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."


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
Brush the bread with olive oil, then toast or grill it. Cover with a slice of cheese and drizzle with honey. Makes 4 servings.