My partner in cooking crime, Casey, and I flew to New York City last weekend for Foodfest 2012, a four-day, whirlwind celebration of my 35th birthday that centered around our shared passion: food.
We dined at Kin Shop, Veselka, and Les Halles. We bought food books at St. Mark’s Bookshop. We visited the magical kingdom known as Kalustyan’s Fine Specialty Foods, which is packed with floor-to-ceiling shelving and a real estate-defying inventory, and Murray’s Cheese Shop, where the staff has a collective mischievous humor and the warmth of spirit characteristic to lovers of cheese. My daughter, Rory, has requested a meatball party for her 5th birthday, so Casey and I diligently conducted field research at the Meatball Shop, where the vibe is fresh, fun, and informal, and the servers and kitchen staff operate under the ethos: “You had me at balls.” (We liked the spicy pork balls with spicy sauce the best, and the cream soda float with espresso ice cream was divine.)
We also met our friends, Misael and Donella, for drinks and dancing at a Bulgarian bar called Mehanata, where we ate fries smothered in grated, melted feta (a revelation!) and were hit on relentlessly by a young man who looked barely old enough to sprout facial hair. It was hard not to enjoy his tenacity, despite having to show him my wedding ring and repeat the phrase, “Sorry, I’m married.” (Later that night, Misael said, “Man, Jules, dudes were hitting on you like crazy!” I corrected him: “Dude. Singular. Just that one desperate homeboy, over and over, ricocheting between me and Casey like a clueless chihuahua.” Misael laughed.)
I even enlisted a talented and imminently likeable artist named Logan Aguilar to tattoo me with the image of a fat-bellied elephant wielding a whisk. (Thank you, Logan! Big hugs to you and Lunchbox!)
These experiences left Casey and I with a shared lexicon of playful words and one-liners that will last us a lifetime, but the pinnacle of the trip was our education in cheese: in the classroom at Artisanal Premium Cheese and in the cool, temperature- and moisture-controlled cheese caves at Murray’s Cheese Shop. We participated in one class at each location. Our instructors differed in personality and teaching approach, creating distinct classroom experiences for their diverse group of students. Despite those differences, we all united to commune in cheese love.
Fromager’s Favorites, at Artisanal, taught the basics of pairing wines with cheeses. We sampled seven cheeses in a rising succession of intensities and flavor profiles, tasting each with sips from four wines (two whites, two reds). Erin, our instructor, provided us with a framework for “grading” the pairings:
+2 – Heaven in the mouth
+1 – Pretty good
0 – Neutral
-1 and -2 – Not worth pairing and/or terrible
(Casey promptly adapted this grading scale to the following: We’d make adorable babies; Smooth and sassy, just like Jules; I might call you for a second date; and Let’s not see each other again.)
Erin led the classroom in exploration, urging us to focus on the texture and aromas of the cheeses as they mingled with the wine we drank. We learned that some combinations enhance the flavor of the wine or the cheese or, in ideal pairings, both. I found the occasional bad pairing fascinating. I never would have imagined that two of my favorite food groups had such potential to sabotage one another. It was truly an illuminating experience.
At Murray’s, our instructor, Jason, who once worked the cheese cart at Picholine, led us into the basement to tour us through the cheese caves, which were constructed in painstaking replication of the caves that one might find in Europe. Afterwards, we sampled five cheeses and were offered bottomless glasses of red table wine or sparkling white wine. The Murray’s classroom had U-shaped seating and a wide glass wall overlooking the bustling storefront below; this contributed to a slightly less formal environment that encouraged direct interaction between students. By the end of the class, our inner sass revealed itself, prompting us to coo over our slate plates and loosen the notches of our belts. (This shouldn’t imply that Fromager’s Favorites was void of sighing and moaning. There were plenty of inappropriate noises at Artisanal, too. Cheese love is real.)
I highly recommend visiting these institutions to experience their cheese classes firsthand, but, in case you can’t, here is the comprehensive list of the cheeses we sampled, along with place of origin, milk type, the notes Casey and I took, and our pairing responses:
Wines at Artisanal:
Chenin Blanc Fynbos, XF, South Africa 2010 (white)
Melon de Bourgogne Muscadet, Domaine de la Louvetrie, France 2010 (fruity white)
Tempranillo/Garnacha, Cortijo, Spain 2010 (red, my top pick)
Primitivo, Li Veli Orion, Italy 2009 (zinfandel-like, bold red, Casey’s pick)
The Artisanal Cheeses:
Piper’s Pyramid, USA, Goat: Dusted with paprika, mild but slightly pungent. Good introductory cheese. Casey and I both liked it paired with Tempranillo. I thought it had a similar effect to that of beets, a natural complement that improves the flavor of both the wine and the cheese.
Lillé, USA, Cow: Salty, gooey, creamy like Brie*… but better! I gave it three hearts, while Casey drew a smiley face with stars for eyes. I loved it so much I shipped a wedge of it home. As with Piper’s Pyramid, we both liked this paired with Tempranillo. Ditto for the beets comment above. (*American Brie, which is different – some might say “lesser” – than the Brie available in France.)
Ossau Iraty, France, Sheep: Union of France and Spain; contains more protein, vitamins, and minerals than cow’s or goat’s milk. I thought resting at room temperature improved its taste and gave it two hearts. Casey gave it three stars and an enthusiastic “I like it!” We both thought it paired well with the Muscadet, and it improved my perception of the Primitivo.
Epoisses, France, Cow: Erin and her husband courted over this cheese, which provides an opioid chemical effect that encourages bonding, similar to what occurs between nursing mothers and their babies. The aftertaste was a bit bold for me, but it lessened when I breathed out through only my nose (mouth shut). It reminded Casey of her dad. We enjoyed this paired with the Chenin Blanc. Casey thought it married well with the Tempranillo.
Brazos Cheddar, USA, Cow: Mild, less salty than other cheddars, smoother in texture, not as “twangy.” Our collective wine comments can be summarized: “Meh.”
Beaufort Chalet d’Alpage, France, Cow: Grass-fed cows with a diet rich in Alpine flora, very flavorful. Wheels typically weigh between 90-130 pounds, requiring two milkings of 45 cows to make one wheel. Though delicious on its own, Beaufort scored neutral to low in all four wine comparisons.
Valdeon, Spain, Cow and Goat Mix: Milder blue, salty profile, creamier rather than crumblier, wheels are wrapped in sycamore leaves that contribute to their flavor. Our appreciation of the Valdeon improved with all of the wine pairings.
The Murray’s Cheeses:
Selles-sur-Cher, Aged on site, Goat: We sampled this at two ages. I liked the creamy, lemony young version. Casey preferred the aged variety, which was drier in texture, tasted “goatier,” and had a salty, umami-rich rind.
Ardrahan, Ireland, Cow: Rind washed with saltwater, lends nutty saltiness to cheese, gooey center, evocative of Brie* only with more “punch.” I gave this cheese two hearts, and it earned a whopping five stars from Casey. Murray’s recommends pairing it with brown ale. (*American Brie.)
Berkswell, England, Sheep: Granular with sugar deposits from amino acids in the milk, smells like pineapple, with a rind reminiscent of the skin on a ginger rhizome. Recommended with a smoky Pinot Noir.
Cabot Clothbound Cheddar, United States, Cow: Our top pick of the evening – nine stars from Casey. Breaks into pieces with jagged texture (like a quartz stone) but never gets waxy, not like a typical cheddar in flavor, but wonderful… perhaps because it is rubbed with lard and elicits comments like this from Casey – “Rub me down with lard! Yummy!” – or this from our instructor, Jason: “You had me at lard.”
Fourme d’Ambert, France, Cow: Creamy, “tame” blue cheese with a salty finish. A lady sitting across from us declared it “smooth and sassy.” It is purported to “convert even the staunchest blue cheese hater,” and is excellent paired with tawny Port.