Madame Fromage’s Holiday Gift Guide

Every year, I tell myself I am not going to do a gift guide. Then, I can’t resist sharing some of my favorite things from the year. So here you go, my darlings. This is, in no particular order, a list of dairy-centric delights that brought me great happiness this year and, with any luck, will bring you and yours a whole lotta joy, too.

Cheese calendar by Mike Geno

You’ll never be at a loss for which cheese to eat if you purchase this fabulous calendar from my friend and neighbor, the painter Mike Geno. His calendars brighten my kitchen every year, and they’re the gift that pretty much every person I know will adore. This year’s cheese calendar is all loaded up with the birthdays of your favorite cheesemakers, plus National Grilled Cheese Day, National Pizza Day, etc. You’ll always have a reason to party. If you fall in love with one of the original images pictured in, say, June or August, you can always spring for a wall print or — bettah yet — a Mike Geno original. ($25)

Saint Rita Parlor #2 Parfum

This might seem a little rando ‘cuz I’m not one for perfumes, but I have always wanted one spell-binding vaguely cave-smelling scent, and this one comes so close! The label on the vial got me with its description — whiskey, tobacco, water, and rose — and its glorious woodsy aroma. It’s true: I love whiskey, the occasional French cigarette (I keep a pack in the freezer and defrost one on occasion to smoke on the stoop after a party), and I always stop to smell roses when I jog around the cemetery near my house. One day, I hope someone will develop a line of cheese cave fragrances? Until then… ($40)

Gouda Pin from Cheese, Sex, Death

A custom cheese pin created in the image of one of my favorite Wisconsin cheeses? Yes, this is a must for the hat ribbon or the lapel of any self-respecting Gouda freak. It would be a perfect gift alongside a hunk of the Gouda for which this pin was create, Marieke Gouda with Cloves. This unusual Dutch cheese, spiked with whole cloves, is traditional and tastes like the best winter pot potpourri you never imagined eating. ($10)

Butter Ballcap and 1 lb of Ploughgate Butter

For the discerning dairy lover, send a pound of designer butter and a “butter” ballcap. It’s a no brainer. When you taste this cultured love bomb from Vermont, you’ll understand why Ploughgate has a cult following. It’s the next best thing to a Vacherin-gram. No, no, there’s no such thing as a Vacherin-gram, but there should be! Can you imagine a cheesemonger showing up at your work with balloons and a seasonal spruce-wrapped cheese? Forget fruit bouquets, people! ($20, $25)

 

A Cheese Journey

In 2018, I’ll be packing my cheese valise for a series of cheese-centric trips that I am so proud to be co-hosting with the intrepid Anna Juhl. For something truly deluxe, join us on a Gouda tour to Amsterdam (April 3-11). Or come see me on the Philadelphia & Chester County cheese tour (July 5-8). Or, let’s hit the Alps together and eat heaps of Reblochon (Aug. 29-Sept. 9)! A Vermont cheese tour is also in the works! These tours are an incredible way to support the cheese community, meet makers, and explore specialty foods and pairings you could never imagine. They’re an excellent gift for a special birthday or anniversary. ($priceless)

Boska Cheese Tower

Know someone who likes to throw cheese bashes? This dramatic slate tower with a built-in toothpick topper is pretty genius. It’s not actually something I own, but I saw it recently at my local kitchen store (Fante’s) and I did some panting in the aisle of slicers. ($59.99)

Raclette Party Grill

Raclette parties are in! Well, they were never out in my family, but this winter I’ve had more Raclette inquiries than usual, so let me give you the skinny. I use an 8-person Swissmar Party-clette in the winter, and I absolutely love it. This is a table-top oven with 8 small fry pans for toasting cheese, plus a grill top which I like to use for a second course of sausages and veg. It’s the easiest, coziest dinner party imaginable — pick up some Raclette and potatoes, ask your guests to bring pickles and mustards, then plug in your Raclette oven. Serve some German beers or some Swiss whites, and you’re golden. (prices vary)

Booze and Vinyl (my next book, available for pre-order!)

It’s true, my brother André Darlington and I have co-authored a new book that’s coming out in April. You and yours can be the first to own it and host a boozy listening party (with cheese of course)! We’ve got some incentives on our new book website. And we’d be happy to send your giftee a signed book plate and a holiday card if you buy a copy in advance. Certainly, there must be someone in your life who likes drinking cocktails and playing vinyl as much as we do! You can read the description of our new book here.

Food-inspired fabric, by Johanna Kindvall

My friend and collaborator Johanna Kindvall is a food illustrator, and many of her drawings are now available as printed fabric on Spoonflower. Check out her shop and order a yard or two of “cheese cloth” so you can make a Provolone duvet cover. Or tea towels. Or a pair of cheesy trousers to wear to ACS! She has lots of other non-dairy images, too, plus a whole line of homewares on Society6, from mugs and bags to cellphone covers. You’ll find a bunch more of her cheese-centric illustrations there, too. Johanna also has a wonderful new book, Smorgasbord (Ten Speed Press, 2017)

A Locally Made Cheese Board

It’s nice to have a range of shapes and sizes when it comes to cheese boards. I love the beautiful beautiful boards and bowls created by master craftsman John Luttman of Artifaqt Design in Phoenixville, PA. I’m also partial to the rustic boards (and bags for carrying cheese boards!) from Peg + Awl , a family business run by my talented and wonderful neighbors Margaux and Walter Kent. I also love Vestige Home, where my friend Nicole Cole and her brother Luke make beautiful bowls, boards, and wooden spoons.

Philadelphia-centric Gift Ideas

If you’re a local lover, gift a Collective Creamery Cheese CSA subscription and receive local cheeses from Sue Miller of Birchrun Hills and Stef Angstadt of Valley Milkhouse. Or, buy a gift certificate from one of the local restaurants that serve fabulous local cheese boards. On the top of my list: Talula’s Garden, The Love, Martha, Tria, a.kitchen. Of course, my pals at Di Bruno Bros. offer Cheese Clubs, and if I had to suggest one it would be their “Eat Like a Cheesemonger Club.” Finally, you can join the Pennsylvania Cheese Guild as an enthusiast for just $25 a year, which is an incredible way to support cheesemaker education throughout the state and learn about all kinds of cheese-centric events and farm tours. Thanks for spreading the love!

Photo Credit: Collective Creamery

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COMING UP! Cheesemas at Martha on Dec. 20: If you’re local, join the cheese crew for a giant BYOC (bring your own cheese bash) at Martha Bar in Kensington on Dec. 20, from 7-10 p.m. If you bring a wrapped condiment to pair with cheese, you can participate in our dairy lover’s Secret Santa swap. I hope to see you!

The Book of Cheese, By Liz Thorpe

Eight or nine years ago, when I was plunging heart-first into cheese, I read The Cheese Chronicles, by Liz Thorpe. In fact, her book was published in 2009 — the same year I meandered into blogging — and I still have a sticky-note inside the front cover, where I wrote to myself: Try sheep’s milk cheeses from Vermont Shepherd. Every few pages or so, there are scribbles in the margins (Must try! ) and phrases I underlined (hand-ladled). I still love Liz’s description of tasting Cabot Clothbound cheddar: “Now the sweetness just hangs there, and the first bite is like baked potatoes, tight in their paper jackets, with melted lumps of sweet butter….”

Is there anything more lovely to imagine?

When I think of great line-by-line writing, I think of Liz Thorpe. Her sentences and flavor descriptions once propelled me to Di Bruno Bros. to buy half-a-dozen cheddars at a time so I could conduct my own studious tastings. I’d unwrap them at my kitchen table and nibble them, eyes closed, looking for the “trademark burnt toast-pineapple prickle that assaults many of America’s aged cheddars.” Yess, yesssssss, there it was! Through Liz Thorpe and others (Patricia Michelson, Steven Jenkins, Janet Fletcher), I learned to speak in tongues.

So, what a joy to peel open a padded yellow envelope in my kitchen several weeks ago and find Liz Thorpe’s latest, The Book of Cheese: The Essential Guide to Discovering Cheeses You’ll Love (Flatiron, 2017). It’s heavy as a doorstop and designed as a gateway to 10 kinds of cheese, from Mozzarella and Brie to Swiss, Parmesan, and Blue. Each chapter focuses on a familiar type you’d find at the grocery (Thorpe told me in an interview that she spent countless hours walking through stores to develop her system), then offers a spectrum of cheeses to explore in each category.

If you like Swiss, you’ll like…Grandcru, Comté, Rupert, Emmentaler, etc. Thorpe’s book is like one big Amazon algorithm applied to cheese.

As an organizing principle, Thorpe’s “gateway approach” works beautifully for today’s consumer, ‘cuz Lord knows Americans don’t have a clear sense of technical categories, like “Lactic Curd” or “Smear-Ripened.” And why should they? I ran up against the same challenge when I sat down with the owners of Di Bruno Bros. to dream up the the table of contents for House of Cheese back in 2012.

Here are some of my favorite things about this book:

Thoughtful Organization

The Book of Cheese is very explicit about what terms mean (like rind and paste) making it a great book for novices. However, it’s not a basic book. It’s incredibly detailed, which will make it useful to professionals in the industry, particularly cheesemongers who work at grocery retail counters.

Each chapter opens with a two-page spread, illustrated with watercolor, that functions as a flavor chart and a guide to which cheeses are accessible in a supermarket vs. a specialty shop. At first, I struggled to make sense of how this info was organized, but once I spent a little time with it, I found it to be really novel.

Flavor Wheels

A “Flavor & Aroma Wheel” accompanies each chapter, offering a broader range of vocab than I have ever seen in a cheese book. Here are a few flavor/aroma notes I would never have though to connect to cheese: burnt wood, petrol. Other words, such as seawater and shiitake mushroom require less of a stretch and feel like exactly the flavor associations I would like to keep in mind when I’m tasting cheeses.

Thorpe credits the wine industry with inspiring her to develop cheese flavor wheels. She also studied the flavor lexicons for beer, wine, chocolate, and olive oil to help refine terms, along with the well-distributed aroma wheel for Comté cheese — one of the few cheeses with a clearly defined flavor spectrum.

Textural Terms & Pairings

“Liquescent” is a new term I will be using the next time I serve a runny Brie. I will also be sprinkling in terms like “bulging,” “elastic,” and “scoopable.” Suggested pairings within each chapter range from classic pairings — sparkling wine and triple cremes — to unusual combos, such as Brie Types with Mexican chocolate to create “snappy contrast.” The only thing that surprised me? Thorpe’s beverage pairing suggestions steer mostly toward vino. Why not beer? Or non-alcoholic pairings, like tea?

A Sense of Humor

There is a feverish textbook-like intensity to The Book of Cheese, especially at the beginning of the book. But once I jumped into Thorpe’s juicy prose, I found all kinds of amusing phrases that I adored. (On page 172, for example, she describes the smell of Epoisses as “farty.” Yassss!)

Whether you work at a cheese counter or dream of expanding your cheese literacy at home, The Book of Cheese is a terrific guide to deepening your dairy appreciation.

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Want to learn more? Check out what Liz Thorpe is up to, especially on Youtube.

Instagram: @LizThorpeCheese

Facebook: @CheeseLiz

YouTube channel: The People’s Cheese

 

 

 

A Seasonal Vacherin Dinner

If you are anything like me, you welcome November with gusto because it’s Vacherin season. I’m referring to the exquisite cheese made in the Jura mountains and released right before the holidays. Its full name is Vacherin Mont d’Or, and — although it’s a mouthful to say — the mere mention of it in a cheese shop usually turns a few heads. Is there a wheel of Mont d’Or here? Did someone say Vacherin Mont d’Or?

I have yet to see a wheel of Vacherin at a cheese shop in Philadelphia this month, which is why I practically sprouted wings when I received an invite to a Mont d’Or dinner at Bistrot la Minette. Chef/Proprietor Peter Woolsey, a French cheese lover to his molten core, is offering “Mont d’Or Dinners” through the end of November. Reader, I soldiered forth on a bitey night to check it out on your behalf.

Even if you don’t live within striking distance of Philadelphia, you can always host your own Mont d’Or Dinner. (See my tip for heating Vacherin in your oven — don’t forget to put foil under the box, and warm it gently at around 350 degrees for about 30 minutes. The cheese should to melt into fondue but not turn into an oily pool.)

Let me share Chef Peter Woolsey’s menu with you, for inspiration. Chef’s wife Peggy hails from the Jura, and he is headed to her family’s house this winter — presumably to eat raw-milk Mont d’Or.

Or, maybe it’s to see family?

Bistrot La Minette’s Mont d’Or Dinner

Salade Jurassiene: frisée, red leaf lettuce, and walnuts with cured French ham and Comté with a light vinaigrette

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Potée Jurassienne: cabbage soup with white beans, pork belly, leak, and potato

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Baked Vacherin Mont d’Or with potatoes, mushrooms, and locally made juniper-smoked sausage (Saucisse Morteu)

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Gateau Arboisien: chocolate cake with ground almonds and hazelnuts, served with vanilla ice cream

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To sip: Poulsard, Jura (red) | Chardonnay, Jura | Macvin du Jura (dessert wine)

Was it the smell of the Vacherin or the waiters in red vests dipping bottles of wine into our glasses? I don’t know, but I will tell you that our Mont d’Or Dinner sent my mood right to the ceiling. I felt my shoulders lift and saw a twinge of holiday spirit flit between the corners of my cat-eye glasses.

Warm cheese is uplifting. You and I know this.

May you enter a Mont d’Or state of mind. Happy November!

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To book a Mont d’Or Dinner at Bisrot la Minette: 215-925-8000. You’ll need a table of 4. The cost is $160; featured wines are not included.

To visit the Jura yourself: come with me on a Cheese Journey to explore Alpine cheeses in September 2018. I’ll be co-hosting this tour for a second time, and I can’t wait to go back!

Note: this experience was a press invite.

 

The Cheese Grotto: A Home Aging Cave

Some of my favorite moments in this world have been inside cheese caves — like Willi Lehner’s hobbit-like cave built into a Wisconsin hillside at Bleu Mont Dairy or the labyrinthine Cellars of the Fort Saint Antoine in France, otherwise known as the “catherdral of Comté.” So, just imagine my delight when I learned that a Brooklyn cheesemonger named Jessica Sennett had invented an in-home Cheese Grotto.

Sennett has been handling cheese for years — as a Cave Manager at Formaggio Kitchen in Boston and as an educator at Bedford Cheese Shop. She also studied cheesemaking in France. In 2014, she caught the cheese world’s attention with her Kickstarter campaign for the Cheese Grotto. Her idea? To create an optimal storage unit that would mimic a cheese cave, for home use. Think: steady temperature and humidity. (Refrigerators tend to be drying.)

For the last six weeks, I’ve had the pleasure of test-driving the Cheese Grotto. I’ve chronicled the project on Istagram (@mmefromage), and now I’m here for some cave reckoning.

How the Cheese Grotto Works

What it’s made of: PlyBoo (plywood made of bamboo), glass panels, air vents

What it comes with: a clay brick for moisture control, an instruction booklet, food-grade mineral oil

How it works: You can store the Cheese Grotto in your refrigerator or in a cool place, even on your counter as long as your kitchen is less than 70 degrees fahrenheit. To get started, you soak the clay brick in water for two minutes, insert it in the bottom of the cave, then place your cheeses onto the bamboo shelves, and close the Grotto’s door. You can age up to 6 pounds of cheese at a time. Check your cheese daily and adjust the air vents in the back of the Grotto if the cheeses look too dry or too moist. To clean the Grotto, you hand-wash it with soap or vinegar water, and oil it monthly.

Which cheeses to age: the Grotto’s booklet includes a preservation guide with a list of styles and aging times. A goat cheese log, for example, can age for 2-3 weeks in a refrigerated grotto or up to 8 days if the grotto is on the counter at an ambient temperature of less than 70 degrees.

The Value of a Cheese Grotto

First, the Grotto is adorable. Aesthetically, it’s a brilliant conversation piece.

If you’re starting to make cheese at home — particularly bloomy cheeses or washed-rind cheeses — the Grotto would be an ideal home cave for your small batches. Could you find a less expensive alternative? Probably. With its $350 price tag, the Grotto is splurge-y, but there is something so pleasing about peering into it every morning. It catches every visitor’s eye when they enter my kitchen, especially my wee neighbor Dera, age 5.

Does it actually work? Yes, I experimented with storing both hard cheeses and bloomy (Brie-like) cheeses, like Doe Run’s Damselfly. Hard cheeses retain humidity in the Grotto, which is great. You don’t have to stifle them in plastic wrap or tinfoil, so you can keep them fresher longer. Cheeses with downy surface molds actually continue to ripen, so you can get a slightly underripe cheese to develop a runny center over a few days.

It was so gratifying to experiment with the Cheese Grotto, I decided to purchase the one that Jessica Sennet loaned me. I didn’t expect to bond with it, but it’s kind of like a toaster oven or a rice cooker — other “novelties” I didn’t think I wanted until I tried them. Now, I can’t imagine a Grotto-less existence.

Fund Jessica Sennett’s Next Grotto Project

This month, Jessica is running a campaign on Women You Should Fund to create a smaller, less expensive grotto, for the metropolitan cheese lover. It’s also made from slightly different materials. Take a look at her “Al Fresco” Cheese Grotto Campaign.

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Up next: It’s Vacherin season! In Philadelphia, Chef Peter Woolsey of Bistrot La Minette had the brilliant idea to celebrate this cheese all month with Vacherin Mont d’Or dinners. You book a 4-top, and you get to enjoy an entire wheel of warm, gooey Vacherin with accompaniments and wine. Brilliant!

 

Counter Culture redux, Cheese on VICE, and more

Cheese cherubs, it’s been quite a week. Here in Philadelphia, we welcomed Culture Magazine‘s entire staff for a 3-day cheese and meat training bonanza called Counter Culture. I got to meet some of you, which made my day (I’m talking to YOU, Julia from Whole Foods Toronto and YOU, Ericka of Cheese Sex Death). And I got very milk drunk.

Over a 48-hour period, I tasted at least 48 cheeses and lapped up some delicious presentations by many of the people I admire most in the cheese business. Rynn Caputo brought the house down with her passionate commitment to Animal Welfare Approval and her push for quality fermented mozzarella — which she makes and sells — over acidified mozzarella (most supermarket varieties).

Jill Giacomini Basch of Point Reyes Farmstead Creamery blew me away with the story of how she and her 3 sisters returned to her family’s Marin County dairy farm to make blue cheese. None of them wanted anything to do with the farm growing up, but they all returned after successful careers in business and culinary to continue the legacy. She described how the awesome dames at Cowgirl Creamery down the road “invited us into their offices and production facilities” to share all of their knowledge. “Coming from Silicon Valley,” Jill said, pausing, “I thought, okay, this is the industry for me!”

Hearing these stories reinforced to me what I love about the cheese community: it truly is a “counter culture.” Makers help makers. Most of the folks you’ll meet aren’t out for themselves; they want other cheesemakers to succeed. I find this so humbling, so rare. It’s why I feel such loyalty to the world of fromages.

Here are a few more bright bites to enjoy at the end of National Cheese Month:

  • Peep Mike Geno’s cheese portraits on VICE, thanks to writer Simran Sethi.
  • Open your ears to Cheese Underground Radio, a new fave podcast focused on WI cheese.
  • If you live in Philadelphia, check out the 20th anniversary menu at Fork, which runs through Nov. 17. Fork supports local cheesemakers and includes a local cheese board on their special menu.
  • Check out the Fete des Fromages at Covered Bridge Farm in Oley, PA on Oct. 28!

Where to Find Me in November: On Nov. 1, I’ll be slinging drinks and signing books at Manatawny Still Works for Craft Spirits Week. On Nov. 3 and 4, I’ll be at the Lodge at Woodloch with André Darlington to lead two cocktail workshops as part of the Chef in Residence Series. Come soak up some suds with me!

Cheesemaker Sue Miller at Counter Culture