brillat savarin

(this one looks like it could be a bit warmer)

let's digress (though i suppose everything on here is a digression) for a minute to talk about a type of cheese other than good old semi-aged basque sheepsmilk.

i present you: brillat savarin.

jean anthelme brillat savarin was the original food-writer, or one of them at least, and he famously said, "a meal without cheese is like a beautiful woman with only one eye."  so in the 1930s, a norman cheesemaker named henri androuët named this incredibly rich triple-creme cheese after him.  his son pierre continues making the cheese to this day.  

it's basically like butter, but better.  or imagine ice cream as cheese--then, you might get a sense of the butterfat involved.  there is no cheese with a higher percentage of butterfat.  that about sums it up.

after overdosing on double and triple cream cheeses in 1998 (that came wrapped in plastic, but i can't even talk about that right now.  ugh, the horror and disrespect.  i ask you--what did that poor piece of cheese do to deserve such abuse?  whole foods cheese counter, i almost cry every time i walk by you (sorry megan)), i have stayed away from anything that even remotely resembles brie, until a few weeks ago when a little nubbin of brillat savarin appeared on the back table at work.  i snooped a bit, and avoided the cheese in part because it was still cold.  later, when everyone was snacking and making yummy sounds, i decided to see what the big whoop (wup?) was and tasted some on a piece of stale levain.  

i nearly died.  

next thing we knew, 7 wheels from two cheesemakers showed up on our doorstep (okay, so maybe i ordered them).  we all like the one from delin the best.  one day, though, i'll have to make it to an androuët shop for myself to taste the real thing on a slab of bread from poilâne.  

for now, i'll just eat it with young walnuts and acme levain.  

forgive me for the lighting in this picture and the last--i'm still working on figuring out how to take good photos in low light situations. both of the photos are from the party i worked at on saturday. these cheeses are some of the most expensive i know of, and that stack was just one of about ten. i nearly fell over in shock when i saw so much of this particular beauty--

this cheese is called "renata," and it comes from an amazing producer in eastern washington named sally jackson. when i first heard of renata, i was kind of confused, and thought that it might be named for some sort of musical terminology, like soyoung's cheeses, but then i learned something that endeared sally and this cheese to me more than i ever thought possible:

renata is the name of one cow--a brown swiss--and all of her milk goes into making this cheese (that's why that huge stack of cheese in the photo is so impressive).

though sally jackson has been making cheese for nearly thirty years, she didn't get electricity on her farm until 14 years ago. she gets the chestnut and grape leaves she uses to wrap her cheeses from local friends, and she makes every batch of cheese herself, by hand on an antique gas stove. she and her husband roger still take all of their orders by phone or mail--to see such beauty and success on this scale in this day and age is so rare, and inspiring.

cheese, part 2

Cheese, originally uploaded by BrianEden.

i love flickr. i was searching through my photos for a shot of the baroni stand at mercato centrale in florence, where paola and alessandro baroni have curated their findings of the rarest, softest, freshest pecorini toscani. i couldn't find one of my own, but lo and behold, this lovely shot was just a couple of searches away. i'd recognize that handwriting anywhere.

you might be wondering why i am suddenly so concerned with cheese as to write two very long posts about it. well, i think about cheese a lot to begin with, but now that i have this ridiculous cast on my arm and it's suddenly fuh-reezing outside, only one long-sleeved garment i own has fatty sleeves big enough to go over my chubs arm--the sweatshirt i got at the old artisan cheese shop on california st. 6 years ago. it has a cute little mouse on it, and it says j'aime le fromage in curlicue cursive on the back. i never get to wear this sweatshirt, and now i can't wear anything else.

ok, back to jean d'alos: he's an affineur--a dying breed--a man who takes good handmade cheeses and makes them really special by aging them with a craftsman's touch. one of the things that sticks in my mind from the lectures he gave is his acknowledgement of everything that women have done for cheese. farmhouse cheeses--specifically the comte that he is so famous for--were invented by farmwives as a way to make milk last throughout the winter. jean's wife pascale shares a lot of his work, and together they travel through the countryside to choose cheeses to bring home to treat and age in their caves...a.k.a. the catacombs beneath bordeaux. they do magical things like rub cheeses with piment d'espelette, sauternes, saffron, juniper berries, cayenne pepper, savory, and peppercorns, wrap them with burlap cloths, and wash them repeatedly with brine during the aging process. he even ages one of the crazy/famous jose bove's cheeses.

jean d'alos and his family are so very special because they still do things the old way. they give the cheeses the care and time they need to go from good to perfect. these days, most cheeses are made in huge stainless steel factories, and the art of the affineur is considered by most to be irrelavent. in this fast-paced world, who has time to wait two years for some comte (the most popular cheese in france) when you can buy a six-month one at the store for a lot less money? i encourage everyone to stop by a real cheese shop in your town sometime, and ask for cheeses that have been aged by a real affineur, or to taste artisan versions next to their factory-made counterparts. if my boo-hooing hasn't been enough to pursuade you, you will surely be able to trust your own taste buds.

though i don't recommend actually buying cheese any way other than in person, these websites are good places to learn a bit, and all of them have corresponding brick-and-mortar shops for you to check out:

formaggio kitchen (boston)
artisanal cheese (new york)
murray's cheese shop (new york)
cowgirl creamery (sf, pt. reyes, wash. dc)
zingerman's (ann arbor, mi)

a few of my favorite cheeses

Fromage, originally uploaded by asimplefarmer.

i'll be the first to admit that i definitely love certain types of cheeses above all others, so don't expect any fair rankings here. but, i do think i can give you some tips to find super high-quality cheeses (not always at super-high prices, either).

if i had to pick one milk, it would be sheepsmilk, hands down. i guess it's what's in my blood. i grew up eating sheepsmilk feta for breakfast every morning. my mom intently used to watch people make sheep's cheese in the mountaintop villages where she and her siblings spent their summers. and more recently, i spent two years eating (practically) no cheese but delicate fresh pecorini toscani.

these are my favorite sheepsmilk cheeses available here in the states:

marzolino rosso del chianti. marzolini are very special, and kind of hard to get your hands on, because they are traditionally only made in march (hence the name). these cheeses are made with 100% sheepsmilk, produced within very small geographical boundaries, and minimally aged. this one is rubbed with tomato paste (that's where the rosso part comes from), which gives it an extra little bit of sweetness.

panache d'aramits. last year, during a lovely impromptu lunch at the farm, charlene whipped out some ossau-iraty. i loved it so much that as soon as i got back to work, i called cowgirl and asked them to send some. they said that they didn't have any of that cheese, but that they'd send some panache d'aramits instead, since it's made very close by, and following the same methods. plus, it's one of the jean d'alos cheeses. it arrived, i tasted it, and never went back. the one problem with it is that it can be a bit pricey, so i decided to look for some similar cheeses without the fancy pedigree--petit agour and tomette d'helette are two good options (and probably a lot easier to track down). i just have some serious love in my heart for basque sheepsmilk cheeses. so creamy, so sweet, so melty-in-my-mouth. yum!

abbaye de belloc. ok, so sue me, it's another sheepsmilk cheese from the pyrenees. this cheese has been made in the same way for hundreds of years by the benedictine monks at the notre-dame de belloc monastery. the version at cowgirl is also a jean d'alos cheese, which makes it incomparable.

jean d'alos is an affineur, or ager, of cheeses. he is one of only seven (7!) traditional french master affineurs, and cowgirl creamery is the only american importer of his cheeses. i've had the incredible honor of meeting mr. d'alos, his wife pascale, and their daughter amandine, and i got to take a few cheese classes with them several years ago, as well. i'll continue this post later and write about what i learned (i saved my crazy type-a notes) and share some more places to buy special cheeses around here.