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Friday, August 28, 2009

Beemster Lite - taste great, less filling!

For quite awhile customers at our store have been asking us for a "lite" cheese. I've been loathe to put one in our case because to me, most lite or low-fat cheese tastes like cooked rubber. Not that I've ever actually tasted cooked rubber, but you get the idea. And the texture, ick. It gives me the chills to even think about how some lite cheeses feel in my mouth... I may be a junkie, but I have standards nonetheless!

So typically when someone asks me for a lite or low-fat cheese, I direct them to a cheese made with a milk type that's lower in butterfat - like one of the wonderful goat's milk cheeses made right here in Northern California. Until now. I have finally found a lite cheese I can live with: Beemster Lite Matured. I have always been a fan of Beemster - with its nutty, caramelly flavor and long finish, but I still assumed that the lite version of the cheese would be horrible. I'm so glad to be wrong. Beemster Lite Matured has the creaminess and sweet yet nutty flavor I love, with the same long finish I associate with this type of cheese. But it has 33% less fat than other Gouda style cheeses and about 20% less salt. Simply awesome.

I found this recipe on the Beemster website and it's delicious. If you're trying to go "lite" one night, this would be a good one to try:

Serves 4
  • 5 oz. Beemster Lite Matured, in cubes or matchsticks
  • 2 tblsp. olive or wok oil
  • 18 oz. green asparagus, sliced diagonally into 3/4 inch pieces
  • 2.5 oz. arugula or baby leaf lettuce
  • 8 slices of ham
  • 2 pears, peeled & sliced
  • 2 green onions, sliced into thin rings
  • 3.5 tblsp. walnuts, coarsely chopped
  • 3 tblsp. olive oil
  • 1 tblsp. balsamic vinegar
  • 1 tblsp. lemon juice
  • 1 tsp. mustard
  • freshly ground pepper
Grease a grill pan with 2 tblsp. olive or wok oil, and grill asparagus until golden brown and done but still crunchy - about 3 to 4 minutes.
Mix dressing ingredients: olive oil, balsamic, lemon juice, mustard, & pepper.
Divide lettuce evenly on to 4 plates, place asparagus on top of greens.
Put the ham on the hot grill pan until crispy. Divide the pear, green onion, and Beemster evenly over asparagus.
Drizzle dressing over salads and sprinkle with chopped walnuts.

Tip: serve with ciabatta or warm French bread. Try mixing green & white asparagus (be sure to completely peel the white variety).

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Laura Chenel Plant Tour


A few months ago I met Jacquelyn Buchanan, the Director of Culinary Development for Laura Chenel Chevre. Even though they don't typically give tours of their cheese-making facility, Jacquelyn arranged it so I could bring our Cheesemonger-in-training (Kevin) up there on Wednesday to have a look around. As it turns out, everyone who might have normally guided our visit was busy off-site, so the actual cheese-maker, a French woman named Isabelle, took time out of her schedule to give us the tour. Jack pot!

This was one of the most informative experiences I've ever had in terms of understanding cheese-making. Since she's not used to giving tours, Isabelle decided to show us the Laura Chenel process for their fresh cheeses from beginning to end in great detail. We started outside with the truck delivering milk from one of their 15 producers where she explained all of the checks and balances they have in place to make sure they're receiving only the highest quality of milk. From there she walked us into the plant and showed us each step the milk takes on its journey to becoming one of the best goat's milk cheeses being made today: from pasteurization, to the holding tank where the starter cultures and rennet are introduced, then on to the bags where the whey is pressed from the curd, and ultimately to the room where the logs of fresh chevre are (seasoned) hand packed and labeled. As we looked at each phase of development, Isabelle allowed us to sample the milk in its varying stages so we could experience the transformation with all our senses.

Naturally we got to see the aging room where the Tome, Crottin, Taupiniere, and my favorite - Cabecou were resting. But one of the aspects of the tour I found most interesting was the way they protect the quality of their product. Isabelle showed us each check-point along the process where they monitor to make sure the milk quality is high, the temperature is perfect, and there are no contaminants. She even showed us how they keep all the equipment, trucks, and even the plant itself perfectly clean and sterilized. Whew! Seeing all this really drove home the immense amount of care required to produce great cheese, and tripled my respect for cheese-makers.

Besides showing us the entire process for their fresh chevre, Isabelle also showed us how the Tome is made. Tome is a delicious hand-made 3 - 4 lb. wheel, aged 6 months. The curd is cooked and then hand pressed to give the cheese a wonderful, semi-hard texture. The ivory colored paste has a sweet, lightly nutty flavor with a finish reminiscent of salted caramel. This cheese is great for cooking as it slices, grates, crumbles, & melts well, but personally I think it stands on its own just fine and would make a great addition to any cheese board.

After spending two hours in the plant I didn't think I could be happier, but I was wrong. We concluded our time at Laura Chenel by sitting down with Isabelle to sample every cheese they make. Although I'd had many of the cheeses before, I was introduced to a couple of exciting new ones. Melodie, made in France exclusively for Laura Chenel was my favorite. It's a mild, creamy cheese with an ivory paste and a beautiful silver rind. It has a buttery richness that I don't normally associate with goat's milk, and at the same time it's lacking that strong barn-yardy flavor sometimes present in goat cheeses of a similar type. This is a cheese you can put on any board whether you're serving neophytes or connoisseurs, and be confident that it will be a crowd pleaser. Melodie will be happily joining other Laura Chenel cheeses at our counter.

All in all, another fabulous day in the world of cheese...



Thursday, August 13, 2009

The Cellars at Jasper Hill


When I attended the SF Cheese School's 3-Day seminar this spring I met lots of great people, one of who is Jack Dean, representative of The Cellars at Jasper Hill. We also had the pleasure of tasting some of the cheeses produced by or aged by Jasper Hill (Constant Bliss, Winnimere, Bayley Hazen Blue, & Cabot Clothbound Cheddar). Delicious!

Not only was I impressed by the cheeses, but also by the story behind Jasper Hill, and I figured you'd be interested too. So last week I contacted Jack and he was kind enough to spend some time talking with me about the Vermont dairy cooperative. Right now, Vermont is losing about 30 dairies annually and in fact they've lost some 32 farms this year already! Jasper Hill Farm founders, Mateo and Andy Kehler are all about trying to make small Vermont dairy farms viable (cheese-making is one of the ways to do this), and "The Cellars" is an extension of that vision. Currently, Cabot is paying a fee to age their clothbound cheddar at The Cellars, and the cool thing about this is that those funds are used to help small dairies in all aspects of their cheese-making business whether it's training, development, equipment, marketing, or distribution.

A great example of how it all works is a cheese called Oma (pictured above), produced by the Von Trapp family and aged at The Cellars. Dan and Sebastian Von Trapp are former Jasper Hill employees who used their gained knowledge to turn their family dairy farm into a viable producer of cheese. This 1 lb., washed-rind cheese made with the milk of Jersey and Ayrshire cows is currently only available in small amounts in New England. However, Jack tells me they are working on bringing the cheese to the west coast and that I can (hopefully) get some for my store by the holidays. I can't WAIT!

Not only does "The Cellars" help to create new cheese-makers like the Von Trapps, but it also helps established cheese-makers like the Crawford family who make a wonderful cheese called Vermont Ayr. The Crawfords collaborated with Mateo and the cellar's affineur to improve their cheese. They were able to tweak the make of the cheese a little so that the right flora and cultures would grow and improve its flavor profile. This cheese just made its way to California and we're intending to bring it to our counter this fall, but in the meantime I drove about 40 miles to get my hands on some (in true junkie fashion), and let me tell you it was worth the drive!

Vermont Ayr is a raw milk alpine style cheese with an off-white paste that delivers a rich, nutty, grassy, slightly floral flavor with a mildly sweet (almost pineapple-like) finish. YUM! The day I tried this cheese happened to be my birthday so I bought enough to bring with me to my b-day dinner with friends. They snapped it up so quickly I regretted not buying more, and being the junkie I am, I almost regretted not keeping it all for myself!

Congrats to Jasper Hill for a job well done. Keep up the good work!

Monday, August 3, 2009

Dinner at The Ritz


Over the weekend, Noah and I had dinner with his parents and sister at the Ritz Carlton in San Francisco. We were there to celebrate several occasions: my MIL's birthday, my birthday, and our wedding anniversary. We're very fortunate in that Noah's life-long friend, Ron Siegel, is the Executive Chef at the Ritz dinning room. Although Noah has had the chef's tasting menu at many of the places Ron's worked, this was my first experience. And man, was I ever blown away! The Chef presented us with about 15 of his creations (not including dessert, which was also wonderful). The food was so complex and unique, and there was such a huge variety it's hard for me to describe it. But one of my favorites was a glass bowl that had thin plastic stretched across the top. The bowl was filled with hickory smoke. Not like hickory chips or anything, actual smoke folks. On top of the stretched plastic sat crumbled brioche, caviar, and a perfectly cooked quail egg. Before we ate, we were directed to take our spoon and tap the plastic lightly to release the hickory smoke so we would have that olfactory sensation along with our bite of food. Pure genius...

The plates Chef Siegel prepared for us were not heavy in the cheese department - just an appropriate sliver here and there as a compliment to the main ingredient. However, I had the great fortune to be seated right next to the resting area for the cheese cart (see photo above). I was happy to note they offered a really nice selection, with a slant toward local producers. A couple of my featured favorites were as follows:

*Camellia (Redwood Hill): a delectable Camembert-style goat's milk cheese with a mild, buttery flavor and penicillum candidum rind. Last fall we included Camellia as part of the cheese course we offered at the Palo Alto Black & White Ball. We served it on a sweet baguette with an apricot-cumin preserve - definitely a big hit with the guests.

*Bayley Hazen Blue (Jasper Hill): a raw milk blue cheese made with morning Ayrshire milk. I first tried this cheese at a seminar I attended earlier this year, and immediately took to the flavor of fresh milk, nuts, chocolate, and grass. It's milder and a little drier than other blues, and that's one of the things I like about it. Because the veining doesn't over-power the taste buds, it's possible to to enjoy a complexity of flavor which can be lacking at times in other blues.

Tomorrow I'm scheduled to chat with Jack Dean of Jasper Hill Farms and I intend to get as much back ground as I can on Bayley Hazen and the other wonderful cheeses coming out of the Vermont cooperative. Stay tuned...