One of my favorite things to do before a long trip is to create a checklist of tastes, so I can remember what to nibble in the field. I know, it sounds obsessive — but without obsessive acts, life is a bit milquetoast, is it not?
Next week, I have the great fortune of traveling to France as a co-host for Cheese Journeys, a company based in New York that curates dazzling dairy experiences. Amidst the frenzy of packing and getting my classes covered at work, I take brief pauses to imagine little scenes: drinking the milk of three regions, sleeping and waking to the sound of Alpine cowbells, and gorging on as much raw-milk French cheese as possible.
Since I tend to be a bit geographically challenged, these scenes allow me to visualize the itinerary my tastebuds will follow as they salivate from the Savoie to Alsace to the region of Franche-Comte. Translation: our trip begins with rustic Tomme de Savoie, stanky Raclette, and gooey Reblochon, then ends with nutty-sweet Comté and impossibly sultry Vacherin. Along the way, I am anticipating tartiflette, soft Munster, and Chartreuse cocktails. (Yours truly will lead the expedition to the Chartreuse monastery and be making the cocktails!)
Of our tour’s many cheese destinations, I am most excited to set foot in the cellars of Fort Saint Antoine — a vast underground artillery fort that now holds wheel upon wheel of Comté.
Comté is Gruyere made in France (the Swiss claimed the name “Gruyere” long ago). Although Comté is less of a household name in the U.S., it is one of the best cheeses to seek if you are looking to broaden your cheese palate. That’s because it’s hard to find bad Comté. In fact, “bad” and “Comté” don’t belong in the same sentence. Comté is carefully regulated and none of it is factory made; it’s produced by a few hundred “frutieres“, or small farms. When the 80-lb wheels of Comté are young, they are collected by an affineur (someone trained in aging cheese) and matured in a cave, like Fort Saint Antoine, until they ripen to perfection.
The caves at Fort Saint Antoine are referred to as the “Cathedral of Comté.” Needless to say, one of the items on my packing list will be a pack of votives.
Taste Comté: If you want a pre-emptive tasting, pick up a hunk of Comté (ask for the Marcel Petit label, the line from Fort Saint Antoine). You’ll find it at cheese shops around the country.
Comté & Cocktails: I love to pair Comté with a Ritz Cocktail, a recipe featured in the most recent book I wrote with my brother, The New Cocktail Hour. With notes of caramel and toasted brioche, it’s splendid with Comté of any age.
Ritz Cocktail Recipe
Created by Dale Degroff
3/4 ounce brandy (Pierre Ferrand Ambre)
1/2 ounce Cointreau
1/4 ounce maraschino liqueur (Luxardo)
1/4 ounce lemon juice
2 ounces chilled Champagne
orange twist, for garnish
Stir brandy, Cointreau, maraschino, and lemon in a shaker tin with ice. Strain into a martini glass. Top with Champagne, then garnish with an orange twist.
I’m going to say it: 2016 is The Year of the Cheese Board.
The first sign: the mad boards popping up all over Instagram (just search #thatcheeseboard). Also leading up to this moment: a fleet of cheese-focused restaurants, bars, and small groceries which have grown in stealth and wealth over the last decade. To the west, Mission Cheese. To the east, Casellula Cheese & Wine Café.
Now, two new books devoted to the art of cheese plating have landed on my stoop. Ohh, sweet glory – I couldn’t be more elated. Cheese + Ikebana, this is happening.
Here’s what these 2 new arrivals have to offer…
COMPOSING THE CHEESE PLATE: RECIPES, PAIRINGS, & PLATINGS
By Brian Keyser & Leigh Friend
What this book offers: Straight-forward guidance about how to catapult the best artisan cheeses into revelatory moments with Leigh Friend’s sublime – and often surprising – recipes, like Spicy Curry Cashew Brittle and Coffee Cajeta. Peppered throughout the book, Keyser provides stellar pairing logic, like this nugget, which moved me to go “ahhhh, so true”: a jolt of acidity can make a cheese seem less stinky.
Who this book is good for: Anyone looking for some palate yoga – the pairings in this book are extraordinary and worth stretching for. Want to amaze your friends, lovers, house guests? Uhmmm, who doesn’t want to be dazzled before bedtime by a presentation of Salted Chocolate Graham Crackers paired with Bayley Hazen Blue?
Organization: This is a condiment cookbook interspersed with cheese boards and short break-outs about cheese-centric topics, such as “Regionality” and “Affinage.” Composing the Cheese Plate isn’t trying to be an encyclopedia or a catch-all for budding caseophiles. Phew. Presentation and pairing are the focus. Smartly, the authors offer a key cheese pairing for each recipe, along with broad suggestions for anyone who may not be able to source specialty cheeses. Most recipes contain 3 to 6 ingredients, making them easy for beginners.
Most brilliant pairing: Casatica di Bufala + Coconut Macaroons (Imagine a dense, fudgy buffalo milk cheese with notes of bread dough and Brazil nuts paired with light-as-air cookies. This pairing is your Italian nonna kicking her shoes off in the tropics.)
Cheese Styling: Simple, well-lit, mostly white backgrounds are very much in keeping with the presentation of cheese boards at Casellula in NY (I visited recently; it was fabulous). Tight crops and pristinely cut cheeses suggest fastidiousness and guarded pleasure – my only criticism. Cheese boards this gutsy should exhibit just a bit more ooze and allure?
To order: Composing the Cheese Plate
THE ART OF THE CHEESE PLATE: PAIRINGS, RECIPES, STYLE, ATTITUDE
By Tia Keenan
The author: Tia Keenan is a chef-fromager based in New York who has worked with many clients, from Murray’s to Disney. On social: @kasekaiserina
What this book offers: A lavishly photographed and lovingly written series of themed cheese plates with phantasmagorical titles, such as “Mission: Epoissable” and “Burrata Wishes, Caviar Dreams.” Don’t be surprised if you see matcha marshmallows and cranberry-gin compote lining the decks of these ocean liner-esque cheese boards. The compositions are inspired, whimsical, outré.
Who this book is good for: Your crazy aunt in the Hamptons, your 21-year-old nephew who has a yen for cheese and Star Wars (notice the platters in the photo below), anyone ready for next-level cheese action.
Organization: The book opens with a short series on “Foundational Flavors” and “Foundational Textures” with important clues to building great boards, such as: Balance between the weight of the cheese and the accompaniment is crucial. What follows is a series of 37 cheese boards with recipes and rich photos, plus detailed descriptions about each cheese and each pairing. Each board includes drink pairings, sometimes for wine but also for things like White Flowering Tea. Lovely.
Most brilliant pairing: Shropshire Blue with Toasted Nori and Honeycomb (I love Keenan’s explicit tasting notes about this cheese: peanut butter, roasted radish, and tin…)
Cheese Styling: Photographer Noah Fecks and Reclaim Design prop out this book in a way that feels, at turns, dreamily over-the-top and yet wondrously clever. Think Frank Zappa meets cheese. Wild china patterns offset rind textures, a batik print sets off a fondu party, tile and linoleum creep in behind figs and poppy-red jam. Oh lawd, I have been waiting for a book like this — one that embodies the theatrical process of of plating and presenting cheese.
To order: The Art of the Cheese Plate
The Cheese Ball is Back! Save the Date: Madame Fromage’s 2016 Cheese Ball is set for October 30 at the Ruba Club in Philadelphia! I just booked both floors of the club, so we can build the city’s biggest cheese board on the main level, then head upstairs to dance to some dairy disco. You heard me right.
Ticket link and further details coming soon. All proceeds for this year’s ball will benefit the new Pennsylvania Cheese Guild. Whaaaat, you’ve never heard of a Cheese Ball?!
I am a sucker for the hand-hewn. You know this. I like cheeses that are cut and shaped by hand. Ideally, I like to buy them from the maker’s hands directly at a farm or farmers’ market. I also have a thing for hand-made knives and cheese boards. Maybe this is because I am a passionate scribbler and also the daughter of a violinist, so I believe in the power of things that are held, thumbed, toggled, and touched.
About an hour outside of Philadelphia, there is a woodworker and designer named John Luttman who makes beautiful hand-carved cheese boards, among other things. He’s been at it since 1983, when he arrived in Phoenixville with “a truck, some tools, and my dog, Curry!” Artifaqt, his studio and show room, is located right on Phoenixville’s Main Street.
John’s eye for shape, color, and texture energizes my cheese brain. A couple weeks ago, I visited his studio and picked up some samples which have become like a set of dominos on my coffee table. I like to mix and match them, with or without cheese.
To me, their velvety surfaces and unique shapes provide the sort of theatrical staging that a hand-crafted cheese display deserves. (Cue the satin curtains, the smoke machine!)
If you like what you see, check out Artifaqt’s online shop or visit John in person (Psst…John is offering a discount to MF readers; details at the end of this post). You’ll find a warren of workshops he has built for wood, metal, and stone — all occupied by local artisans he employs from the community.
Most recently, John has collaborated with Chef Eric Ripert to create a set of serveware for Le Bernardin and Aldo Sohm Wine Bar in New York, including a special charcuterie tower that revolves on a turntable. He’s also created custom boards for Chef Jose Garces and Jean-Georges Vongerichten.
Below are a few of my favorite cheese objects, including a banana-leaf inspired baguette board and a set of truly tiny cheese boards for bite-sized love affairs.
Questions for John Luttman
~Where are you from and why did you settle in Phoenixville, PA?
I grew up on the other side of Valley Forge National Park and came to Phoenixville from a series of short term workspaces in the area after a year at the Oregon School of Arts and Crafts.
~Who taught you about woodworking?
My mentor was Karöl Pacanovsky. Karöl was born at the foothills of the Tatra Mountains in Slovakia and did his apprenticeship in Vienna. Karöl was 85 when we met, and his everlasting impression on me was I had all I needed to teach myself.
~You’ve passed the tradition on to your son, who works with you?
Early on, I built a diverse staff with skills useful and eventually beneficial to my business interests in those days. We learned from each other as we moved into new materials and methods. Today’s evolution is being developed around young people in their 20’s with strong work ethic and work interest. Young people with a strong set of current skills only get better as they unlock their potential. One is my oldest son Dane. Dane is 27 and has worked with me since his early teens.
Joining us, when he graduates from Rochester Institute of Technology next spring, is Tom Nelson, a furniture design major. The three of us work so well together sharing skills and tasks as we work in small batch production. Our way is to rotate through each step, whether metal or wood so the moment is always fresh.
~On sourcing wood for your boards: you use a lot of Pennsylvania hard woods. Are all of your boards sourced from wood in PA?
We source from two one-man sawmills just north of our studios in Montgomery County, PA. This fall we will be heading west to the Allegheny Mountains of western PA to pick up a truck load of hand selected hardwoods from a large family run sawmill. As they grade their lumber, they pull the extraordinary boards aside for us. I told them the horizon is coming closer for me so I can only afford to work the finest wood available. They source mostly from PA ( Penns Woods! ) but also from Ohio, West Virginia and Michigan.
~You mentioned a connection to Longwood Gardens — did I understand correctly that they give you wood from felled trees?
In Longwood’s words: “Entertain among the trees of Longwood Gardens in your own home. Every piece of our Treeware Collection is carved and crafted by attentive hands using the reclaimed wood of fallen legacy trees from our Forest. Longwood Gardens teamed up with local artisans, Artifaqt, to make these exclusive kitchen and home accessories.”
Artifaqt Discount for Madame Fromage Readers
- Mention “Madame Fromage” for a 10% discount.
- Mention “Madame Fromage” and the name of a PA cheesemaker for a 15% discount.
- Discount applies to online orders and store visits.
Friends, everyone I know has been glued to the Olympics, so let’s take a moment to look at Gold Medal hopefuls in the, ahem, cheese category. For those of you with a competitive streak, here are a few dairy-related challenges that will keep your eyeballs and tastebuds engaged during all of those commercial breaks.
American Cheese Society Competition
Earlier this month, American cheesemakers from around the country sent their best wheels in for the annual American Cheese Society (ACS) judging held in Des Moines, Iowa. You can read about the Best of Show winners in The New York Times. My home state of Pennsylvania tied for 2nd place with St. Malachi from Doe Run Farm — huge congrats to cheesemakers Sam Kennedy and Matt Hettlinger. If you want to see how cheesemakers in your state fared, check out the list of ACS winners. Better yet, sprint to your local cheese shop between sporting events and ask for an ACS winners cheese plate.
The Saveur Blog Awards
Yours Truly is pushing hard in the “Food Obsessives” category of Saveur Magazine’s annual Food Blogger Awards. This may be the first time a cheese blog has made it into the finals, friends, so please, please consider voting. The competition ends August 31. Note: there were 30,000 nominations, and the finalists in all of the many categories will give you awe-inspiring glimpses into food blogs from around the country. Please vote here — you’ll see my photo of Parish Hill Creamery cheeses (above) as you scroll through the finalists. If you want to hear more about this match, watch the short interview I did with health writer Babs Hogan on her new series Cheese Hangouts.
The 5 Best New Sandwiches in America
Bon Appetit Magazine released its latest lusty listicle this week — are you living in Chicago, Pittsburgh, New York, City, Dallas or Philadelphia? If you are, you just hit the sandwich jackpot! I almost don’t want to tell you that the biggest winner of all — which features cream cheese, thank you very much — is 2 blocks from my house. It’s sick. If you like bagels, the Classic Lox Bagel at Philly Style Bagels is a glorious thing. Come over and eat one on my stoop, why don’tcha?
The United States of Cheese Quest
Finally, here’s an all-American cheese competition everyone can get behind: artist Mike Geno is trying to paint a cheese from every state in America. Take a look at his interactive map and see if he has painted a cheese from your state yet — if not, recommend one? He’s 38 states down and counting, and his paintings and prints are spell-binding. If your favorite Olympic hopeful doesn’t win a medal, console yourself with a stunning cheese portrait.
Feeling competitive? Tell me where you have eaten the best cheese board so far this year. Maybe we need a Best Cheese Board in America award. Nudge, nudge, Bon Appetit!
August is ugly. It’s all sweat and flies. Here in Philadelphia, everyone related to anyone with a shore house has packed up and fled. As a midwestern transplant, I console myself with cheese boards instead of crab claws and spend most evenings drinking cocktails on the stoop instead of on sandy beaches. No complaints. August is a good time to surf local cheese shops (business tends to be slow), linger by the coolers enjoying samples, and invite old friends over for epic snack plates.
Since fixing a cheese board doens’t require an oven, it’s the perfect cold supper. Quick to fix. A delight to eat. As you know, I love a cheese board that seduces the eye, offering a bit of drama — a little dinner theater. Like “Shakespeare in the Park,” a great cheese board is all about the stage and a well-chosen cast of garnishes.
May the cheese boards below, pulled from the MF archives, inspire you to create a cheese-themed soirée, an antidote to August’s bleating hotness.
1. Goat Cheese & Citrus Board
- Pick out 3 to 5 goat cheeses of different textures (goat milk is the lightest of milks and, thus, ideal for summer)
- Play off the the acidity in goat cheese with lemon curd or marmalade — I love Yuzu marmalade, which is both citrusy and slightly floral. You can also set out honey.
- Fill in around the board with pistachios or walnuts, plus light crackers (any cracker with rosemary or thyme will be fab)
- To drink: a light, bright wine (like Sauvignon Blanc), wheat beer or saison, a citrusy cocktail with an herbaceous edge (like a French 75 or a Gin & Tonic)
2. Exploring-One-Style-of-Cheese Board
- Decide on a single style, like fresh cheeses, triple-cremes, cheddars, Alpines, stinkers, or blues
- Ask friends to bring one cheese in that style (call it a Mozzarella Potluck, say!) or pick out the cheeses yourself, then assign friends to bring accompaniments
- Build a big, beautiful board with lots of accompaniments so people can mix and match — don’t sweat the pairings, let people go wild. As long as you have nuts, fruit, pickles, jams, bread, and booze, everyone will be happy.
- At the end of the night, ask everyone to describe their best bite
3. Road Trip Cheese Board
- Pick a country or region you hope to visit
- Visit a good cheese shop with helpful mongers and ask them to recommend several cheeses from that place (Italy, France, England, Spain, Switzerland, Portugal are all good bets)
- Try picking wines or beers from the same place — there’s a theory that terroir matches terroir. The theory doesn’t always work, but it’s still fun to try cheese and drink from the same region
- You can also focus on artisan cheeses from a region of the U.S. — this is a great way to begin planning a road trip
4. Single Artisan Cheese Board
- Pick out 3 to 5 cheeses created by the same maker (in this case, Allison Hooper of Vermont Creamery — her line of goat cheese is readily available and wonderful)
- Offer simple pairings so that the cheeses remain in focus. Notice how the same milk expresses itself through different cheeses. So interesting.
- Choose a drink pairing from the maker’s region, in this case Barr Hill Gin from Vermont
5. Farm & Garden Cheese Board
- Pluck whatever is ripe or available at the farmers’ market — I like to steam veggies, especially green beans, carrots, pototatoes
- At your cheese shop, ask for cheeses with herbaceous flavors (like mountain cheeses or Alpines) and at least one aged Gouda for something sweet
- Add one earthy element, like sautéed mushrooms or something truffled
- Play with natural and/or earthy wines or beers
Next up: I’m exploring the theme of “cheese boards” this month, from composing cheese boards like the ones here, to finding actual boards that are good for entertaining. Join me as I visit a unique company that is working to re-invent the cheese board.
Uhhh…the cheese pictured at the top of this post? It’s Taupiniere, a gorgeous mushroom cloud of goat cheese rolled in ash, from California. I should have mentioned: you can always build a board around a single glorious cheese. Just add berries, dramatic flowers, and call it Ikebana.