An Unapologetic Cheese Plate

Anya's Cheese Plate

But I would walk 500 miles
And I would walk 500 more
Just to be the (wo)man who walked a thousand miles
To fall down at your door

For show-stopping cheese and some well deserved time to myself, I would walk 5 miles at the very least, for fromage that makes my taste buds do a pirouette. Today, with my family out of town on a camping trip and the desire to recharge my batteries, I set off on foot to the Cheese Board Collective in Berkeley (exactly 5 miles, round-trip).

All the way, The Proclaimers song I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles) was running a loop in my head. The theme being, with time to myself and my pick of activities, I would walk however long it takes to fall down at the door of a good cheese-monger in pursuit of cheese transcendence.

Today was my day to personalize a cheese plate that pairs music (in this case The Proclaimers), a good pale ale, multi-seed crackers, and nectarine chutney with three ‘big personality’ cheeses: Saint Agur – a double crème blue cheese, Old Quebec Vintage Cheddar, and Bierekase – a Wisconsin made Limburger-style cheese.

Now, Caleb and Sadie love most cheeses I place in their mouths, but these three might scare off even the most open-minded adult. Saint Agur is a creamy cow’s milk blue cheese from France with a sexy mouth-feel (that’s right, I just worked “sexy mouth-feel” into a sentence!) and a pleasing taste and aroma that lingers for a while. The Old Quebec is the perfect example of a sharp white cheddar that leaves a lasting impression on your palate and makes you want to savor it beneath the shade of a prolific fruit tree.

The Narsai’s Nectarine Chutney that I purchased for this cheese plate was the perfect match for the cheddar, but complimented the other cheeses. The pungent Bierekase was an ass-kicker of a cheese. I went to the cheese counter hoping to find an example of a Tilset (which they did not have in stock) and came away with a new favorite, strong enough to scare off a bad date!

This exercise of creating my very own, unapologetic cheese pairing, walking several miles to get the goods, and taking the weekend off to really savor it comes at a time when it is clear I have been running on fewer cylinders than is necessary to function as the best version of myself. This was my much-needed time for introspection; for taking up as much space in the Universe as I need; for figuring out how to integrate my passions more fully into my life. A time to blast dorky music of my choosing, and to consume really stinky cheese.

Da da lat da (Da da lat da)
Da da lat da (Da da lat da)

Eating Pascal Tomini

In late April, I wrote a post titled Cheese Glorious Cheese about a fabulous cheese class that I participated in at the Cheese Board Collective in Berkeley. I came away from that class with my very own cheese to care for, which I have done lovingly and diligently over the past month. I named my pet cheese “Pascal Tomini” as the style of cheese was a pasteurized, cow’s milk Tomini.

Tomini (sometimes called Tomino) cheese can be enjoyed fresh or aged. In Pascal’s case, we let him ripen for one month until he was surrounded in white bloom and looked like a proper cheese. Caleb and I had each taken turns flipping him over on a daily basis. At last we were ready to see what our cheese tasted like.

We were expecting guests over for dinner tonight and I thought it would be perfect to offer the cheese and some baguette slices as an appetizer. I prepared my little pet cheese on a plate and left it out for an hour until it came close to room temperature.

Once our guests arrived and had wine in hand, I brought out the cheese plate. Eager to taste my first cheese experiment, I placed a wedge of the cheese on top of a baguette piece and excitedly bit into it expecting to be wowed by the soft, creamy, stinki-ness of it all. Not so much the case! My cheese was lacking flavor, texture, and luster. Frankly, Pascal Tomini was a bore!

Our guests politely ate the cheese and commended our efforts. Caleb gobbled his wedge up, but I think he was more excited about the slice of baguette it was riding on, than anything else. Still, I was proud of myself for taking on my first cheese and caring for it for over a month until it was ready to be eaten. Next go-around, I would salt it more and let it ripen longer, but that’s why we throw out the first pancake, no?

What came of this exercise is that I’m no longer intimidated by cheese-making and am eager to keep at it. I look forward to involving the kids more and to experimenting with mozzarella, ricotta, and cheeses that need to ripen over time. For such a huge lover of ‘all things cheese’, it was exciting to finally make my own and really get my hands into it. To a noble first effort!

Cheese Glorious Cheese!

We have a new family member, Pascal Tomini. He’s young, pasty, and a little high-maintenance. Pascal is the pet cheese I brought home from the fabulous cheese-making class I participated in at the Cheese Board in Berkeley.

As you can imagine, seconds lapsed between the time I heard about this class and when I registered for it. Any opportunity to stand in the back of the Cheese Board kitchen, with a collection of other cheese devotees, was a huge attraction. I own a book on home cheese making, but am intimidated by the step-by-step process. Having an experienced teacher walk me through each step would make it much more accessible.

On Wednesday evening after work, I met up with my friends Kerry and Jennifer at Cheese Board Pizza, just a few doors down from the Cheese Board (where the class was to be held). It was raining wildly outside as we sat inside, gobbling down delectable slices of pesto covered zucchini pizza, enjoyed with a glass of red wine. Live jazz music was playing at one end of the room, and the place was packed. I could have sat there all evening soaking up the cool Berkeley atmosphere.

It was time to head over to our cheese-making class. We grabbed our umbrellas and walked two doors down to the bakery. Once inside, we were offered white aprons and were ushered to the back of the kitchen where the class was getting underway. Our teacher simply donned a name tag that said “Cow”, so that’s how I’ll refer to her. Cow runs a cheese school called The Milk Maid in San Francisco and is an experienced cheese maker and instructor.

My friends and I stood around the large kitchen prep tables under soft lighting, surrounded by other participants who were as eager to learn the steps involved in cheese-making as we were. I was in heaven! The expansive cheese counter to my left, the large ovens that produce some of the best baked goods I’ve ever delighted in, to my right.

In front of us were cheese forms, a large cookie sheet, and a tiny tray with a sampling of various cheeses made from a variety of processes. Cow explained that we were going to learn how to make a crottin or tomini recipe (a lactic set cheese, best eaten fresh to moderately aged), and then she walked us through the basic steps for making ‘lactic set cheeses’. As I had hoped, the instructor demystified the process, making it accessible and exciting.

The experiential portion of the class involved ladling large curds of cow’s milk into my small plastic form and allowing it to drain over the cookie sheet. After listening to Cow’s clear instructions, we all went home with happy cheese-filled bellies, and our curd-filled cheese forms, soon to evolve into true aged cheese.

So, Pascal Tomini and I drove home together in the rain. I introduced him to the other family members, and then put him to bed on the kitchen counter. Excited to expose Caleb to the cheese-making process, I involved him the next day by having him gently remove the cheese from the form, then sprinkle both sides with salt. We carefully placed Pascal in a Tupperware container (lid not quite on) and then into the fridge.

Over the next few weeks, Caleb and I will follow his progress, turn him over daily, and take in deep inhalations of the promise of good cheese eating to be had.

Stay tuned…

World Enough and Time

My dad wrote the following piece at the end of a lovely day spent together. I had asked him to put his take on our day in writing; a day of hand-holding, good conversation, and pork rib donations to the table next to us (my dad – a most generous soul and more of a Jewish mother than most I know – has to feed others and share a good thing). I am most impressed with his ability to read me so well. I love my Pa immensely and truth to tell, since my mom’s death four years ago, I have been clinging a little more consciously to our precious time together.

By Manny Blackman

These days, Anya mostly calls me ‘Pa’. In her teens (shudder), I was mostly Dad as in “Dad, you are so embarrassing!” Well, the other day she called me with a brilliant idea! How about if she takes a day off her work and we spend some one-on-one time together? I knew her work and family responsibilities were taxing and how rare the opportunities were for a breakout day such as this. We agreed to go for it.

After some sweet time at The Cheese Board Collective in Berkeley sampling exotic cheese, fruit pastry, and a little coffee, we came to decision time – where to next? The choices were North Beach, Chinatown, or whatever. We decided on whatever…the Brown Sugar Kitchen.

Located in Oakland’s industrial suburb, this Louisiana eatery is very special in all of its aspects. It is well worth the short wait for seating amidst the genial and appreciative customers. I am no stranger to this wonderful restaurant; however, it was a first for my foodie daughter. Brown Sugar Kitchen features mostly Louisiana area delights. These include, but are not limited to fried chicken and waffles, spicy gumbo with smoked chicken and shrimp over basmati rice (the clear winner for Anya).

Our fast-moving and cheerful waitress had no difficulty in fathoming our father/daughter connection. Truth is, we rather do look alike thanks to a direct genetic gift from Moses hisself! The joint is packed as we await the arrival of her gumbo, an oyster po’ boy sandwich, and my Jim Dandy to the rescue ribs!  My people-watching sweep of this non-kosher paradise brought my gaze back to my Anya. She had been locked onto my face for a goodly bit of time. I asked if there was anything wrong. “No Pa”, she said, but I know her too well to believe that.

I know that her mother’s death had hit her very hard. It had hit all my children hard, but for Anya and my son Kevin, perhaps the heaviest. All of us had, and still do have a personal sense of what might have been “had we but world enough and time”…

I am fast approaching my 82nd birthday. As it draws near, I have no sense of trepidation or dread. Truth is, I am a very lucky Jew. This whole lifetime has been like going to my personal movie without my being in charge. Certain scenes would certainly have been cut and left on the floor. I have read that Gary Cooper, a star of western movies had an only daughter who, upon his passing was “inconsolable”.  My hope is that my children are more than consolable.

My hope is that they will understand that the focus of those who came before was on life and light and hope and kindness…..and love.

Me 'Pa'

Next up…living in a world without my mom in it (if you’ll indulge me).