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Cheese unplugged

Leslie Harlib
Marin Independent Journal - 03/20/2007

At a time when every Bay Area supermarket and convenience store now offers more types of cheese than wines or meats, how does anyone decide what they want to try?

"Most people will buy what they've always bought - cheddar and brie," says Cathy Goldsmith, a member of the Cheese Board Collective in Berkeley. "We want people to feel like their palate is their own, learn to trust it and start to explore the extraordinary cheeses that are now available in this country."

Goldsmith and other cheese experts including award-winning author Laura Werlin, Sue Conley and Peggy Smith of Cowgirl Creamery in Point Reyes, and Jill Giacomini Basch, whose family makes Point Reyes Original Farmstead Blue Cheese, were the backbone of a new cheese conference in Petaluma that taught 160 cheese-obsessed consumers how to buy, store, serve and enjoy hundreds of American artisan cheeses.

The festival was the first time on the West Coast that such a comprehensive opportunity to taste artisan and farmstead American cheeses had been offered to consumers. The conference was also a benefit for the Marin Agricultural Land Trust (MALT), the Sonoma Land Trust, the Petaluma branch of Future Farmers of America, the California Artisan Cheese Guild and the Redwood Empire Food Bank.

"There are many conferences about cheese that offer tasting opportunities, but they're mostly for people in the cheese industry," says Conley. "This is the only consumer cheese event I know of and that I've ever been to. People want the knowledge."

"We've been working with artisan cheesemakers in Sonoma for a while," said Tom Birdsall, co-founder of the conference and an owner of the Sheraton Petaluma Hotel, where the festival took place two weeks ago. "They've told us that consumers are a bit confused by cheese. Since we're based in such a strong agricultural area where people come to enjoy the locally produced foods and wines, we wanted the festival to have a strong educational component. We needed to demystify artisan cheese."

Classes on how to taste cheese, how to serve cheese, how to enjoy a variety of blue cheeses and how to pair cheese with wines, beers and ports allowed people to sink their teeth into everything from the most delicate just-made buffalo milk mozzarellas to aged blue-veined wheels with aromas strong enough to upstage any sweaty gym sock.

On Saturday night, a five-course dinner cooked by celebrity chefs such as Bruce Hill from Picco in Larkspur and John Ash of Santa Rosa had cheese in every course. Crab cake, lobster and asparagus in a delicate goat cheese sauce, anyone? A Sunday marketplace drew more than 600 people, who bought cheeses from artisans including the Marin French Cheese Company, Cowgirl Creamery, Fiscalini Cheese Company out of Modesto, Bellwether Farms from Petaluma and dozens more.

"I think it's fabulous," said Barbara Job, a Piedmont resident and member of MALT. "I thought I knew something about cheese before I came to this. But I learned an unbelievable amount. And I've tasted so many wonderful cheeses."

One thing was abundantly clear. Unlike what happens at the end of the nursery rhyme, "Old MacDonald," the cheese no longer stands alone.

Here is a five-course meal where every course, including the bread, integrates California and West Coast artisan cheese.


@head California Quesadillas Enjoy these with a beer, wine, a margarita, sparkling water with lime:

Serves 4 to 6

8 ounces shredded chipotle cheddar, your favorite brand
4 ounces Lionza (from Fiscalini cheese company, Modesto)
8 corn tortillas
Roasted tomato salsa

Heat a griddle to medium hot. Heat the tortillas on both sides. Sprinkle the cheese on tops of four of the tortillas. Cover with the remaining tortillas. After a few minutes, flip the tortillas over. Remove from griddle when the cheese is melted. Cut into eighths and serve with salsa.

Warm Goat Cheese Salad with Lavender Honey Serves 6

1/2 cup dry country-style bread chunks
1/4 cup chopped walnuts, lightly toasted
1/2 teaspon fresh lavender flowers
1/4 teaspon freshly ground black pepper
6 rounds mild fresh goat cheese, each about 2 ounces and 1-inch thick
6 small handfulls (about 3 ounces) mixed baby lettuce leaves
1/4 cup red wine vinaigrette (recipe follows)
18 thin slices baguette, baked with walnuts if available such as Della Fattoria walnut baguette
1 small bunch seedless grapes, or 1 large nectarine pitted and sliced lengthwise
3 tablespoons McEvoy Ranch Mille Fleur Honey

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Line a baking sheet with baking parchment. In a food processor, combine the dry bread, walnuts, lavender flowers and pepper and pulse until the crumbs are the consistency of coarse sand. Pour out onto a plate. Roll the cheese rounds in the crumbs, patting with your hands to help the crumbs adhere to the cheese. Place the coated cheese rounds on the prepared baking sheet. Bake the cheese rounds until lightly golden, 10 to 12 minutes.

While the cheese is baking, place the lettuce in a bowl, drizzled with the vinaigrette, and toss to coat the leaves evenly.

Remove the cheese from the oven and, using a spatula, transfer to salad plates. Garnish each plate with 3 baguette slices, some grapes or nectarine slices, and an equal amount of the dressed lettuce. Drizzle each cheese round with 1 1/2 teaspoons of the honey. Serve immediately.

- From "The Olive Harvest Cookbook" by Gerald Gass, Chronicle Books, 2004

Red Wine Vinaigrette 1/2 cup McEvoy Ranch extra virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1 teaspoon balsamic vinegar
2 tablespoons finely diced shallot
1/2 teaspoon sea salt or Kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon fresh ground pepper

Whisk all together and adjust seasoning to taste.

- From "The Olive Harvest Cookbook" by Gerald Gass, Chronicle Books, 2004

Cabernet Burgers with Point Reyes Original Blue Cheese Serves 5

1 bottle cabernet sauvignon of your choice
1/4 cup minced shallots
1-2 teaspoons minced fresh rosemary
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, room temperature
2 teaspoons golden brown sugar
1 clove garlic, minced
1 1/2 pounds ground beef, preferably grass-fed and free-range
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
1 cup (6 ounces) Pt Reyes Original Blue cheese crumbles, or chunk cheese, crumbled
5 4-inch squares ciabatta bread, cut horizontally in half
Tomato slices and lettuce leaves

Boil wine and shallots in medium saucepan until reduced to 2/3 cup, about 20 to 30 minutes. Add rosemary, 1 tablespoon butter and brown sugar; whisk until butter melts and sugar dissolves. Remove from heat and set aside. In small bowl mix remaining buttter with garlic, set aside.

Mix ground beef, salt, pepper and 1/3 cup wine/shallot mixture. Form meat into five burgers. Grill burgers until brown on bottom, about 3 minutes. Turn and brush with remaining wine/shallot mixture and continue grilling until cooked to desired doneness, turning and brushing occasionally with wine/shallot mixtdure. Sprinkle with cheese crumbles and grill until cheese starts to melt.

As burgers cook, spread cut sides of bread with garlic butter. Grill bread cut side down until golden. Arrange bread cut sides up, place burgers on bottom halves, top with tomato slices and lettuce leaves. Cover with top halves of bread.

Wine suggestion: Cabernet sauvigon, preferably same wine you cooked with.

- From "The Blue Course: Cooking with Point Reyes Original Blue Cheese," courtesy Point Reyes Original Blue Cheese Company

Pasta Salad with Mad River Roll

Serves 4 to 6

1/2 pound small pastas in small shapes (such as tri-colore)

1/4 to 1/2 sweet red onion, finely diced
4 small fennel bulbs, thinly sliced (reserve feathery tops for garnish)
4 seedless tangerines, peeled and cut into small pieces
1/3 to 1/2 pound Mad River Roll goat cheese from Cypress Grove Creamery, Arcata (makers of Humboldt Fog)


1/2 cup olive oil
3 tablespoons champagne vinegar (such as O brand from San Rafael)
2 small cloves garlic
Salt and pepper to taste

Cook the pasta, drain and toss with a little olive oil. Set aside to cool. Whisk together vinaigrette ingredients. Toss together with the pasta, fennel and onion. Let sit for at least 1 hour. Add the tangerines. Shave thin slices on top of the salad. Garnish with finely chopped fennel tops and serve

Shattuck Avenue Blues Created by the members of Berkeley's Cheese Board Collective, these luscious cheese- and nut-filled buns are a wonderful bread basket filler or starter.

1 recipe yeasted pizza dough, your favorite, or buy fresh dough from one of your favorite pizzerias
6 ounces Gina Maria cream cheese
6 ounces Oregon blue cheese
3 ounces walnuts, lightly toasted
1-2 ounces fig jam, pur}ed until smooth

Turn your dough onto a slightly floured surface. Divice the ball into 2-ounce pieces (around 16 total). Roll each piece into a small loose round. Evenly place the rounds on two baking sheets. Cover them with a lightly floured kitchen towel. Let the rounds rest for 15 minutes.

Meanwhile in the bowl of a stand mixer combine the cream cheese and the Oregon blue cheese. With the paddle, cream the cheeses on medium low speed until they are evenly mixed but not overly smooth (about one minute). Add the walnuts and mix until evenly distributed.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. When the dough has rested, flatten each round with the palm of your hand to make 4-inch discs. Using a tablespoon, divide the cheese mixture evenly among the rounds. Gently press the mixture into the center of the round.

Place the Shattuck Avenue Blues in the oven on two ungreased baking sheets. Bake for 15 minutes, then rotate the baking sheets front to back and trade their rack positions. Continue to bake for 5 to 10 more minutes, for a total baking time of 20 to 25 minutes. The "blues" are finished baking when they are a light golden brown.

While still hot, brush the "blues" with the fig jam. Remove to a wire rack to cool. These are best eaten warm.

- Courtesy Berkeley Cheese Board Collective

A Dessert Cheese Course Serves 1

1-2 tablespoons Cowgirl Creamery Fromage Blanc with fresh berries such as raspberries, blueberries, blackberries
1 small slice Humbolt Fog, Cypress Grove
1 small wedge Mt. Tam, Cowgirl Creamery
1 thin wedge Silver Mountain, bandage-wrapped medium cheddar, very creamy
1 small wedge Rogue River Blue drizzled with honey and toasted hazelnuts

As if your plate were a clock face, lay the pieces of cheese in a circle going clockwise from mildest (Fromage Blanc) to strongest (Rogue River Blue), with the Fromage Blanc at the place where the 12 would be. In the center of the plate put the assorted berries, toasted nuts, fresh grapes if you like. Serve with small rounds of walnut baguette or puff pastry-style crackers.

- Pairing suggested by the Berkeley Cheese Board Collective

Leslie Harlib can be reached at lharlib@marinij.com.

Eight types of cheese

San Francisco resident Laura Werlin, award-winning author of three books on artisan cheese and with a fourth about to be published, says that all of the world's hundreds of cheeses can be broken down into different types.

"Learn to identify all eight types and you can understand all cheeses," she says. "If you understand the texture, you will understand the flavor."

What is cheese? Essentially it's the milk of a plant-eating animal - cow, goat, sheep, reindeer, water buffalo - that is thickened with rennet or other coagulant until the casein in the milk solidifies and forms curds and whey. The whey, a watery liquid, separates and is drained off. The resulting curds can then be made into thousands of different cheeses, depending on how they are processed.

- Fresh cheeses: Made from uncooked milk, kept refrigerated and meant to be consumed in a few days, they tend to be creamy and milky-tasting. With top artisan cheeses, you can taste the quality of the milk they're made with and may even detect characteristics of that milk, such as notes of grass or clover. Examples: Quark, cottage cheese, fromage blanc, young goat cheeses.

- Semi-soft: The curds will be poured into a mold and pressed, but the milk may be cooked or uncooked, depending on the type of cheese being made. They are sliceable but still soft. Examples: Gouda, Monterey Jack, Tilsit, Fontina.

- Soft-ripened: Neither cooked nor pressed, the curds are poured into a mold and injected with good bacteria that ripens the cheese from the outside in. They typically have a rind. When these cheeses age too much they become ammoniated. Examples: Brie, St. Andre, Cowgirl Creamery's Mt. Tam, Humboldt Fog.

- Semi-hard: Aged from one to six months, these are cheeses that have been cooked and pressed but still yield to pressure when touched. They are chewy to the tooth, generally nutty and buttery in flavor and are the most wine friendly. Examples: Emmentaler, some cheddars, Gruyere.

- Blues: Cheeses characterized by added molds that create blue veins that give the cheese distinctly musky aromas and flavors. Blues include three sub-categories: Creamy and mild, such as Cambozola and Mont Briac; creamy/crumbly, such as Point Reyes original farmstead blue cheese or Roquefort; and hard, such as Stilton.

- Washed rind: Cheese that's washed with a solution of salt water and good bacteria in the ripening process in order to keep the cheese moist and develop a specific flavor. Examples: Cowgirl Creamery Red Hawk, Epoisses, Taleggio.

- Hard: Aged three months to two years, these tend to be good cooking and melting cheese and taste caramelly, nutty, sometimes with a granular feel. Examples: Swiss, Gruyere, some cheddars, Emmentaler.

- Very hard: These are typically aged at least six months and are good for grating or crumbling. Examples: Asiago, dry Jack parmesan, romano.

choose and store

Every expert at Petaluma's artisan cheese festival suggests you never buy cheese without tasting it first. Always shop at a store where the opportunity to taste is part of the buying process. If the cheese is already wrapped in plastic, ask for a taste. Look for overall quality and uniformity of taste.

If the cheese has a rind, make sure the cheese inside the rind isn't separating from it.

When you get the cheese home, if it has been wrapped in plastic, unwrap the cheese and scrape away the surfaces that have been touched by the plastic. Plastic wrap has a negative effect on the flavor of cheese, says Ursula Schulz of the Cheese Board Collective in Berkeley. Rewrap the cheese in wax paper or the type of butcher's paper that is shiny on one side. Then rewrap in plastic wrap if you are planning to keep it for a while.

Always keep cheeses in a separate container from the other foods in the refrigerator. Plastic containers are OK, but don't keep the lids clamped down; instead, leave them ajar so the the cheeses can breathe.

"They are living foods and are constantly changing," says Schulz. "Always buy smaller pieces. Cheese is best when it is consumed within a few days."

How to serve

Allow 1 to 4 ounces of cheese per person, depending on if the cheese is a starter or a main dish.

Take cheeses out of the refrigerator at least half an hour to an hour before serving. They are at their best at room temperature.

To get the smoothest cut of cheese, especially soft or soft-ripened cheese, try using fishing line or dental floss.

Harder cheeses should be cut in thin slices with a cheese plane or cheese knife; the flavors will be more developed than if cut in thick chunks or cubes. When creating a cheese plate, always look for balance. Choose from the eight categories of cheese and offer three to five varieties.

Vary the milks the cheeses are made from as well. For example, create an all-California plate, with Fiscalini bandage-wrapped 18-month or 30-month cows' milk cheddar; Point Reyes Original Blue; Cowgirl Creamery Red Hawk or Mt. Tam; Cypress Grove Humboldt Fog or Fog Lights (goat cheese); Bellwether Farms Carmody (sheep milk).

- Courtesy Berkeley Cheese Board Collective





David McDonald of Rouge et Noir helps Joyce Gilardi of Petaluma select a handcrafted cheese at the Marin company's display booth at the artisan cheese festival earlier this month. (Special to the IJ/Douglas Zimmerman)