by david hagedorn
photography by kip dawkins | December 1, 2011 | Food & Drink
|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.
“Cheese is always living and growing, and you need to shepherd it through the process; that’s why the affinage is so important,” says Stromberg. “A cave-like environment is best because of the native microflora and bacteria present there. The environment has a lot of impact on the flavor of the cheese.”
Fiore Sardo, Valdeon, Barely Buzzed, and Garrotxa cheeses at Ripple, often served with house-made mustard and something pickled
|A classic cheese plate presentation at Bourbon Steak|
|Brenton Balika brushing his Bulleit Bath cheese in its namesake bourbon for added flavor|
|You’ve got a friend in cheeses: Mont Cabrer, La Peral, Beemster X.O., Abbaye de Belloc, Caprotto, and Grayson (BACKGROUND)|
The Farm Flavor
The first thing you notice at Chapel’s Country Creamery in Easton, Maryland, is how clean everything is, including the amiable herd of Jersey cows whose milk Holly Foster turns into splendid farmstead cheeses.
Holly and her husband, Eric, both Easton natives in their early forties, purchased the farm 14 years ago. As a stay-at-home mom, Holly was looking for a business she could run at her own pace. She had taken various courses in farmstead cheese-making and began experimenting at home, first using milk she acquired from a conventional dairy before, eventually, getting a cow of her own. She was hooked.
In 2002 she and her husband erected a small dairy and a barn, getting into dairy farming at just about the time that everyone else was getting out of it. They opted for Jersey cows because they are good grazers, do well in summer heat, and produce milk high in butterfat—and, therefore, great for cheese. Now the owners of 60 cows, the Fosters sell evening, weekend, and holiday milk to a co-op. Whenever Holly decides she wants to process, whether for cheese or for yogurt, the milk is free for the taking from her 45-acre yard.
Holly makes three cheeses that are beloved by the food community. Her Chapelle cave-aged cheese, a yellow, rich, buttery rind cow’s milk, is best in the spring and fall, with its undercurrent of mushroom. Then there is her Talbot Reserve Cheddar, a cow’s milk that is bold and pleasantly sharp. Completing the trifecta: Bay Blue, Maryland’s first raw-milk cheese, a creamy, vibrant Stiltonesque cow’s milk blue.
Regarding that groundbreaking Bay Blue, Holly is in the third year of a stringently regulated Maryland pilot program allowing farmers to use raw milk to make cheese. (Before the program, she had to send milk to agriculture-friendly Pennsylvania to be turned into cheese.) Federal law still requires that raw-milk cheese be aged at least 60 days before consumption to ensure against the proliferation of harmful bacteria.
What Holly considers the crucial part of cheese-making is knowing for certain where the milk comes from and what goes into it. For her Bay Blue, the milk goes right from her cows through a filter and into the cheesemaking vat. (Rest assured, it is tested first.) It is 94 degrees when it comes in, just about the perfect temperature for blue cheese. Holly then adds her secret mix of cultures and lets it set in for an hour before adding vegetable rennet. After another hour, she cuts the curds and slowly stirs them for one to one and a half hours, letting them shrink, expel whey, and become more defined. She scoops curds and some whey into perforated cheese molds, lets the whey drain for 24 hours, flips the cheese over, and lets it drain more.
The next day, the cheese is taken out of the mold, rubbed with salt, and left to drain for another day, getting flipped 11 more times before winding up, on the third day, in the aging room. Holly pierces the wheels that day and again in 10 to 12 days to create veining. She then monitors the wheels closely as they age for two and a half to three months. To make sure they are ready, Holly cuts into every batch looking for consistency in veining and a buttery, moist, rounded blue flavor.
Wearing all the hats in the cheese-making process is very stressful, says Holly, but also very rewarding—especially for those who get to enjoy the fruits of her labor.
Perfect Pairings at Restaurant Eve
At Cathal Armstrong’s ultra-swank Restaurant Eve in Old Town Alexandria (110 S. Pitt St., 703-706-0450), where President and First Lady Obama recently celebrated their 19th wedding anniversary, cheese gets the edible version of an up-do.
Restaurant Eve buys only American and Irish cheeses, acquiring them in three ways: directly from the maker, from Murray’s Cheeses in New York, or through Fergus Kennedy, who distributes Irish products and procures high-quality specialty items from all over the United States.
The cheese board in the Bistro room, offered in combinations of three, five, or seven, comes with a French baguette, house-made fruit and nut bread, and seasonal jam. In the more formal Tasting Room, cheese comes on composed plates with studied garnishes.
Cheese Reigns Supreme at Ripple
Ripple (3417 Connecticut Ave. NW, 202-244-7995) general manager Danny Fisher knows his cheese. You can tell by the impulse buyers unable to resist the charm of the storefront’s comestibles. The moment you walk in the door, there is a gleaming, fire-engine-red Berkel slicer, glorious salumi dangling from meat hooks, and an array of colorful, textured cheeses nestled under glass domes. Ripple serves its cheeses with housemade crackers and local honey; homemade jams (like strawberry mint), local artisanal jams (blueberry-raspberry jam from Corvallis Farms in Culpeper, Virginia), and apple butter also make appearances.
The cheese program at Ripple is a collaboration between Fisher, sous chef Nick Farias, and chef Logan Cox, who seek to showcase local, domestic, and foreign cheeses. Fisher himself finds washed-rind cheeses to be the most interesting because they are on the creamier side. He enjoys Cowgirl Creamery's cow’s milk Red Hawk, made in Point Reyes Station, California; Crave Brothers Petit Frère soft-ripened cow’s milk cheese, from Wisconsin; and Jean D’Alos’ Tome d’Aquitaine, a sticky, pungent, aged goat’s milk cheese washed in Sauternes, giving the rind a slightly gritty texture.
Farias stays local with his cheese recommendations, like southwest Virginia’s Meadow Creek’s buttery, mild Appalachian cow’s milk cheese and intense Grayson; Cabra La Mancha, a semi-firm, washed-rind goat cheese from Firefly Farms in Maryland; and Brad Parker’s (he of Pipe Dreams in Greencastle, Pennsylvania) fresh goat cheese, with its lively, grassy notes.
And for Cox, the blue cheese reigns supreme. He loves the Colston Basset Stilton from the United Kingdom, a rich, chunky, salty, crumbly blue (Cox is experimenting with making an ice cream out of it); the Jean d’Alos’ Bleu d’Auvergne, a melty, soft, creamier blue; and Valdeón, a vibrant, creamy cow’s and goat’s milk blue from Spain that comes wrapped in sycamore leaves.