Monday night found me at Murray’s Cheese for a tasting/reading event with Kirstin Jackson, author of “It’s Not You, It’s Brie: Unwrapping America’s Unique Culture of Cheese”. Kirstin’s book — and blog of the same name — offers a unique perspective on the domestic cheese scene, exploring the vats, caves, fields and milking parlors of artisan and farmstead cheesemakers across the nation, introducing readers to unique and often quirky characters behind the rinds. Jackson takes an unusual approach, breaking the book into chapters along what could perhaps be described as personality lines rather than strictly technical definitions; rather than “Mold-Ripened”, “Washed Rind”,”Thermophilic” or “Chevres”, we have chapter titles like “Prepubescent Cheese”, “The Strong and the Hard”, “American Originals” or “Washed and Smeared Rinds: What the Hell is Going on in the Kitchen” — a bit irreverent perhaps, but capturing the spirit of the book perfectly, which combines in depth tastings, informative interviews and engaging history with cheeky humor and and sometimes bawdy asides. The book is both an excellent primer for cheese newbies and, for the more experienced turophile, a rich source of background stories and anecdotes about your favorite cheeses.
The class was Kirstin’s chance to share her “dream American cheese plate”, a selection of cheeses from top cheesemakers across the country, paired with unique wines and beers from both West and East coast. Some beers, like Brooklyn Brewery, are hard to find on the West Coast, so Kirstin took this class as an opportunity to explore pairings that might be hard for her to make normally, even as she was introducing the students to new flavor profiles and combinations.
The cheeses, with their pairings, were as follows:
1. Hoja Santa, The Mozzarella Co., TX, paired with Scholium SC Vipolze, Red Hook Winery, Brooklyn.
Made by Texas cheesemaker Paula Lambert, Hoja Santa has garnered accolades and attention since it came out (it was also featured in my Mexican cheese class with Carlos Yescas and my Master Class with Max McCalman). Wrapped in the leaf of the Hoja Santa herb, this fresh lactic goat’s milk cheese is bright, sweet and citric with flavors of mint, oregano, grass and most distinctly, sarsaparilla, aka root beer flavor, which comes from the Safrole oil that is in both the sarsaparilla root and in the Hoja Santa leaf.
Complimented nicely by the “orange”, Slovenian-style skin-fermented wine, the unusual style that has in the last decade made waves in the wine world. the herbal and honey notes of the wine worked well with the citrus and safrole notes of the cheese. (Note: Red Hook Winery was severely impacted by Hurricane Sandy, losing much of their stock, so this might be a tough one to find)
2. Green Hill, Sweet Grass Dairy, GA, paired with Broadside Chardonnay
Made by the Wehner family in Georgia on a farm that is one of the pioneers of rotational grazing in America, the rich, high-fat milk of the spoiled Jersey cows make the perfect foundation for this gloriously decadent double-creme bloomy rind (you’d probably guess it was a triple-creme if you didn’t know better). In color, texture and flavor it resembles fresh cultured butter, with a velvety, spreadable texture and earthy notes of mushroom and hay.
The “wild-fermented” Chardonnay from California brings out the silky mouthfeel of the cheese and compliments the meatiness of the paste.
3. San Andreas, Bellwether Farms, CA, paired with Edmund St. John’s Bebame
San Andreas is a raw sheep’s milk Pecorino-style cheese, made with the milk of East Friesian Sheep on the Bellwether farm, along the Pacific Coast in Sonoma County, California. Made in the style of a Tuscan Pecorino, with a smooth golden rind, the paste is ivory-hued and scattered with eyes, smooth and creamy in texture. The flavor is mild, sweet and tangy, with the trademark sheep’s milk gamey, lanolin characteristics, nutty and grassy notes, and a pleasantly sour finish.
Made in the Sierra foothills of California, the Bebame is a Cabernet Franc/Gamay blend, herbal and fruity without being too tannic or jammy. It stands up nicely to the gamey flavors of the San Andreas and brings out the nuttiness.
4. Grayson, Meadow Creek Dairy, VA, paired with Captain Lawrence Golden Delicious Tripel
Made by the Feete family in Virginia (cue “smells like Feete” jokes), Grayson is a Taleggio-style washed rind made with Jersey cow’s milk, and Meadow Creek is one of the makers that put the American South on the cheese map. A seasonal cheese, only made from April-October, this cheese is best enjoyed when extremely ripe and the pungency has achieved it’s peak levels. The ivory-gold paste, enclosed within a reddish-amber rind, is velvety and oozing, with a robust but not overwhelming aroma, and a rich, buttery, meaty flavor with notes of smoked bacon, hay, mushrooms and broth.
This pairing worked really well: the fruity flavors of the Tripel, combined with the meaty cheese, immediately brought to mind the apple in the mouth of a roast pig.
5. Gravity Hill, Roelli Cheese Haus, WI, paired with Stillwater Autumnal Ale
Made by acclaimed Wisconsin cheesemakers Roelli (I previously wrote about their Red Rock and Dunbarton Blue), this cheese gets its name from the legend of Gravity Hill in Shullsburg, WI, where cars are said to roll uphill while in neutral, defying the laws of gravity. The cheese itself is firmly grounded and earthy; based on an English Cheshire and made with sea salt, the paste is dry and crumbly, the flavor is rich, meaty and nutty, with herbaceous and tropical notes and a distinctly cheddary sharpness.
The Stillwater brought out the fruitiness of the cheese and balanced the sharpness nicely.
6. Rogue River Blue, Rogue Creamery, OR, paired with Brooklyn Brewery Black Chocolate Stout.
Every year brings news of more ribbons won by Rogue Creamery for this Syrah-leaf wrapped blue cheese, and they’re well earned. Deep, complex and earthy in flavor with notes of coffee, barnyard, caramel and sherry, beautifully balanced between sweet and briny with scatterings of tyrosine crystals and a spicy, peppery bite. The interior is sweeter and creamier, while the paste closer to the rind offers a woodsy, herbaceous, more aromatic experience.
Chocolate and Blue cheese: how can you go wrong? The Black Chocolate Stout worked with the Rogue River perfectly.
The cheese didn’t end with the class though: afterwards several of us continued to Murray’s Cheese Bar, where the cheesemongers brought us a couple slates of their best cheeses, including (to the best of my recollections, I’m missing a few): Barilotto Bufala, Murray’s Cavemaster Reserve Little Big Apple, Murray’s Cavemaster Reserve Hudson Flower, Tomme Vaudoise, Holzhorne Geiss, aka “Wooden Goat” from Willi Schmid, Vendeen Bichonne, Beaufort d’Ete AOC, Rush Creek Reserve, Hafod Cheddar, Jasper Hill Bayley Hazen Blue, Rogue River Blue. Oh, and did I mention the deep-fried Buffalo Wisconsin Cheese Curds? ;)
If you want to learn more, check out Kirstin’s book!