Wine Mondays and Cheese Tuesdays, where we have been exploring wine/cheese pairings for ten years. But we wanted to do something a bit more focused and intimate, where we could interact with a few guests (we limit the sessions to 15 people) in a dinner party setting and talk about what we are tasting.

Our first Session was in August and we matched 4 styles of cheese with four styles of beer – sixteen combos and a simple rating system. Conclusion: Cabot Clothbound Cheddar tastes good with just about any beer, and Mystic Brewery’s Old Powderhouse tastes great with practically any cheese.

We skipped September, but in October explored some classic pairings (Port and Stilton, Sauternes and Roquefort, Champagne and Triple Creme, Sancerre and Chevre.)

On November 15 we are set for “Cow, Goat, Sheep; Red, White and YOU“. I’ve selected 3 cheeses that are similar in style and age but are of different milks, allowing the differences, subtle or not, in the three milks to be readily apparent. We will match these up with 3 wines that are notoriously cheese friendly, and see what conclusions we can all come up with.



Cheese Heaven at the Festival of Cheese

It IS possible to eat too much cheese. It can also be nearly impossible to stop, especially if you find yourself slogging through a crowd of cheese addicts grabbing to get their fix at The Festival of Cheese, the culminating event at the American Cheese Society Conference, held this year in Raleigh, North Carolina. 1,700 different cheeses were sent into the ACS for entry into their annual judging  competition, and after the prizes are awarded, all 1,700 are arranged in tiers on massive tables in a huge room. At the appointed hour, the doors open and the feeding frenzy begins.

Of course, This years Best in Show, “Flagsheep Reserve” from Beecher’s Creamery in Seattle, is the most sought after cheese in the room.  An aged cloth-wrapped cheddar made from cow and sheep’s milk, it has a chunky, dense, but buttery smooth texture and a flavor of cream and caramel, with an underlying earthiness.  Call it sweet and dirty. Adding to its appeal, almost no one had heard of it, let alone tasted it before.

Whereas I was delighted to try local favorites (and ribbon winners) such as Vermont Butter and Cheese “Coupole” (our friends at VB&CC won 12 ribbons!), Ruggle’s Hill “Greta’s Fair Haven”, Westfield Farm “Blue Bonnet”, a bigger thrill is in finding new extraordinary cheese. Among my favorites was a Tennessee beauty, Sequatchie Cove Creamery “Dancing Fern”.  Styled after a French Reblochon – that is to say it is soft ripened to a velvety smoothness with rich flavors of butter and sweet cream and a slight appealing funk – it was one of the most talked about cheeses at the conference. Also high on my list was a soft ripened and ashed cheese, Black Sheep, from Prairie Fruits Farm and Creamery in Illinois, and Bonnie View Farm “Tanasi Tomme”, creamy and soft/dense, with a pleasing sweetness and goaty tart quick.

Almost three hours later, my plate was filled with rind scraps, my stomach was in open rebellion, and thoughts of how to avoid cheese for a week or two were paramount in my mind. Well, that won’t happen, but I’m looking forward to tracking down some of these beauties and sharing them with friends and guests at L’Espalier



Why is Cheese Seasonal?

The upcoming Cheese Tuesday, “Summer’s Best”, will celebrate farmstead cheeses that are only available now, or are at their best during the summer months. (July 17 at 7:00)


Cheeses for July 17th’s Cheese Tuesday

I am often asked about seasonality: why are some cheeses not available year round, and why are some cheeses better at certain times of the year? We are talking about farmstead cheese (where the animals are raised and the cheese is made on the same farm) and small farm cheese. Industrially made cheese is the same day in, day out, year in, year out.

Well, it is all about the milk. Cows, sheep and goats all have a natural cycle of lactation, giving birth in the spring, and producing milk until the fall, when the animal goes dry, and rests up until the cycle begins in the next spring. It is easy to adjust a cow’s breeding cycle so that most members of a herd will always be producing milk. Not so easy with goats or sheep; sheep farmers usually run out of milk in October, and goats stop milking in November/December. No milk, no cheese.

Just as importantly, the content of milk changes dramatically during the milking season. After all, the purpose of milk is to feed a baby animal, and as this baby grows, its nutritional needs change, and Mamma knows best.  Summer milk is relatively low in fat content, which shoots up dramatically in the fall. This summer milk is superior to fall milk if you are making hard cheeses meant to last: high fat content can lead to spoilage issues.  Traditionally, Comté, a hard Alpine cheese with long aging potential is made in Summer months when the cows are grazing in alpine meadows. When the cows come inside and the fat content of the milk climbs in the fall and winter, production of Comté stops, and soft, lush and fatty Vacherin Mont d’Or is made instead.

Summer milk has other very desirable qualities. The grazing animals have a great diet of fresh grasses, wildflowers and herbs, the flavors of which are transferred to the milk and cheese.  As the animals move from pasture to pasture, their daily diet changes, which leads to subtle but wonderful variations in the daily batches of cheese.

Industrial makers, on the other hand, use “standardized” milk, similar to supermarket milk that has been adjusted for fat content.  No variation, no subtlety, no change.  I recently read a great definition of artisan cheese making. The artisan changes the recipe to fit the milk. The industrial cheese maker changes the milk to fit the recipe. Vive la différance!

Cooking with Cheese: Cheese Tuesday visits Vermont

One of the fun parts of Cheese Tuesday is coming up with three cheese driven dishes each month. This is how Matthew Delisle and I came up with last week’s menu.

The theme was Vermont Artisan Cheese, I had three cheeses I wanted to feature with the savory courses (and 9 more for the grand cheese tasting) and it is the height of Spring. We started with the cheese, and threw out suggestions and ideas, until they coalesced into these dishes.

Spring baby beets with ginger poached rhubarb, Coupole, and verjus

Coupole, an aged goat’s milk cheese from Vermont Butter and Cheese Creamery, has been my go-to cheese of late. It is a small dome shaped cheese with a wrinkly geotrichum rind and is packaged in a nifty little wooden box that allows it to age beautifully in a home refrigerator. It is perfect as a snacking cheese (I like it with a bit of honey) but is also a great team player as a component of a salad. Matt had some tender baby candy striped beets in house, and rhubarb is ubiquitous at this time of year. The tanginess of goat cheese is a perfect foil to the sweet earthiness of beets, and the smooth, light but dense texture of a moderately aged Coupole would be a great foil to the smooth, toothy texture of the beets. Uncooked rhubarb would be way too sour and would throw everything off balance, so Matt poached it in ginger syrup to sweeten it up and add a gentle warmth to the dish.

At plating time, Matt made a circle of the red, pink, and yellow roasted beets, interspersed with a dice of raw beet for crunch, and half-moons of the poached rhubarb. A nice wedge of Coupole was nestled in the center, and everything was drizzled with a tangy blend of verjus and the rhubarb poaching liquid. A sprinkle of baby basil from Apple Street completed the salad.




Smoked chicken, Lyonnaise potatoes, sautéed ramps, and a Raclette “veil”

Raclette is the classic Alpine melting cheese of France and Switzerland. It has a smooth, semi-firm texture, a gorgeous rosy rind, and a flavor that is a rich mix of earth and sweet milkiness. It is typically melted at the edge of a fire and scraped onto boiled potatoes. Spring Brook Farm in central Vermont creates an exceptional raclette from Jersey cow milk that has all the qualities of its European brethren, and an appealing upper register bite. As I reminisced about the wonderful Lyonnaise potatoes of my “youth” – my first job was in the 70′s at Ferdinand’s, a Harvard Square bastion of classic French – Matt suggested that ramps, those oh-so-everywhere but oh-so-good spring wild onions would be perfect with those slow roasted Lyonaisse potatoes. Smoked chicken would add a nice dimension to the earthiness of the raclette. With potatoes, chicken, sautéed and puréed ramps composed on the plate, Matt topped it all with a long, thin slice of raclette, put it all under a hot broiler for a few seconds until it created a melted veil, and finished it with a splash of cider and chicken roasting jus.

Maine beef sirloin with a Bayley Hazen crust, spring favas and fiddleheads

Andy and Mateo Kehler at Jasper Hill Farm create a medley of amazing cheeses, including Bayley Hazen, one of America’s finest blues. Rich, robust, and creamy, with a dark intensity, it can stand up to and even enhance the full flavors of a hearty steak. My association with beef and blue cheese goes back to the aforementioned Ferdinand’s, where Chef Drey would cut a pocket into Filet Mignon, fill it with Roquefort, grill, and top with bordelaise. I hoped it would be possible to capture some of the flavor elements of that heavy 70′s dish, but with all the light and exuberance of Springtime in Vermont.

Matt’s solution was to create a ragout of fava’s (which Tuscan’s eat each spring with a melt of pecorino), fiddleheads, wild spring onions, Vidalias, and bacon. The Bayley Hazen was crumbled, tossed with a few bread crumbs and a chop of fresh herbs, and pressed onto the Maine sirloin. After a quick grill, this was set aside the ragout, and topped with a frizzle of crisp fried onion.

This was followed by a tasting of 9 of my favorite Vermont cheeses – more on that later.


Romping with the Goats at Valley View Farm

Valley View Farm

Baby goats are a lot like puppies. They are eager and energetic and love everyone they see. And talk about cute! Last week, the team from L’Espalier got to experience the goat-love, as 20 of us visited Liz and Peter Mulholland at their Valley View Farm in Topsfield.

Feeding Baby Goats

I first met Peter and Liz through cheese. Seven or eight years ago, Alberto, one of my reps, sent me a sample of two of their cheeses, a round mixed milk Camembert style called Essex, and a classic goat pyramid called Topsfield. I liked both, and invited the Mulhollands to be guest cheese makers at a December Cheese Tuesday.  As is the norm, I also wrote a song (to the tune of Winter Wonderland) to mark the occasion.

Valley View is home to 38 adult goats. 24 are milking now, having recently given birth, and the rest are still pregnant: Peter and Liz made sure to stagger the pregnancies, which makes life a lot easier around the farm. As soon as they are born, the kids are separated from mom, so she will give her milk to a milking machine instead of a hungry young mouth.  The kids are then bottle fed, just like a human baby, for a couple of weeks, until they can learn to drink by themselves from a nipple attached to a communal bucket of milk. That was going on today with four of the youngsters.


The goats are all Nubians, a breed developed in England from the crossing of the Old English Mich Goat and bucks imported from India, Russia, and Egypt. They are medium sized, with reddish brown hair and long floppy ears. They love to be petted. Their prize characteristic, however, is the high butterfat content of the milk, averaging 5%.  One of the treats of the visit was a tall, cool glass of raw milk. It was surprisingly rich, much more so than your average glass of cows’ milk, with a clean, sweet finish. Not at all goaty! (In fact, when Peter started making cheese in the mid 90′s, it was so un-goaty that he thought he was doing something wrong. A visit to Judy Schad at Capriole Farm in Indiana, one of America’s greatest cheese makers, set him straight on this.)

Goats Milking

The goats are milked twice a day, and each yield about 3/4 of a gallon of sweet milk each day.  This is immediately transferred to a chilling tank, where it is kept for up to three days before being pasteurized and turned into cheese.  Peter (who makes the cheese; Liz takes care of the goats) uses the slow method of pasteurization, in which the milk is heated to 145 degrees for 30 minutes, and then quickly cooled again. This low heat method, while doing everything the more brutal high heat of industrialized pasteurization does to “protect” us from pathogens, is kinder and gentler to the milk, disturbing it less and preserving more of the enzymes that are so important to flavor in an aged cheese.

Goat's Milk Feta

Peter makes cheese every 3 days. It takes that long to gather enough milk to fill the cheese vat, although he will have to switch to every two days when all his milkers are on line.  He is currently experimenting with making tommes, which are 5 pound dense wheels with natural rinds, meant to be aged several months.  We sampled a December-made wheel. The rind was lightly orange with b-Linens, and the interior paste was fairly smooth and semi-firm, with a few small holes. The flavor was mild, buttery, and fairly sweet, with just enough tanginess to let you know it was a goat’s milk cheese.  The bunch of us ate about half of the tomme. The other half was wrapped to go and will hit the L’Espalier cheese cart tomorrow night.

This wasn’t a cheese making day. Actually, Peter works at his day job by day, and makes cheese at night. I hope to visit one of these sessions soon, and Peter and Liz have promised to join us for a Cheese Tuesday in the fall. I will keep you posted. In the meantime, here is the song I wrote for the Mulhollands last visit to L’Espalier.


Louis Risoli


Valley View Cheese Song
(to the tune of Winter Wonderland)

Stomachs growling
Are you listening
I’m so hungry
That I’m wishing
That I could have cheese
So give me some please
Cheese Tuesday is our favorite kind of night

Frank’s food
Is ambitious
Erich’s wines
Are delicious
But Louis’s cheese
Brings us to our knees
Cheese Tuesday is our favorite kind of night

In the Valley you can View some farmers
Milking goats and making lovely cheese
Peter and Elizabeth are charmers
And you can take their cheese home if you please
Soon enough
We’ll be thinking
Of snowy nights
And port for drinking
May your season be bright
Although our singing’s a fright
Cheese Tuesday is our favorite kind of night