Friday, February 23, 2007

Strange Saxon Shires Reaction

When my wife gave our toddler daughter a sample of Saxon Shires cheese last year, my daughter immediately broke out in a rash all across her stomach. I have never given my daughter samples of gourmet or artisanal cheeses, so I don't know how many kinds of cheese might spark a similar reaction in her. My daughter does not have any other food allergies that we know of. This was the only time we've seen her have an apparently allergic reaction to any food.

Saxon Shires is not really a single cheese. It consists of alternating layers of five different cheeses, taken from the five famous counties of Gloucester, Leicester, Lancashire, Derby and Cheddar. The flavors of the cheeses alternate from mild to sharp. In spite of the pleasing visual appearance of the cheese, its flavor is rather boring. Combining five not-so-terribly interesting cheddar-style cheeses does not seem to result in a more interesting overall product.

I don't know what the medical explanation of my daughter's reaction is, but I would caution parents of small children against giving them samples of imported or gourmet cheeses--unless they think they have a better understanding of what happened with my daughter than I do.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Chocolate Fudge Cheese

Here is a novelty cheese you definitely need to try: Chocolate Fudge Cheese. It tastes a whole lot like fudge and only a little bit like cheese. It has a rich, chocolately flavor and a wonderful, satiny texture.

The first bite I tried struck my taste buds as a bit strange. It wasn't ordinary fudge, and it certainly wasn't ordinary cheese. It was also unlike any other chocolate-flavored dessert I had tasted. My taste buds very quickly warmed up to the rich, new flavor, however. I now intentionally refrain from keeping this product in our house because my wife and I cannot stop eating it when it is around.

The chocolate cheese I buy is made by the Herkimer County Cheese Company in upstate NY. Many Wisconsin cheesemakers make chocolate cheese as well.

This rich, chocolate-flavored dessert item counts as cheese because the initial stages of its production are exactly the same as ordinary cheese. First, a starter culture (bacteria of some kind) is added to fresh milk. The bacteria feed on lactose in the milk and produce lactic acid as a byproduct. Then, rennet (a coagulating enzyme) is added, which speeds the separation of liquids (whey ) and solids (curds) in the milk. After you have curds, you can do all sorts of things to them to create a variety of cheese products. The curds can be cut, pressed, ripened or enriched with various additional flavors.

In the case of chocolate cheese, lots of fudgy ingredients are added to the curds. But since the whole process starts with cheese curds, the resulting product is technically a kind of cheese--even if not a typical one.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Spanish Blue

I tried my first Spanish Blue cheese today--a Cabrales--and it was fabulous . Wrapped in what appear to be maple or sycamore leaves, this semi-hard, pasteurized cheese is made from cow's milk, with goat and/or sheep milk often added as well. It has a wonderfully strong aroma and flavor. Without a doubt, this is the most complex and best Spanish cheese I have eaten.

Made by rural dairy farmers in the Asturias region of Spain, Cabrales is aged in natural limestone caves from two to six months. During this time, penicillium molds go to work and create complex blue-greenish veins throughout the center of the cheese. This cheese is far more interesting and more worth buying than its better known compatriot, Manchego.

UPDATE: Some cheesemongers describe the flavor of Cabrales as the "meanest" among blue cheeses. Although this is a very enjoyable cheese to eat, I have to confess that I understand what they mean. It is not easy to eat a lot of this cheese in one sitting.

Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Missouri Port

Yes, Missouri has a wine region. Just west of St. Louis along the Missouri River lies the unique midwestern wine district of Augusta, MO.

While I'm not a big fan of red or white Missouri table wines, I am an enormous fan of the ports produced by Mt. Pleasant Winery. I recently finished my last bottle of their 1993 Vintage Port, which was truly superb. After aging for almost a decade and a half, the thick red of the 1993 port had begun to give way to a deep and complex brownish hue. The subtlety and complexity of its flavor is not at all what you would expect from a midwestern wine product. The 1993 vintage was the last one sold in a very handy 375 ml size.

Port is made from combining one part high-alcohol brandy with five parts young wine. By 'young wine' I mean that the wine is not allowed to complete the fermentation process, which results in a great deal of residual sugar. Fermentation is arrested by the addition of the extra-high alcohol brandy, which kills the yeast responsible for fermentation. (In the making of dry wines, the yeast simply starve to death when they run out of sugar to feed upon.)

The winemakers at Mt. Pleasant openly acknowledge that the brandy they use in their vintage port is made from the Cabernet Sauvignon grape. They refuse, however, to disclose any information concerning the grape that serves as the basis for the young wine in it. Nonetheless, I am confident that the mystery uva is the Cynthiana grape, which tastes much like a Concord grape. While I can't imagine that Cynthiana could ever make a passable table wine, its purply sweet, Welch's Grape Jelly flavor makes an interesting base for a port.

I was disappointed with a bottle of Mt. Pleasant's 1998 vintage port that I opened recently. I found it to be decidedly inferior to a bottle from their 1997 vintage that I just finished off. I don't know how much difference the extra year of aging made for the 1997 bottle or how much should be chalked up to the quality of the grapes harvested in 1998. In any case, I recommend that the younger vintages be set aside and aged before enjoying.

If you live in the St. Louis area, the next vertical port tasting with winemaker Mark Baehmann will be Sun., Mar. 11th, from 1 to 3pm. I attended one of these events several years ago and thoroughly enjoyed it.

Monday, February 5, 2007

White Stilton with Fruit

White Stilton is a crumbly, unpressed British cheese made from pasteurized cow's milk. While it does not compare in flavor or texture to its better-known sibling, Blue Stilton (often called the "King of Cheeses"), it is nonetheless worthy of a cheesemonger's modest consideration.

The many varieties of White Stilton that are made with fruit are among my favorite cheeses to serve at parties. They are interesting, accessible and pairable with most any wine. Strawberries, blueberries, apricots or mangos are often added to the curds of White Stilton, resulting in a light, sweet and refreshing cheese.

Plain White Stilton without any added fruit is a rather uninteresting cheese. It's a bit like Feta, without the briney flavor. I once served slices of plain White Stilton with slices of fresh mango on Ritz crackers. While I liked the visual presentation of the resulting hors d'oeuvre, I was surprised at how plain the flavor was. Whatever tiny bit of flavor the plain Stilton had on its own completely disappeared behind flavor of the fruit and cracker.

I highly recommend buying White Stilton to which fruit is added during the cheesemaking process. Adding fruit at this stage allows the flavors of the fruit and cheese to meld in a way they simply cannot do on a cracker.

Saturday, February 3, 2007

Niagara Icewine Festival Highlights

The 2007 Niagara Icewine Festival (Jan. 19-28) was lots of fun. I toured a few wineries, enjoyed tastings at many more, and visited the Icewine Ice Bar--with chairs and tables made entirely of ice--at Niagara-on-the-Lake.

Most icewines are made from the Vidal Blanc and Riesling grapes. Because the frozen grapes pressed to make icewine yield only about 1/10 of the juice of unfrozen grapes, icewines can get quite expensive. The average 375 ml bottle costs at least $40 and many go for around $100.

At the Jackson-Triggs winery, I enjoyed a uniquely interesting Gewürztraminer icewine. The Gewürztraminer grape was a refreshing change of pace from the more common Vidal and Riesling icewines. I don't usually care for Gewürztraminer wines, but I enjoyed this icewine, which was spicier and had more of a mango flavor than the predominately apricot-flavored Vidal icewines.

Inniskillin, one of Ontario's icewine powerhouses, is one of the only wineries to make a sparkling icewine. Made from the Vidal grape, it is refreshingly light, sweet and crisp.

I also tasted a variety of very nice Vidal and Riesling icewines at Coyote's Run, Chàteau des Charmes, Riverview Cellars, and Strewn Winery. I thought each of these wineries did a nice job balancing sophistication with a lack of pretension. Their icewines can be sampled at their tasting bars throughout the year.