Cheese and Cassoulet

Some people throw legendary dinner parties. Don’t you always want to be that person? Revered for the time you served 200 partridges atop foie gras-stuffed mini pumpkins? Or for the night you whipped up poutine at 2 a.m. for the whole neighborhood?

Neither do I. I don’t have the nerves or stamina to prepare such epic meals. But I like to be there. I like to chronicle such events. And I like to bring the cheese.

That’s why I was thrilled to swan-dive into my neighbor Larry’s cassoulet party on a recent Saturday. I don’t have the patience to make cassoulet – all those days of cooking wings and shanks – but I loved sitting at the table, breathing in the steam.

Corks popped. Tweens trooped in and out of the kitchen. Glasses smashed. And in other parts of the house, dogs barked and games echoed. It was one of those epic parties where a thousand things are happening all at once – wars, wails, wines – and yet nothing distracts from the food.

The cassoulet was sumptuous, full of fall-of-the-bone pork flavor and still-firm beans nestled in around slivers of duck and homemade sausage. The wine, provided from a crew of nebbiolo heads, was blood-rich and pungent.

This was one of those meals before which a hundred emails fly between guests proffering up their best basement vintages. I was happy to lurk, to sip my first real Amarone (a port-like potion with heavy legs), and to collude on a cheese plate with my date, Mike Geno.

The pair of us, both cheese voyeurs, put forth half a dozen rustic selections. A cassoulet cheese board called for rugged elegance, beauties from France and Italy with a few European-inspired Americans thrown in.

Should you find yourself on a cassoulet-themed guest list, may I recommend (from the bottom of the board, moving clockwise):

  • Rush Creek: A gorgeous Vacherin-style cheese from Wisconsin, bound in bark
  • Castelmagno: A mixed-milk crag monster from Piedmont
  • Testun al Barolo: A dapper dandy packed in grape must from Barolo wine making
  • Largo: California’s answer to Coulummiers
  • Leonora: A lemony goat-cheese camisole, from Spain

In Bed with Harold McGee

I don’t care if every woman in the world is consumed with British e-erotica, for me there’s only one book on the nightstand right now. It’s Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of The Kitchen. Granted, it’s not new — it came out in 1984 and was recently updated — but how I have lived  my life without it remains a mystery. It’s science with poetry, or maybe it’s poetry first with science sneaking in the back door. Either way, it’s a beautifully written tome about the structures of our most basic foods, starting with milk.

“Creatures of the breast” — this, Harold tells us, is the meaning of the word mammal. Milk is a primal fluid, he endorses, drawing on the Rg Veda to explore the origins of milk consumption, long before the sippy cup. And did you know that the richest milk comes from the fin whale? It’s 42 percent fat! Horses, on the other hand, produce surprisingly lean milk (just 1.2 percent). You could make lite ice cream.

Being at one with fromage, I didn’t expect to learn much new information, but Harold had lots of surprises up his sleeve. Four facts that stun:

  • Most adults are lactose intolerant because the human body stops producing an enzyme to break down lactose after we exit our toddler stage.
  • Cheese contains little or no lactose, and that includes soft cheeses. (Lactose, a milk sugar, is siphoned off in the whey.)
  • People who say they can’t eat cheese because of lactose intolerance are probably allergic to milk, not lactose.
  • Eating cheese after dinner works to prevent tooth decay. What?! Read below.

Monsieur Fromage hates when I read Harold in bed because I keep reading passages aloud while he is trying to finish his crossword. I can’t help myself. Harold fascinates and titillates all at once. Forget about riding crops and taboo relations, homogenization and “ropy milks” can be just as racy, or at least murmur-inducing.

I have yet to read Harold’s chapers on seeds, sauces, and eggs. At the moment, I’m lost in a sidebar on Indian milk sweets and the keys to foaming milk for a perfect cappuccino. Let me leave you with my favorite discovery: did you know there is a term for the cheese that darkens at the bottom of a fondue pot? In our family, we always called it the “crackle,” and we fought over it like bandits. Harold has a better term: religieuse.

Leonora for Spring

It’s the year of the goat. Everywhere I turn: goat dinners, goat tacos, goat talk. This means I should let you in on a little secret about Leonora. It’s the most luscious Spanish goat cheese on the planet. The texture is gooey-soft, and it comes in a slightly flattened brick that looks like a melting ice cream cake roll. If you’ve sworn off sweets for Lent, you might want to pick up some Leonora for dessert. To continue reading, please click here.

Full disclosure: This post is part of a bimonthly series I write for Di Bruno Bros. I select a cheese from their case, and they pay me to develop content for their site. I run a teaser here to keep you in the loop. 

Brewer’s Plate 2012

One of my favorite places to learn about new local cheese is at The Brewer’s Plate. This annual benefit brings together local food pioneers and Philadelphia chefs for one night of revelry. You’ll get handed a wee pint glass when you enter the National Constitution Center on the evening of March 11, and you can wander around sipping microbrews and noshing local goods until you feel like a whey-fed pig.

Because I usually do some cheese duty behind the scenes, The Brewer’s Plate is offering a discount to Madame Fromage readers. To receive $10 off the cost of your ticket, just visit The Brewer’s Plate and enter the code: mFROMAGE2012TBP

Cheesemakers at this year’s hoopty-doo include:

  • Bobolink Dairy
  • Birchrun Hills Farm
  • Doe Run Dairy
  • Farm Fromage

Some of these cheesemakers rarely make appearances, so this is your chance to meet them and taste their spring selections. Make sure to stop by Bobolink Dairy to try a wedge of Jonathan White’s Drumm, one of the wildest, nubbiest cheese wonders from the area. You won’t want to miss the Anthropologie-esque set-up at Doe Run either.

Brewer’s Plate benefits Fair Food, an organization that promotes local food by connecting farmers, chefs, and the local community. Their farmstand in Reading Terminal Market is home to cheese empresario Paul Lawler, who travels far and yon to scout and sell local dairy. If you’re a fan of local cheese or a curiousity-seeker of all things lacto, please come.

Paul Lawler behind the new cheese case at Fair Food Farmstand

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.