Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Ossau Iraty

The Ossau Iraty (OH-so ear-ah-TEE) has maintained its status as my favorite sheep's milk cheese for months now. I have always had a soft spot for the French Pyrenees sheep cheeses (Abbaye de Belloc anyone) but this firm, dry, nutty wonder holds a special place in my heart. The Ossau hails from the Pyrenees-Atlantiques in the southwestern corner of France. It has a natural rind with a pale beige hue and the paste has a deep ivory color. It is a hard cheese, often a bit crumbly, but slightly sweet and creamy in the mouth. The texture is similar to Berkswell (U.K.) and Vermont Shepherd (U.S.), but neither holds a candle to the nutty complexity I find in each bite of the Ossau. It is also an A.O.C. (controlled origin) cheese in France, meaning that every wheel of this beauty is made to the highest standards every time. Pair it with an earthy red or anything from the Basque country.

Monday, March 9, 2009

The World of Herve Mons

The other day we were paid a visit at the shop by Laure Dubouloz, US Representative and affineur for Herve Mons. She gave us a spiel on the Mons operation, showed us some amazing photos of their aging facilities and bragged about some of their suppliers and cheese makers (we're talking 3rd generation cheese makers milking one thousand goats twice a day - real deal shit). But most importantly Laure brought along some Mons-aged beauties for us to taste, including the elusive new goat's tome - the Bois Noirs.

Herve Mons the man is a third generation French affineur. He has won awards and praise from his peers, including the coveted Les Meilleurs Ouvriers award for his outstanding cheese and is a venerable master amongst cheese aficionados. His focus remains on only sourcing the best cheese from the finest milk, and he is meticulous in his selection of suppliers. And it only gets better from there. Mons was recently granted full access to and use of an abandoned train tunnel in a nearby town. They are currently aging St. Nectaire in 130 meters of underground space, perfectly insulated and humidified by the natural soil above and below.

The Mons operation is still run very much like a family business. There are 30 employees and the small group maintains 5 aging facilities, releases 250 cheeses from 120 suppliers and manages 4 cheese shops. It's a lot of work but they prove that passion and fastidiousness pay off. Basically, anything Herve Mons touches is a winner. We're very fortunate to carry his cheeses and even more so to have been paid a visit by one of his esteemed employees. Here is a bit about what we tasted.

Cazelle de St. Affrique is a young, pasteurized sheep's milk cheese made in a similar fashion to crottin. At six weeks old it had a smooth, dense and slightly gummy texture. The flavor was mildly nutty, with a very clean finish. I really enjoyed the pale yellow-white rind, which was a bit damp and supple and had a slight bitter flavor.

The Tomme Crayeuse taught me many things. I learned that a Tomme was traditionally the cheesemaker's cheese - made with the milk not used in a more affluent cheese production (the leftovers essentially) and eaten at the family table. I learned that a chalky (crayeuse means chalky in french) center and gooey exterior is the result of a poor ph balance during the cheese's development. And I learned that despite all of its flaws and misgivings the Tomme Crayeuse is fucking delicious.

It's an incredibly grassy, pasteurized cow's milk cheese from the Savoie region of France. The wheel I tasted had a lactic sweetness at the center and the more ripened outside was a bit mustier, with mild mushroomy notes. The rind had beautiful red and yellow mold and was fairly bitter.

The Tomme des Bois Noir (bois noir means dark woods in french) is a new undertaking for Herve and his team. For the first time they are managing a herd of goats, taking a cheese from animal to market all on their own. The herd, as told by the name, meanders freely in fields amidst thickly wooded and shadowy pine forests. The process allows for even greater control in the production of the cheese and it seems to be paying off.

The Bois Noir is being released at about 3 months old (though this photograph is of a younger 6 week old wheel). The former has a semi soft and slightly springy texture, typical of many goat cheeses of this age. While the smell is foresty and slightly cellar-esque, the flavor is mild with strong mushroom notes and a little goaty tang. The younger wheel was a bit sweeter, less tangy, and the rind had a yeasty, sweet flavor, as opposed to the earthiness of the older wheel.

Here is a picture of the Epoisses de Gaugry Fromagerie that Mons is pushing right now and Laure's sweet utility knife (her name is emblazoned in ivory on the handle). See below for a bit more on this one.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

You say Ep-Wha, I say Ep-Who?

I have to admit that yesterday was the first time I tasted Epoisses. We were bequeathed a small wheel of this Franco-fantastic wonder by none other than Laure from the world of Herve Mons. It was gorgeous. And it tasted incredible. The texture was unbelievably rich and smooth, but not overwhelming. According to Laure the real trick in making Epoisses is in the balance of alcohol in the wash solution. With just the right mix of alcohol and salt water and a little time spent in a dank cave, Epoisses develops a glistening and bright red rind with an even and thin moist coating.
While the cheese and its potent odor have a bit of a reputation for making the masses whimper and cower in the corner it is actually very well balanced and not the slightest bit overpowering. It has a nice bit of saltiness and leaves your mouth tasting like liver and other delicious meaty organs. Pair it with a fruity and bubbly lambic and some spicy McClure's Pickles and call it a night.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Meadow Creek Dairy: Grayson

Grayson comes from Meadow Creek Dairy down in Galax, Virginia. It's made from Jersey Cow's milk in the style of the Italian Taleggio, but besides the square shape I find the two to be quite different. Grayson has a beautifully rich yellow paste beneath its sunburnt orange rind, which comes from the high fat content of the Jersey Cow milk. I reccommend this cheese a lot to someone who is looking for a washed rind cheese that isn't a complete kick in the mouth. The paste is actually fairly mellow, with really strong grassy notes, and sometimes has a nice floral finish, and the rind is where most of the punch lies. It has a subtle mustiness to it that is at times a bit barnyardy and the texture is slightly granular. Eaten in full stride it is definitely a winner though and a really nice introduction to the washed rind family of cheeses.

Going Behind the Rinds

I am a cheese monger. I am by no means an expert on cheese, but I do have a fair amount of knowledge on the subject. The most incredible thing about my job is the experience of having hundreds of wheels of cheese pass through my hands, allowing me to see, smell and taste each one individually, and over and over again as the seasons change. This is the only way to really get to know cheese, for more than anything it is a living expression of the animals and the land that it comes from.

What I want to do here is simply talk about cheese. All aspects of it really. But I want to focus on how it looks, smells and tastes and what makes it that way. There is no better way to learn about and understand cheese than tasting it. So here is my record of what I taste, and anything else that comes up furthering my education on all things cheese.