Monthly Archives: February 2015

Climb Every Mountain: An Ode to Alpine Cheese

I really like Alpine cheeses. A lot. So much so that I’m having a hard time refraining from the use of expletives to describe how much, suffice it to say that this declaration is missing modifiers.

I’ll even bet that you love them, too. Behind the cheese counter, we have certain wheels we refer to as “crowd-pleasers.” Sounds like code for “boring,” but it is anything but when we use it to describe the family of cheeses made in the mountains. Gruyère, Raclette, Comté, Emmentaler, the classic holey Swiss your Grandma put on sandwiches—chances are, you’ve tasted and most likely loved an Alpine cheese.

“Alpine” doesn’t always mean a cheese is made in the Alps, though. The styles have been replicated in mountain regions the world over, most notably in the American Northeast (big ups, New England!), so we’ll refer to them as Alpine & mountain cheeses interchangeably.

You know what we love most about these cheeses? They’re made with the milk of cows who graze decadent mountain pasture all summer, then are received back in their valley hometowns with a huge party. The cows are adorned with flower crowns and gold bells before being paraded down the mountain and fawned over by the village people, who rely on these cows for their livelihood, not to mention the food that sustains them through frigid winters.

Literally, they throw their well-fed cows a big parade. We have so much to learn from these people.

Cow-In-The-Alps-Computer-BackgroundThe practice is called transhumance—moving cows up the mountain steadily as the snow melts in spring, to guarantee they’re grazing the lushest, most verdant pastures (throwing a party for your cows is just called being a badass). Transhumance has been practiced since at least the twelfth century, when a ton of the name-controlled cheeses we eat today got their starts. Comté, #1 cheese crush of the shop, dates back to 1115! And the earliest records of Raclette go as far back as 1291. With this kind of history, it’s no wonder the government gets involved in regulating what makes a Comté a Comté. They keep a close eye on process, to ensure the cheeses are being made the same way today that conditions necessitated back in the day—and to distinguish those doing it old-school from larger, industrial cheese makers.

Cows need to be milked every day, so to avoid costly shleps down the mountain, chalets were built at different elevations to make cheese with the fresh milk. To get proper name recognition nowadays, milk must be immediately cooked the day it was milked, usually in copper pots over open wood fires. Both milk and curds are cooked this way, which creates the notes of caramel, brown butter and brown sugar present in mountain cheeses. It was also a major pain to lug bags of salt up the mountain back then, so these cheeses boast a pliable meltability and sweetness due to lack of sodium.

Without salt, the cheeses need to be made in enormous wheels of up to 20lbs. to provide stability—the higher surface-area-to-volume ratio causes greater moisture evaporation, and the resulting drier cheeses are hardier, easier to preserve, age, and carry with on the journey.

Aside from the basics, the government regulations vary from cheese to cheese. Most of them require that cows eat only dried meadow hay during winter months in the valley. Raclette can only be made with the milk of grass-fed cows who never ate from silos. Vacherin Mont d’Or has to be made with the milk of Montbéliard cows that has been thermised, a temp below pasteurization that allows more flavors to come through. To be called Abondance, a cheese must be set in a concave mold and aged on spruce planks, and to be called Comté, each cow is required to have at least one hectare of grazing land to itself (approximately two football fields)!

And within each of those styles, there is tons more variation among the mountain communities—which country they are in (the Alps include France, Switzerland, Italy, & Austria, among others), what plants are native to the region, whether the cows grazed north or south-facing slopes, and the soil conditions. This one class of cheese allows as much room for complexity as wine, and they boast a range of possible flavor profiles to match. From toasted nuts, burnt butter and a garden of floral notes, to savory wild herbs and even a pronounced meatiness, these cheeses contain just about every word I think of when imagining a perfect food. And luckily for you guys, we have a few pointers on how to draw out all this nuance.

Cheeses like this L'Etivaz, Gruyere, or Comte have a rich creaminess and a melt-in-your-mouth buttery quality that needs a little zest in a pairing. Mostarda, an Italian condiment of preserved fruits & mustard powder, keeps these cheeses balanced.

Food—We eat these cheeses in winter because of when and how they’re made, but also because they are damn good melters. Stateside standards like mac ‘n’ cheese, grilled cheese, & fondue perform beautifully with Alpines, but they also shine in their hometown classics like an oozy Raclette wheel melted by an open fire, or the creamy, funky potato bacon gratin they call Tartiflette.

Potatoes show up all over Alpine preparations, so we don’t think you’d be crazy to nosh on some Gruyère with a French fry, or even to melt some on top of potato chips. For pairings, you can play off the flavors present in a mountain cheese—toasted nuts, salty caramels, browned butter and fresh wild herbs are all great matches. And on the flip side, you can choose foods that present opposite qualities, for balance—tangy mostarda or chutney, zesty marmalades & relishes, pickles, or anything else acidic is going to lighten up a rich, sweet-cream piece of mountain cheese. And perhaps one of the easiest and simplest pairings is Comté and apple slices—a duo often requested by our shop owner’s daughter in her school lunches. Try brown-bagging some for yourself tomorrow! You’ll be thanking us later.photo (54)

Drink—As it goes with food, these mountain cheeses pair best with warming winter libations. Oaky chardonnays match the rich, woodsy tones in Alpines, while Reisling brightens the sweet notes of cooked sugar. Doppelbocks and porters employ hops & roasty malts to wake up notes of grass and toasted hazelnuts. It’s customary to do shots of a fruity schnapps with your mountain cheese courses in Switzerland, and given how well apples go with Comté, we think the Pommeau aperitif from Carr’s Cider House would make a great substitute (ya know, if you don’t keep schnapps lying around). For bold cheeses like Winnimere (a Vermont-made riff on Vacherin Mont d’Or), we think the distinctive tannins from its belt of local bark go great with a peaty Scotch or rye whiskey.

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We carry an array of mountain cheeses on our shelves at any given time, so be sure to ask your monger for their current recommendations. Here’s a brief list of some of our favorites, grouped by their maker or importer:

Heublemen, Nufenen, Maxx Extra, Challerhocker: These heavy-weights come to us from Columbia Cheese and the man, the legend Adam Moskowitz. Adam travels to the Alps constantly to taste wheels in the Jura mountains. The wheels we get from him are always bursting with flavor and dense, creamy interiors. They are rich and fudgey, yet often peppered with crunchy crystals of tyrosine, the amino acid protein left behind when milk proteins break down with age (in case you ever wondered why older cheeses have a crunch to them). Name-controlled and traditional, these are some of our oldest and most by-the-book Alpine cheeses.

Pleasant Ridge Reserve: One of the winningest cheeses in the history of the American Cheese Society, this take on Beaufort/Gruyère comes from Wisconsin’s Upland’s Cheese Company. It’s a little ironic for one of the best mountain cheeses made in the States to come from our country’s large swath of flatlands, but the two families who work the land at Upland’s have spent years molding their farm to meet the needs required by these Alpine styles. Aged up to two years, the Pleasant Ridge Reserve is only made with the summer milk of cows who are rotated daily to graze leafy, abundant fields along the hilly crest of Pleasant Ridge. They’ve also spent decades on selective crossbreeding of their closed herd, tweaking to suit the needs of the cheeses they make. The cream for Pleasant Ridge provides a perfect ratio of fat to protein before it even hits the cooking vat, so it’s no wonder the finished product is so rich & luxurious. Crunchy yet smooth, sweet-tart and just a touch savory, this cheese tastes downright professional.

At Uplands Cheese Company, wheels of Pleasant Ridge get washed in a brine solution several times a week to encourage the growth of certain bacteria & draw out the flavors of local microflora in the milk. Photo c/o uplandscheese.com

At Uplands Cheese Company, wheels of Pleasant Ridge get washed in a brine solution several times a week to encourage the growth of certain bacteria & draw out the flavors of local microflora in the milk. Photo c/o uplandscheese.com

Springbrook Tarentaise, Tarentaise Reserve, & Raclette: Springbrook Farm’s cheese program is headed by Jeremy Stephenson, who lived in Europe and trained with French cheesemakers for several years before attempting his Vermont-made take on the classic Tarentaise & Raclette styles. It’s fair to say he’s been successful, with the cheeses garnering several awards from the ACS (including Best in Show) over the years. His Tarentaise Reserve, an extra-aged version of the younger Tarentaise, has become such a commodity in the American cheese world that we often sit on waiting lists for it for months. Crunchy, creamy, salty and sweet, with a beautiful concave rind to mimic its French parentage, this is easily one of the best cheeses made in America today.

Consider Bardwell Rupert: Another ACS winner, slightly different than the other cheeses listed here, Rupert has a deep, warm goldenrod paste, with a drier and cleaner texture that boasts savory, umami flavors–on his last visit to the shop, Consider Bardwell’s cheesemaker Chris Gray told us that lately, it’s been reminding him of red miso. A great pick Alpine lovers looking to mix it up.

photo 2 (6)Jasper Hill’s Alpha Tolman & Winnimere: Also a Best in Show winner and also a step apart from the nutty, fudgy wheels on this list, Winnimere is Jasper Hill’s take on Jura mountain classics like Försterkäse or Vacherin Mont d’Or (cheeses that date back to Louis XV’s time). This coral-rinded wheel is girdled by spruce bark harvested in Vermont’s forests, and washed with VT’s coveted Hill Farmstead Beer. Already such decadence in its pedigree, and we haven’t even gotten to the cheese pudding that lies within! Winnimere is best eaten with the top cut off and a small spoon sticking out—we encourage folks to scoop this milky velvet substance right out of the bark. Full of meaty earth & dank savory tones, we love this cheese beside beef jerky or candied bacon, or with a nice glass of Scotch.

And the Alpha Tolman aint too shabby, either—a riff on Appenzeller, boasting notes of caramelized onion and dried fruit, this cheese shines next to cornichons, whole grain mustard, and påté.

Robinson Farm’s A Barndance, Prescott, & Robinson Swiss: The hills of central Massachusetts may not be as steep as those in the Alps, but that doesn’t stop the Robinson Family from trying their hand at French classics like Comté and Abondance. The farm in Hardwick, MA has been in the family for four generations, but it wasn’t until Pam & Ray took over that they decided to start crafting unique cheeses for retail consumption. What started as a project to add value to their raw milk has since morphed into a family love affair with mountain cheeses. And while their wheels don’t taste the same as those from the Alps, they follow the most important principles of grassfed, raw and organic fresh milk. Their cheeses have a cleaner, smoother, and more firm paste, full of tiny holes and grassy, sweet flavors that come right out of the bucolic Massachusetts countryside.

Processed with VSCOcam with f2 presetL’Etivaz Gruyere: A new addition to our wall, this cheese is named for a village in Switzerland where 76 revolutionary families reside. These are the folks who, in 1930, rebelled against the government’s cheese regulations and started their village’s own designation of origin. L’Etivaz is essentially 19th-century Gruyère—the creators felt that cheesemakers were getting too lax in their production of the stuff, and needed to follow the stricter guidelines required 100 years ago. A little creamier, less sharp, and far nuttier than a standard Gruyère, this huge wheel offers a special taste of history.

Marcel Petit Forte St. Antoine Comté: Last, but furthest from least, the Marcel Petit Comté is easily one of our most consistent, complex, and elegant cheeses. After being made in the mountains, wheels of Comté are selected by affineurs who then monitor their aging process. Marcel Petit has revolutionized affinage, by using a WWII military bunker in the French countryside, and by having tasters monitor the wheels’ flavor profiles daily and only pulling them when their flavor is at its peak. They spend at least a year in the cool, damp fort, fortified by concrete walls and nestled into a grassy hillside. Tasters turn the wheels and care for them, tracking their progress in search of the perfect marriage of fruity and nutty, creamy and sharp, herbal and floral.

The wheels Marcel Petit deems worthy of export go through one more test of perfection by our importer, Essex St. Cheese, who started their whole business around importing only the best wheels of this specific Comté. By the time it gets to our counter, we are undoubtedly giving you a damn-near-perfect piece of cheese.

An affineur at Fort St. Antoine monitors wheels of Comté. Photo c/o comte-petit.com

An affineur at Fort St. Antoine monitors wheels of Comté. Photo c/o comte-petit.com

And these are just our most commonly stocked mountain cheeses—we get a smattering of exciting Alpines throughout the winter so be sure to always ask what’s in stock if you’re a fan of the nutty-fudgey-creamy-fruity. Willow Hill Farm’s Butternut makes rare but delightful appearances, and we try to keep Cobb Hill’s Ascutney Mountain around as much as we can. Right now is the best time to get our largest selection of Alpines—challenge yourself to try them all!

February Beer & Wine of the Month Club

Whether you’re celebrating Cupid or damning his name this month, it’s never a bad thing when society gives you an excuse to indulge. The February classics—oysters, chocolate, bubbles, lush cheeses and rich steaks—are just as enjoyable eaten on the floor during a Netflix binge as they are when shared with the one you love. We’ve put together a box of goodies that will make you feel pampered, and we don’t care if you enjoy the contents with your best friends, with your lover, or with no one at all (who says you have to share?)

From luxurious sour cherry wild ales and chocolate oyster stouts to suggestively-titled red Burgundy, this box hits all the usual suspects and then some. We also have a spicy horchata milk stout that we trekked through blizzards to procure for you, a sparkling pinot noir, and gorgeous marshmallows for impromptu fondue. We hope these treats find their way to an intimate, personal table topped with candles, cartoon Valentines, or just dozens of bottles of nail polish. This February, raise your glass to the most deep, undying connection in all our lives—the love of good food. photo (28)

The Drinks

Foolproof Brewing Shuckolate: A limited edition Valentine’s Day brew from Pawtucket, Rhode Island’s Foolproof Brewing, the Shuckolate is a salty-sweet combo made for lovin’. A romantic collab between Walrus & Carpenter Oysters and Garrison Confections, this oyster stout is brewed with 300 oyster shells! This mineral brininess provides a perfect counterpoint to the sumptuous velvety chocolate, resulting in a beer that screams decadence. Put on some Barry White or Frank Ocean, let your cheese come to room temperature, and this seductive brew will wash away all your troubles. ABV {6%}

Night Shift Brewing Art #20: El Lechedor: Boy, let me tell you the lengths we went to get you this beer! From Night Shift’s limited Art series, the El Lechedor was released on January 28, two days after the first big blizzard. The boys at Night Shift told us there wouldn’t be enough to give us a case, but that we could come to the release party and try to snag a few bombers. Our beer buyer Caley braved the Orange Line and the snowdrifts along Route 16 in Everett (a treacherous walk any time of year) and returned to the shop victorious! We got just enough for you guys in the Beer Club, which is the kind of magic this club was made for. We are now proud to give you Art #20, a Mexican-style Horchata Milk Stout brewed with poblano peppers, cinnamon, nutmeg, and vanilla beans, and fermented in oak barrels. Spicy, creamy, and sweet, this bottle smells like fresh green chilies and tastes like a sunset near the equator—drink it in. ABV {6.9%}

Allagash Brewing Midnight BrettTo round out our collection of sensual experiences, the Midnight Brett from Portland, ME’s Allagash Brewing is a master of seduction. We were stunned by its beauty when it first graced the Allagash Instagram a few weeks ago, cloaked in dark, sultry shadows. Blood-black in color but full of ripe, red fruit flavor, this beer is fermented in stainless steel tanks with the Allagash house strain of brettanomyces. It has a sour cherry character tempered by a tart dryness, and is slightly more light-bodied than your average Flemish red. Wilder than Monk’s Cafe or Duchesse de Bourgogne, yet rich enough to be on par with those titans, we think this beer is a dream date for the cheese and chocolate in your box. ABV {7.3%}    photo 1

Leitz Spätburgunder Weissherbst Sekt Brut 2013: From the Rheingau vineyards of Johannes Leitz, a winemaker growing in esteem every day, we get this stunning bottle of sparkling Pinot Noir (Spätburgunder in German). The de-stemmed grapes go directly to press where they macerate for 3 hours before being gently pressed. From then on out, they undergo a white wine process. Secondary fermentation occurs in stainless steel tanks, leaving us with a light and sprightly bottle overflowing with ripe grapefruit and sharp acidity. Every bottle we’ve gotten from the Leitz estate has blown us away with its remarkable sense of the dry and lively German terroir, and this bubbly rosé is no exception. A surefire way to impress your Valentine, even if you’re your own Valentine.

 

Paul Janin-et-Fils Moulin-a-Vent Séduction 2007: All the bottles from Paul Janin et Fils are marked with a stoic windmill that has overlooked their vineyards since the 15th century. In the same silent, consistent way, this family of winemakers has tended their vines for generations. The Janins farm in flaky, pink granite soil that produces structured and powerful age-worthy wines. This 2007 bottle of single-estate Cru Beaujolais boasts a spicy nose with hints of mint. Romantic floral notes of jasmine and rose play on the palate with faint red fruits, before finishing dry on notes of wet leaf and rustic earth. This red burgundy provides an enticing partner to any of the amorous foods you enjoy this month.

 

Tenuta Ponte Grecco di Tufo 2009: A gorgeous winter white from central Irpinia, where the Greco & Coda di Volpe are grown on hillsides with good exposure and excellent soil. Delicate, full-bodied, and round with a pale golden hue and an intense, lingering finish, this food-friendly wine from the Campania region pairs excellently with the cheese in your box. With a hint of biscuit on the nose and bold flavors of peach and apple, it’s easy to see why the whites of Tenuta Ponte are regarded as some of the best in southern Italy. This wine has a refreshing minerality ready to wash down anything from oysters to indulgent steaks and rich, creamy sauces—in other words, the perfect Valentine’s Day white.

The Snacks

Ruggles Hill Creamery Ada’s Honor: Last month, we received our first cheeses from Tricia Smith & Michael Holland, goat farming wizards and national-award-winning cheesemakers. These guys raise their Oberhasli and Saanen goats in the beautiful historical relic that is Hardwick, MA. These idyllic surroundings are where the goats grow up, and where Tricia and Michael hand-craft all of their cheeses with a care and attention to detail that shines through in the finished product. Ada’s Honor, named for their first herd queen, is a bloomy rind goat cheese modeled after a French Chabichou. The earthy rind complements the compact citrusy body. The taste is mild yet complex, reflecting the exquisite milk produced by these happy, grass-fed goats.photo 3 (2)

Mast Brothers Chocolate Sheep Milk Bar: Bean-to-bar chocolate began as a move away from milky candy bars, over-sweetened stuff that bore no resemblance to cacao beans. Lately, though, the call for a craft milk chocolate has grown louder, and the makers are finally listening. But would you expect Brooklyn’s premier chocolatiers, Rick & Michael Mast, to do basic milk chocolate? Of course not. These Iowa brothers, known for sailing a ship across the ocean to personally source their beans, have released three milk bars this year that really flip the script. The line contains a sheep, cow, and goat milk bar, meant to highlight the milk itself as an ingredient worthy of spotlight. Each pairing of milk type and cacao origin is a deliberate match to coax out nuance. This bar pairs sheeps milk with the Peruvian cacao, releasing flavors of fig, mushroom, & walnut. A great match for Ada’s Honor.

Sweet Lydia’s Assorted Marshmallows: These adorable gourmet mallows are hand-made in Lowell, MA by Sweet Lydia herself, a woman who got started crafting sweet favors for friends and family. Lydia’s business took off when she made mallows for her own wedding, a lucrative business move that sweetened the deal with her husband and got her name out there in the confection world. In raspberry, mocha, vanilla, and toasted coconut, these mallows are incredibly versatile—they can be toasted, s’mored, plopped into a cup of hot cocoa, or dipped into some chocolate fondue (our personal Valentine’s Day favorite).