My American Cheese Project

Hello old friend, happy New Year to you! I hope you’re staying warm– maybe listening to some records and pondering a cozy fondue party with friends this weekend? It’s a great way to gather up everyone’s leftover cheese nubs from holiday boards and create some cheesy breezy entertaining.

Let me tell you about my New Year’s resolution. My goal is to eat a different American cheese each week. I’ve already started posting about it on Instagram (find me: @mmefromage), and I’m using the hashtag: #AmericanCheeseProject. I’ll share project updates and highlights here, too, but I’m finding that so many of you are on Instagram…why not? Also, you’ve probably noticed my posts here are less frequent — monthly now, instead of weekly. I’ve been working on another book, which will drop from the sky on April 17, 2018, so life around here feels pretty full. If you want to check out my next book, pop over to www.boozeandvinyl.com.

Yup. I have been listening to a LOT of records and ruining my liver.

Luckily, co-authoring a third cocktail book has driven me to crave more cheese (I like a cheese board when I imbibe). And I’m choosing to focus on American cheeses because, over the last few years, I’ve seen so many awesome looking newbies flash by in my periphery. For 2018, I promised myself a year-long gobble.

Here we are.

I want to tell  you this, too. As an American, I find cheese to be one of the most hopeful things happening in this country! Particularly the upswing in small-batch cheesemaking. Hallelujah!

Since I wrote my first food-related book, House of Cheese, back in 2013, there’s been such an uptick in high quality hunks and new makers in the United States. Most people — even my neighbors! — still don’t realize this. Let’s change the perception of American cheese! Let’s broaden some horizons, lovers!

  • Here’s a fromage fact to suck on: there are 900 artisan and specialty cheesemakers now operating in the U.S. — double the number in the year 2000.
  • Here’s a cracker for your thoughts: Cheese is now one of the top three specialty food products in the United States. Americans consume more than 34 pounds per capita.
  • Now, a drop of honey: Last year, the American Restaurant Association flagged artisan cheese as a top trend.

How to Join the American Cheese Project

Want to explore more American cheese together in 2018?

To join the movement, pop over to Instagram (@mmefromage) and whenever you eat a fabulous American-made cheese, snap a picture, post it to Instagram, and tag it #AmericanCheeseProject. I’ll check the tag every day so I can see your posts, and so will everyone who is noshing along! In fact, I’ll probably follow you. I’d love to know what you’re eating!

To be clear: I am not doing this project to gain followers on social media. My goal is to to learn more about American cheese and to share info. Instagram isn’t flawless, but it’s a good way to connect through tagging and commenting. It feels less clunky than doing those things here.

Finally, this idea stems from my own freaky zeal and isn’t sponsored by anyone. I plan to purchase the cheeses I eat for this project because I want to support American makers (another goal). While I welcome samples from time to time, I am really looking to discover new favorites.

 

This Week’s American Cheese

Rocket’s Robiola, from Boxcarr Handmade Cheese

Isn’t she a beauty? You can learn more about this North Carolina robiola rubbed in ash over at Box Carr Handmade Cheese. They’re also on Instagram (@BoxCarrHandmadeCheese).

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Pictured up top: a selection from Valley Milkhouse, made here in my home state of Pennsylvania. Go red, white, and blue!

Cheesemas is Coming to Philadelphia

Lovers, it’s time to break the dark funk of 2017 with a Cheesemas bash. If you live in Philadelphia, or nearby, I hope you’ll join me and the local cheese gang on Wednesday, December 20,  for our first-ever holiday BYOC (Bring Your Own Cheese) party at the local curd-nerd clubhouse, Martha.

Photo credit: Martha

If you’ve never been to one of our meet-ups, get ready to meet the people who make my heart swell: local cheesemakers, fermenters, cheese yogis, brewers, cider makers, distillers, bakers, cheesemongers, and maybe even a few cheese-loving burlesque dancers. Bring friends or come alone, this isn’t one of those parties where nobody talks to strangers (byyyyeee to all that!). Get ready to be embraced by some bubbly curd nerds and eat the most mind-blowing rinds of your life.
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Secret Santa Cheesemas Wonderland
Wednesday, December 20 from 7-10 p.m. at Martha (2113 E. York St.)
What: Free & open to the public + family friendly
BUT: Please BYOC (Bring Your Own Cheese) for the “edible cheese wonderland” we plan on building in the center of the bar. And if you’d like to participate in the cheesy “Secret Santa” gift exchange, bring a wrapped item that would pair well with cheese (i.e. jar of jam, pickles, etc.).
Note: Martha has generously offered to provide baguettes, and you’ll be able to purchase festive cocktails, wines, beers, and kombuchas at the bar. (Please tip your bartender well!) We’ll also have Ben Wenk of Ploughman Cider sampling some great new sips, plus loaves of Lost Bread Co.‘s beet rye for you to try.
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We can’t wait to sit by the fire at Martha and eat cheese with you on December 20!
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Below, you’ll see a few of the people you’re sure to meet from the local crew…
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Yours in Dairy,
Madame Fromage & The Rennet Rough Riders

Cheese painter Mike Geno (he’ll have prints and calendars for sale!)

The Dames from Collective Creamery

Cheesemakers Paul and Sean from Cherry Grove (NJ)

Caputo Brothers’ Cheese All-Stars (remember them from the Cheese Ball?)

Cheese boards from Margaux and Walter Kent of Peg & Awl

Cool & The Gang, from Di Bruno Bros. (Rocco, Matt, Hunter, Rich, Emilio, Amanda)

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.