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.