Sweet Dreams Are Made Of Cheese

Niki_Anya1

As we all learn one way or another, this life we were gifted with is extraordinarily precious. Time spent with those we love is fleeting, even though it’s hard to admit. I treasure perfect moments, which are the essence of life. Last night, an adventure into the city with my sister Niki, was filled with many of these perfect moments.

I recently asked Niki – big sister, second mother, and close confidant – if she wanted to join me for a cheese class in San Francisco. Apparently, I had her at cheese because recruiting her took no great coaxing.

Last night, we met just after work and immediately tripped over to North Beach to begin our cheese adventure. First, we enjoyed a simple Italian meal at L ‘Osteria Del Forno on Columbus Avenue in the heart of one of my favorite neighborhoods in San Francisco. Our Italian waitress hailed from the Piedmont region of Italy. I engaged her in a conversation about outstanding cheeses from her region, which is known for some exceptional ones.

Niki and I caught up over a lovely dish of burrata cheese laid out on a nest of arugula, beneath a drizzle of vinaigrette. I enjoyed a platter of thinly sliced prosciutto, white beans, shaved parmigiano reggiano cheese, and a drizzling of olive oil, salt and pepper. Talking with my sister over a rustic, Italian meal and a good glass of white wine (with North Beach buzzing just outside the window), was cheap therapy. I felt prepared to take on part two of our evening of cheese – our class at the Cheese School of San Francisco, Cheeses of the Loire Valley.

Our fabulous instructor, Colette Hatch, walked us through a spectacular plate of cheeses from the Loire region. Mostly goat. All delicious. We sampled: Couronne Lochoise, Pyramides de Touraine (one of my favorites; an ash covered, pyramid-shaped, well-aged goat wonder), Bucherondin, Le Chevrot, Tomme de Rabelais (transcendent; elegant, smoky, nutty, and rich – how I hope to be described in my later years), Tomme de Fontenay, Vandéen Bichonné, and Bleu du Bocage (the perfect example of a goat blue, which are hard to come by). The majority of the cheeses were made by the grand masters of affinage, Rodolphe Le Meunier and Pascal Beillevaire.

Having my sister join me for this class was a treat beyond words. I love that she so easily participated in a subject that I’m passionate about. This was an opportunity to share my pure enthusiasm for ‘all things cheese’ as she sat there alongside me, enjoying herself just as much.

The class wrapped up and Niki and I stepped back onto the city streets at dusk. As we walked to the car, then for the ride home, we talked excitedly about how much we enjoyed the class, eating a selection of phenomenal cheeses, and just how lovely it was to spend quality time together.

I went to bed with cheese on my mind and sumptuous memories of a succession of perfect moments spent with someone whom I love immensely. Did I mention the cheese?

Niki_Anya2

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)

Grilled Cheese? Yes, Please!

What the world needs now is more cheese martyrs. A selfless crew of individuals like myself, willing to sacrifice their time and taste buds to bring attention to the plight of neglected cheeses. I can’t think of a tougher hardship than being trapped in a room full of curd-nerds, forced to eat freshly made, gourmet grilled cheese sandwiches, a plate full of artisan cheeses, and a selection of wines that paired beautifully with each cheese.

Last night, for the greater good, I participated in an outstanding class at the Cheese School of San Francisco, called “Grilled Cheese, Please!” Led by the inimitable, surprisingly funny, and most fabulous Laura Werlin. Laura, who is a consummate cheese professional, led us through an informative and entertaining two-hour session of cheese and wine tasting. Although I consider myself fairly knowledgeable when it comes to the subject of cheese, there was much to learn. I couldn’t have fathomed all of the sublime flavor combinations that can be had between two slices of quality bread.

The cheese selection included Redwood Hill Farm’s Goat Feta, Marieke Gouda from Holland’s Family Farm in Wisconsin, Pleasant Ridge Reserve from Uplands Cheese Co., two types of fromage blanc (goat and cow), Pt. Reyes Farmstead’s Toma (crazy about!!), Hook’s 5-year Cheddar, and Cabot Creamery’s Clothbound Cheddar (love!!).

We were offered four examples of gourmet grilled cheese sandwiches, each made with the cheeses I mentioned, as well as other surprising ingredients like sautéed leeks, sour cherries, spinach, basil, kalamata olives, bacon, avocado, and maple syrup. Go figure!

My favorite grilled cheese by far was ‘The Greek’, a riff on spanikopita. Buttery, golden-grilled multi-grain sourdough filled with sautéed leeks, spinach, garlic, and a meltingly good combination of the Redwood Hill Farm Goat Feta and the Marieke Gouda. Although the sandwich paired well with the Scharffenberger sparkling wine we were served, it was impressive on its own.

Caleb and Sadie will be thrilled when we start experimenting with the cheese-packed sandwich recipes I came away with. I also look forward to testing out my own grilled cheese concoctions, with a combination of cheeses and ingredients that compliment them. I think I could get used to being a ‘cheese martyr’. Somebody’s got to do it!

C is for Cheese

If you know me well enough by now, you’re clear on at least two things…I’m crazy about cheese and I love my City. Can you imagine how happy I was last night to take a cheese class in San Francisco?

After work, I trekked into the City by BART, then jumped on a classic trolley car (F Line) stuffed with tourists, and headed toward the The Cheese School of San Francisco. The class was called Cheeses of France and it felt like I was walking toward the gates of heaven.

Once I arrived, I received a warm welcome and a glass of French white wine (2011 La Cadette de Fiere Côtes de Gascogne). Participants were invited to sit around a large table, which was nicely appointed with gorgeous plates of cheese at every setting, as well as elegant wine glasses, baskets filled with sliced baguette, a ramekin of chutney, and a dish of sweet, ripe strawberries.

The instructor began to walk us through each cheese, placed clockwise on our plate. With such joie de vivre, she described the cheese and what region in France it originated from, had us touch it, smell it, observe the color and texture, and then slowly place a piece in our mouths. We were challenged to slowly savor each sample and observe the reaction on our palates. Was the cheese buttery, salty, sweet, nutty? Did it have a lasting aftertaste? Was it elegant, surprising, reminiscent, palatable? Yes! Yes! Yes!

I slowly devoured each piece, interspersing sips of French wine (we were also served a 2009 Delas, “St. Espirit,” Côtes du Rhône), nibbles of bread, dried fruit, and ripe strawberries. I swear I was levitating above the ground in a transcendent state of cheese bliss.

A few things I learned: you cannot make good cheese with bad milk, it’s not a ‘Brie’ if it’s not made in the Normandy region, raw milk has more flavor, the cheese maker’s style of ladling the curds affects the flavor of the cheese, sourdough bread doesn’t pair well with cheese, and American wines contain too much alcohol to pair effectively with cheese…best to enjoy with French and other wines that contain a lower percentage of alcohol.

I will leave you with a list of the cheeses I sampled and encourage you to visit your local cheese purveyor to explore some of these on your own:

Brillat-Savarin – Triple crème, pairs well with champagne, buttery, grassy, and slightly peppery.

Valençay – One of my favorites! Stinky, creamy, delicious. Pyramid shape – creamy on side, compact in middle. Don’t serve before dinner.

Tomme Crayeuse – Butter scented, creamy, barn-yardy, chalky in middle. Pairs well with Syrah wine, best enjoyed when funkier looking (riper).

Trois Lait – Nutty, high in butterfat, rubbery texture, melts well.

Comté – Equivalent to Switzerland’s Gruyere, nutty, firm, and perfect for fondue.

Époisses – Ooh la la! Salty, ripe, drippy, grassy, wash-rind cheese. Elegant, pungent, and pairs well with a Pinot.

Tomme Brûlée – A Basque shepherd’s cheese – delicious, nutty, rich, and truly tastes like it was made high up in the Pyrenees.

Fourme au Moelleux – The show-stopper! A blue-veined cheese that could be a meal to itself. Rich, salty, and covers your palate completely, leaving your taste-buds absolutely enchanted!

The Cheese School of San Francisco is located at 2155 Powell Street, 2nd Floor, San Francisco, CA 94133

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…