Category Archives: The Learning Curd

A Wrinkle in Cheese

Have you ever gone up to a cheese counter, picked up a hunk of cheese, and asked the cheesemonger there “What is this cheese like?” Their responses try to tell you something about the qualities of the cheese – the taste, texture, type of milk – there’s common words and truths about taste that we rely on to describe cheeses. Words that most people can identify in their mind as a particular taste, and they know whether or not they like that familiar descriptor. Of course, the type of milk – cow, goat, or sheep – is a constant. Words like nutty or sharp have a distinct taste – they seem to be divergent. However, a cheese can be both nutty and sharp at the same time. It’s a peculiar paradox.

In Madeleine L’engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, the characters end up on a planet of beasts with no eyes. They’re gray furry blobs that communicate by thoughts and feelings – they don’t have the sense of seeing. The main character Meg tries to explain things like light or sight to the creatures, and putting these concepts into words eludes her.

Essentially, all cheese has the same basic starting points. Milk. Starter cultures. This is how yogurt is made, and ricotta, and mozzarella and aged cheeses take their first steps with these ingredients. It is how they are aged, in what kind of molds, as well as the starting point of the milk, that begins to diversify the flavors and bring about aspects of different cheeses.

It really is remarkable how wide-reaching and completely different cheeses can be with the same basic starting ingredients. These variances are owed mainly to terroir – a term used to attribute a cheese’s unique flavor profile to the environment in which the animal producing the milk feeds. The environment and what they are eating translates to the milk, which translates to the cheese.

So herein lies the difficulty of describing taste. We use specific words to describe them, but there is no one common perfected language used to describe each and every cheese. This in part is due to the fact that when you eat cheese it’s not only what you’re tasting that matters – it’s the way the cheese feels in your mouth. It’s how it interacts with what you’re drinking. For example, a chalky aged goat cheese tastes even better when it’s paired with a lightly sparkling white wine or a dry chardonnay. The wine brings out the richness and fruitiness in the cheese, so that it becomes an even better experience than enjoying just the wine or cheese alone.

So acknowledging all of that, where does that leave us? Terroir of cheese can tell us a lot – if the cheese is earthy, buttery – we know that the animal must’ve been eating something that lent it those aspects. But, as an animal is a living creature, it grazes and it goes to the next pasture and finds its next meal. So day to day, their milk is changing and those multitudes are going into the artisan cheese that you pick up and ask “What is this cheese like?” We can tell you – but the best thing to do, in my opinion, is to taste.

All photos taken by Hillary Anderson.

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!

AP Does Connecticut Again: The Mystic Cheese Co.

Last week we told you about the second half of our day in the Constitution State, drinking sour beers at Two Roads Brewery. Today, we have the daunting task of sharing with you the incredible wealth of knowledge that is Brian Civitello.brianlinnicow

We started our day with Brian, on the beautiful rolling hills of Lebanon, Connecticut. Tucked deep in some dense woods, the landscape opens up suddenly to reveal the vast expanse of fall foliage and pastureland of Graywall Farm. Herds of cows were lapping up a drink at a small brook and it was peaceful and quiet—the only sounds we heard were cows grunting lazily, a flock of birds singing on the roof of the barn, and breezes rustling the orange treetops.

This utopia is where Brian keeps the two shipping containers that house the Mystic Cheese Co. Continue reading

11 Things I Learned at Edible Institute

photo 1Last weekend, one lucky member of the American Provisions team (me!) attended the 2014 Edible Institute, hosted by Edible Communities Publications (the folks responsible for Edible Boston, and 80+ other Edible magazines across the country).

It was an eye-opening two days of talks about the status of the good food movement, and all the media surrounding it. Panel topics ran from brilliant questions like “Why Is The Good Food Movement Drinking So Well,” to punny propositions like “Fermentation Can Rebuild Our Food Culture.” One of my main takeaways from the weekend, however, was that food journalism needs to focus on reaching people who don’t consider themselves “foodies” (though I think even die-hard foodies cringe at that word). What’s one thing everyone, gastronome or not, loves to read? A good old-fashioned Buzzfeed list. So without further adieu, I give you:

11 Things I Learned at Edible Institute Continue reading

Everything’s Coming up Rosés

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Just as we’re starting to think we may never wear shorts again, the most impossible thing happens. In those piles of hardened gray-brown dirtrock that line the sidewalks, tiny buds pop up one sunny day in April, so delicate it’s hard to imagine they’ve been hiding under the sludge for months.

And just as those first tulips are a beacon of the multitudes to come, so it is with the first bottles of rosé to get placed on our shelves. Right now we have two in stock, but just as the Commons will be decked out in watermelon pinks & greens before April’s end, you can expect a rainbow of peach, fuchsia, cranberry, and coral to overtake our displays in the coming weeks. Continue reading

Shaking Up the New Year

vscocam544-1Everyone loves a decadent night out, but after a month of indulging ourselves in every ’tis-the-season whim, we start to really crave quality time at home. We believe January is a time for breaking out dusty recipe books, fine-tuning soup skills, and generally creating opportunities for genuine quality time with the people we care about.

This is a sentiment held very dear by Eric Prum & Josh Williams, the two Brooklynites who gave our cocktail-making game a facelift this holiday season with their Mason Shaker and Shake recipe book. The two friends have been crafting drinks together since they were paired as roommates at the University of Virginia a decade ago. Recently, they took a look around the artisan cocktail culture growing around them and realized that, while much emphasis was placed on innovative “mixologists,” people weren’t making similar innovations in their home cocktail routine. Continue reading

The 2013 American Provisions Entertaining Guide

So you’re hosting Christmas this year. The tree is trimmed, holiday playlist synced up and you’ve even found that burning Yule Log channel on the TV. But while you and your elves are hard at work dressing that holiday roast, you’ll need something to satisfy those grumbling bellies between the heated rounds of Yankee Swap. Here at American Provisions, we always have visions of cheeseboards dancing in our heads. Not sure how to put one together? That’s okay—with our help you’ll be a cheese wiz in no time. Continue reading

An Ode to Ewes

Ok guys, time for a cheese pop quiz—what do pecorino, feta, roquefort, manchego, cabrales, abbaye de belloc, kasseri, haloumi, & roncal all have in common?

If you answered “I want to eat them all,” keep reading. And if you answered that they’re all made of yummy sheep’s milk because you already adore the ewe, it sounds like you might be interested in reading on, too.

For a good time, call these guys.

For a good time, call these guys.

See, we’re going a little crazy over sheep cheeses at the shop lately, and it isn’t just because we think they’re the best (though some of us do). The reason you’ll find more sheep cheeses on our wall right now than any other time is because of the intrinsic seasonality of this woolly ruminant. Continue reading

Curious About Curing

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Sam Edwards III in one of his family’s aging rooms, courtesy of edwardsvaham.com

“I always compare buying a mattress to buying meat. You never know til you get it home if you like it or not. You gotta attach yourself to a good brand.”

This was one of the first sentences uttered in my recent interview with Sam Edwards III, the latest in a patrilineage of ham curing experts out of Surry, Virginia who I went to with a truckload of burning (or should I say smoking?) questions about aged meats.

See, there are plenty of food snobs out there, eager to demonstrate their knowledge of stinky cheeses & rare wines, but one area that we’ve noticed leaves a lot of people in the dark is the fine art of the cure. And since our beloved friends in the Edwards family have sent us a very rare and limited release 2009 vintage Surryano ham this week (they set just 15 of them aside to age four years ago), we thought what better time to educate y’all (and ourselves) about what exactly goes into hanging a pig up to dry. Continue reading