A Cheese Course
News from the fromage front: artisans, books and a plea to save raw-milk cheeses.
Cheese is cool, and we don't just mean in the sense of the climate-controlled caves in which it lives and breathes and ripens in wonderful, mysterious ways. No, cheese is cool in the other sense too: It's become one of those things that a lot of very cool people are into. People like Donna Doel, who's devoting her life to her goat dairy in Arkansas. Or Norbert Wabnig, who's constantly foraging for new tastes to bring to his Beverly Hills store. Or Terrance Brennan, who's about to open a restaurant where cheese will be the star. There's so much happening right now that it's tempting to say that cheese is hot—but that brings us to fondue, which is another story. Here's the very latest from the fromage front.
This cheese selection from Terrance Brennan, chef and owner of Picholine and the new Artisanal in New York City, includes both classics and recent discoveries; it progresses, in traditional fashion, from mild to sharp to rich, ending with blue. Mild Boerenkaas, a raw-milk Gouda made on small Dutch farms, offers butterscotch sweetness and full flavor. Sharper Epoisses (more intense than Taleggio but less pungent than Muenster) is a soft-ripened cow's-milk cheese from Burgundy. Sharper yet, Vermont Shepherd, made by Cynthia and David Major from raw sheep's milk, is an aged natural-rind cheese—hard, herbaceous and slightly nutty. Supercreamy Pierre Robert, a glorious cow's-milk triple-crème from the Ile-de-France, is so buttery it collapses under the weight of a fork. Finally, creamy cow's-milk Cashel Blue from County Tipperary, Ireland, has a gentle salinity and no harsh edges.
—Kimberly Y. Masibay
Donna Doel wakes up at 5 o'clock each morning and works until 9 every night, feeding and milking her herd of 65 goats, making cheese and selling it at farmers' markets, taking orders over the phone and shipping them off herself. Running a dairy isn't glamorous or lucrative, but Doel doesn't mind; those 16-hour days are beginning to pay off in recognition from restaurateurs and peers. (Her camembert won a blue ribbon at the American Cheese Society meeting in 1999.) Doel has been fascinated by dairies since she was a child in Maine, growing up across the road from a cattle farm. Her studies in agriculture led to a sojourn at an Irish farm; there she learned to make Caerphilly cheese, and she was hooked. In 1995, with just three pregnant goats and a modest bank loan, she started Doeling Dairy in Fayetteville, Arkansas. (As it happens, a doeling is a young female goat.) Today she is Arkansas's sole producer of goat cheese. She makes her feta and Gouda with raw milk and her camembert, crottin and chèvre with pasteurized milk. The hours are long and the work is tough, yet she yearns to do more—for instance, she'd love to make natural-rind and blue cheeses, too. After all, she still has eight hours left in her day.
The Cheese Course by Janet Fletcher (Chronicle Books, $20). This primer with recipes is a paean to the after-dinner cheese course: a slender volume with tips on selecting cheeses and composing a platter, plus suggestions for drinks and accompaniments.
The Cheese Lover's cookbook by Paula Lambert (Simon & Schuster, $30). The owner of the Mozzarella Company, in Dallas, has channeled two decades' worth of knowledge and a generous portion of enthusiasm into a book of inventive recipes, history and tips on selecting, serving and storing all kinds of cheeses.
Beverly Hills Cheese Whiz
Norbert Wabnig travels the globe to fill his Cheese Store of Beverly Hills with all manner of exquisite artisanal discoveries. Here are some of the cheeses, the regions and the trends that have lately caught his seasoned eye.
An Italian farmstead turns out Ubriaco, a hard cow's-milk cheese with a moderately nutty flavor. It's aged in red wine—hence the heady aroma and the deep-purple rind. And from Murcia, Spain, comes the Drunken Goat, a slightly sweet artisanal goat cheese that is also cured in wine.
The latest great export from France and Italy. The French make a fresh goat cheese studded with black truffles called Boule du Périgord. Aromatic Sotto Cenere, an aged Italian cow's-milk cheese that is similar in style and texture to Fontina, gets rubbed with black truffle oil and spices and dotted with white truffle bits.
The Basque Region
An increasingly important cheese-producing area; check out its Ossau-Iraty (a favorite of Wabnig's), a sheep's-milk cheese that resembles a mild Gruyère in both flavor and texture.
Another cheese-producing area gaining fast in international prestige. The northern Italian region is home to Montasio, a traditional alpine cheese made from cow's milk that's produced on family farms.
Belle Chèvre, a small Alabama producer, wraps a dainty goat cheese in brandied chestnut leaves. A layer of ash runs through Humboldt Fog, a crumbly goat-cheese round.
Cheese may be the happening thing in restaurants and food shops across the country, but there's a threat on the horizon: The Food and Drug Administration is considering new regulations that would ban many of the world's great cheeses, including camembert and Parmigiano-Reggiano, and would endanger the artisanal cheese movement here. It's already against the law to sell raw-milk cheeses aged for less than 60 days—a law many other nations find ridiculous. But the proposed rules would go further, making it illegal to sell all cheese made from unpasteurized milk. It's called a "zero-tolerance" policy, and many observers feel there's zero need for it. The Cheese of Choice Coalition (backed by the American Cheese Society and the nonprofit Oldways Preservation & Exchange Trust) is commissioning research on the safety of raw-milk cheese, drawing up standards for its production and circulating a petition urging the FDA to reconsider. All we are saying is, "Give cheese a chance."