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

 

Counter Culture Comes to Philadelphia

Cheese friends, this post contains an invitation to join the cheese community in Philadelphia later this month for a series of workshops hosted by Culture Cheese Magazineone of my favorite sources of dairy inspo.  Whenever a new issue of Culture comes out, you can find me reading it over a hunk of cheese on my stoop. I enjoy their recipes, cheese maps of various cities (see below), and profiles of cheesemakers.

Counter Culture is Culture Magazine’s educational series. It’s designed to bring artisan cheese and charcuterie trainings to major cities where food lovers reside. I’m so pleased that they have selected Philadelphia as a hub of microbial enthusiasm. Click the orange links below to grab your tickets!

Tickets for Counter Culture   – for folks in the industry

On October 22, 23, and 24, Counter Culture is offering 3 days of FREE training for anyone in the food industry. If you retail cheese or if you work with cheese in a restaurant, you should come! You can register for one or more days, and — again — this experience is completely free of charge. Registration also includes free entrance to “Meet the Maker” (see below).

Tickets for “Meet the Maker”  – for all friends of cheese!

On Sunday, October 22 from 5:30-7:30, you’ll have the opportunity to sample a huge variety of artisan cheeses, cured meats, and specialty foods on the rooftop bar of the Bok Building. The cost is $15. There are 100 tickets open to the cheese-loving public.

I look forward to seeing you at Counter Culture! For those of you looking to connect in Philadelphia, here are a few things you should know about Philadelphia’s incredible cheese scene:

  1. We have a cheese gang here, the Rennet Rough Riders (#rennetroughriders). Our clubhouse is Martha, a bar in Kensington that serves local cheese boards and terrific regional beer, wine, and spirits.
  2. Check out Kristine Jannuzzi’s Philadelphia Cheese Map! You’ll find restaurants, cheese shops, and all of my favorite dairy haunts around the city.

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Up next: I’ve been experimenting with a home Cheese Grotto. If you pop over to my Instagram (@mmefromage), you can see a few advanced pics of the cheeses I’ve been ripening.

A Guide to Great British Cheddars

In autumn, I love shopping for cheddar. Whereas other dames might enjoy picking up a new woolen cape or a mohair sweater this time of year, I fantasize about running my fingers across clothbound cheddar. Montgomery’s, Keen’s, Westombe, Quicke’s. These are a few of the brands that make me swoon. All British. All bold and crumbly. All perfect with a pint of hard cider, an IPA, a nut brown ale, or a Scotch cocktail. Add a dish of chutney and some toasted walnuts alongside, and I. Can’t. Even.

Come into my kitchen, let’s talk. Let me explain why British clothbound cheddar makes me purr.

  1. Cheddar originated in Somerset, England. When you eat a British cheddar from one of the great cheddar families, you consume history. You will taste how the original recipe for cheddar tasted. It’s much like experiencing real Champagne for the first time. You understand that everything else is an approximation.
  2. Clothbound cheddar is literally wrapped in cloth, smeared with lard or butter (to seal in moisture), and aged in a cave. As the cheese ripens, it develops beautiful earthy notes, a distinct taste you only find in clothbound cheeses. To me, these earthy notes are very autumnal.

In the British Isles, there are a handful of traditional cheddars. Most are made by single families who only produce one cheddar. These cheddars are so prized that even the Queen has her favorite. Ask any cheese-loving Brit about their favorite crumbly bum, and they will surely have an opinion. So you can form yours, I have dropped in my tasting notes from a recent spree.

5 Great British Cheddars to Taste Before You Die

Isle of Mull – (top right) First, I broke off a hunk of one of my old steadies from Scotland. Made on the Isle of Mull, this cheese is famous for its boozy edge, owing to the spent grain husks that the cows are fed from nearby Tobermory distillery. The cheesemakers, Jeff and Chris Reade, are originally from Somerset. Now they run a creamery alongside a biscuit factory on the island (did I mention that they have holiday cottages?!). This cheddar is one big boozy kiss on the lips. It’s sweet, rustic, and earthy with a bright finish and a tiny little sting on the end.

Keen’s – (bottom right) Wildly earthy and piquant with a huge pop of mustard oil flavor on the finish, this cheddar is so sharp it practically burns the roof of your mouth. I love the unbridled taste here — if you like spice and heat, this is the cheddar for you. Tackle it with a fiercely hoppy beer and spend the afternoon laughing/crying in the grass. This is a raw-milk wildebeest.

Montgomery’s – (middle) Made by the legendary Jamie Montgomery, this hunkaroo is considered the best cheddar in the industry by many mongers I know. It is ultra savory with a hint of horseradish, and it’s not terribly acidic as far as cheddars go. Eating this wedge made me crave a ploughman’s lunch in the grass. I shared it with friends over some very dry hard cider from Dressler Estate (local to PA), and we all swooned.

Westcombe – (bottom left) Sometimes called “5 Mile Cheddar” (because you can taste it five miles down the road), this wedge was the most creamy one of my cache. It made me think of eating hazelnuts on a soft blanket. It’s rather mellow with a bright, pleasing finish and a very rich mouthfeel. Note that it’s made from raw milk using the same recipe Mrs. Brickell started with 100 years ago.

Hafod – (top left) From Wales, this pleasure bomb is not really a traditional cheddar because it’s a newbie to the scene, but it shares traditional cheddar traits. And I love it. It’s buttery and brightly acidic, pleasantly crumbly, and earthy — just as a great cheddar should be. If you like Alpine cheeses, try this one as it’s a bit of a hybrid.

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If you live in Philadelphia: My pals at Di Bruno Bros. are on a cheddar bender with a lovely discount until October 8. They were kind enough to share samples with me for this post as they know I have a cheddar problem. Don’t forget, I embarked on a cheddar odyssey two Octobers ago with Cheese Journeys (next one is May 3rd, 2018). You can relive my previous cheddar posts and pairing ideas for cheddar right here.