A Vermont Coulommiers

Last week, a beautiful Coulommiers descended from the air. It arrived from Vermont in a cardboard pizza box, and for several days I simply peeked at it, delighted to have a whole wheel at my disposal. Truth be told, I was a little scared to try it. My last encounter with Coulommiers was so memorable — it was smuggled in from France — that I was afraid this wheel wouldn’t match up.

Few things are better than illicit French cheese.

Coulommiers is named after a town of the same name, and it’s essentially an extra thick Brie. The real difference is that some Bries are name controlled, which means the government oversees production. Coulommiers is a free agent. Anyone can bust out a bloomy cheese and call it Coulommiers. Vermont Farmstead Cheese Company has named their version “Lille.” I suspect they retail it as a Coulommiers to distinguish it from other bloomies.

When I finally cut into this gorgeous thing, I was delighted by its pudgy innards. I like a bloomy cheese that practically weeps all over the cutting board. Lille didn’t weep, but she definitely slouched. The rind was gorgeous, like a sherling jacket. The cheese smelled grassy, not the least bit like mold or mushrooms. The taste? My first thought was of coconut cream. The initial taste was sweet, brazil-nutty, but as it softened in the mouth it gave off a little coconut shiver.

It’s the Brie of Spring Break, I thought; it’s an island Coulommiers.

Here’s where things get stranger. I like to invite random cheese geeks over for samples I receive in the mail, and so I texted a new friend named Geoff who works at Greensgrow, an urban farm near my house. “Bike over for some Coulommiers,” I wrote him, “I just cut into a wheel.”

Geoff Bucknum and his girfriend Rosie

“Can we make it a drive-by Coulommiers?” Geoff texted back. “My dad’s in town.”

Soon, a rumpled Geoff appeared with his lady luv and his pops. I welcomed them into my kitchen and cracked open the Vermont Coulommiers. “Hey, this is from South Woodstock!” Geoff’s eyes bugged when he saw the label. “We lived there for three years.”

Turns out Geoff worked for the now defunct Star Hill Dairy, makers of water buffalo cheese, in South Woodstock. Vermont Farmstead Cheese Co., a community owned dairy that opened in 2011, operates at the exact same address. The hunk of Coulommiers I gave Geoff was from his old haunt. I hope he can taste the terroir and explain the hint of coconut. Maybe I’m just dreaming?

Further sleuthing revealed more juicy tidbits. The senior cheesemaker of Vermont Farmstead Cheese Co. is none other than Tom Gilbert, formerly of Spring Brook (makers of Tarentaise). You can watch Gilbert hand-make his Coulommiers here. It looks like a beautiful operation.

My experience with Vermont Coulommiers will never overshadow my memory of true raw-milk Coulommiers from France. Young raw-milk cheese is stupendous.  However, I will gladly eat the rest of this wheel. Lille is one sensuous cheese — fudgy, mellow, and delicately laced with the taste of sweet grass and nuts. I’m not surprised it won a gold medal at the North American Jersey Cheese Awards in its first year. I suspect this cheese has more awards to win.

Kraft Singles: A Meditation

Back in January, I revisited the Kraft Single. It was for class. A class I taught at Tria on the history of Cheddar. The idea started as a joke – one that Tria’s Michael McCauley made when he and I first conceived of the course topic. The more I thought about the Single, the more it seemed like a logical starting point. If America has a quasi-indigenous cheese, it just might be this cellophane-wrapped slab.

But how did this happen? How did something so bland, so slim and meager, come to represent American cheese?

Keep in mind that Cheddar came to America with the Puritans who carried the recipe with them from England. Cheese was primarily a cottage industry back then, made in farmhouse kitchens by farm wives. It probably looked more like Vermont’s Cabot Clothbound Cheddar — a rugged beauty, smeared with lard and bundled in cloth. Traditional Cheddar, after all, was developed as a way to store milk which would otherwise spoil. Records of the recipe go as far back as the 12th century.

Then, lo, in 1851, the first cheese factory opened in Rome, New York. Oh, Rome, you changed everything. Within a few years, New York became a cheese megalopolis. Everyone and their neighbor made cheese, to the tune of 500-plus factories. Crazy, right? New York even sent Cheddar back to the crown. In Britain, this little import became known as “American Cheese.”

It didn’t take long for James L. Kraft to make like a honey badger. He didn’t care. He just wanted to make some cheese.

Kraft moved down from Canada to make his fortune as a wholesaler. He began packing cheese in jars, even cans. In 1916, he patented “processed cheese” that did not need refrigeration. By 1930, Kraft owned 30% of the cheese market in America, which paved the way for Whiz in the 1950s and the Single in the 1960s. Kraft’s Single was perfect for the busy housewife entering the workforce. As The Beatles hummed’n strummed, British Cheddar – the real deal, the precursor to manufactured cheese – disappeared.

Of course, I’m here to tell you that you can still find some traditional British-style Cheddar in America. At our Cheddar class, we ate our way from Kraft to Keen’s. Here’s the line-up from Tria’s Cheddar sampling:

  • Cabot Clothbound Cheddar (VT)
  • Bleu Mont Dairy Bandaged Cheddar Reserve (WI)
  • Beecher’s Marco Polo Reserve with Peppercorns (WA/NY)
  • Isle of Mull Cheddar (Scotland)
  • Montgomery’s Clothbound Cheddar (England)
  • Keen’s Farmhouse Cheddar (England)

If you’re curious to try a unique American Cheddar, look for Bleu Mont Dairy’s Bandaged Cheddar Reserve. This one-of-a-kind beauty from Wisconsin is making appearances at cheese counters on the East Coast, and it’s probably very close to those early Puritan Cheddars first made in the colonies. Bleu Mont is made by a single maker, Willi Lehner, who operates out of a small, wind-powered cave. He buys grass-fed organic milk from Uplands, makers of the legendary Pleasant Ridge Reserve.

Willi’s Bandaged Cheddar is nothing like a cellophane-wrapped Single. Different market, different ingredients, different expectations. Still, the comparison makes me reflect on American cheese in new ways. We’re still very much on the frontier.

Interested in cheese history? Keep your eye out for the forthcoming book by cheese educator Paul Kinstedt. His new work, Cheese and Culture: A History of Cheese and Its Place in Western Civilization, is due out in March.

Come in, come in!

Welcome, dear reader! I’m so glad you made it over to my new digs. Take off your shoes, come have a look around. As you can see, it feels pretty different from my old blog.

After three years of tinkering with that template, it felt good to sit down with a professional designer and re-envision this project, to ask questions like: Who is Madame Fromage? What do we want her to be?

Designer Stef Patrizio and I talked through those questions at my kitchen table. We ate an awful lot of cheese and clicked through hundreds of blogs and websites and templates. Finally, we decided that MF is about three things:

  • Cheese Education
  • Cheese Entertainment
  • Cheese Advocacy

In creating this new space, we built what feels like a theater. There are rooms I haven’t yet explored here, but the real key is the new home page, a kind of stage for cheese — for cheesemakers, cheesemongers, cheese lovers. You can choose to take a seat up front or smooch in the balcony.

I hope you’ll snoop around to check out the new features, from Recipes and Resources (books, cheese-related blogs, shops) to the Events page and featured posts. If you’re hosting a cheese-related gala in Philadelphia, please let me know. I’ll be happy to post it and help spread the word.

So, what’s next? In the coming year, I’ll be writing a book for Di Bruno Bros., taking a semester off work to breathe, and hopefully doing some blue cheese travel. I hope to keep this space lively. In the meantime, I am going to make a Manhattan and eat something stinky.

All this work has made Madame peckish. Hungry? There are still a few wheels of Rush Creek out there, but not for long…

Eggs Tarentaise

At our house, we have squash issues. My beau and I love to stock up on butternut and acorn every fall, but unless we make time to cook with them they stack up like heads on the counter. On a recent Sunday, I decided to have at them. I invented Eggs Tarentaise.

Tarentaise from Spring Brook Farm is a sweet, Gruyère-like cheese from Vermont that is much loved at the cheese counter. It’s nutty, bold, and full of caramel notes, which got me thinking it might taste good against roasted squash.

Because it was a Sunday morning, I imagined cracking a fresh egg into each butternut half once it was baked and the seeds scooped clean. With some garlic, fresh thyme, and a pinch of grated nutmeg, this dish came into being.

To check out the recipe, please visit the Di Bruno Blog.

Note: I freelance for Di Bruno Bros. in Philadelphia. Twice a month, I stop by their cheese counter and pick out a cheese to explore. I highlight it here and run the full post on their site. The payment I receive supports my dairy habit.


How To Get A Cheese Education

This week, I’m thinking about a question from a reader named Mia. She wants to live the golden dream — to work in the cheese world as either a maker or a monger. She wrote to me asking how to gain experience. When I put the question out on Twitter recently, several cheesemongers fired right back: “Tell her to get a job at a cheese counter!”

For Mia and others who are sniffing along the dairy periphery, below are some useful resources. I should note that Mia has already explored some of these books and opportunities. She’s clearly a woman ahead of her time. I hope to meet her soon — hopefully, over a stack of wheels.

Essential Readings

The Cheese Primer

Steven Jenkins, the man who launched Dean & DeLuca’s cheese program, surveys European cheese and offers the expertise of an importer. His primer feels a little out of date now, but I still see dog-eared copies behind every cheese counter. His regional maps are essential to understanding terroir.

Mastering Cheese

Artisanal’s Max McCalman approaches cheese as a master taster. His book on the subject includes fascinating insights into animal husbandry, chemistry, and pairing principles. Best of all, he assigns specific cheese boards as homework so you can learn about milk types and aging periods in a very hands-on way.

The Cheese Chronicles

Liz Thorpe, of Murray’s, taught the staff at The French Laundry how to serve cheese. Her book focuses on the cheese renaissance in America and highlights pioneering cheesemakers from California to Maine. She offers keen personal insights, and her “Cheddar Lexicon” is brilliant.

Janet Fletcher’s Column

Fletcher writes about one cheese per week in The San Francisco Chronicle. Each column offers a glimpse into a new import or recent release. Read her for a year and look for the cheeses she recommends; her discoveries and pairing suggestions are spot on.


Worthwhile Pursuits

Make friends with a local cheesemonger.

Find a mentor in your community. Visit a local cheese shop regularly and ask to taste the cheeses that you read about. People who work in cheese generally love to share knowledge.

Go to bootcamp.

Check out the courses offered by Murray’s and Artisanal next time you’re in New York. These come highly recommended, and they’re the equivalent of an SAT prep class on the subject of cheese. In Philadelphia, Tria’s Fermentation School leads the way in cheese education for enthusiasts. If you want a hardcore class for mongers, check out The Cheese School of San Francisco. If you want a class for makers, visit The Vermont Institute for Artisan Cheese (VIAC).

Get to know local cheesemakers.

Visit farmers’ markets and ask cheesemakers about volunteer opportunities if you’re interested. Many makers hire interns, assistants, and market helpers.

Vacation in cheese states. 

Wisconsin, California, and Vermont are the biggest cheese producers in the U.S. Make a pilgrimage along Vermont’s Cheese Trail or follow Wisconsin’s Cheese Map. All three states host annual cheese festivals.

Attend the American Cheese Society (ACS) Conference.

This is the equivalent of the Cheese Oscars, a show that everyone in the scene attends — from cheesemakers to cheese retailers. Go! You’ll eat mountains of cheese and meet makers from all over the world. You can volunteer to offset the expense of the ACS Conference. The ACS recently developed a Cheesemonger Certification Exam, but you need documentable cheese experience to take it.

Apply for a job at a cheese counter. 

As long as you’re curious and willing to learn, you have the basic credentials to work at a cheese counter. Apply for a position and see where it takes you. Good Food Jobs is a useful resource for anyone searching for openings.

For more on this subject, listen to Anne Saxelby’s radio program on Cheese Education and visit the ACS homepage for a list of cheese educators.