Saturday, September 26, 2009

Let the Great American Cheese Tour begin!

Curds-a-blazin' I have officially set out on what I am calling, The Great American Cheese Tour (GACT). Over the next 6 weeks I will be cruising the states in search of the finest artisan cheese, heaps of knowledge, & buena vistas. I begin this journey in the only suitable place to start a cheese adventure, Wisconsin...which also happens to be where I grew up, where my family lives, & where I will pick up the car that my parents so graciously offered up for the journey (thanks Mum & are the absolute best).

The sequence of this tour goes a little something like this...Wisconsin (pit-stop in Minneapolis), Michigan, New York, Maine, Vermont, maybe a little more New York, Pennsylvania, south down the east coast, back to the bay area through Colorado, Utah, & Nevada, and finally north through California to Oregon & Washington. Just me, the Mazda, the open road, & some very special tour guests (actually, I may be their guest in many instances...couch surfing will definitely be part of this experience). Obviously subject to change, this journey will include a lot of driving, which as we all know requires heaps of energy & produces pollutants (no bueno). Thanks to my wonderful boyfriend, Oliver, carbon offsets have been purchased to cover 5000 miles of car travel (woo hoo), which will go directly to help fund the Greensburg Wind Farm. Greensburg was leveled in a 2007 tornado & committed to rebuild as the greenest town in America. To learn more visit the native energy. Amazing!

The land of cheese, beer, & brats has already provided delightful cheese-ness as well as quality time with my family. We found this delightful establishment (right) downtown Milwaukee, which is pretty much Wisconsin wrapped up in a nice little corner-space package...cheese, beer, & cheeseheads galore. After trying on all of the new fangled cheesehead shapes & sizes, I enjoyed a delicious Lafefront Brewery Eastside Dark & shared a Wisconsin cheese flight with Mum & Dad. The plate was a delicious plate including Pleasant Ridge Reserve (Uplands Dairy), Bellavitano Merlot (Sartori), & Mobay (Carr Valley), a sheep & goat milk cheese with a layer of grape ash separating the different milk styles. Of the cheese I have tasted from the large Carr Valley assortment, this would be perhaps my favorite.

The next day we took to the country roads southwest of Milwaukee to the Green County, home to the largest concentration of cheesemakers in the nation. There we paid a visit to Roth Kase in Monroe, one of the larger artisan producers in the state employing over 140 people & producing dozens of different's a serious cheese operation. Founded by Swiss immigrants recognizing the opportunity for hand crafted specialty cheese in the states, as the business has thrived over the years, I think it's safe to say they were right. Their Grand Cru Gruyere is their most popular product, but the GranQueso (odd for a Swiss company, si?), a Roth Kase original, is my personal favorite. Similar to a Spanish Manchago style cheese, using cow's milk instead of sheep, aged at least 9 months for a rich nutty flavor. Muy bueno!

In between creameries we stop at a classic Monroe haunt, Baumgartner, for a Limburger sandwich (notice the accompanying Andes mint), homemade chili, & a New Glarus Spotted Cow (tasty brews only sold in WI...bummer for those of us that live elsewhere). Limburger, a notorious stanky cheese, originated in the Duchy of Limburg, an area currently split between the Netherlands, Germany, & Belgium. The only producer of this pungent washed rind cheese is right here in Monroe, WI...the Chalet Cheese Co-op. It was an aggressive order that I am not sure I would repeat, but the chili & brew were absolutely delicious.

The last successful stop of the day was amongst the beautiful rolling hills of Darlington at Brunkow Cheese. Known for block cheddar & a baked cheese they call Brun-uusto, they are also dabbling in some beautiful small batch artisan delights. Their Avondale Truckle is 18 lbs. of clothbound cheddar, aged at least three months & the Little Darling is a semi-firm cow's milk cheese in the most adorable mini 1.25 lb wheel. It is as tasty as it is darling .

Today I head northwest to explore a bit more of the Sconi country-side. If I have enjoyed some fresh squeaky cheese curds by the end of the day...I will consider it a success!

Wednesday, September 23, 2009


Kicking & screaming, Mum & I head east, leaving Burgundy en route to Franche-Comte & the Jura Mountains. We were able to squeak in a wine taste or 5 at Chateau de Pommard on the way, but after that it was all business. Cheese business.

After spending a night in the pretty uneventful town of Lons-le-Saunier (it was a serious snore...I only took 1 picture & not even that one is worth posting), we head out on our last day of the trip on 'Mission: COMTE'. Luckily, once in the Jura Mountains, it is actually quite difficult to escape COMTE. It is a cheese by the people for the people...and you can certainly feel the love. I will take it from the top for those not familiar with this fabulous cheese.

COMTE, pronounced contay, is a mountain/gruyere style cheese dating back to as early as the 12th century. It's name is also always capitalized. Not quite sure why, but I am not out to rustle any utters, so I will roll with it. The production of COMTE has been protected & controlled by AOC (Appellation d'Origine Controlee) regulations since the mid-1970's. Regulations state that COMTE must be produced in the Jura Moutain region of France (similar to the regulations around champagne, stilton, roquefort, etc) with raw milk from Montbeliarde cows (so cute!). These cows must have at least 2.5 acres of pasture for grazing for a 100% natural diet (silage is a no no). Their milk must be transported to the dairy (what we would call a creamery) immediately after each milking where the cheesemaking happens every morning. Once cheese is made it must be aged for a minimum of 4 months. After aging, each wheel is rated from 1-20 on taste, texture, appearance, rind, & shape. The wheel must score 12 out of 20 to bear the brown COMTE label & 15 or above to wear the green label. Anything below 12 cannot officially be called COMTE. Some pretty stiff standards for this cheese & the taste certainly reflects all the love being poured into the process.

Beyond the regulations,the magic is really in the cooperative type set up that brings this glorious treat from the pastures of Jura to your buds. Milk from over 3000 dairy farms (over 130 gallons of milk are need to produce one 80 lb wheel of COMTE) is transported to over 170 dairies/creameries and finally to 1 of 20 maturing houses, where the aging process takes place. A truly remarkable machine allowing small farmers & creameries to produce delicious cheese without breaking the bank. Mum & I were able to grab a tour of one of the largest maturation facilities at Fort des Rousses. Unfortunately, the friendly man leading the tour did not speak a lick of English...which kept things quite interesting.
In the caves, the cheese becomes COMTE getting rubbed down with salt, washed, flipped (COMTE flipping robot in pic at right), rated, labeled, & shipped to a place near you. Yum.

This is all likely more info than you ever wanted about this delicious cheese, but hopefully it will come in handy during a good game of trivial pursuit. You never know. I could go on for days, but I think it's better for you to go out, grab a wedge, & taste the nutty, toasty, deliciousness for yourself.

Long live COMTE!

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Stay Stinky Burgundy

Cheese bust behind us, we head southeast to the country of France...otherwise known as heaven. We were very lucky to find a special price to enjoy a stay at the lovely Le Cedre in Beaune, which is the hub of the larger slice of heaven, Bourgogne (Burgundy). Our Hotelier at Le Cedre was perhaps the most pleasant lady in all of Burgundy and immediately set us up with 2 amazing reservations for each night of our stay.
The first of our reservations was for Caveau des Arches, which was recommended as traditional Burgundian style restaurant (you know, where the locals hang). So, I'm expecting maybe a step up from the local bar & grill, and the Frenchies impress once again. After cracking a bottle of 2003 Primer Cru Santenay Burgundy, Mum ordered the traditional pre fixe including escargot, oeufs en meurette (egg poached in a delicious red wine sauce), & beouf bourgonge (shown on the right with Mum, happy-as-a-clam). I went a la carte & had the best mussels of my life, duck with morels in a dreamy red wine sauce, & for a grand finale...a cheese course delivered by the most delightful cart of local and oh-so-stinky cheeses. Included in the plate you see being served up below is a fresh chevre rolled in mustard seeds (the town of Dijon is just a curd throw away from Beaune), Ami du Chambertin (a soft ripened washed rind cheese made form raw cow's milk...stinky), Reblochon (another washed rind soft ripened cheese from the neighboring Savoie region...stinkier), and the king of stink, Epoisses. This notoriously stinky cheese dates back to the 16th century (this was Napoleon's it has certainly been around the block a few thousand times) & was originally produced by monks in a town called, you guessed it, Epoisses. The unique stink of this delightful cheese is caused by the washing process. Once the curd is removed from it's mold to dry, it is washed with salt water & set to rest for one month, after which it is washed 2-3 times each week with a rainwater & Marc de Bourgonge (a spirit made from pressing leftover skins, pulp, & seeds of the pinot noir grapes) mixture. In between washes it is carefully brushed by hand to allow for equal distribution of bacteria forming a vibrant orange rind...and the stink. Past that beautiful rind is a wonderfully rich & milky, sweet & salty pate that is the one & only, Epoisses.
The meal was flawless & delicious. I think it was Mum's favorite of the trip...and rightfully so.

The next day we scoped out the town of Beaune, which is classy, quaint, & bursting with seductive Le Creuset cooking gear (at about 30% off the prices in the US...I seriously considered carrying on the 6 qt french oven as my 'purse' for my flight back). For dinner, we head to the nearby town of Chagny for a highly anticipated dinner experience at Lameloise, a 3 Michelin star beauty. We both ordered the 6 course tasting, which was of course supplemented by a few extras (5 part amuse, palate cleansers, & petits fours) resulting in a a remarkable 4 hour dinner. It went a little something like this...Amuse Bouche included an array of treats as you can see to get the taste buds going.

Pre-first course palate cleanser of melon soup for the sweet & a cured ham & goat cheese delight entertained both sweet & savory buds. Just behind to the right you see our slice of flavorful local butter...sadly your computer screen is not scratch & sniff.
Now, for the official first course Foie Gras terrine with frozen figs (sorry...I just had to do it. It may even be my last foie gras experience unless they discover another way to create this tasty treat). Mum went for the less controversial Langoustine in a tomato gaspacho. Langoustines are essentially miniature lobsters found in the north-eastern Atlantic or North Sea. Once the meat is removed from the shell it strongly resembles a large prawn, but the flavor is much sweeter. Yum!

Second course is a Seared Dorado with a mushroom & caramelized onion risotto. The fish was seasoned & seared perfectly & the risotto was bursting with flavor from freakishly uniform chanterelle mushrooms.
The next course was also a water dweller, Lobster with a stuffed courgette flowers & cardinal sabayon. First, have you ever seen the meat of a lobster claw removed so flawlessly? I was baffled. Second, courgette flowers are essentially the french version on squash blossoms. Lastly, 'cardinal' sabayon is essentially a whipped crustacean flavored hollandaise. Please don't try to eat your computer (Dad...seriously, step back from your computer screen).
That brings us to the meat course, where Mum & I diverge once again. I choose the Poached pigeon in truffle consomme. After working in a kitchen & making consomme, I feel obligated to order any dish with it as a featured ingredient, the truffles just sealed the deal. Consomme is a stock that has been clarified by creating a raft, usually composed of lean ground meat, egg whites, mirepoix (chopped onions, carrots, & celery...just in case), & an acid (lemon juice, tomatoes, etc). The raft floats to the top of the stock & as the stock simmers, the raft catches all impurities & fat leaving behind a crystal clear & intensely flavored soup. This picture does not quite do it justice, but it was a beautiful dish. Mum enjoyed the Veal sweetbreads with citrus zest & a very interesting roasted buttery tube-o-potato. I had a few bites myself & it was as tender & tasty as can be.
The fifth & perhaps favorite course comes to our table on wheels! is the CHEESE COURSE! This cart was a cheese masterpiece & released some serious stink when they finally opened it to plate up our cheese course. We selected 8 cheeses from Burgundy & the surrounding regions, each with a unique flavor & texture exhibiting how the perfection of French artisan cheese. The Roquefort was insane & I just had to have another dose of epoisses. Unfortunately, the crabbiest of our servers helped us with the cart, so there was not much conversation post cheese selection. I think I may have frightened him with my enthusiasm? Yes, I am almost sure of it.
Bursting at the seams or not, the dessert course was on it's way. Passion Fruit Souffle for moi & an array of Chocolate for Mum. Of course this was followed by not one, but two plates chock-full of petits fours (you can see them arriving in the background of the souffle pic), which we promptly had them box up for breakfast.
Four hours & two delighted stomachs later, we are the absolute last table to stroll out of Lameloise...happy as pigeons in truffle consomme! It was a 'treat for the soul' just as our friendly hotelier had suggested it would be.

Reluctant to leave heaven (obviously!), the next morning we would leave Beaune & head for the Jura Mountains in search of Comte.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Paris, A Beautiful Cheese Bust

After London I was anxious to get to Paris, essentially the capital of Cheeseland, for some tasty super stanky raw milk goodness. To my surprise (and I'm not too sure why the surprise, because I'm certain I have been told this before), much of Paris shuts down for the month of August. Hooray for shop & delicious restaurant owners...not so gouda for moi. The pic at left is of me trying to break into Androuet, famous shop & affineur of the fromage. Luckily, Paris is a breathtaking city where even the cheesey touristy places tend to have really tasty eats (except for the cafe across from Sacre Coeur where we had the most atrocious 7 Eleven equivalent Cafe Au Lait...I spotted it from a mile away, but Mum had to use the Lou). The pic at right was the only cheese shop we spotted on our first morning. Had I known, I would have stayed there for hours. Delightfully abundant assortment.
Rue de Buci holds strong as my favorite nook of Paris, perhaps due to the fact that several shops & eateries were open...with the sad exception of an amazing grocery & fromagerie. I actually purchased some plastic wrapped brie & Roquefort to go with my Serrano ham from La Rosa (a must visit offering 4-5 types & ages of deliciously cured ham sliced to order by hand). Turns out, the cheese we purchased was extremely tasty...imagine how good it COULD have been before the plastic suffocation. Right off of Rue de Buci on Rue de Seine, we enjoyed lovely dinner at Poissonnerie a very cozy & friendly spot which offered up a temporary escape from pork. The menu offered a variety of fish options and the staff was helpful with translating the delicious menu. Cheese course included. I went with the stinkiest option, Roblochon, a washed rind soft ripened cheese from the Savoie region of France. Not for the faint of heart...Mum was even a wee bit shocked. Delicious.
After cruising the sites (all open of course) and hunting down some amazing grub...Mum & I head to the country once again. First stop, Beaune, a delightful town in the heart of Bourgogne (a.k.a. Burgundy).

Yes, I would like some stinky cheese with my wine.