Food Spotlight: Local Cheeses
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|Brenton Balika at work in the kitchen|
|A sampling of Seasonal Pantry’s offerings|
|Cheesetique of Alexandria’s artfully displayed fromage|
For those of us who swoon over a pungent, gooey wedge of wrinkle-rinded Epoisses, a caramel-like shard of crunchy, aged Gouda, or a disk of faintly tangy Pennsylvania goat cheese, these are the glory days in Washington. At one time a mere afterthought in stale French restaurants, cheese has taken its rightful place at the forefront of foodie culture. Honest-to-goodness cheese shops rival the Gruyère graveyards of grocery store cases, and cheese offerings headline menus at wine bars and fourstars all over town.
Chalk it up to an epicurean perfect storm. When the rise of interest in all things local met falling interest on bank balances, entrepreneurs at every level of the food industry figured out that charging $15 for a few slices of heaven turns out to be a sustainable proposition for those who make, sell, and consume cheese.
If you doubt the hypothesis, examine the trends. Cheese shops are springing up like pop-ups all over town, and in their wake a new wave of experts is emerging, like Carolyn Stromberg, a fromager who has turned cheese consulting into a booming business.
Local Cheese Makes the Grade
Just in time, too, because artisan and farmstead cheese-making, with an emphasis on locally produced cheese, has taken off. Holly Foster, owner of Chapel’s Country Creamery in Easton, Maryland, started making cheese less than 10 years ago; today her cheeses routinely appear on fine-dining menus. (Some clarity here: Artisan cheese is produced mostly by hand and in small batches with milk that may come from an outside source. Farmstead cheese is hands-on, made on the farm where the animals are raised with milk from that farm’s herd.)
Restaurant chefs are getting in on the action, too. At Georgetown’s Bourbon Steak, it is all about curd appeal. Pastry-chef-turned-cheesemaker Brenton Balika’s artisanal cheeses are garnering critical praise, especially his Le Brenton Blu cheese. Even when not producing their own wheels, restaurateurs are installing state-of-the-artisanal cheese programs. Hip, moderately priced eateries everywhere are showcasing enticing logs, blocks, and wedges, sometimes displaying them lavishly right at the front door, as at Ripple in Cleveland Park.
White-tablecloth restaurants have even taken notice. Restaurant Eve in Old Town Alexandria eschews ho-hum samplings for elaborately garnished, composed presentations served with house-made breads and crackers. It is all undoubtedly good news for cheese lovers, who will gladly grin and Camembert it.
Cheese: A Personal Taste
There is so much going on in the cheese world today, keeping up with it all can be a challenge. Enter Carolyn Stromberg, owner of The Cheese Course. A fromager and cheese consultant, Stromberg, 32, helps local restaurateurs install or improve their cheese programs and teaches about cheese at public and private events or classes at Washington’s own Seasonal Pantry market, where she maintains a small but well-curated selection of cheeses.
“Every cheese has a story” is Stromberg’s credo. On a recent excursion to Chapel’s Country Creamery in Easton, Maryland, Stromberg shares some of those stories. “Cheese is very personal,” she avers. “Take washed-rind cheeses. I just don’t care for them. I can recognize a good one, even recommend it, even though I myself don’t want to eat it.” She uses as an example Meadow Creek Dairy’s beefy, Taleggio-style Grayson, waxing poetic about the process the raw cow’s milk cheese goes through: a brine washing, followed by an aging period of more than 60 days, during which the wheel is flipped regularly.
Her take? “It’s kind of the way I feel about Led Zeppelin,” she says. “I recognize that they are really talented, but I don’t personally like them.”
As she explains the process of turning milk into cheese, two things come through loud and clear: the importance of the raw material (the milk itself and the characteristics of the region) and the handling of the final product (how it’s aged). Or, to get truly français about it, a cheese’s terroir and affinage (aging). On the cheese baron’s radar right now is a good cross-section of terroirs, milks, and rind types. A few key words she suggests you get familiar with: soft-ripened, washed-rind, and natural rind. Once milk separates into curds and whey, the drained curds are fresh cheese. Via aging, fresh cheese becomes ripened cheeses that include: natural rind cheeses, which take on whatever mold exists in its aging environment; soft-ripened (surface-ripened, bloomy rind) cheeses that have been treated with mold on the outside; or washed-rind cheeses, dipped in brine or some other liquid and left to mold and age.
Celebrating the White House Correspondents’ Association’s annual dinner at Carnegie Library.