Readers, you know that there are few things I enjoy more than a cheese odyssey. Today I leave for Sicily to begin a dairy adventure with a pair of artists, Marianne Bernstein and Cindi Ettinger, who are obsessed with volcanic islands.
The project, Due South, is Marianne’s second in a series of location-based collaborations designed to spark conversation between American artists and volcanic island communities. Why? To veer off the beaten path. To explore the cardinal directions. To splice contemporary art with small town life.
Believe me, when I received an email from Marianne inviting me out for coffee to talk about the cheeses she had tasted in Sicily, it never occurred to me that she was asking me to travel there with her. (I thought she wanted some ricotta for a gallery tasting.) But isn’t it funny how cheese brings people together?
Time and time again, I am amazed. Cheese is an invitation (tastebuds, come here!). And it is a collaboration — between hands, animals, and soil.
The knitting together of curds somehow brings people together to experience amazement.
I am so honored to participate in this voyage for the next two weeks.
And so, I present to you: one of the most interesting Sicilian cheeses I have tasted in the United States, Tuma Persa. Very soon, I hope to meet its maker.
The Cheese: Tuma Persa
Persa means forgotten. I have heard one thing and read another. When I first tasted this cheese at Di Bruno Bros. here in Philadelphia, I learned that it was called “forgotten” cheese because the maker had developed it from a lost recipe he discovered in a closet. I even wrote an entry about it in my last book, The Di Bruno Bros. House of Cheese. Interestingly, my Slow Food edition of Italian Cheese explains that once this cheese has been “transferred to its hoop, it is persa (forgotten) for eight to ten days.” Then it is washed and brushed before salting, and forgotten again for another week and a half.
Here’s what I know: this cheese smells like salami. Think: black pepper, salt, meat, cured lemon. Its finish is spicy, like soppressata. I like to pair it with an Astoria Cocktail, which tastes a bit like the sea. Together, this pairing is what I imagine Sicily to taste and smell like.
The Drink: Astoria Cocktail
Made with “sweet” Hayman’s gin and dry vermouth, which is mellow and yeasty, this drink gets a touch of spice from orange bitters and a kick of citrus from a twist of lemon. Cool and mellow, it lets Tuma Persa unleash its big briny cloud of flavors. A gin martini with a fat old olive would work well here, too. But I like this combination. The Astoria, from the old Waldorf Astoria, is a bit briny. It’s one of the cocktails highlighted in my new book with Andre Darlington, The New Cocktail Hour (Running Press 2016).
1 ounce Old Tom gin (Hayman’s)
2 ounces dry vermouth (Dolin)
Dash orange bitters (Regan’s)
Lemon twist, for garnish
Stir ingredients over ice and strain into a chilled martini glass. To garnish, twist the peel over the surface of the drink to express the oil. Then, run the peel around the rim of the glass and drop it into the drink.
Follow Us in Sicily via Instagram
My goal? To experience the island and its cheeses, to meet dairy farmers and cheesemakers, to create something to share as part of the Due South exhibition at the Delaware Center for the Contemporary Arts (DCCA) in January 2017.
To read more about Due South, check out this article in Times of Sicily.
Here in Philadelphia, we’re big fans of our local radio station, WHYY. It’s home to Fresh Air’s Terry Gross, who I occasionally see hoofing it down the street, a twig of a person in a parka. Our station’s best-loved Philadelphia-centric show is “Radio Times,” hosted by local personality Marty Moss-Coane (pictured above). Now that I own an auto, I hear her smart purr in my ear several days a week.
When Marty’s producer reached out about doing a cheese show, I did a few high kicks in my kitchen. Yesterday, two local cheese makers and I joined Marty in the studio for an hour-long conversation. Give a listen and you will hear Sue Miller of Birchrun Hills Farm and Stef Angstadt of Valley Milkhouse Creamery talk about entrepreneurial dairying, favorite pairings, and their philosophy behind making great cheese. Plus, we squeeze in a few vocal words you’ll want to add to your dairy lexicon.
Listen here: The American Cheese Renaissance on Radio Times
When Laura Chenel’s Chèvre approached me about developing a recipe for their Chef’s Chèvre I didn’t bat an eye before saying yes. Who says “no” to Sonoma goat cheese from one of the best companies in the business? Grand dame Laura Chenel has retired but is still revered as the pioneering American cheesemaker who supplied Alice Waters at Chez Panisse. Think of Ms. Chenel as a caprine Coco Chanel.
When my two tubs of Chef’s Chèvre arrived, I tossed and turned over recipe ideas for several days—flipping through cookbooks when I couldn’t sleep (what if I swirl that goat cheese into lemon bars with fresh rosemary?) and daydreamed about a forager’s pizza with goat cheese, nettles, and juniper berries – a splendidly savory giant-cracker-thing that would pair with gin.
I wanted to create a stir.
Instead, my mind kept retrieving the glowing image of a recent avocado-toast encounter at Little Collins in New York (I know, I know – the avocado toast is so over, it’s under) and what I had liked so much: the avocado was mashed with feta cheese. The result tasted a wee bit too salty (probably because of the heavy brine on the feta), but delicious nonetheless, especially since it was topped with red pepper flakes and pumpkin seeds. The combination was all zest and crunch.
So, I present to you my summery adaptation, using fresh goat cheese in place of feta. Here you have it, the Chèvre-Cado Toast.
Rev your toaster. Then, combine half a ripe avocado and 2 tablespoons chèvre. Smash them together in a bowl with a fork. Add a sprinkle of sea salt and a squeeze of lemon juice. Give it another quick stir. You won’t believe how light and fluffy it is.
Slather the chèvre-cado mixture on a hefty piece of toast. I like to use potato bread from my local bakery, High Street on Market. Crusty sourdough works well, too. I like when the chèvre-cado spread has crevices to seep into. (Chèvr-ices?)
Top with a few pinches of toasted pumpkin seeds, red pepper flakes, chopped fresh mint, and lemon zest. I love the interplay of all these bright, herbaceous flavors and the textural orchestra of crispy, creamy, and crunchy. If you’re having guests to brunch, set the garnishes out in bowls and let people top freely and wildly.
For breakfast, add a cup of sencha green tea. For lunch or a picnic, pop some bubbly and set out a plate of radishes, sliced oranges, and plump green olives.
Coming Up: June 1 Cocktail Book Dinner at Russet in Philadelphia
There are still a few spots left for my book dinner at Russet, one of Philadelphia’s best BYOs. Start with drinks on Russet’s back patio, and prepare to enjoy a slow seasonal meal paired with glorious libations. This will be an intimate meal, one seating, with a signed book included ($75; reservations: 215-546-1521). Hope to see you!
Many moons ago, I promised you a regular pantry series on Madame Fromage. Then I fell into a martini glass and am just now resurrecting myself. Let me share three of my favorite pantry discoveries of the last several months.
Effie’s Homeade Oatcakes
If you’ve followed this blog for some time, you’ve heard me diss on crackers. The purist in me likes to eat cheese naked (the cheese, that is) or with a slice of baguette. Crackers distract. Effie’s Homemade Oatcakes, however, provide a textural featherbed for cheese that leaves me swooning.
Made with simple ingredients, these biscuits are toothsome. Paired with Stilton or cheddar, they make me think of the classic oaty-biscuits-and-cheese combination that the Brits are so fond of. I like to keep these oatcakes in my desk drawer at work for spontaneous summer cheese picnics. I also love to pack them for in-flight cheese boards, alongside apple or pear slices and a spot of crumbly clothbound cheddar.
Effie’s Homemade Oatcakes first appeared before me at the Vermont Cheesemakers Festival a few years ago, where I met owners Joan Macisaac and Irene Costello (the oatcake recipe belonged to Joan’s mother). Recently, I sent a fan letter to their Boston HQ and they were kind enough to ship a box of oatcake varieties. I am a sucker for their classic oatcakes, but here are a few combinations I adored:
- Effie’s Corncakes: with chevre + lavender honey
- Effie’s Cocoacakes: blue cheese + strawberry-fig jam + Treat spiced pecan
- Effie’s Ryecakes: Red Cat (or any funky, fudfy cheese) + kraut + rosemary sprig
Treat Bakeshop Candied Pecans
Sarah Marx Feldner makes some of the best spiced pecans I’ve ever tasted. A perfect balance of sweet-savory with a flash of heat on the finish, they’re delicious with sharp cheeses. When Feldner first emailed me and offered to send me samples, I thought, “wellllll, okay?” After all, I’ve eaten plenty of spiced nuts on cheese boards over the years, and I didn’t imagine that a spiced pecan made in Milwaukee could be revelatory. Cue the trombone: whah wahhhhh.
Well, I was wrong. These pecans are beautifully spiced. Feldner apprenticed with nationally known spice company, Penzeys, and has a long history of working in the food world (she’s also the author of A Cook’s Journey to Japan). I enjoyed sampling her jar of spiced pecans and her 3-bag gift set of spiced pecans, candied pecans, and candied walnuts. Spoiler alert for my dad: I’ll be ordering these for his birthday in August.
Oregon Growers Fruit Patés
Using fresh fruit from the Columbia River Gorge, these jarred fruit patés from Oregon appealed to my love of cheese and jam, plus their size is just right for packing into my cheese valise on little trips. Here are a few things I loved about tasting these fruit-forward spreads: they’re made from whole fruit without additives or preservatives, and the company cultivates long-term partnerships with regional growers.
When you check out the Oregon Growers website, you’ll see suggested cheese pairings for their whole line. I was partial to the strawberry-fig pate, for pairing with blue cheese and goat cheese. The pear-hazelnut was excellent with Comté.
I’m glad the folks at Oregon Growers reached out. I wasn’t familiar with their products, but now I’ll look for them and try pairing them with some of my favorite Oregon cheeses from Rogue Creamery.
Full disclosure: I review products from time to time in order to explore new pairings. The products reviewed here were sent to me as samples. I only request and review pantry items that I truly adore.
One of my favorite drinks in The New Cocktail Hour — the recent book I wrote with my brother André — has to be the Old Fashioned. Its flavor profile is aromatic, earthy, and sweet-spicy, thanks to a mix of whiskey or brandy, bitters, sugar, and orange peel. That, friends, is a true Old Fashioned, the first cocktail on record and the prototype for all cocktails to come.
Years ago, when I visited Wisconsin on a cheese media tour (yes, these exist), I remember Uplands cheesemaker Mike Gingrich declaring that he liked to drink an Old Fashioned alongside his famous Alpine-style cheese, Pleasant Ridge Reserve. I thought he was being funny, since the Old Fashioned is Wisconsin’s state drink. It’s what you order on Friday night at a fish fry — another Wisconsin institution. When I think about what I miss most about living in the state (I spent 10 years in Madison), it’s those Friday nights. You rolled into a supper club after work, nursed a couple of Old Fashioneds — usually made with Korbel brandy, muddled oranges, and cherries — then slid into a booth for a couple of beers and a basket of fish.
After researching the Old Fashioned for the book, I no longer order Brandy Old Fashioneds or expect muddled cherries in the mix — I’ve switched to whiskey and to the traditional recipe. BUT, I still like to settle back with an Old Fashioned on a Friday night. Recently, I doubled down on a pair of Alpine cheeses, and what a dreamy night that was. I believe Mike Gingrich was a prophet.
An Old Fashioned pairs beautifully with Alpines.
Here’s why: great Alpine cheeses tend to be earthy and herbaceous (think: beef broth and rosemary) with deep caramelization (think: caramelized onion). An Old Fashioned is also earthy (from whiskey) and herbaceous (from bitters) with a slight caramel sweetness (I use Demerara sugar, which has a hint of molasses). See where this is going? Now, get ready for some magic. This cocktail and this style of cheese, they want to dance cheek to cheek.
- Bring home a couple of Alpine cheeses on a Friday night. Me? I picked up Hornbacher and Challerhocker. Yeah, they should form a grrrl band. Hornbacher is all candied hazelnut and very dry. Challerhocker wears a crown of rosemary in her hair and has beef stew on her breath. Of the two, she is saltier.
- Fix an Old Fashioned.
- Taste a bite of cheese, savor it, then swallow. Follow it with a sip of cocktail. Repeat with the other cheese. Believe me, this could go on allll night.
- Note: don’t fret if you can’t find Hornbacher and Challerhocker, though they are dreamweavers, I’m telling you. Ask your local cheesemongers for the most interesting Alpine cheeses at their counter, and if they don’t know what an Alpine cheese is, storm out of there and call me. (Alpine cheeses are made in the Alps. Gruyere and Appenzeller are easy-to-find examples. They’re made in enormous wheels, and they’re often washed with wine or spirits and rubbed with herbs — kinda like a very refined barbecue sauce but for cheese.)
Old Fashioned Recipe
2 ounces (60 ml) whiskey or brandy (I used Buffalo Trace)
1 Demerara sugar cube (I used 1 teaspoon of Demerara sugar)
2 to 3 dashes Angostura bitters
1 teaspoon water
Orange peel, for garnish
Instructions: Drop the sugar cube into a chilled rocks glass. Dash in the bitters and muddle with the back of a spoon, coating the bottom and the sides of the glass. Drop in a large cube of ice, or a couple of ice cubes (use fresh ice made from filtered water, friends). Then add spirit and water. Stir. To garnish, use a paring knife to shave a whisper-thin strip of orange peel, avoiding the pith. Twist the strip of peel over the drink to express the oil onto the top of the drink. Then, slip the peel into the glass. Enjoy.
The Old Fashioned is one of the recipes in my new book, The New Cocktail Hour (Running Press 2016), which hit shelves on April 26, 2016. For more information, check out my BOOKS page. To see where I’ll be in the next few months, visit my EVENTS page.