Monday, February 25, 2008

It's a Taste-Off! Two Vintages of Pleasant Ridge Reserve

This Week at Saxelby Cheesemongers

Who will be the winner? 2006 or 2007? You be the judge.

I don't want to be a snob. Somehow, using the word 'vintage' when it comes to cheese seems a bit much. But how else to describe this delightful once a year phenomenon of cheese tasting? The vintages in question are the 2006 and 2007 Pleasant Ridge Reserve, a delicious and hearty specimen of fromage based on the famous alpine cheeses from the southwest of France. For the next few weeks (or however long it takes us to eat up the older stuff) we have the opportunity to taste two years' worth of elbow grease and impeccable cheese making side by side, giving us a window into that magical microbial world of ripening that happens as a cheese ages.

Pleasant Ridge Reserve is made in Dodgeville, Wisconsin for just nine weeks out of each year. Mike and Carol Gingrich, the cheese makers responsible for turning out tons of wheels of the tasty stuff, are quite strict about that. Why, you may ask, would a cheese be made for such a short window of time? No, the Gingriches are not lazy. Far from it in fact. Nor do they have some other glamorous occupation which fills the remaining 43 weeks of the year. The simple fact is that cheese made from grass-fed or pastured milk tastes infinitely better and is more complex in its composition of beneficial bacterial flora and fauna than cheese made any other way. In Wisconsin, the growth of the pasture from June through August is at its most intense, and both cows and cheese makers seize the opportunity to make the most of that pasture.

In France and Switzerland, the tradition of Alpine cheeses is inextricably linked to that same idea of lush summer pasture. In the late spring, cows were lead from villages located down in the foothills of the Alps high up into the mountains, where the pastures were full of different varieties of grass, flowers, and herbs. There, up in the great green yonder, cheeses were made in cooperative chalets and the cows tended to by the herdsman from the local village. Then in the fall, as those pastures began to wane, the cows were lead back down the mountain, accompanied by many parades and much pomp and circumstance, to spend the winter close to home and a steady supply of grain and dry hay. So it goes in Dodgeville. Though the elevations aren't so high, the grass behaves in much the same way, coming alive with clover and sweet grasses in the summer months.

Each year, Mike sets aside a portion of his cheeses to become Pleasant Ridge Reserve Extra Aged, a 12 to 18 month old incarnation of the original. This extra aged cheese takes on a completely different character than regular Pleasant Ridge, which is aged for just 6 to 8 months before it is released for sale. The extra aged cheese is rife with spicy, salty, nutty, and caramelized notes, where the younger cheese is sweeter, grassier and more sprightly. Basically, the longer the cheese sits in the cave, being bathed with brine and lovingly turned, the stronger and more concentrated its flavors become. It's kind of like adolescent Pleasant Ridge meets old grandpappy Pleasant Ridge. Not quite a WWF Smackdown, but an interesting comparison nonetheless! Right now in the cheese cave at Saxelby Cheesemongers, we've got a bit of both, but are down to the last batch of the grandpappy, which was made in the late summer of 2006.

So come on over and have two bites! Whichever way your taste vote ends up swinging, you're sure to see what a difference a year makes when it comes to aging cheese.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Fresh Curd's the Word!

This Week at Saxelby Cheesemongers

Fresh curd's the word! This week we're rolling out the welcome wagon for two new fresh cheeses, Champlain Valley Organic Cream Cheese and Hawthorne Valley Quark.

I ask you, this bright and shiny Monday, when was the last time you had a good bagel and cream cheese? I can confidently answer for myself that it was yesterday, Sunday, when I took a trip up to the venerable establishment called David's Bagels on First Avenue and 13th street.

Lower East Side sacrelige aside (sorry Kossar's! I just wasn't in the hood!) it got me thinking... the New York bagel and cream cheese institution is sacred and delicate matter, not to be tousled and rocked about on the waves of change, trends, what have you. Each of us has our bagel rituals, favorite spots, favorite flavors, favorite schmears, etc. Different strokes for different folks, and so on and so on... as Sly and the Family Stone so succinctly put it.

That being said, I would like to propose to you a Green Mountain twist to your bagel and cream cheese regimen, coming from Champlain Valley Creamery in Vergennes, Vermont. Carlton Yoder, resident cheese maker extraordinaire, has been lovingly ladling the curd for his organic cream cheese for years now. Made from the milk of a neighboring farm with a mixed herd of Jersey and Holstein cows, his Champlain Valley Cream Cheese is pure butterfatty spreadable goodness. The cream cheese is rich and dense, with a stiff texture and delightfully tangy snap of flavor. I dare say that with the debut of this Vermonter, old Philadelphia has met its match.

And if that weren't enough to get the old tastebuds up and running, perhaps a spoonful of Hawthorne Valley Quark might do the trick? Hawthorne Valley is a 400 acre biodynamic farm upstate New York that is home to a herd of stoic Brown Swiss cows. Quark, a traditional fresh European cheese, comes from the Slavic word 'tvarog' which means, simply, curd. However, much like an international spy, Quark has many other glamorous aliases depending on the country in which it resides... including pot cheese, white cheese, foamy milk, or thick milk. A beautiful yet simple fresh cheese, Quark's uses are pretty much endless. It is phenomenal as a base for any herbed or veggie dip, makes a mean cheesecake or quiche, or holds its own with a bit of fresh fruit or honey stirred into the mix.

These cheeses are so fresh you could slap 'em. 'Could' being the operative word there.