What is that flavor? If it's an artisan cheese, you're probably tasting the element of chance.
There’s no surprise in a plastic-wrapped piece of cheddar or Monterey jack. However, the best cheeses often seem to come from obsessions and mistakes.
“These are made on tiny farms,” says Barrie Lynn, a consultant who bills herself as the Cheese Impresario. “The animals have varied feed throughout the year. And it’s the intervention of the individual.”
To ferret out a half-dozen of the best cheesy backstories, V Life Weekend conferred with Norbert Wabnig, owner of the Cheese Store of Beverly Hills, the Cheese Store of Silver Lake’s Chris Pollan and the new kid on the cheese block, Melody Dosch of Artisan Cheese Gallery in Studio City. Lynn offered her recommendations for pairings.
(Bittersweet Plantation Dairy)
The story: From the only artisan cheesemaker in Wabnig’s native Louisiana. It’s named for Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s epic poem about the Cajuns’ expulsion from Nova Scotia.
The cheese: Goat’s milk, aged three to four weeks. Becomes runnier as it ripens.
Pairings: Wabnig recommends a drizzle of chestnut honey and a crisp Sancerre or Sauvignon Blanc.
(Fromagerie de Terre-Dieu)
The story: Invented in 1989, these cheeses look positively medieval. Aging in underground caves give them a thick mold-covered rind; the shape was inspired by the volcanoes of the French dairy’s Auvergne region. The indented dome is also an homage to cheesemaking monks, who once put handfuls of salt in each indentation to preserve the cheese.
The cheese: Sheep’s milk, aged three to six months.
Pairings: A young Spanish red and a plate of charcuterie.
(Kings Island Dairy)
The story: Produced on the tiny, pollution-free Kings Island near Tasmania, Australia, this cheese is named for the island’s brutal Roaring Forties winds, which have wrecked many ships on the island’s rocky coast. Cows feast on lush grass that supposedly germinated from the stuffing of shipwrecked mattresses.
The cheese: A creamy blue that’s pungent, sweet and nutty. Should convert anyone who’s had an experience with too-strong Roquefort.
Pairings: An earthy flavored honey (lavender, thyme or truffle-infused) and a Shiraz or Zinfandel.
(Thistle Hill Farm)
The story: Thistle Hill’s Putnam family fell in love with Beaufort cheese when they traveled to France to learn about cheesemaking. Local farmers scoffed; since it could only be handmade in a special copper vat and from the milk of Tarine cows, they said it was “too meticulous” for the Vermont farmers. The French were wrong; it’s now carried at Silver Lake Cheese.
The cheese: Butterscotch-colored, dense and nutty.
Pairings: A full-bodied red and a handful of grapes and walnuts.
The story: This one began as a full-fledged mistake, when a reddish bloom appeared on a batch of Cowgirl’s Mt. Tam triple cream. The California cheesemakers washed away the mold, but it kept coming back. Despair turned to delight when they tasted it and, in 2003, the cheese won best in show at the American Cheese Society’s national conference.
The cheese: Smooth, soft and tangy, with a pleasantly bitter aftertaste.
(Jasper Hill Farm)
The story: Developmental economist Mateo Kehler wanted to prove that small farms were sustainable. After mistakes (farmstead beer, homemade baked tofu), he turned to cheese.
The cheese: A firm cheese with an ashy rind that smells like hay, it’s all about the aftertaste, with a flavor that seems to bloom on your tongue. Constant Bliss refers to the state of Jasper Hill cows; the cheese is made from their uncooled raw milk.
Pairings: Champagne lets the complexity of the cheese come through.