Monday, December 31, 2007

Real Swiss Cheese

Cheeses that are actually made in Switzerland are quite different from most of what passes for 'Swiss Cheese' in the United States. Most genuinely Swiss cheeses (e.g., Gruyère, Raclette, Tilsit, Tête de Moine), for example, do not have the large holes that are characteristic of American-made "Swiss" cheeses. The holey Emmental variety is only one of many Swiss-made cheeses. (For more information on the variety of Swiss cheeses, click here.)

The holes (known as "eyes") found in stereotypical Swiss cheeses are produced by Propionibacter bacteria that release carbon dioxide during the production process. The characteristic nutty flavor of "Swiss" cheeses in America are produced by this and other bacteria used in the production of Swiss cheese. Generally speaking, the larger the holes, the stronger the flavor of the cheese. American producers prefer smaller holes and blander flavors so that the cheeses are easier to slice. European producers of Emmental prefer larger holes.

Recently, my mother returned from a trip to Switzerland with a tasty wedge of farmstead cheese produced by Ida and Urs Müller-Stalder. The cheese she bought was labeled as a 'Tristächäs.' I'm not sure what that means, but I do know it was an aged, raw cow's milk cheese that had been soaked in brine. The aging and brine gave the creamy, nutty cheese a very slightly pungent flavor that was very enjoyable both as an appetizer and on sandwiches.

Instead of buying "Swiss" cheese that is made in America by the J. L. Kraft corporation, look for the Swiss flag on wedges of handcrafted cheeses imported from Switzerland. The range of styles of real Swiss cheeses may surprise you.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Cognac

Cognac is brandy made in the Cognac region of France. The name 'brandy' is short for 'brandywine,' which comes from the Dutch word brandewijn, meaning 'burnt wine.' If you ferment grape juice, you get wine. If you distill wine, you get brandy. Although brandy can be made from the fermented juice of any fruit, the best brandies (e.g., cognac) are made from grape juice.

After recently attending parties at the homes of Sandy Goldberg and Randy Dipert and enjoying some tasty spirits there, I was motivated to revisit my own spirit collection. Last night I drank Courvoisier X.O. Imperial Cognac, which was voted "Best Cognac in the World" at the 1994 International Wine and Spirits competition. This spirit, which sells for around $140 a bottle, has aromas of toffee, caramel and roasted nuts. Its smooth, refined flavor made for a very enjoyable end to my evening.

Tonight I drank Rémy Martin's V.S.O.P. Fine Champagne Cognac, which sells for around $40. This seemingly fruitier cognac is a is a blend of brandies from the Grande Champange and Petite Champagne subregions of Cognac. Despite the big difference in price between the two, there was not a huge difference in my enjoyment of them.

The three most common types of of brandy or cognac are V.S., V.S.O.P. and X.O. 'V.S.' stands for "Very Special" but since this is the lowest quality level of brandy one will likely encounter, there is nothing special about it at all. The youngest brandies in a V.S. blend must be aged at least three years in wood casks. Avoid V.S. brandies. The youngest brandies in 'V.S.O.P.' ("Very Special Old Pale") blends must be aged at least 5 years. Those in X.O. must be aged at least six years. The average brandy in an X.O. blend is over 20 years.

The primary grapes used in making cognac are Ugni Blanc, Folle Blanche, and Colombard, which make lousy table wines. Most cognacs are blends of brandies from different vintages and different growing regions. Cognac is distilled twice in pot stills like those used in making Scotch. The rich caramel and amber color of cognac is usually the result of artificial coloring additives.

Do not heat cognac by holding your brandy sniffer over a candle. I don't know where this practice first started, but it will have deleterious effects on your enjoyment of any brandy. Because of the way it speeds up the rate at which aroma particles in the cognac are released into the air, the unique aromatic blend of the brandy will be broken. Certain kinds of aromas will be speedily released ahead of other aromas with which they usually interweave. The brandy will not have the aroma it was meant to have. Heating brandy also makes the nose too pungent for most people to enjoy.

Cognac is a wonderful spirit. The only frustrating thing about it is the tremendous rate at which cognac prices increase with each increase in quality level. Cognac that sell for $200 a bottle is considered to be modestly priced.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Train Your Nose

How well can you distinguish aromas of blackcurrants, cherries, and liquorice in the wines that you drink? The line of wine aroma kits from Le Nez du Vin can help train your nose to discern these and other aromatic components of wine.

Each kit contains vials of aromatic essences that are commonly found in wines. For example, the aromas in the Red Wine kit include strawberry, raspberry, blackcurrant, blackberry, cherry, violet, green pepper, truffle, liquorice, vanilla, pepper, and smoked. Each vial provides your scent memory with a distinct reference aroma with which aromas in wines can be compared. They also help you put a name on the aromas you are already able to detect and distinguish.

The kits were developed by wine expert Jean Lenoir with the aim of helping trade professionals, sommeliers and ordinary wine lovers to find the right words to describe the wines they drink. The kits come in several varieties: The Master Kit (54 aromas), Le Duo (24 aromas), White Wines (12 aromas), Red Wines (12 aromas), Faults (12 aromas), and New Oak (12 aromas). Jean Lenoir has even created a 36-vial kit of coffee aromas.

The aroma kits also come with explanatory cards and illustrated booklets that explain the connections between aroma and wine. Each aroma and the molecules underlying the aromas are explained in detail. The Red or White Wine kits sell for $109 each in the US.

If my family members have not yet completed their Christmas shopping, the Red Wine Aroma Kit would make the perfect gift for me!

Monday, December 3, 2007

Wally Wine

Wal-Mart has teamed up with Ernest & Julio Gallo to launch a brand of wines that will be sold exclusively at Wal-Mart and Sam's Club stores. The "value-priced" wines will be sold in 750ml bottles for around $6.

The name chosen for the new line of wines is 'Alcott Ridge Vineyards.' Market researchers have suggested that the following names might have been more appropriate:
  • Chateau Trailer Parc
  • White Trashfindel
  • Big Red Gulp
  • World Championship Riesling
  • NASCARbernet
  • Chef Boyardeaux
  • I Can't Believe It's Not Vinegar
  • Nasti Spumante

The beauty of Wal-Mart wine is that it can be served with either white meat (Possum) or red meat (Squirrel).

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Cambozola: A Creamy Delight

Cambozola has quickly become one of my new favorites. This triple cream, soft-ripened cheese with blue veins is a pure delight. Its rich and creamy flavor can be enjoyed by those who typically do not care for blue cheeses.

I like Cambozola so much that I am willing to steal it. Well, sort of. When Neil Williams and Kelly Norlen hosted a dinner party at their house a few months ago, they put away the Cambozola before I was finished enjoying it. So, while I was supposed to be starting on the main course, I slipped into their kitchen and dug around in their refrigerator until I found the remaining cheese. I don't know Neil and Kelly well enough that being caught snooping around in their refrigerator would be completely comfortable.

Although most people will try to tell you the name of this cheese comes from a combination of 'Camembert' and 'Gorgonzola,' the producers of the cheese tell a different story. Käserei Champignon, located in Bavaria, selected the name to honor the ancient cheese-making settlement of Cambodunum that flourished in Bavaria around 300 A.D.

This pasteurized cow's milk cheese pairs well with fruit (e.g., figs) and nuts (e.g., roasted walnuts) and goes well on a party cheese plate. It is also a popular ingredient in sauces and soups. Champignon recommends serving Cambozola with light- to medium-bodied red wines (e.g., Pinot Noir) or Vintage Ports.

Some tasty recipes that call for Cambozola include the following:
Chicken Breast with Cambozola Mushroom Cream
Foccacia with Cambozola, Roast Beef and Arugula
Pear and Cambozola Soup
Spicy Pasta Cambozola (scroll down toward the bottom)

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Thanksgiving Wines

What kind of wine should you serve with Thanksgiving dinner? The first thing to know about wine and food pairings is that there is not just one magic combination that you must discover in order to succeed. There are many wines that can pair well with the traditional fare of turkey and dressing.

If you're looking for a white wine, consider a dry or off-dry Riesling. Rieslings typically have a "fruit forward" flavor. Translated from winespeak into plain English, this means that the foreground of its flavor profile is predominately fruity. Elements of apricots, pears, apples and peaches are common. Most Rieslings have some residual sugar and a crisp finish. These lightweight, undemanding wines can make for an enjoyable Thanksgiving meal.

On the red side, some recommend Beaujolais. Beaujolais Nouveau is made from the Gamay grape in the Beaujolais region of France. The novelty behind Beaujolais is that it is harvested in Autumn, fermented only a few weeks and released for sale in November. Drinking Beaujolais is a way to celebrate the current year's harvest.

If I were serving turkey this year (which I'm not), I think I would try a Pinot Noir. Pinot Noirs have a lighter style and softer texture than many other reds. I think these characteristics would nicely complement traditional Thanksgiving fare.

Friday, November 9, 2007

Cheese Toppings

The cheese counter at Wegman's (western New York's upscale grocery chain) carries an interesting selection of toppings to serve on soft-ripened cheeses.

The Caramel Pecan Topping (pictured at left) is by far the tastiest one they make. Its ingredients include butterscotch caramel sauce, pecans, dried apples, and a few dried cranberries. It is really wonderful. The flavor of the topping is so strong that it can easily drown out the flavor of the cheese it is served on. But since most Brie-style cheeses served in America are pretty tasteless, you won't really be missing out on much.

The Cherry Balsamic Topping was my second favorite. It is made from cherry preserves, dried cherries and balsamic vinegar. In contrast to the almost overwhelmingly sweet caramel topping, this one is a bit tart. Wegman's also carries a Craisin, Currant and Walnut Topping, made from red raspberry jam, walnuts, craisins (i.e., dried cranberries), and currants.

Each topping should be served over Brie with some kind of bread. I recommend serving it over a mild-tasting Brie such as Cathedral de Meaux. I tried the toppings with both an intense, earthy Brie and a mild Brie. And I definitely think the mild one worked better.

Because few cheese counters carry cute, little cheese rounds like the one pictured above, your best bet is to pile a generous helping of the topping on top of a wedge of Brie and have your guests cut into it themselves. Encourage them to spread the mixture onto a piece of bread. It won't be the easiest thing for your guests to cut into, but the striking visual presentation it makes should more than compensate for that.

If you don't live near a Wegman's, ask your local cheese merchant to recommend some toppings or try to create some of your own.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Local Wines and Malolactic Fermentation

I've always been puzzled as to why the best "local" wines do not taste as good as the most modest (or even less than modest) wines from larger producers. I've also been deeply curious as to why local wines--seemingly regardless of region or grape variety--all share a distinctive and somewhat unpleasant flavor not found in comparable "non-local" wines. There is a certain bitter, chemical "whang" (to use a technical term) that characterizes all local wines.

When I lived in St. Louis, I tried various red wines from the nearby Augusta wine region. I've also tried many NY wines from the Fingers Lakes region and Canadian wines from Ontario. While I've enjoyed the ports from Missouri and the icewines from Ontario, I dislike the red wines of these regions.

I cannot believe that the marked differences between local and non-local wines and the marked similarities between all "local" wines can all be chalked up to differences in soil, climate, growing season, pruning techniques and other features of terroir. My current hypothesis is this: Unlike the red wines of larger, more established or more prestigious winemakers, local red wines do not go through a process of malolactic fermentation.

Primary fermentation occurs when yeast is added to grape juice and converts grape sugar to alcohol. Other byproducts of this process include carbon dioxide, malic acid and heat. Secondary (or malolactic) fermentation is a process that converts the more bitter, tart or metallic-tasting malic acid into the softer-tasting lactic acid. This process is accomplished with the help of lactic acid-eating bacteria such as Oenococcus oeni, Pediococcus and various species of Lactobacillus.

All good red wines undergo malolactic fermentation. Traditionally, Old World white wines did not undergo this same process. In the 1970s California winemakers established a new style and standard for Chardonnay by combining malolactic fermentation of their white wines with oak aging. It is the secondary fermentation process that gives California Chardonnays their distinctive "buttery" flavor. The buttery sensation arises from the softer, slightly oily texture and flavor of the lactic acid.

Because of malolactic fermentation, California Chardonnays can be drunk more easily as aperitifs. Many Old World Chardonnays are not intended to be drunk by themselves and often need to be tamed by a full meal. Because the California style fits better with New World wine drinking habits, it has significantly changed the oenological landscape. (Notice that in every American wine magazine advertisement, the partakers are standing at a party rather than sitting before a meal.)

With white wines, then, there are two styles: with or without malolactic fermentation. With red wines, however, there is only one: with. My best guess as to why local wines possess a chemical whang not found in non-local wines is that they do not generally undergo the secondary process of fermentation.

I recently ran my hypothesis by a senior wine buyer at Prime Wines, and she completely dismissed my hypothesis. I'm not giving up on it yet, however, because I don't know of any other explanation for the distinctive aroma and flavor profile of local wines. If any of you have hypotheses of your own, please share them with me.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Cypress Grove Lamb Chopper

Cypress Grove Chevre in Humboldt County, California, is one of America's very best cheese producers. Their award-winning cheeses include Humboldt Fog, Bermuda Triangle, Midnight Moon, and Purple Haze (about which I have blogged before). Cypress Grove recently won the Outstanding Product Line 2007 Award at the Fancy Food Show in NYC. Cypress Grove and Carr Valley may be my two favorite producers of American cheese.

I recently enjoyed a wedge of Cypress Grove's Lamb Chopper, a firm and creamy delight. Made from pasteurized Dutch sheep's milk, this cheese is aged in Holland for three months before entering the U.S., where it is aged a month or two more. Apparently, head cheese-ager Mary Keehn didn't want mold from Humboldt Fog and other Cypress Grove cheeses to infect Lamb Chopper during its aging process. So, it does most of its aging outside Cypress Grove's facilities.

Lamb Chopper is one of best Gouda-style cheeses you will find. Its creamy, buttery flavor is simply wonderful. It is firm enough to go on sandwiches and burgers but sophisticated enough to go on a cheese tray.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Brillo di Treviso

It hasn't been easy keeping my wife from eating all of the Brillo di Treviso I recently purchased from Premier Gourmet. The rind of this pasteurized cow's milk cheese from Italy is reguarly washed with red wine during the aging process, giving the cheese a rich, purple exterior and a somewhat fruity flavor.

When I first tasted Brillo di Treviso I thought the winey flavor in it was too strong. As I ate more of it, however, this impression subsided. Now the easily edible wine-drenched rind strikes me as rather mild. The semi-soft paste (i.e., the interior of the cheese) is mild, creamy, and slightly tangy.

Despite the fact that many purveyors of cheese claim that Brillo di Treviso is from Venice, it is in fact from Treviso (the "di Treviso" should have been a giveaway), in the Veneto region of Italy.

Brillo di Treviso is a great party cheese. It has an enjoyable, accessible flavor and its deep, purple color and winey flavor will be something of a novelty to many of your guests. Serve with Chianti, Beaujolais or full-bodied reds.

Baked Brie at Brodo

Wendy and I recently enjoyed a date at the Brodo cafe in Snyder, NY. It would be difficult to find a place with a better great-food-per-dollar-spent ratio than Brodo.

Being the cheesey guy I am, I ordered the Puff Pastry Baked Brie, with apples, walnuts and raspberry sauce. It was superb. I highly recommend it.

Brodo has a prix fixe dinner option for $24, happy hour M-F from 5-7pm, and live jazz on Thurs. and Sat. from 7-9pm.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Brandied Roasted Pears

Mascarpone cheese is a rich, triple cream cheese that is most commonly encountered in Italian desserts such as tiramisu or zabaglione. The cheese is creamy white, smells like milk and cream, and has the consistency of a sticky pudding.

Mascarpone pairs well with fruit. For example, Wegman's supermarkets in western New York sell a Red Raspberry Mascarpone Mousse at their cheese counters that is made from mascarpone, crème fraiche, raspberry preserves, sugar, and vanilla extract. It is heavenly.

My wife, Wendy, found the following fruit and mascarpone recipe on PBS. It has a fabulous, sophisticated flavor but is very easy to make.

Brandied Roasted Pears
Ingredients:
  • 3 ripe Bartlett pears (peeled, cored and sliced in half)
  • 1 1/4 c. Brown sugar (packed)
  • 1/3 c. Unsweetened apple juice
  • 2T (or more) Brandy
  • 8 oz. Mascarpone
  • 1/4 c. Clover honey
  • 1/2 c. Toasted pecans (finely chopped)
Directions:
  1. Preheat oven to 400°.
  2. Grease an 8"x8" pyrex dish.
  3. Cover bottom of dish with brown sugar.
  4. Lay pear halves on brown sugar.
  5. Combine brandy and apple juice. Pour over pears.
  6. Bake at 400° for 20-30 min.
  7. While pears are cooling for 3-4 min, thoroughly mix honey and mascarpone.
  8. Place pears in dessert dishes and top with mascarpone mixture and pecans.
  9. Drizzle pears with extra juice from baking dish and serve.

I'm going to experiment more with mascarpone around the house. I think something as simple as toast topped with mascarpone (perhaps mixed with maple syrup) and fresh fruit would be great. A tasty-looking French toast with Mascarpone and Blueberries recipe from FoodTV can be found here.

Saturday, October 6, 2007

Rating Wine Preserver Products

As soon as a bottle of wine is opened, it begins to oxidize. 24 to 36 hrs after being opened, most table wines have lost much of their flavor. After 48 hrs they can be almost undrinkable.

You don't need to be a wine snob to notice and be concerned about the effects of oxidation. As a complete wine novice buying my first bottles of wine, I could tell without any training that the flavor of the wine was different the day after it was opened. Several wine preservation products are available that help to minimize the effects of oxidation.

The best household wine preservation system is The Keeper (above left). I use this product with every bottle of wine I open at home. The stopper-faucet that dispenses the wine is connected to a nitrogen cylinder. Nitrogen (an inert, non-oxidizing gas) fills the space inside the bottle as the wine goes out. This device prevents oxygen from coming into the bottle and thus keeps oxidation from occurring.

A widely used but significantly less effective product is Private Preserve inert gas spray (pictured to the right). Each time a bottle of wine is opened or reopened, you are supposed to spray Private Preserve (a combination of nitrogen, carbon dioxide, and argon gas) into the bottle. These gases are allegedly heavier than other gases and are said to lay down a protective blanket over the surface of the wine, keeping oxygen at bay.

I used Private Preserve for years, and it certainly slows down the oxidation process. It is better than nothing and something you might want to consider buying, if you're not ready to spend money on The Keeper. However, it is only marginally effective at preventing oxidation. The money spent on several bottles of Private Preserve would be better spent on The Keeper.

A completely worthless product that is commonly seen in wine shops is the Vacu Vin Vacuum Wine Saver (pictured at left). This was the first wine preservation product I ever tried. A dinky little pump is supposed to extract most of the air inside your bottle of wine, again slowing down the oxidation process. The pump, however, is exceptionally weak and the stopper that goes on top of the bottle does not form a very tight seal. Vacu Vin may remove some oxygen from the inside of a bottle, but it is an almost completely ineffective product. Don't throw away your money on this one.

Ken Shockley laughs at my Keeper wine system every time he comes over to my house. I must admit that it looks rather odd, but it has been a wonderful investment. It can keep opened bottles of wine fresh for weeks, allowing me to enjoy wine at my leisure. I highly recommend it.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Wine Links

Here are some interesting wine links from around the web:

1. Grape-by-grape wine and cheese pairings at Winemonger.com.

2. Wine and cheese pairing suggestions from Laura Werlin.

3. Wine & Spirits' Top Ten lists. Each issue of Wine & Spirits focuses on one variety or group of related wines and selects the best wines tasted in that category in the past year. The linked page is a compilation of Top Ten lists from the last six years.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Autumn in Vermont

Autumn in Vermont means beautiful fall foliage and scenic drives. It can also mean enjoying tours of some of the best creameries in America. My wife and I are considering taking a trip down the Vermont Cheese Trail during mid-October to soak up the autumn colors and the cheese.

The Vermont Cheese Council offers an interactive map of the Cheese Trail that includes links to all of the participating farms and creameries. Among the more famous Vermont cheesemakers are Cabot Creamery and Grafton Village Cheese (about whom I have blogged before).

If you're looking for a fall getaway, consider a culinary adventure down the Vermont Cheese Trail during the most beautiful time of the year to be in Vermont. Few things are better than good food and good conversation in a lovely setting. (And if you live in Buffalo, consider telling my wife that we should go ahead and spend the money on the trip.)

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Grilled Cheese: Literally

Halloumi is a traditional cheese from Cyprus that does not melt when cooked. It can be placed directly on a barbecue grill. I grilled mine in a bit of extra virgin olive oil on the stove and drizzled it with lemon juice. My entire family loved it.

A couple of weeks after I read Jamie Forrest's post about Grilled Halloumi over at Serious Eats, Halloumi showed up in my local cheese shop, Premier Gourmet. Either the cheese buyer at Premier or some other customer must read the same blogs I do.

Halloumi is traditionally made from sheep and goat's milk. It is sold vacuum packed in a bit of its own whey. The true flavor of Halloumi is revealed only when it is cooked. Uncook Halloumi is plain and rather tart. Its texture most resembles mozzarella.

Halloumi served with salad, hummus and pita bread is a tasty treat. Here are some other recipes for Halloumi:

Shopping tip for Buffalo readers: Halloumi is currently available at Premier Gourmet, but I don't expect it to be a regularly stocked item. If your local cheese vendor doesn't carry Halloumi, you can always purchase some at igourmet.com.

Although I originally bought Halloumi solely for its novelty, I'm going back to buy some more because it is delicious. I recommend trying this unique cheese.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Niagara Wine Festival

The 56th Niagara Wine Festival will take place from Sept. 21st through Sept. 30th in the Niagara region of Ontario. Although Ontario is best known for its icewines, the festival features the full range of wines produced by the region.

There are two primary venues for the festival. One is the historic Montebello Park in St. Catharine's, ON, which will feature 30 award-winning wineries, Niagara cuisine and live entertainment each weekend and each evening during the week.

The weekend entertainment times on Sept. 22-23 and 29-30 are 11am to 10:30pm. Midweek entertainment times Sept. 21 and 26-28 are 5pm to 10:30pm. Admission and parking are free. I plan to enjoy the festivities at Montebello Park on one of the weekends.

The other "venue" for the festival is comprised of all the Niagara wineries. The wineries will be hosting special tastings, wine and food pairings, and other educational events at their various locations. See the Events Page of the festival website for details of these events. Further details about events at Montebello Park and about the festival in general can be found in the festival program guide.

Monday, September 3, 2007

Water Buffalo Milk: Yum!

Would you believe the world's greatest mozzarella cheese is made from the milk of water buffaloes? That's right. Mozzarella di bufala, which comes from the region of Campania in southern Italy, is made from the milk of these ugly ungulates.

The best buffalo mozzarella is made from unpasteurized water buffalo milk and is usually served on the day it is made. It does not keep for more than 18 hours. This cheese is not available in the U.S. and cannot be made here because of regulatory reasons. The U.S. Dept. of Agriculture requires that any cheese sold in America that is made from unpasteurized milk be aged for at least six months. Consequently, while buffalo mozzarella can be found in America, it is always made from pasteurized milk.

Because mozzarella is not aged, it is considered a "fresh" cheese. It also counts as a "spun cheese" because the curds are dipped into heated whey or water and then stretched and kneaded until they become elastic and stretchy.

True, "fresh" mozzarella should be distinguished from the low-moisture, tasteless, rubbery dairy product that passes for mozzarella in most American grocery stores. Fresh mozzarella can be found soaking in vats of salted water or whey at better cheese stores. Some fresh mozzarellas are sold in vacuum packed packages containing liquid to keep the mozzarella from drying out. Fresh mozzarellas have a slightly sour tang and are squishier than most Americans expect.

Fresh mozzarella can always be served in a classic Insalata Caprese. Here are some further serving suggestions (thanks to Bel Gioioso):
  • Top Italian bread with grilled eggplant, tomato, fresh basil and fresh mozzarella. Drizzle with olive oil and add salt and pepper to taste.
  • Top your roast beef sandwich with roasted red peppers and sliced fresh mozzarella. Drizzle with olive oil.
  • Marinate fresh mozzarella in minced garlic, fresh chopped basil, fresh chopped oregano, red pepper flakes, salt, pepper and white wine vinegar for at least three hours. Serve as a part of your antipasto platter.

Because mozzarella does not have a strong flavor, consider using smoked mozzarella in oven-baked recipes that call for plain mozzarella. It can add an extra dimension of flavor.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Mildly Aged Gouda: Vintage Van Gogh

In a previous post I raved about a certain kind of aged Gouda--viz., Saenkanter--that is one of the most intensely flavored cheeses on the planet. The problem with Saenkanter, however, is that it's not widely available. I don't like to write about products that readers cannot easily find. The trouble with the aged Goudas that are widely available--e.g., Beemster, Old Amsterdam--is that they simply do not taste as good as Saenkanter. They are more interesting than delicious. In fact, many people find them quite difficult to eat.

I am pleased to announce I have discovered an aged Gouda-style cheese that is both delicious and widely available: Vintage Van Gogh from Roth Käse in Monroe, Wisconsin. Made from full-cream cow's milk, this mild Gouda is aged only six to eight months--in contrast to the three to five years of more "serious" aged Goudas. The cheese has a wonderfully mellow and creamy texture, with only a slight hint of caramel.

Ordinary Gouda, double-cream Gouda and Gouda Lite are almost completely tasteless. I am of the opinion that Goudas need to be aged or smoked before they become interesting. The short amount of aging Vintage Van Gogh receives provides it with just enough flavor to be tasty, yet not so much that it becomes dry and harsh. To give you an idea of how accessible this cheese is, my three-old daughter loves it. I'm going to serve Vintage Van Gogh at my next dinner party.

Roth Käse recommends serving Vintage Van Gogh with dried cherries, cranberries, cashews, almonds, or pecans. Roth Käse also offers a delicious array of cheese-based recipes on their website.

Shopping tip for Buffalo readers: I bought my Vintage Van Gogh at Wegman's, which is fast becoming my favorite place to buy cheese.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Wine Markups at Restaurants

Have you ever wondered what the markup is on the wine you buy at your local restaurant? Because my most disappointing Buffalo dining experience occurred at the Empire Grill on Hertel Avenue, I have chosen them as the focus of my post on wine markups in the restaurant business.

Below you will find the price Empire Grill charges per glass of wine. Under this price you will find how much it would cost you to purchase an entire bottle of each wine. A standard 750ml bottle holds 25.368 fluid ounces of wine. Restaurants usually serve 4 to 6 ounces of wine per glass. So, you can take one bottle to hold roughly 4-5 glasses of wine.

Whites:
Woodbridge White Zinfandel
Empire Grill price: $5 per glass
Premier Wine price: $9 for a jumbo 1.5L bottle

Jekel Riesling
Empire Grill price: $7 per glass
Wine.com price: $10 per bottle

Francis Coppola Bianco Pinot Grigio
Empire Grill price: $6 per glass
Premier Wine price: $9 per bottle

Barefoot Sauvignon Blanc
Empire Grill price: $5 per glass
Premier Wine price: $7 per bottle (regular price); $4 per bottle (sale price)

Sebastiani Chardonnay
Empire Grill price: $8 per glass
Premier Wine price: $13 per bottle

Reds:
Beringer "Founder's Estate" Pinot Noir
Empire Grill price: $7 per glass
Premier Wine price: $13 per bottle

L de Lyeth Merlot
Empire Grill price: $7 per glass
Premier Wine price: $9 per bottle

Francis Coppola Rosso
Empire Grill price: $6 per glass
Premire Wine price: $10 per bottle (when it's not on sale)

Gallo Family Vineyards "Reserve" Cabernet Sauvignon
Empire Grill price: $8 per glass
Common internet price: $10-12 per bottle

One interesting feature of the Empire Grill's wine prices (and those of other restaurants as well) is that the lower the quality of wine you buy, the higher the markup percentage is. You can see why I much prefer to drink wine in the comfort of my own home. I get a great deal more wine for my money.

Readers from Buffalo may wonder what was wrong with my dining experience at the Empire Grill. Like many others, I waited with anticipation for what Buffalo Spree called an "architecturally gorgeous restaurant" to open on one of North Buffalo's best strips of restaurants and bars. When my wife and I sat down to eat there for the first (and last) time, we couldn't find a single dish we were interested in ordering. Almost every one of the appetizers was deep-friend, and the rest of the menu looked straight out of Chili's or Applebee's. My wife and I ordered a single bowl of soup and left without eating dinner there.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Myths About Moldy Cheese

Cheese Myth #957: "If there is only a small amount of visible mold on a cheese, it can always be scraped off and the remaining cheese salvaged."

Some supporters of this myth think that cheese cannot be ruined by mold because in some sense cheese is mold or at least is derived from mold. While it is true that molds are often used in cheesemaking, it is not a necessary ingredient.

Cheese is simply what you get by isolating the solid material in milk. Separating the curds (the solid part of milk) from the whey (the liquid part) most often begins with the addition of a starter culture to fresh milk. Starter culture is always a kind of bacteria, whereas mold is a kind of fungus. I think Myth #957 gains some of its support from the conflation of mold with bacteria.

In any case, starter bacteria is not even strictly necessary to cheesemaking. Its primary role is to increase the acidity of milk, so that the separation of curds and whey happens more quickly. Some quick and easy cheesemaking recipes bypass the starter culture and call for adding lemon juice to fresh milk to increase its acidity. This doesn't result in the best cheese, but it illustrates how starter bacteria is not absolutely essential to the process.

After curds are isolated from the milk, you've got cheese. The curds they can be cut, pressed or enriched with various additional flavors without molds ever entering the picture.

Molds do play an important role in the production of blue cheeses and soft-ripened cheeses like Brie and Camembert. Penicillium roqueforti, for example, is used in the production of Roquefort and other blue cheeses, and Penicillium camemberti and Penicillium candida are used in Brie and Camembert. (A different variety of Penicillium is used to produce penicillin.) Most types of cheese, however, do not require the action of any kind of mold.

In my early days as a cheese taster, I made the mistake of buying some blue cheese from an ordinary grocery store instead of from a specialty cheese retailer or an upscale grocer. Unsurprisingly, the cheese was nasty. Who knows how long it had been languishing in the display case. When I returned the cheese to the store, one of the workers was reluctant to give me my money back for the following reason: I complained that a blue cheese smelled and appeared nasty, but blue cheese is supposed to smell and appear nasty.

The grocery clerk's mistake lies in thinking that any kind of nastiness is appropriate in a blue cheese because allowing the cheese to mold is an essential part of its production. The fact is, however, that only a carefully selected strand of mold was introduced into the cheese--and this under closely monitored conditions. It is not the case that any old mold will do.

Some think of the growth of mold on cheese as a kind of controlled spoilage. One should not forget, however, that it is controlled rather than indiscriminate spoilage. Cheese Myth #957 fails to separate controlled spoilage from spoilage due to incorrect storage, refrigerator mold, bacteria or other foreign pathogens.

I don't think the 'controlled spoilage' motif is a very good one because 'spoilage' wrongly suggests destruction. The biochemical processes involved in mold growth on cheese, however, are productive. Baker's yeast (another kind of fungus) doesn't spoil flour and oil. It makes certain kinds of bread possible. Do the yeasts that turn grape juice into wine "spoil" the grape juice? Not if your intent is to make wine. In that case, it's an important part of the production process.

If you find a small amount of mold growing on a hard cheese (e.g., Cheddar, Parmesan), you can generally scrape it off and the cheese will be OK to eat. To some extent, then, there is a grain of truth in Myth #957. Unwanted mold on soft cheeses, however, is more of a problem. One reason is that the molds can more easily penetrate into the heart of soft cheeses than they can into harder cheeses. This causes spoilage from within that cannot be scraped away.

When buying soft or blue cheeses, there are several things you should look for. First, look for grey or pink discoloration around the edges. Fresh, unspoiled cheeses never display these colors. Also, look to see how many wedges of the cheese you want to buy are in the display case. Never buy one of the last wedges of a cheese round. In ordinary grocery stores, blue cheeses do not sell quickly. In fact, even at Premier Gourmet, where I buy most of my cheeses, the blue cheeses move rather slowly. In such a store, the last wedge of a blue cheese will likely be spoiled before anyone buys it. One nice feature of Wegman's grocery stores is that they put the date a wedge is cut on the label of the cheese.

Don't be afraid to ask the person behind the cheese counter to cut you a new wedge of cheese, even if several can be found in the display case. Also, feel free to ask them to remove an unwanted outside portion of a cheese round if it doesn't look like something you want to eat.

Finally, if you didn't already think America had enough pointless holidays, here is one more: October 9th is officially Moldy Cheese Day.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Vin de Pays D'Oc Pinot Noir

When people tell me they know of a great tasting $5 wine, I never believe them. Well, I'm here to tell you that I know of a great tasting $5 wine. (Actually, it normally sells for $9, but I bought it on sale for $5.)

I never buy wines under $10. So, when I saw that Prime Wines had bottles of Baron Philippe de Rothschild's Vin de Pays D'Oc Pinot Noir on sale for $5, I paused over it briefly but kept on walking. I thought that no matter what name may appear on the bottle, it would always be a $5 bottle of wine.

Well, thanks to a party at David and Rose Hershenov's--home of western New York's most popular floating bar--I got to try some. I couldn't believe how drinkable this wine was. And by 'drinkable' I don't mean "drinkable by those who don't know good wine from a Dr. Pepper." I have since bought half a case, and I may go back for more.

The Rothschild Pays D'Oc Pinot Noir had a deep red color and a fruity nose, the latter being dominated by black cherry with some hints of violets. It had a smooth but firm tannin structure. I can't imagine a better $5 wine.

The 'Vin de Pays' label denotes an intermediary quality level that lies between the Vin de Table category and the class of wines that receive the appellation d'origine contrôlée certification. The Pays D'Oc region is located in the south of France and encompasses Languedoc and Roussillon. It is the largest Vin de Pays region, accounting for 70% of Vin de Pays wine production.

In 1995 Baron Philippe de Rothschild S.A., maker of the world-renowned Château Mouton Rothschild, expanded beyond its traditional châteaux-based wine production into the varietal-based wine market. It now offers eight varietal wines from the Pays D'Oc. The Pinot Noir in this family of wines is the perfect party wine--tasty and inexpensive. It's a good bet the other Rothschild Pays D'Oc wines are good buys as well.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Real Parmesan Doesn't Come in a Green Can

Parmesan cheese is made in Argentina, Australia and the U.S., but nothing else can compare to Parmigiano-Reggiano, the king of Italian cheese. Parmigiano-Reggiano is a full-flavored, hard, dry cheese with a unique granular texture. Start using Parmigiano-Reggiano in your recipes instead of lesser Parmesans, and you'll be amazed at the difference.

Parmigiano-Reggiano is made from the raw milk of
grass-fed cows in the provinces of Parma, Reggio-Emilia and Modena. Its distinctive dryness and firmness result from (i) the fact that the curds are cut into very fine pieces to increase the amount of liquid whey that is drained off and (ii) an aging process that lasts from two to seven years. Before aging, wheels of Parmigiano-Reggiano float in a brine bath for 20 days to soak up salt.

Because the name 'Parmesan' denotes a protected designation of origin in the European Union, the EU is campaigning to get cheesemakers outside of Italy to stop using the Parmesan name. Don't expect the Kraft Corporation to acquiesce any time soon.

Parmigiano-Reggiano is used primarily for grating and baking. I just finished working my way through a wedge of Parmigiano-Reggiano, eating the cheese by itself on Red Oval Farms Stoned Wheat Thins. I enjoyed the experience, but I don't recommend it. Parmigiano-Reggiano is a salty, acidic, strongly flavored cheese. It is not an easy cheese to eat by itself. I strongly recommend Parmigiano-Reggiano for cooking but not for party cheese trays.

You may be saying to yourself, "I don't really need to buy Parmigiano-Reggiano. I already buy higher quality Parmesan from the gourmet cheese aisle and haven't bought a green can of Parmesan in years. Surely the quality of the Parmesan I buy is good enough." Think again. Accept no substitute for Parmigiano-Reggiano.

Most grocery stores sell pre-grated Parmigiano-Reggiano. I recommend buying a wedge and grating it freshly yourself.

Here is an oddball collection of commercials for Parmigiano-Reggiano, presumably produced by the Consorzio del Formaggio Parmigiano-Reggiano for Italian television:

Did you notice the bodiless hand making grated cheese fall like snow upon all below? Don't ask me how this is supposed to sell cheese.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Château Tour Léognan

I realized earlier this year that I was in a New World wine rut. I had been drinking Cabernets, Pinot Noirs, Syrahs and Merlots almost exclusively from the U.S. (mostly Napa and Sonoma) and Australia, with the occasional Tempranillo from Spain. I have now resolved to drink my way across the Old World, beginning with Bordeaux and Tuscany.

The first stop on my current wine journey through Bordeaux is a 2003 red wine from Château Tour Léognan. The château is located in Pessac-Léognan, a sub-region of the larger Graves winemaking district just south of the city of Bordeaux. The name 'Graves' derives from the intensely gravelly soil of the region, which imparts a distinctive flavor to its wines.

Unlike most Bordeaux reds, which are made from a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc, the Château Tour Léognan uses only Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. The wine had a deep ruby color and was wonderfully soft on the palate. It had aromas of red fruit and cinnamon.

Although some aspects of the flavor of the Château Tour Léognan reminded me of a California Cab, there were other aspects of its flavor I was not prepared for and am not familiar with. So, although my original plan was to buy a single bottle from a variety of châteaux in Bordeaux, I'm going to buy more Château Tour Léognan in order to get a better handle on its character. I highly recommend this very affordable ($18) and tasty French wine.

Wine exports from Bordeaux have plummeted in recent years, due to competition from New World wines. You can read about some of the drastic steps some French officials are taking to address the problem here and here.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Don't Put Your Cheese on That!

Ideally, one should serve good cheese with good bread. Some soft cheeses even make interesting substitutes for butter. For example, I recently bought a double-cream cheese from Fromager d'Affinois and spread it on my bread instead of butter. It was a nice change of pace. This French Brie-like cow's milk cheese would not have tasted well on a cracker.

Fromager d'Affinois is one of the biggest sellers of soft cheeses in the U.S. I recommend trying it.

If you are going to serve cheese with crackers, what kind of cracker should you buy? My two favorites are Reduced Fat & Sodium Breton wheat crackers and Red Oval Farms Stoned Wheat Thins. The former has a more buttery flavor than the latter. Sometimes I can tell that a cheese will taste better on the buttery Bretons. I wish I could give you a general rule for determining when to go with buttery crackers, but I cannot. Other cheeses go well with the more neutral, hearty Red Oval Farms crackers.

Good cheese crackers should not be flavored with garlic, herbs, peppercorns, too much butter, or too much salt. I don't even care for toasted sesame seeds. Strongly flavored crackers mask the subtle flavors of a good cheese. If you've bothered to purchase a good cheese, you should be able to enjoy its full flavor without distraction.

Both the Breton and Red Oval Farms crackers serve as fairly neutral platforms for quality cheeses. Although Carr's Table Water Crackers seem to dominate the cracker-upon-which-cheeses-are-put market, I think they have a bit less flavor than some types of cardboard. A good cheese cracker can be neutral without being completely tasteless.

I also think that Ritz crackers contain too much butter and probably too much salt. The right amount of salt is already added to most cheeses during the course of their production, so they don't need any extra from crackers. In addition, a lot of cheeses--e.g., Cheddars and especially any hard, dry cheese such as Dry Jack or aged Gouda--have a fairly high acid content. A high acid cheese on a highly salty cracker is an unpleasant combination.

My recommendation is to stick with either good bread or Reduced Fat & Sodium Breton wheat crackers and Red Oval Farms Stoned Wheat Thins. Happy munching.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Le Volte: A Tuscan Treat

Over the weekend I attended an informal tasting of Tuscan wines at Prime Wines (also mistakenly known as Premier Wines) in Kenmore. All of the wines were made primarily from the Brunello grape, which is a clone of Sangiovese. The name 'Sangiovese' derives from sanguis Jovisi, which means "blood of Jove."

The term 'clone' does not have the same meaning here that it does in the biotechnology sphere. Rather, just as different varietals of a single species have distinctive characteristics but are not sufficiently different to be considered separate species, different "clones" (in the enological sense) are distinctively different types of grapes within a single varietal category but are not so different that they are considered different varietals.

According to philosopher of science and wine connoisseur Peter Machamer, the Italians have a saying about wine: "There is vino bianco, and then there is vino vero." (Translation: There is white wine, and then there is true wine.) I don't know whether any Italians have ever actually said this, but I certainly agree with its expressed preference for reds over whites.

Brunello-based wines reign supreme in Tuscany. There is much more to the wine of Tuscany wine than low-end bottles of Chianti covered in straw baskets. (See my previous post on Brunello di Montalcino.)

I purchased a bottle of Le Volte at the Tuscan wine tasting on Saturday (on sale for $17.99). It is made from 50% Brunello, 30% Merlot and 20% Cabernet Sauvignon. The laws governing wines in Italy have changed in recent years to allow winemakers to use non-native grapes like Merlot and Cabernet in some of their wines. Le Volte has soft, pleasant aromas of cherries and plums. One of the managers at Prime Wines thought she could detect sweet shiitake mushrooms in the nose. It paired very well with the Asiago cheese and beef tenderloin hors d'oeuvres served at Prime Wines. It is a very nice wine.

Thursday, July 5, 2007

Pata Cabra: Olé!

I recently enjoyed a tasty new Spanish cheese while listening to some really bad music at Niawanda Park near the Erie Canal. Pata Cabra (alt., Patacabra) is a semi-soft, aged goat's milk cheese made in the city of Zaragoza (traditionally known as Saragossa) in the Aragon region of Spain. I thoroughly enjoyed it--the cheese, that is, not the music.

Pata Cabra is a washed rind cheese, meaning that its rind has been rinsed and scrubbed with brine several times during the aging process. In addition to keeping unwanted bacteria from growing on the outside of the cheese, this process also gives the cheese a mildly pungent flavor. It is rich and creamy and has a slightly sticky texture. This cheese would pair well with crusty breads, nuts and tapenades.

There are over 60 cheeses that are unique to Spain, but few of them are known to the tasting public. I highly recommend trying this little-known gem from Spain. I bought mine at Premier Gourmet.

NPR contributor Betsy Block offers the following Honey and Cheese Recipe as an alternative way to enjoy Pata Cabra. She says it is "absurdly easy" but "unbelievably delicious."

Ingredients:

4 slices of good bread (baguette, sourdough, something hearty and crusty)
Extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 to 1/2 pound Pata Cabra cheese (or another mild Spanish goat or sheep's milk cheese, e.g., Navat)
Acacia honey
Directions:
Brush the bread with olive oil, then toast or grill it. Cover with a slice of cheese and drizzle with honey. Makes 4 servings.

Saturday, June 30, 2007

Carr Valley Billy Blue

Carr Valley has quickly become one of my favorite cheesemakers. I've raved about their fascinating Mobay Cheese before, and this past week I discovered their Billy Blue goat cheese. I highly recommend it.

Unlike most blue cheeses, which are made from cow's milk, Billy Blue is made from Wisconsin goat's milk. Carr Valley also makes Ba Ba Blue, a blue sheep's milk cheese. The tremendous variety of cheeses made at this single creamery is amazing.

The chèvre and blue in Billy Blue make for an interesting combination. The white part of the cheese has many of the typical features of chèvre--a fairly bright white color, a soft, crumbly texture and a mild flavor. The mildness of the white portion contrasts nicely with the sharpness of the blue veins.

Billy Blue is aged only four months and took 3rd place in the "New Cheese" category at the 2006 American Cheese Society Competition.

Shopping tip for readers in Buffalo: The Wegman's by the Boulevard Mall has a small display case devoted to Carr Valley cheeses. Other Wegman's stores in western NY may have similar displays. Carr Valley cheeses are well worth investigating.

Monday, June 25, 2007

1989 Inniskillin Vidal Icewine

Over the weekend my family and I enjoyed a picture-perfect picnic at Niagara-on-the-Lake, the capital of Ontario's icewine region. The weather could not have been better, and the peaceful view of Lake Ontario was unbeatable.

We also stopped by Inniskillin, producer of both the highest quantity and the highest quality of icewine in the world. While we were there, we had the special privilege of tasting the icewine that garnered the highest award any Inniskillin wine has ever received. It was a 1989 Vidal Icewine. In 1991 at the VinExpo Bourdeaux, an international panel of judges awarded this wine Le Grand Prix D'Honneur, the fair's highest award. However the wine may have tasted to the judges in 1991 was surely nothing like what it tasted this weekend. Sixteen years of bottle aging had given the wine greater subtlety and an amber color one simply doesn't see in icewines. The fruity, apricot and tangerine aromas of its youth had given way to unique butterscotch and caramel aromas with quiet hints of raisins. It was truly a unique experience. A half bottle of this particular wine sells for $500, so don't expect me to bring it to your next party.

If you are interested in buying some icewine, I strongly recommend that you buy something from Inniskillin. Of the four primary varieties of icewine they market, I most strongly recommend their basic Vidal Icewine. It sells for around $50 for a 375ml bottle. Inniskillin also sells a more expensive, oak-aged version of this same wine, but it is less fruity and not worth the extra cost.

Inniskillin also makes a Cabernet Franc Icewine. It has a unique rhubarb and organge nose and is quite tasty. But it costs twice as much as the basic Vidal without being twice as good. Inniskillin also makes the only sparkling icewine in Canada, but again I think their basic Vidal Icewine remains the best buy.

Icewine pairs well with fruit-based desserts and strong, rich veined cheeses. Avoid serving it with extremely sweet and chocolate-based desserts. Because of its syrupy sweetness, icewine can also serve as a dessert all by itself.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Saenkanter: An Incomparable Gouda

OMG (Oh, My Gouda), Saenkanter is the most intensely flavored cheese I have ever tasted. Made in north Holland, this cheese has a rich, nutty, butterscotch and caramel flavor with subtle hints of sherry. Aged at least 3 years, it is rock hard and has a deep amber color. Crystalline protein structures scattered throughout this cheese give it an interesting crunch.

This Dutch Gouda is made from pasteurized cow's milk, but don't let the fact that it's a Gouda fool you into thinking it's a boring cheese. Gouda, Double Cream Gouda and (heaven forbid) Gouda Lite are among the dullest, least flavorful cheeses in the world. Aged Gouda, however, is another story.

Although I've never seen Saenkanter in Buffalo (I bought mine at the Dean & Deluca store in Napa Valley), Wegman's carries a small but interesting selection of aged Gouda. Look for the names Beemster, Old Gouda and Old Amsterdam. I recently bought a five-year-old Gouda from Wegman's that didn't quite measure up to Saenkanter but was nonetheless pretty interesting. Aged Gouda is like nothing you've probably ever tasted.

A few days ago I cooked the following scrambled egg dish (from Cheese 'n Things) using the aged Gouda I bought at Wegman's. The egg dish was rather strongly flavored but quite interesting:

INGREDIENTS:
6 Eggs
1/2 c Saenkanter cheese (or other aged gouda)
1 Shallot
1/8 c. Cream
Butter
Coarse sea salt
White pepper
DIRECTIONS:
Mince shallot and sauté in butter until translucent and golden brown. Set aside. Cool frying pan and pour 1/8 cup cream in. Then crack 6 eggs into the pan, making sure nothing's cooking yet. Turn heat to medium low, and gently blend eggs and cream until mixture is a consistent pale yellow color. Grate 1/4 cup Saenkanter into egg mixture. Adjust heat to lowest flame and stir continually. Summon your patience and keep stirring until serving–it takes a little while. If you see scrambling action before thickening, your flame is too high. Add two pinches of coarse salt and a few shakes of white pepper. When your eggs are properly cooked (moist but not runny), stir in the shallots. Top with one quick grating of the cheese. Serve with toast that cuts the richness like toasted sourdough or rye.
(Photo credit: D. Ryan Anderson)

Friday, June 15, 2007

Is Sake Wine?

Short answer: No.

Longer answer: Even though sake is often called 'rice wine,' something can be wine only if it is made from the fermented juice of some fruit. So, strawberry wine, plum wine, apricot wine and [insert gagging sounds] even watermelon wine are all genuinely wine (even if not all genuinely good). Since sake is made from a grain rather than a fruit, it has much more in common with beer than with wine.

Whether a distilled spirit is made from a fruit or a grain is also what determines whether it counts as brandy or whiskey. Brandy (from the Dutch word brandewijn, meaning 'burnt wine') is any distilled spirit made from fermented fruit juice, whereas whiskey is any distilled spirit (with the exception of vodka) made from fermented grain sugars.

The primary distinctions between types of sake are based not on the varieties of rice that are used but rather on how much each grain of rice has been milled or polished. The core of a rice grain has a greater concentration of starches than the exterior region or "husk." Rice grains that have greater percentages of this exterior portion removed through polishing can produce sakes with more intense and complex flavors. Serious sake begins when at least 30% of the rice grain has been removed. 40-50% polishing is common. Less polishing results in a cheaper, lower quality sake with less flavor and complexity.

Good sake should be served chilled. Cheap sake is often served hot at sushi bars to mask the poor quality of the product being served.

Saturday, June 9, 2007

Suggestions on Serving Cheese

Here are some suggestions that can make serving cheese a more enjoyable experience:

1. Serve a cheese plate to your guests. Instead of placing a few large wedges of cheese on a platter that everyone must hack away at, provide your guests with pre-cut servings of cheese on plates of their own. Although the French traditionally serve a cheese plate at the end of a meal, I think it works much better as an appetizer course.

2. Select cheeses with contrasting flavors. One kind of contrast can be effected by serving cheeses made from the milk of different animals--e.g., sheep, goats and cows. You might also consider some combination of the following: (i) one blue cheese, (ii) one hard, dry cheese (e.g., Parmigiano-Reggiano), (iii) one flavored cheese (i.e., a cheese to which something like fruit, herbs or beer has been added) and/or (iv) one soft-ripened cheese (i.e., a mushy cheese with a fuzzy, white rind like Camembert or Brie). Arrange the cheeses from mildest to strongest and instruct your guests to enjoy them in this order.

3. Offer a selection of fruit and nuts on your cheese plate. You can include fresh fruit (e.g., pears, apples, honeydew melons, strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, blackberries), dried fruit (e.g., dates, figs, cranberries, cherries, raisins, prunes), and/or toasted nuts (e.g., black walnuts, almonds, hazelnuts or pecans). The Lexington Co-Op has an interesting selection of dried fruit. I especially enjoy their dried figs on a cheese plate.

4. Other items. Olives, roasted sweet red peppers, and paperthin slices of prosciutto can also go well on a cheese plate. Serve your cheese with warm, fresh bread instead of crackers.

Monday, June 4, 2007

MacMurray Ranch Pinot Noir

Each time I've had lunch at Brodo, my favorite lunch place in Buffalo, I've enjoyed a glass of MacMurray Ranch Pinot Noir. This affordably priced wine is a pleasure to drink.

MacMurray Ranch is located in the heart of the Russian River Valley in Sonoma County, about 70 miles north of San Francisco. The Ranch takes its name from the late actor, Fred MacMurray, star of My Three Sons and Billy Wilder's classic film noir Double Indemnity. MacMurray owned the ranch for 50 years. After his death it was sold to E & J Gallo.

The freshly harvested grapes for the MacMurray Ranch Pinot Noir are cold soaked for several days before primary fermentation, giving it the deepest ruby color I have ever seen in a Pinot Noir. According to winemaker Susan Doyle, this process also results in an optimal extraction of flavor.

I don't know whether the dark color of the wine is fooling me into thinking this or not, but the MacMurray Pinot Noir seems to have a thicker consistency than other Pinot Noirs. Aromas of blackberries and raspberries can be detected in the wine, along with hints of vanilla from the oak aging.

This tasty wine comes in two primary varieties. One carries the 'Sonoma Coast' label and sells for about $20, and the other carries the 'Russian River Valley' label and sells for around $35. I highly recommend buying it.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Better Cheddar

The key to good cheddar cheese is age. Young cheddars are invariably bland. Aged cheddars, however, have a depth and intensity of flavor most people have never experienced in a cheddar. In my opinion, a cheddar needs to be aged at least two years before it becomes even moderately interesting.

The cooking and "cheddaring" of the curds are what give this cheese its distinctive flavor and texture. The cheddaring process involves cutting the curds into very small pieces and then stacking and pressing them together several times. This expels much of the liquid whey and gives the cheese its characteristic firmness. Cheddar is also a high-acid cheese, which can produce a gripping sensation on the tongue. About ten pounds of milk go into each pound of cheddar cheese.

Below are some of the cheddars I've tasted recently. They are organized from mildest to strongest.

Grafton Village Cheddar (Vermont). This award-winning American cheese is made from unpasteurized Vermont Jersey cow's milk. This milk is higher in butterfat content that some other kinds of milk and gives the cheese a rich, creamy flavor and texture.

Grafton's "Classic Reserve" cheddar, which is aged at least two years, is available at Buffalo area grocery stores. Although this cheese has garnered many awards, I found it to be too bland for my tastes. It might, however, be a good place to start for someone who is not already a serious cheesehead.

The folks at Grafton offer the following serving suggestion: "Slices of tart apples and pears provide a crisp foil to the creamy richness of the cheddar. Medium-bodied red and white wines bring out the earthy qualities of the cheese. Toasted walnuts, cured olives, grapes, whole grain crispbreads, crackers - and crusty breads are other classic accompaniments, and for good reason; these foods all have flavors assertive enough to stand up to the strength of aged cheddar."

New Zealand Cheddar. This cheese, which I believe is made by Mainland Cheese, is aged for at least two years but has the full flavor of a four year cheese. It has a softer texture and melts a bit more in your mouth than other cheddars. I think its flavor strikes an ideal balance between being too strong and too bland. It also has a lower price tag than almost any comparable cheese. Premier always has some of this cheese on hand.

Old Quebec Vintage Cheddar. This full-bodied cheddar is aged at least five years. Unlike some other cheddars of that age, it is not crumbly and still has that distinctive cheddar cheese texture. When I tasted a small sample of this cheese at Premier, I enjoyed it very much. However, when I took it home I found it difficult to eat very much of this cheese at one sitting because of its strong flavor. I still recommend trying this cheese because the experience of tasting an older cheddar can be very interesting and enjoyable. This cheese is also very reasonably priced. A cheese store in California offers the following serving suggestion: "Fabulous with a ripe pear, a piece of apple pie, a juicy burger or grilled between two slices of crusty bread. Also terrific on its own with a fruity red wine."

Cheddar trivia: White House historians claim that U.S. President Andrew Jackson held an open house party where a 1,400 pound block of Cheddar cheese was served as refreshment.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Carr Valley Mobay

Carr Valley Mobay Cheese is one of Wisconsin cheesemaker Sid Cook's many original creations. It combines a layer of sheep milk cheese and a layer of goat milk cheese with a layer of grape vine ash down the middle.

This cheese is fabulous! Its flavor is mild enough so that cheese novices can enjoy, but it has far more personality than most other mild cheeses. The wedge I brought to Jenn and Ken Shockley's party last weekend disappeared within mintues.

The inclusion of vegetable ash is now a popular thing among artisan cheesemakers, but I have been unable to obtain any reliable information about the nature of this product. The only thing people tell me is "Don't worry, it's edible." That's nice to know, but I would like to learn more about how it is produced. For example, the ash used in Carr Valley's Mobay is more flavorful than the ash found in some Cypress Grove Chèvre. The Mobay ash has a "blued" flavor, as if the penicillium molds that produce the blue veins in blue cheese were introduced to the ash.

To be honest, I'm not certain whether the whiter, more strongly flavored half of the Mobay is the sheep milk cheese or whether the milder, more yellow-tinged half is. Even the staff at Premier has been unable to reach a consensus on this matter. Conventional wisdom has it that goat cheese tends to be whiter than sheep cheese. However, the whiter half of the Mobay tastes a bit like the Italian sheep cheese Pecorino Romano.

I purchased my Mobay at Premier Gourmet. It can also be ordered from the Carr Valley website. I guarantee you will like this cheese.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Brunello di Montalcino

I've been drinking some very nice wines at the expense of my employer recently. One is a 2001 Brunello di Montalcino by Caparzo. This wine is made from the Brunello grape (a clone of the more familiar Sangiovese grape) in the vineyards surrounding the town of Montalcino in Tuscany.

Like the name "California Cab," "Brunello di Montalcino" denotes not only a grape variety and a place of origin but also a particular style of wine. However, unlike its American counterpart, Italian wines that enjoy the "Brunello di Montalcino" designation must also meet rigorous standards that control the planting, cultivation and fertilization of the grapes, and the aging and bottling of the wines.

Caparzo's Brunello di Montalcino was aged 36 months in Slovenian and French oak barrels and one year in the bottle before being released to the public. The producer describes the bouquet of the wine as "penetrating, very full and varied, reminiscent of wild berries." I thought it was a wonderful full-bodied wine. It combined richness and complexity of flavor with accessibility to one's palate. I'm glad Jorge Gracia recommended it.

This great wine can be purchased for $50 at wine.com, but we (or rather, my employer) paid $75 for it at Tempo.

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Buffalo's Best Cheese Shops

Here are the best places to buy cheese in Buffalo, NY:

1. Premier Gourmet. Premier has a wonderful selection of cheeses from around the world. It is hands down the best cheese shop in the area. You can give yourself an extensive education in cheese simply by sampling a new variety of cheese each time you visit. They also have a helpful and friendly staff, with a very knowledgeable head cheesemonger, Amanda. Their prices are quite reasonable, and they are willing to place custom orders.

2. Wegman's. Most Wegman's stores (Buffalo's higher-end grocery chain) carry an amazing amount and variety of cheese. In fact, the Wegman's by the Boulevard Mall carries more gourmet and artisanal cheeses than Premier. There are two reasons, however, why this greater volume does not make Wegman's the top place to buy cheese. One is that Wegman's prices tend to be higher than Premier's. Also, at Wegman's you will not likely receive personal service from someone with a deep knowledge of cheese. The experience of buying cheese should, in my opinion, be accompanied by free samples and informative conversation about cheese. Premier is the best place for that. But if you're just interested in browsing through lots of cheeses, Wegman's can be a good place to visit.

3. Lexington Co-op. The Lexington Co-operative Market, Buffalo's best natural foods place, carries a nice selection of fine cheeses. They carry a variety of blue, soft-ripened and local artisan cheeses. While their selection is not as extensive as either Premier or Wegman's, you can still find some nice cheeses there.

If anyone knows of another good place to buy cheese in Buffalo, please let me know. I always love discovering a new cheese shop.

Monday, April 30, 2007

Is Winespeak Bunk?

Winespeak--the lingo used by wine critics and connoisseurs--is often dismissed by the average wine drinker as worthless pretension. However, paying attention to the descriptions on the back of wine bottles can help train your nose and palate to discriminate subtle differences of aroma and flavor.

According to Bryan Miller, in recent years "winespeak has reached a dazzling state of hyper-fermentation, releasing a gaseous haze of verbiage that can be seen from Sonoma to Saint-Julien." Miller heaps scorn upon the attempt by certain wine writers to describe wines using terms like 'crème brûlée,' 'dew,' 'egg custard,' 'almond cheese pastry,' and 'flan.' Jon Cohen raises doubts about the value of terms like 'elegant,' 'generous,' 'graceful,' 'lush and creamy,' 'rubenesque,' and 'harmonious' for facilitating useful communication about wine.

Although some winespeak certainly is certainly over the top, too many people automatically assume they won't be able to detect the flavors that are mentioned in such descriptions and so never even try to detect them. However, if you want to take your appreciation of wine to the next level, I recommend that you try to detect the aromas and flavors mentioned on the back of a bottle or on the winemaker's website.

Here's an example of what you can do. Last week my wife and I opened a Syrah from McManis Family Vineyards in the Northern San Joaquin Valley. The wine was surprisingly good, given its $10 price tag. Because the back of the bottle did not contain a description of the wine, I went to the winery's website and found the following:
"The succulent fruit flavors lead to a toasted oak mid palate and then on to a finish of cocoa and spicy oak. The aromas are of dense, big jammy fruit; raspberries and plums. The bouquet delivers a nice complexity of sweet vanilla."
My wife and I were able to clearly discern aromas of dense, big jammy fruit, raspberries and vanilla, though we weren't so sure about the plums. That's three out of four. You'd be surprised what you can detect when you put your mind (and your nose) to it.

Wine descriptions on bottles and websites can direct your nose to aromas that you might not be able to distinguish if you weren't consciously looking for them. Here's an analogy: Have you ever noticed that the head and hands of Michelangelo's David are out of proportion with the rest of his body? Even though you've seen pictures of this statue before, you may not have noticed the size of his head and hands, but (and here's the key) as soon as I tell you where to direct your attention, you can immediately recognize this feature. Wine descriptions can do that for your nose and palate. Try taking them seriously and see how many of the described components you can detect.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Dry Jack

Monterey Jack does not have to be the boring, nearly tasteless cheese most of us encounter only in Tex-Mex dishes. Dry Jack can be wonderful and indeed is considered by many to be one of America's greatest cheeses.

The best known maker of Dry Jack is Vella Cheese Company in Sonoma, CA. I had the pleasure of stopping by there a few weeks ago during my stay in Napa Valley.

Dry Jack is made from the pasteurized milk of grass-fed cows. Unlike regular Monterey Jack, Dry Jack undergoes an extensive aging process, during which time its moisture content is greatly reduced. The resulting cheese is hard, pale yellow in color, intensely flavored and similar in texture to Parmesan.

The Vellas coat the rind of their Dry Jack with a mixture of cocoa, pepper and soybean oil. The coating serves two purposes: (i) it keeps the cheese from cracking as it loses moisture and shrinks in size during the aging process and (ii) it imparts a unique spiciness to the cheese.

Mr. Vella told me the Dry Jack that I bought at his creamery was almost four years old. It boggles my mind to think I am eating a cheese that has been around longer than my daughter.

Vella Dry Jack is not currently available in Buffalo, but I have just requested that Premier Gourmet order some. They are good about honoring customer requests. So, I'll let you know when it comes in.

The one thing I can't figure out about Monterey Jack cheese is what conditions must be satisfied for a cheese to count as Monterey Jack. When I asked Mr. Vella about this, he simply told the common story of how a man named David Jacks allegedly invented the cheese in Monterey County during the California Gold Rush of the 1800s. However, in order for Mr. Jacks to be credited with "inventing" a new cheese, there must be something novel about his product. The mere fact that he made cheese from cow's milk in Monterey County hardly counts as a new invention. I have consulted reference books on American cheese and have scoured the internet but cannot find anything that distinguishes Monterey Jack as a distinct type of cheese from any other.

Here are some things that might distinguish a cheese as unique: (i) the type of starter culture (i.e., bacteria) added to milk to break down the lactose, (ii) the type of rennet (a coagulating enzyme) used to separate liquids (whey) from solids (curds), (iii) the process of cutting and pressing the curds, (iv) the method of treating the rind, and (v) the aging process. However, as best I can tell, Monterey Jack is not significantly different from cheddar in any of these categories, and Mr. Jacks certainly did not invent cheddar. The fact that he made some cheddar in California hardly seems to qualify his product as a new invention.

The mixture of cocoa, pepper and oil the Vellas use to coat their rinds seems to be a feature of their unique version of Monterey Jack rather than something that is common to all Jacks. So, if anyone knows what makes Monterey Jack Monterey Jack, please let me know.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Learning More About Wine

According to Eric Asimov, wine writer for the New York Times, the best place to learn about wine may be your own home. Eric suggests that the best way to learn about wine is to do some "systematic wine drinking" at home.

Eric's advice is to tell your local wine retailer that you are interested in learning about wine and ask them to recommend twelve different wines that are worth getting to know. Preferably, the recommendations will include different styles and grapes from around the world. Be sure to set a price limit you are comfortable with. Eric used a $250 budget. Since a case is 12 bottles, that's about $20 or so per bottle. You may prefer to spend $15 a bottle.

Eric's advice is that you open a bottle every other night or so and take notes on what you like about the wine, what you don't, what you ate with it. Then, when you have finished your case, take your notes back to your wine retailer and ask them to recommend a second case based upon what you liked in the first one.

You can read more of Eric's thoughts about systematic wine drinking at home here and here.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Purple Haze

Purple Haze is a goat's milk cheese from Cypress Grove Chèvre that is simply fabulous. It is a fresh (i.e., non-ripened) cheese flavored with lavender buds and wild harvested fennel pollen. It is like nothing I have ever tasted.

This cheese has a light, lemony, refreshing floral flavor. It is quite soft and can be spread on just about anything. I have never enjoyed a goat cheese as much as I enjoyed this one, nor have I eaten 5 oz. of chèvre as quickly. Try it and you will see why.

Purple Haze comes in a 5 oz. three-inch round that is available in cheese shops all around the country. In western NY, it can be found at Premier Gourmet, the Lexington Co-Op, and Wegman's.

Fresh goat cheese should be kept as cold as possible without freezing (33°–35°F). But be sure to warm it up to room temperature before serving. Scuze me while I enjoy more of this chèvre.