27 December 2012

How Much Cheese is Enough?

Recently I was asked to set up some sample cheese plates for a local business. At first I was more concerned with the cheese choice. Only when I was laying the cheese on the plate did I realize how essential the amount of cheese is for such a venture. When I sit down with a piece of cheese I'll often just eat with no regard to how much I've consumed. This, of course, is a testament to my love of fromage. When there are other factors involved (multiple cheeses and extras) it's a whole different story.

I set up a few plates. The first was designed to be an all American plate: cheddar, a blue, and a chevre. This combination is nice because you could fill all the cheeses from various regions of the country if you wanted to keep it more local. And on this plate I set out 1.5oz of each cheese along with some filler (almonds, figs, etc). 1.5oz turned out to be way too much cheese.

On the next round I went with an Italian theme: burrata, a toscana, and a piave. This time I switched to 1oz of each cheese which was much more manageable. It's possible that even .75oz would have been sufficient but I think 1oz is a nice amount. Filling for one person and share-able for two.

And if you keep the cheese choice reasonable, so too will be the cost of the entire cheese plate. At wholesale prices just the cheese (@ 1oz / cheese) was under $2 per plate.

And in terms of extras - they mostly hovered around $.30 per item. In order of cost: sliced baguette, figs, chutney, almonds, tapenade. And the only very expensive and very delicious extra was the prosciutto. A guilty pleasure.

12 December 2012

Neolithic cheese making: Evidence from the 6th Millennium, B.C.

It was exciting to hear some cheese news out of the world of archaeology this month.  (A dear friend to FDM was kind of enough to pass along the story).

An article published in the journal Nature (link here) describes some carbon-dating techniques and other analysis that a collaborative group from the U.S., England, and Poland performed on pottery sieves found at a Neolithic archaeology site in Eastern Poland.

Basically, this group report  evidence that these sieves, which date from ~5300 to 4900 B.C., were definitely used to process milk and were designed (hammered at) to be able to separate the whey-protein clumps from the typical fat-rich milk curds that result from milk spoilage. This method is similar to the way that many cheese-makers do it  today. 

To-date, this is the earliest evidence of human beings making cheese

These are the actual sieve fragments that contained milk residue that was  carbon-dated .
As all of you know, the production of cheese can be viewed as sort-of the controlled, variably nuanced, spoilage of milk. Historically, the process may have been put to use by farmers who wanted to preserve the milk for a longer period, as it was a precious commodity, and/or to make it more digestible or palatable.

The article's abstract includes the following of interest: "The processing of milk, particularly the production of cheese, would have been a critical development because it not only allowed the preservation of milk products in a non-perishable and transportable form, but also it made milk a more digestible commodity for early prehistoric farmer."

It turns out that pre-historic man was on to something pretty big.  It's a fascinating story all together.
Thank you, Keyrock and friends.  Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer.  

03 August 2012

Cheese Caves of Cambridge, MA

We at Fromage-du-Mois recently enjoyed a fabulous evening out for a cheese-centered event: a tour of the cheese "caves" (see below, right) of Cambridge, MA's own Formaggio Kitchen. The Kitchen is nationally recognized and is certainly the premier imported cheese and specialty food distributor/retail outfit in New England. 

The 'Old Cave' in the basement of the store
The personally guided tour was a gift from very good friends of FDM (the "Muensters") who also accompanied us on the taste-expanding mission. Formaggio Kitchen has 2 other locations aside from its flagship store in Cambridge: one is in the the South End of Boston and the other is in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, in the famous Essex Street Market.                                                                                
Our tour guide was none other than co-owner Ihsan Gurdal, who founded the Kitchen in 1978 with his wife Valerie. Originally from Turkey, Ihsan first came to California and then to Boston as a volleyball player and coach, always carrying with him a love for cheese and fine foods. He is a quite a kind and knowledgeable man.

The cheese "caves" are 2 connected rooms in the basement of the Huron Avenue shop in west Cambridge.  They were built out of an old office suite in 1996 and were "the first of their kind in the U.S." (according to Ihasn). As he explained, the rooms are maintained constantly at about 45-50 degrees F with a refrigeration system that needs fine adjustments. The rooms are also kept damp and musty with a 'mister' machine (that the Ihsan refers to as a 'shower'). These conditions, of course, are meant to mimic those of an Alpine hillside mountain cave. When you're inside, the air feels moist, it's chilly, and there is minimal air circulation. There are also small puddles on the floor that you have to step around.

A group of aging cheeses, pre-experimentation,  in the 'Old' room
The cheeses that line the wooden shelves are imported from all over the world, with a bias toward Europe. Ihsan and his team from Formaggio may spend weeks at a time travelling to (often) small towns, meeting dairy farmers and cheese producers. As they establish these relationships, it makes it easier for them to import entire wheels of cheese that they fall in love with and also be able to return in the following years to buy more. Difficult life, eh?

When they are brought back to this rooms, the cheeses are personally attended to, sometimes for months. They may be flipped every other week or so to change the side that gets air/moisture exposure. The staff at Formaggio also experiments with different preparations. When we visited, they was ready to rub fresh herbs and different olive oils on some newly acquired wheels. After a certain amount of time (months, up to 2 years), Ihsan and his team decide that the cheese are ready for prime-time and they bring them up to sell in the shop.


If you are ever in the area, you will have to check out the store. They have a really unique selection of imported and regional artisinal cheeses. And, according to the website and to Ihsan, the staff would also be happy to give you a small peak at their urban cheese undergound.

Here is a virtual tour of the cheese caves that Ihsan took part in : Link

Additional photos from our tour:   (We were fortunately able to taste most of these!)

The primary FDM tasting team
Recently imported sheep's milk cheese from Pyrenees-Atlantiques (Department) in Southwest France*

*Available at Formaggio Kitchen: https://www.formaggiokitchen.com/shop/product_info.php?cPath=&products_id=2618 

16 June 2012

To board or to plate....

When it comes to serving cheese to guests at a small dinner party, say, there are at least two main options people turn to. Let's discuss those here: the cheese board or a cheese plate. I think it will become clear which one we favor at Fromage-du-Mois.

(I thought I would mention that Steven Jenkins, one of America's foremost cheese mongers, has a very nice section on serving cheese as well in The Cheese PrimerHis book is also a wonderful introduction to the world of cheese, including the cheese-making process, wonderful descriptions of the major and many minor cheeses of the world and their regions of origin, and many resources about cheese shops and artisinal cheese makers around the world.)

So, a cheese board is that slate or wooden board, perhaps a bit unwieldy, that is often put out on the coffee table or end-table for guests (image, right). There are usually 1-3 wedges of different cheeses on the board, each with its own knife, and a stack of small napkins nearby. Some people will add a couple of crackers to this mix. After your guests do some mingling and hovering around this board, you inevitably see small crumbles of cheese on the floor below. There sometimes feels like there is "no beginning and no end" to this method, until all you have left is 3 rinds and guests that may be too full for the rest of your courses.

The cheese board is a well-intended endeavor. As we've experienced, however,  it seems to fall short and can become a true tragedy of the commons. It can promote endless standing around and nibbling, it lacks a personal touch, and it often doesn't include the savory accompaniments which enhance cheese flavors (things like: thick crusty bread, toasted black walnuts, a fig or date jam, and macoun apples, among others).

A cheese plate, on the other hand (image, left), may fill these voids well and help serve as desired. In a small or even medium-sized dinner party setting, it is only a little more trouble to prepare individual plates.

A cheese plate can be a regular dinner plate in size or smaller one, if fitting. You can prepare the plate with, say, 2-4 cheeses, usually in smaller wedges or pieces than on a board.  This seems to really cut down on the hovering, mingling, careless cutting, and piece-dropping on the floor. And importantly, the experience is more personal; it seems to emphasize quality rather than quantity in presentation. It is also a more fit method to include a smattering of appropriate accompaniments, things like wedges of French bread, roasted nuts, slices of fruit,  or (if the cheese is right), thin slices of prosciutto or sopresata.  More on specific cheese accompaniments later....

Let us know what your experience has been...

08 May 2012

A sweet, creamy goat: Capricho de Cabra

Capricho de Cabra is a very nice Spanish goat's milk cheese that we tried here this week....and highly recommend.

Capricho is a borderline-soft/borderline creamy cheese that hails from the Southeastern part of Spain---a temperate, grassy region known as Murcia.

This is the same region of Spain, and the same Murciano goats, which provides us with Capricho's slightly smoother, certainly moister cousin:  Murcia al Vino (the "Drunken Goat").  We at FDM sampled the Drunken Goat a couple of years ago and it remains among our worldwide favorite cheeses.

Capricho is not soaked in wine, though, as Murcia al Vino is.  Rather, Capricho is a bit on the sweet and dry side, making it a standout among the usually more salty, wetter goat's milk cheeses out there.

Capricho is just the right touch of 'tangy', and not too creamy, to first excite and then hunker down in your taste-buds....but, for just the right amount of time (minutes). That is not the easiest feat for a goat's milk cheese that has to be shipped across the Atlantic-- this is not your grandma's, 2-day, fresh farmer's chevre:)

In any case, it is a really very nice selection.  It might go perfectly with a flatbread and a bit of olive oil.  Whole Foods Market has been carrying this cheese all year.  Enjoy.

25 March 2012

Raw, organic, farmstead, and from New England

We tried a delightful New England-area cow's milk cheese the other night called Prescott at Central Kitchen, a New American restaurant in Cambridge, MA.

Two ample wedges of this semi-hard, organic, raw cow's milk cheese, aged over 8 months, were served as an appetizer, along with several hard french-style bread pieces and a sweet berry relish. The cheese itself is quite tasty, with a hint of salt, a little nuttiness, and a very smooth mouth-feel. It is a mild cheese, perhaps reminiscent of a mild gruyere-cheddar cross, with a little less of that characteristic gruyere sweetness.

Prescott is one of a number of artisanal cheeses made at Robinson Farm, a family owned and operated organic dairy farm in Hardwick, MA. Hardwick is a town in central Massachusetts, about equidistant between Worcester and Northampton. The farm offers at least 3 other wash-rind, raw milk cheeses, all of which won awards recently at the Cheeses of New England competition of the 2011 Big E. (The Big E is the largest annual fair in the Northeast).

The picture (above right) is borrowed from a fantastic photographic tutorial of cheese making at the Robinson farm, courtesy of a post last year from the the New England Cheesemaking Supply company.

We'd highly recommend trying some of these. You can buy Prescott and the other cheeses from the Robinson farm directly, apparently with a minimum of 2 pound purchase (@ whole sale prices). This may be your best bet if you are outside of the New England area. Get a bunch of friends to go in with you! If you're within greater Boston or around New England, a better bet may be to find Robinson Farm cheeses at one of these locations.

Until next time...

15 March 2012

Manchego: From the Sheep of La Mancha

Fromage-du-mois friends may remember an early post on this site, in 2006, about Manchego. For those who missed it, I thought I'd re-introduce this simple staple of the cheese world.

Many people have probably heard of and/or tried Manchego (Queso Manchego, officially). If you haven't, I would encourage you to give it a shot.

Manchego is a very nice, 'nutty'-flavored, Spanish sheep's milk cheese. It is still Spain's "most popular cheese" and it remains name-controlled: it must be made in its region of origin to be called (Queso) Manchego.

Manchego hails from the expansive, sometimes barren region of 'inner Spain' called Castile-La Mancha (the link is from El Sol Villas, which offers vacation villas throghout Europe). Apparently, the expansive plains of La Mancha are subjected to a climate of seasonal extremes, often pummeled with unrelenting winds and broad sweeps in temperatures throughout the year (read: Don Quixote and his windmill travails). The thick-fleeced sheep of La Mancha, who provide the milk for this ubiquitous fromage, are some of the only animals able to withstand this climate.

Manchego is usually quite mild, a little bit briny, and tastes like it is "of the earth", if that makes any sense. And the common description of it being "nutty" I think is especially accurate. Like many cheeses, it becomes more acrid and tangy when it is aged.

The seal (above) is Queso Manchego's official Protested Designation of Origin (PDO) Seal, certified by the European Union. It can be placed only on Manchego cheese wheels when they are produced from the milk of La Mancha's sheep, and, aged for at least 60 days.

Literature fans will note that the seal includes a silhouette of the famous "Don Quixote" on his horse, and---I believe--a second, rider-less horse by his side (or.....does anyone see Sancho Panza on the second horse?).